Stop to think

I had forgotten This Is Water.

Not forgotten, really, as forgotten to remind myself. And this forgetting, in itself, is problematic since one theme of the speech’s text (and the book rendered from that speech) is choosing to be aware enough to remind yourself about the many intersecting realities informing what is otherwise boring, frustrating, or irritating in our lives.

Thanks to AdWeek for catching the video created by The Glossary.

Watch this. Please. This is not just water. This is humanity, this is life, this is truth. This is the answer to my question, posted here all too often, about how to make it through.

This is living rather than surviving.

And this is one of a dozen reasons I so adore David Foster Wallace’s art, writing, perspective, and contribution to our generation’s struggle with what it means to be alive.

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Five Years Cancer Free

Regular readers know that I have often posted about my desperate intellectual infatuation with the literature of David Foster Wallace. And an occasional video from an awesome band who created a beautiful in memorium piece for him.

This new homage to Wallace is just freaking awesome.

Happy anniversary to me. And here’s hoping everyone else who has gotten or will get a cancer diagnosis lives to find some joy. In something. Anything. I’ve found an awful lot in five years. And a geek-fest homage to my favorite book is delicious icing.

The Pale King approacheth

It took me a while to read the reviews of the soon-to-be-released David Foster Wallace novel The Pale King. I think I am the only academic who has cried at the two conferences I’ve attended where Wallace papers were presented. I might be the only contemporary literature scholar who is not eagerly anticipating the arrival of his final novel.

And I’ve been saying that since Michael Pietsch announced that Little Brown would be publishing whatever he could agglomerate of Wallace’s final, incomplete work. (Quick note: I am of the school that Pietsch and Green knew and loved Wallace and his work well enough to know whether they had enough to publish and honor the art and artist. I find it ludicrous that some people are alleging that this novel is about cashing in or commodifying Wallace’s death. Those people should, with no respect due, shut their pie holes.)

But I digress (so you don’t remember I’m the one crying when someone reviews a book I haven’t read yet. Ahem.)

I feel like an ass admitting that I cry every time someone mentions the upcoming book. I feel like a dolt blogging about it. But such is my asinine doltishness. See also my asinine doltish posts on parenting, scholarship, flotsam, and jetsam.

I read one sentence into the Esquire review of The Pale King and burst into tears. After two more tries (a couple of days apart) I actually made it through the glowing, bowing, scraping, and genuflecting review.

Now I might actually read the book. Who can turn down a text that Publisher’s Weekly calls “one hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace, being, as it is, a transfixing and hyper-literate descent into relentless, inescapable despair and soul-negating boredom”? Not me. Already transfixed by boredom and relentless despair. To have that frustration and what’s-it-all-for anxiety narrated by my favorite author?

Sign. Me. Up.

Alsup alleges, in his Esquire review, that The Pale King might keep you up at night because “because D.F.W. writes sentences and sometimes whole pages that make you feel like you can’t breathe.” That is true, sir. That’s why I absolutely devour Infinite Jest each time I read it. That’s why I still wince at the pain of knowing David Foster Wallace isn’t writing any more. And I wince a bit with fear that The Pale King will be as uneven and good-but-uninspired as I found Oblivion.

If I read this novel, I need it to be earth shifting. I need it to top Infinite Jest. I need it to be a gift befitting DFW.

And that’s an unreasonable request, especially for an unfinished work.

That, probably, more than the sadness that lingers about his death, is why I don’t want to read The Pale King.

Chick lit and Franzenfreude

I was unaware, as I began reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, that there exists a growing anger toward him because he’s male. The criticism doesn’t seem to be about his writing of female characters or his focus on male characters. The frustration, according to the media, is that the attention he’s receiving isn’t being given to female authors.

Maybe the media is getting the complaints wrong. Maybe the assertions that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are mad about the media circus surrounding Freedom‘s release have to do with something more than a misplaced perception that “white male authors get all the attention.” Because there is certainly something to the criticism that there are NYTBR books and there are so-called chick lit books and ne’er the ‘twain shall meet. I don’t agree with that distinction, but I do believe in the distinction between literature and fiction.

I don’t agree with Time magazine that Franzen is The Great American Novelist. But I do agree that he’s writing something important and completely apart from that which most American authors write. Canonical lit? We’ll see. I don’t personally think so. But I really don’t think that Picoult or Weiner are writing literature.

Franzen’s maleness is hardly his fault. Yes, it’s frustrating that when critics and professors speak of American literature they tend to load the deck with male authors and hang on to alleged classics for the sake of tradition rather than taste (reference how many more people cite the infernal Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby over To Kill a Mockingbird, the latter of which is precisely three thousand times better than either the Salinger or the Fitzgerald as a social critique and character-driven narrative. But Catcher and Gatsby are focused on different moments in time, different themes, different pieces of Americana and are still valid parts of the canon. Even though I can’t stand reading them.)

Some men write really well and deserve critical praise. Some women write really well and deserve critical praise—but do they deserve more praise than they get?

Certainly women writing today get more attention than women used to get. More female lead characters in the canon, more female authors. In my graduate program we read a lot of Walker and Morrison and Nin and Stein and Barnes and Atwood and Perkins-Gilman and Wharton; so I’m not sure that the drumbeat of “women are ignored” really holds true.

The number of male-crafted texts revered in NYT circles still outnumbers the number of female-crafted texts, sure. But are we asking the wrong question?

Is the author the real issue or is the content the more important place to focus our feminist demand for equal time? The “pros versus readers” list of best millennial fiction from The Millions cites 20 books (including duplicates), 10 of which are by women. So? Should we be counting? Or should we be reading carefully to see if women and men exist, fully formed in these texts?

A decent Salon article points out that women tend to write bestsellers and men tend to receive accolades for their brilliance. And thus begins the age-old popular culture versus high culture nonsense, a debate that is false in its pretenses and its conclusions. Because women write brilliant literature. And men write throwaway novels. Gender is not the issue.

Look, it would be nice to see as many female author names as male names on a list, because we tend to write about different things from different perspectives. But despite what I believe about the importance of womanist fiction, authorial gender is not the point. I’d like to read good books and, later, when recommending them, notice that they’re by women. Or men. I don’t care about who writes them. I care what they write about and how they craft their novels.

I care that the characters are three-dimensional, believable, deeply felt proto-humans. I want well crafted male characters and female characters. Make the situations in which they operate real or surreal, but make the characters seem viable, possible, and believable. My absolute favorite contemporary novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has some pretty serious gaps in the “fully realized female characters” department. I believe it suffers because the women have almost no voice. Franzen gives me less impressive language, less humor, fewer arrestingly painful moments, but bigger, bolder, more solidly credible female voices. And so few books written by either men or women do that. No, he’s not Walker or Stein or Hurston, but he’s also not Joyce or James or Wallace. I’m not in the mood to bash Franzen for being something he’s not.

Gravity as We Near the Black Hole

So important.
To me.
This week.

Via @mattbucher, Monsterbeard has posted the audio of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon speech.

Please listen. To the whole thing. If you don’t have time, just listen to Part Three.

You can buy the book This Is Water, the transcription of this speech. I, personally, don’t like how Little, Brown produced it because I don’t like bite-sized clips of Wallace. I like massive, undelineated gulps of his prose. I would have liked seven long paragraphs (single spaced) myself. But that doesn’t sell books.

I absolutely hate that David Foster Wallace is gone. HATE it. And I am nauseated that he was so tormented. Thank goodness we still have his writing. This second anniversary of his death is easier, a bit, than last year. Than the year before. Listening to the inappropriate laughter in that speech—you can hear him wince that people are amused at his description of selfish soullessness—and hearing how he gets somewhat cardboard-cut-out-ish about the suicide truths just makes the ache throb more today.

Go listen before the speech is taken down.

IJ quote of the day 48

There isn’t a line, really, from 694-699 that I didn’t star or underline or flag or highlight or take a deep breath and read again.

Kate Gompert narrates the difference between anhedonia and psychic depression. As it relates to happiness, to the world becoming a map. As it relates to Hal’s understanding of his father’s suicide. As it relates to millennial U.S.A. hipness. As it relates, specifically to cynicism and irony and, really, postmodern fiction, which Wallace seems to argue, kills humanity.

“We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete….the last true terrible sin in the theology of millenial America” (694).

And Hal notes what I’ve heard Wallace articulate in interviews: “that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclittically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for; this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (694-5).

Here’s the thing. This is why I read Infinite Jest. Not for this statement, though I believe it is the key to the post-postmodern literature we’re all alive and lucky enough to watch take shape. But because it took Wallace 700 pages to get the reader to a place where she could hear this. Read it without a sarcastic roll of the eyes. Until you see Ennet House and E.T.A. and Marathe and Gompert and Poor Tony and Matty Pemulis and Lenz and Gately and Mario, for heaven’s sake Mario, this section is just a throw away. Prosthelytizing. But we’ve earned it, reading this far. And it’s more intense than I can articulate. Maybe you can help me.

But here’s the kicker. It gets worse. When Gompert is done with Hal and his relatively petty problems, we get to the realization that “dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain” (695). That “the person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise….It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames” (696).

Holy f—ing….I can’t imagine the pain. I can’t stand to think some people are in that pain. And after narrating the civil engineer’s treatments and the shrugged statement, “This happens sometimes. some cases of depression are beyond human aid,” I cried for Wallace’s wife and his mother and his sister and his father. Intentional fallacy, nothing; nobody’s saying autobiography. But Jesus, people. This book is full of hope and humor and terror and violence and gripping pain. And I can’t believe more people don’t read it.

Thank you, Mr. Wallace for giving the coward, the weakling in me this out:
“She could barely stand to think about them, even at the best of times, which the present was not” (698). Because this is the kind of stuff, with Poor Tony and Matty’s childhood and Gately’s childhood and Lucien’s murder and the decaying baby and everything else in this novel, all of the psychic pain, to say that there’s even worse pain out there…how the hell are we supposed to sleep at night?

How did he make it as far as he did?

IJ quote of the day 37

One of the reasons I’ve loved Wallace’s prose since I found it in 1997 is his mastery of words that often send the less confident amongst us scrambling to a usage guide. To wit:

“I looked as if dust had not drifted under the bed and settled on the carpet inside the frame but rather that somehow taken root and grown on it, upon it, the way a mold will take root and gradually cover an expanse of spoiled food. The layer of dust itself looked a little like spoiled food, bad cottage cheese. It was nauseous” (498).

I love (capital L love even if that bastardizes the word meant to encapsulate feelings you deem more worthy, it’s still what I feel, and it even borders on slurping, my affection) love proper use of the word nauseous. I’ve blogged about it not just once but twice, and waxed both philosophical and self-righteous about it. The short version, for you Wallace fans just stumbling upon Himself’s story about how the terrifying mattress scene inspired to “become interested in the possibilities of annulation” (503), is that nauseous is something that inspires people to vomit. Similarly, something nauseating beckons us to relieve the contents of our stomachs. That’s because nauseated is when you feel as though you might feel better through hurling. Something nauseous makes you nauseated.

Anything makes me nauseated right now, except parsing the grammar of the master.

If you haven’t, go read Tense Present, Wallace’s impeccable tract on the usage debate between prescriptive and descriptive linguists, and the successes and failures of various usage guides. (Thank you, Harper’s for posting his work in one place for us. Damned decent of you.) If you don’t want to read online check out one of the best non-fiction collections I’ve ever read: Consider the Lobster. For those who love his math geekitude, there are also wondrous gleams of genius in Wallace the grammarian.

So yo then man…

I’m having a seriously hard time returning to Infinite Jest.  I know I love the book,  for the same reason Dave Eggers urges us— in the 2006 edition— to read it:  “There is also a very quiet but very sturdy and constant tragic undercurrent that concerns a people who are completely lost, who are lost within their families and lost within their nation, and lost within their time, and who only want some sort of direction or purpose or sense of community or love.”

But this reading is different.

The reference to Hal’s father’s umbrella early on made me cry, as did the harried but attuned orderly’s “So yo then man what’s your story?” at the end of the first chapter. More tears as Orin introduces us to the howling fantods.

Damnit, what kind of genius brackets his novel with a traumatic scene in which our hero is pinned to the floor of the men’s bathroom then fastened into a psychiatric gurney and asked to tell us, the psychically incomprehensible and strapped  down, the rest of the novel? Tell me.

This reading is infinitely depressing, people. His writing is so amazing, but it didn’t make me cry in 1997. Now he’s dead and I have a kid, and I can’t take it.

IJ quote of the day

In honor of infinitesummer.org, I feel like posting the most awesomest Infinite Jest quotes as I come across them (all within the rules of Infinite Summer, for I will not post a quote before the online world reaches the week’s requisite pages.)

“Uncle Charles, a truly unparalleled slinger of shit, is laying down an enfilade of same, trying to mollify men who seem way more in need of a good brow-mopping than I” (13).

Come on. Go read it!

“The Unfinished”

It has taken several days for me to finish D.T. Max’s New Yorker article, biography of sorts, of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King. The article is moving, and includes correspondence from Wallace to Franzen and DeLillo, and quite a bit from his wife, Karen Green, whose pain I cannot even fathom and would love more than anything to salve with…what I don’t know. Because it’s none of my business, but if I cry reading a biography what must she do living in it?

Aside from being a touching portrait of an intensely intelligent writer who wanted simply to make readers feel “less alone inside,” and who in that quest felt increasingly more alone (except in the sunshine that was his marriage…thank heaven for Karen Green, who from the article I gather made him feel more at home and comfortable in his own skin than, it seems, anything else could outside really great writing).

What compelled me yesterday, reading the final pages of Max’s article (I still haven’t read the new piece of fiction that follows—I can’t yet) was Wallace’s root idea for The Pale King, as he articulated it in a typed note amongst his papers: “Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—likes on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious things you can find…and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

I think that technicolor bliss can probably come after any intense “almost kills you” period of intense focus on undesirable emotions (fear might work as well as boredom).  As melodramatic as I oft am, I know that the weeks of intense three-year-old battling, of taking each breath as though it might be the only thing that could keep me going, is part of what made yesterday, a gorgeous, sun-filled day of hiking and strawberries and camaraderie with Peanut, the second-by-second bliss it was.

It was not a perfect day. It was a perfect-as-human-existence-can-get-if-you-have-a-dollop-of-realism-adorning-the-top-of-your-daily-trifle day.  And I’ll take it.

Do not read that story.

I didn’t know what I was in for, reading that story, but I know that it is the single most tragic thing I’ve read, including Hemingway’s famous six word story, and that the final line is eight hundred thousand times more (just more—more everything—more compelling, more shocking, more evocative, more terrifying, more conclusive, more emotive, more beautiful, more provocative) than any last line, including the last line of Infinite Jest. And I wish I had never read it, because this is now seared in the softest part of my mind.

I can’t quote it and I can’t bear to recommend it. Please don’t read it if trauma haunts you.

Incarnations of Burned Children at Equire and in Oblivion.

Writers’ deaths are the new nihilism

It seems the steady cadence of writers’ bodies dropping into their coffins is the most recent lash strike with which layers of the modern world structures—the steady sense of self and reliability of at least a few things our culture used to believe in—are falling to a postmodern erosion, a whittling away in which there is no new path or understanding revealed.

Writers are leaving us, and there is no clear sense of what will be next, what will happen to our art, words, and lives. This is reality; this is postmodern nihilism. And this is what Cornel West calls the “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.”

Goodbye, Vonnegut. Goodbye Updike. And, postmodern reality help us, goodbye David Foster Wallace.

At the risk of sounding modernist, what comes next? I know Updike’s death today isn’t eschatological (I didn’t even like his books), but still…

(For tonight, I foresee a healthy dose of Counting Crows and Ben Folds. Morose, surreal, and evocative beauty soothes in just such a situation.)

Maybe it shouldn’t matter this much, but it does.

I was trying to explain to Spouse, again, why my world is still upside down about David Foster Wallace’s death. Why I still read hours’ worth of blogs and comments and articles about him instead of doing the other work I’ve promised editors and conferences and myself.

And here’s what I came up with tonight.

It’s not just that he’s gone and we won’t get any more of his work. I mourn that, sure, but there’s a few pieces I haven’t read, and they will last me a while. It’s not just that I’m paralyzed with the breadth of non-DFW work that has been published since my reading has slowed to the pace of a cold, squeezie bottle of honey fresh from the fridge and in need of a serious thaw to disgorge its contents, and that I’m convinced that there are dozens of fabulous works just waiting for me, most of which I’ll never get to. Even rereading IJ will last me a year, given the whole toddler in my care thing. The posthumous twisted knots in my stomach and mind are not just stemming from the remembrance that, when I began reading Infinite Jest, the first piece of his work I ever picked up, fewer than 100 pages in I decided I wanted to go to grad school and study literature, theory, rhetoric, and writing so I could bend my mind far enough to more than just appreciate what he was doing to mine. It’s not just that I stopped reading his work, caught up in life and a grad school that didn’t value his fiction as much as I did, and I now feel terribly guilty that I didn’t read everything fresh off the presses, couched as it was in moments of time, popular culture critiques and all.

So why am I still absolutely inside out about his death? Forget the normal psychological, Oh no I’m going to die, too. Oh no I will never write as well as him. Oh no he’ll never write again. Oh no my kid is going to die and I don’t ever want to know what his mother knows. Oh no we’re all going to die and most of us won’t even notice when the rest o us go. I know all that. I deny it like everybody else.

It’s that I want to stop my day to day life right now so I can consume his prose non-stop. I want to read and read and read and read everything David Foster Wallace ever wrote. Because when I read his work—fiction and  nonfiction—right there, in the moment, I am everything I want to be. He leads me to a place where I’m smart and interesting and humane and giving and wise and raw and empathetic and genuine and white-knuckled, staring my demons in the face. He lets me into worlds I’ve never known and deepens the colors for me on worlds I know better than I thought anyone else could.

His words make me the best things about myself, and nothing else does that. So, yeah, I’m absolutely shattered. Still. And I don’t see that going away anytime soon, even if that’s unseemly or silly or just downright unhealthy.

So how do we get up in the morning and make toast and do the dishes, now that he’s dead? What really sucks is that we just do. Because it really shouldn’t matter this much, to those who were not his wife, his sister, his parents. But it does. It really does matter.

Blammos on DFW

San Francisco band Blammos, during their 30 days of song and video this November, posted a lovely hommage to David Foster Wallace, the thrust of which reminds that, though our hearts are broken, the root cause of that is that DFW’s writing made us fall in love.

And ’tis a good thing to love, even if we must lose.

Blammos

or on youtube

or in quicktime

Thanks, ladies and gents, for the song and the silver lining perspective.