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M. Dale Prins

David Foster Wallace: A churchgoin' man.

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Happy to elaborate. It felt like the reviewer was bending over backward to praise the novel, even as he mentioned several caveats, some of which struck me as alarming, about the process behind the assembling of the book and the concerns of the man who assembled it.

BTW, just read The New York Times review, which calls the book "by turns breathtakingly brilliant and stupefying dull."

Edited by Christian

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I've finally begun reading Wallace for the first time. I just read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and This Is Water. Now I've just begun The Broom of the System.

I have to say that I'm excited, because there is now this whole collection of books sitting there waiting to be read. Wallace has the voice of a prophet. He simultaneously rejects both older reactionary conservative approaches and the basic assumptions of postmodernist philosophy. (His essay "E Unibus Pluram" is a good example of this. He doesn't go where many of the followers of McLuhan and Postman go. He repeats that television is not an evil, in and of itself. But he can't bring himself to embrace the new world the television has encouraged, let alone the kind of fragmented thinking that goes along with it. See also the essay "Greatly Exaggerated.") He predicts and lays his fingers on problems with how we think with what feels like penetrating accuracy. I'm still wrestling with what exactly he was doing with all his footnotes. It's a style that mirrors both fragmented thought and scholarly research, and yet it's a style he uses to challenge fragmented thought.

His prose has a dignity and a beauty to it, but it's also often quite melancholy. I'm trying not to allow my knowledge of his life to shape how I view his writing, but this may not be possible. It seems like his writing is in a constant resistance to despair. The term that he uses for this is a natural "default setting." And the way he argues for resisting our own "natural default settings" has the echo of a large collection of philosophers and theologians from the past. He doesn't just write about contemporary life, but he also explores the philosophy behind much of contemporary life - a philosophy that, ultimately, he seems to reject.

His essays on the state fair and the cruise ship have hints of Hunter S. Thompson in them, if, that is, Thompson were looking for goodness - looking for something meaningful and worthwhile - and trying to constantly fight his own judgments against the people that he couldn't help writing about. Wallace judges contemporary and popular trends in the culture. But then he does so while also aware of the fact of his own judging and of the questionableness of his being a person with any right to judge. Then he'll judge himself, and critique his own reactions against other people as a moral failure in himself. Then he'll acknowledge and somehow transcend his own failure, and move on to making the point or critique that he still feels needs to be made, including himself as indicted by his own judgment. It's a very humbling sort of thing to read.

I can't help but think of some T.S. Eliot's essays on criticism, where he wrote about how a good author needs to both acknowledge the thought of the past, build on it, and then shape his own ideas and stories in a way that successfully interacts with contemporary thinking. An artist who can do this will, according to Eliot, become very powerful. I'm finding this ability in Wallace's writing.

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Good thoughts.

w/r/t "fragmented thinking"--I get where Wallace was coming from, and I get where that reading of his use of footnotes et al comes from--but I've begun to wonder how true it actually is; in some sense, Wallace's footnotes are extensions of the digressive style of Thoreau and Sterne (in fact, I would be tempted to link Wallace to Sterne via the figure of Yorick ["a fellow of infinite jest"])--and others--as is his more generally "maximalist" prose. So while there may be anxiety about "fragmented thinking," there seems to be a certain amount of reveling in it as well--and a deep suspicion that a pretense of unfragmentedness is not to be trusted.

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I too finally started reading DFW. I'm trying to get through about 10 pages of Infinite Jest a day. Maybe I'll be done by Christmas! Jeremy hits on some great points on Wallace, so thanks for posting those.

I can't help but wonder how much Neal Stephenson was influenced by DFW (or, maybe, DFW was influenced somewhat by NS?). There is a lot of overlap stylistically.

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Jeremy's comment over here reminded me to post in this thread and encourage DFW fans to check out the DT Max biography of the author. I haven't gone back to look at reviews of the bio upon its publication, but my vague memory is that it wasn't all that well received. I remember one outlet -- maybe it was Books and Culture? -- expressing disappointment in the biography for failing to go into much depth on DFW's religious life.

 

I am not quite finished with the biography, and had wanted to hold off on posting about it until I'd completed it. But I find myself thinking about it during the day, wanting to go back to it (I'm listening to the audio version) and learn more. And, perhaps -- although I don't know that this would be a crucial element of an author biography -- return to the DFW books I've read, or take up the ones I haven't.

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