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Andy Whitman

David Foster Wallace

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Matt Bucher on "The Year of David Foster Wallace":

When Infinite Jest was published in 1996 and David Foster Wallace set the literary world on fire, he was the epitome of cool. He looked like Ethan Hawke and Kurt Cobain’s brother—and he was authentic, not just some poseur. And his talent could blow your mind; he was bona fide, high-brow literary, and important people called him a genius because they couldn’t think of a better word. Every lengthy, “literary” novel that has been published since Infinite Jest lives in its shadow. Is Adam Levin the next David Foster Wallace? Marisha Pessl? Zadie Smith? Eugenides? Is House of Leaves as good as Infinite Jest? How does Freedom or Witz compare? Safran Foer? Who is the female DFW? The thing is, at that moment, Wallace could have taken another direction. He could’ve gone on The Today Show or Good Morning America or been on a billboard in Times Square. He could’ve done some self-promotion and become the most famous young writer in America. But it’s not like he turned Pynchon and disappeared—he struggled with his gift and the image of himself. He winced on Charlie Rose and then went back to teaching in Illinois.

EDIT: Rather than putting in a new post, let me just embed this here (via biblioklept):

Edited by NBooth

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...and I just finished Infinite Jest, having read it over the course of about three months (30min-1hr a night). It's pretty fantastic; I don't know that I have anything coherent or cogent to say on it right now, but there's a lot of meat to this book and very little fat. I loved the characters here--loved especially the dialogue between the boys at the academy. And Don Gately, of course, is a beautiful creation.

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...and I just finished Infinite Jest, having read it over the course of about three months (30min-1hr a night). It's pretty fantastic; I don't know that I have anything coherent or cogent to say on it right now, but there's a lot of meat to this book and very little fat. I loved the characters here--loved especially the dialogue between the boys at the academy. And Don Gately, of course, is a beautiful creation.

Yep, yep, yep. Don Gately is wonderful. I loved how the novel begins focused on Hal but slowly moves the focus over to Don. The final 150 pages on Don are just amazing.

I confess that while reading it I felt like there was lots of unnecessary diversions and characters that should've been cut down, but once I finished the book and looked back on it I really couldn't decide what else could've been cut. Even the smallest detail seemed valuable to the whole.

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In response to Paul Elie's essay on the death of religious fiction, Noah Millman proposes Infinite Jest as an example of a contemporary[ish] religious novel:

Infinite Jest is a complex book, with a baffling (I would argue failed) narrative structure. But the clearest narrative thread in the book is the story of Don Gately, thief and addict, who is saved by the twelve-step culture. Moreover, that culture – and the question of recovery, understood in spiritual terms – saturates the novel, and is central to its most fundamental questions. This is not a nostalgic or elegiac story about recollecting a time when faith “worked.” It’s about now, and what faith means now. And what it means is deeply wedded to the narrative of recovery.

[snip]

Wallace, of course, did not experience that kind of salvation from the inside. He wasn’t testifying. But I think we should distinguish the novel of belief from the pious novel. A novel of belief should concern itself with the lived experience of belief, with showing that experience to us, making us understand it from the inside. A pious novel testifies to said belief. That doesn’t mean it has to be a weak novel – Tolstoy wrote any number of magnificent pious novellas - The Death of Ivan Ilych, Father Sergius, etc. – so it’s clearly possible to write great fiction in the modern age from a pious position. But I don’t think that’s a requirement to meet Elie’s criteria.

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Literary Kicks on Every Love Story and The Pale King:

Though the idea of reading a 548-page novel, whittled down from thousands of manuscript pages festooned with sticky notes by an intermediary (Pietsch) who had no guidance from the author might seem dicey, The Pale King proves to be Wallace’s most “accessible” work of fiction. If by “accessible,” one means a book that follows a set of characters through a series of loosely linked events or, in this case, non-events. The Pale King is, in fact, unusual for Wallace whose fiction (from his first novel The Broom of the System to story collections Girl With Curious Hair and Interviews with Hideous Men) are often difficult to read. Where it isn’t difficult, these works are mesmerizing, and The Pale King is filled with such pleasurable patches.

[snip]

Normally a writer’s private demons should be given wide berth, allowing for the writing to speak for itself. However, this part of David Foster Wallace is an important thing to know going in because one of his recurrent themes was that Americans his age were self-absorbed to the point of solipsism—which could easily be said of his own behavior at time. At his worst, Wallace had the addict's or drunk’s, tendency to project his own darkest urges onto everyone else, perhaps to minimize one’s own culpability.

[snip]

I didn't get interested in David Foster Wallace’s writing until after his suicide. A story about him in Rolling Stone piqued my interest. Before then, I’d lumped him with the literary pack swarming out of university MFA programs, a sort of grunge Thomas Pynchon. But I'm touched by the story of his struggles with chronic depression, a condition I’ve battled for more than years myself—and Max’s biography is a good chronicle of such a battle, the equal to William Styron’s Darkness Visible or Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon (or, for that matter, Exley’s A Fan’s Notes).

Edited by NBooth

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Interesting article. I actually just started reading The Pale King last week. I'm not too far into it but I'll try to post some comments here if I think to. Oddly, two of the first characters the reader is introduced to (Claude Sylvanshine and Leonard Stecyk-- DFW loved making up last names, didn't he?) reminded me quite a bit of Hal and Mario Incandenza from Infinite Jest. Sylvanshine made me think of Hal because he's stressed and lost in his own mind and Stecyk brought Mario (probably my favorite character in IJ) to mind because of his awkwardness and compassion. Will be interesting to see if those parallels increase or diminish throughout the novel.

Edited by Gavin Breeden

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Wallace's EN 102 syllabus won't be news to anyone, but OpenCulture has it posted anyway. They comment:

Love his work or hate it, it may be safe to say that Wallace was perhaps one of the most careful (or care-full) writers of his generation. And given the criteria above, you might just have to admire the fine art of his syllabi. Well, so you can, thanks to the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, which has scans available online of the syllabus for Wallace’s intro course “English 102-Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction” (first page above), along with other course documents. These documents—From the Fall ’94 semester at Illinois State University, where Wallace taught from 1993 to 2002—reveal the professionally pedagogical side of the literary wunderkind, a side every teacher will connect with right away.

I admire this brave approach. Having taught conventionally “literary” stuff for years, I can say that some so-called literary fiction is formulaic in the extreme, all but containing checkboxes for the standard lit-crit categories. The commercial stuff isn’t always so careful (which is why it’s so often more fun).

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Gideon Lewis-Kraus reviews Both Flesh and Not:

BOTH FLESH AND NOT is David Foster Wallace at his best and his worst, but the thing about Wallace’s best was that it usually contained his worst: He was his most consequentially gracious when his tenderness and generosity were only barely outpacing his capacity to be a total dickhead. It’s appropriate, then, that this final nonfiction collection should include the last great essays he wrote alongside at least a few pieces he declined to include in not only one collection but two, first in 1997’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and again in 2005’s Consider the Lobster. These were, as it turns out, the sorts of pieces that made it rather difficult to like him. Wallace wanted to be liked but hated himself for it; that he wrote only to be liked was perhaps his greatest worry.

A bit later:

Wallace copped to an Aristotelian teleology of art, viz that beauty is only ever a by-product of the successful achievement of one’s stated aim, one’s “true end.” This was another reason why his nonfiction so often succeeds where his fiction doesn’t: A nonfiction inquiry has an obvious true end—go and report back what a cruise is like—that fiction rarely has.

[snip]

It was in part this vision of tennis as partnership that led Wallace to the redemptive idea that the “end,” in the Aristotelian sense, of his writing, the thing that made writing incidentally fun and beautiful and entertaining and likable, was the effort to communicate. And it wasn’t just a general effort to communicate, but his specific effort to communicate his own fear that he could never successfully communicate. The appalling grotesquerie of the Illinois State Fair—fodder for a Bosch tableau—becomes an occasion for him to celebrate other people’s sense of belonging. In his piece about September 11, his immediate cynicism alienates him from the simple horror and sorrow of his friends in Bloomington-Normal, where he was living in 2001. Work like this makes us experience the tension he felt all the time: how to be alone, how also to be together.

I've started the audio version of this, and the essay on tennis/Federer is great! Unfortunately, the collection opens with, as far as I can tell, the "a" stretch of all the words in American Heritage Dictionary to which Wallace contributed as part of the dictionary's usage panel. I love that idea in theory -- I love that dictionary chiefly because of the usage panel, and I had no idea Wallace had been part of that -- but that running entry is pretty numbing. Then, after the Federer essay, the list resumes; we're into the "b"s or whatever. At that point, I skipped ahead to the next story.

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I've started the audio version of this, and the essay on tennis/Federer is great! Unfortunately, the collection opens with, as far as I can tell, the "a" stretch of all the words in American Heritage Dictionary to which Wallace contributed as part of the dictionary's usage panel. I love that idea in theory -- I love that dictionary chiefly because of the usage panel, and I had no idea Wallace had been part of that -- but that running entry is pretty numbing. Then, after the Federer essay, the list resumes; we're into the "b"s or whatever. At that point, I skipped ahead to the next story.

That strikes me as the perfect example of something that might work well on the printed page but just doesn't transfer to audio format (footnotes/endnotes would be equally problematic, I would imagine--I can only speculate what an audiobook version of Infinite Jest would sound like). [As a former devotee of audiobooks, I say this without meaning to cast aspersions on them; it's just one of those interesting wrinkles that arise when a text shifts to a new medium]

________________

Over at Boston Review, Trevor Quirk has some thoughts on "The Apotheosis of David Foster Wallace"

Several longer pieces in Flesh read like kernels, or inferior repeats, of essays Wallace had collected while he was alive. Consider both of the stories on tennis, “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open,” which applies bizarre Cold War metaphors to Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis, or the eponymous “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” which portrays and unpacks watching Roger Federer as a religious experience. Both essays rehash ideas Wallace had already covered in his profile of the player and coach Michael Joyce and in his excellent review of Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten autobiography. And those are the mild transgressions. “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” is basically an earlier draft of Wallace’s famous essay on American fiction and television, “E Unibus Pluram.” His mini-review of Terminator 2, in which he christens the new genre of “F/X Porn,” though spry and witty, is eclipsed by his longer essay on David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which appears in his 1998 collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

It’s ironic that the Wallace diehard for whom this collection was assembled is most likely to detect and be disgusted by all this recycled material. It’s also difficult to find much that would appeal to a less fanboyish reader. “The Empty Plenum” and “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama” deserve to be read. They are crushingly dense but do what Wallace did best: serve as Virgil in the reader’s journey into the specialized world of a genre. “Borges on the Couch” is another strong entry. Yet it’s also not very hard to imagine the reader finding them annoyingly abstruse, tiresome, or irrelevant.

On the Max biography:

When Max attempts to relate Wallace’s work to Wallace’s life, the results are often weak. Infinite Jest, this biography’s tabernacle, is especially afflicted. Many of its central characters—Hal Incandenza, Ken Erdedy, Kate Gompert—are reduced to nothing more than psychological components of Wallace’s mind. Don Gately is a fictionalized version of “Big Craig,” Wallace’s housemate during his stay at the Granada House addiction recovery program. The novel’s unforgettable opening, narrated by Hal, is a “transformed” version of Wallace’s anxious and ultimately successful interview with Amherst College admissions officers. Avril Incandenza, Hal’s neurotic mother, is portrayed as a cheap Freudian imago of Wallace’s mother, Sally. Infinite Jest—that imposing, resplendent novel, which Max so reveres—is repeatedly, cringingly, characterized as “driven by [Wallace’s] dysfunctional yearning for Mary Karr,” his one-time girlfriend, for whom Infinite Jest’s Joelle Van Dyne is a “stand-in.”

--a criticism I can understand, even though I think there's room for the Max approach.

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David's wife has published an acclaimed book of poetry written after her husband's suicide.

Karen Green writing on David Foster Wallace: 'an instant classic'

It’s been called “an instant classic,” “an astonishment,” and “one of the most moving, strange, original, harrowing, and beautiful documents of grief and reckoning.”

“Bough Down,” artist Karen Green’s collection of poems and collages of grief following the death of her husband, the writer David Foster Wallace, is garnering attention and excellent reviews five years after Wallace committed suicide at their home in 2008.

The delicate, vellum-wrapped volume is Green’s first book. A collection of poems and small postage stamp-sized collages by the artist, it was published earlier this spring by Siglo Press.

Edited by Christian

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LARB: Good Old Wallace

 

Could it be there’s a not-arbitrary reason the David Wallace character at the end of “Good Old Neon” is looking at a picture of his doppelgänger Neal, one that’s embedded in the concatenation of little pictures that constitute the page of a high school yearbook, a text that in combining images and words is basically a proto-graphic novel? As if, for whatever obscurely Hegelian dialectical reasons, the psyche of the society has taken a very clever atavistic twist and is unfolding from itself a kind of reversion to the era of the ideogram, the hieroglyph, the pictograph? And that a reader today just can’t trust or take seriously or have a mature, adult, non-solipsistic relationship with an author who doesn’t know how to build something necessarily visual into the stuff that they make? And could it be that if you’re a writer who is unwilling or unable to mix design and to mix images into the fiber of the material you’re working on, then, reader-writer rhetoric-wise, you will be Talking to a Wall? That you’ll be like WALL-E, sorting through the detritus, left behind on the withered husk of an earth, while your youthful, tech-savvy, image-fluent usurpers will be up in their orbiters, preparing for the mission to Jupiter? 

 

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Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, pgs. 158-159:

... It might very well make you (i.e. the mise-en-scène’s fiction writer) come off like the sort of person who not only goes to a party all obsessed about whether he’ll be liked or not but actually goes around at the party and goes up to strangers and asks them whether they like him or not.  What they think of him, what effect he’s having on them, whether their view of him coincides at all with the complex throb of his own self-idea, etc.  Coming up to innocent human beings who wanted only to come to a party and unwind a little and maybe meet some new people in a totally low-key and unthreatening setting and stepping directly into their visual field and breaking all kinds of basic unspoken rules of party- and first-encounter-between-strangers-etiquette and explicitly interrogating them about the very thing you’re feeling inbent and self-conscious about. (16)  Take a moment to imagine the faces of the people at a party where you did this.  Imagine the faces’ expression fully, in 3D and vibrant color, and then imagine the expression directed at you - and keep in mind that it may be for nothing ...

(Fn. 16) ... And of course it’s very probably also the issue they’re feeling self-conscious about - w/r/t themselves and whether other people at the party are liking them - and this is why it’s an unspoken axiom of party-etiquette that you don’t ask this sort of question outright or act in any way to plunge a party-interaction into this kind of maelstrom of interpersonal anxiety: because once even just one party-conversation reached this kind of urgent unmasked speak-your-innermost-thoughts level it would spread almost metastatically, and pretty soon everybody at the party would be talking about nothing but their own hopes and fears about what the other people at the party were thinking of them, which means that all distinguishing features of different people’s surface personalities would be obliterated and everybody at the party would emerge as more or less exactly the same, and the party would reach this sort of entropic homeostasis of nakedly self-obsessed sameness, and it’d get incredibly boring,* plus the paradoxical fact that the distinctive colorful surface differences between people upon which other people base their like or dislike of those people would have vanished, and so the question ‘Do you like me’ would cease to admit of any meaningful response, and the whole party could very well undergo some sort of weird logical or metaphysical implosion, and none of the people at the party would ever again be able to function meaningfully in the outside world.**

* (It’s maybe interesting to note that this corresponds closely to most atheists’ idea of Heaven, which in turn helps explain the relative popularity of atheism.**)

**(I’d probably leave all this implicit, though, if I were you.) ...

 

As I continue to read him, Wallace still regularly and frequently makes me laugh as he cuts to heart of things.  I love this guy.

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I've not gotten a chance to read it yet, but Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading has linked what looks to be an interesting paper titled "The Institution of Nothing: David Foster Wallace in the Program." Here's the bit Esposito quotes:

 

And, more importantly for my purposes here, isn’t his relation to institutions what makes Wallace, in literary historical terms, most interest-ing? For me, in any case, this relation is more interesting than his critique of American culture, which, while advanced with considerable verve, and unusually well attuned to the vicissitudes of ironic distance, amounts finally to a highly conventional morality tale about the ill effects of narcissism and TV. So, too, is it more interesting than the chaotically ambitious forms of his longer works, which bear a strong resemblance to the sprawling models of literary endeavor offered by such novelists as William Gaddis, John Barth, and especially Thomas Pynchon, all of whom make equal intellectual, if not emotional, demands on their readers. Rather, Wallace is most interesting precisely insofar as we think of him as a strong student of the likes of Pyn-chon and, more generally, as a highly reflexive inhabitant of the system of educational institutions that indebted him to a certain version of literary postmodernism.⁵ To insist upon the centrality of the role of student— and later teacher— in understanding Wallace is to read him as a figure of what I have called the Program Era, but not only that: it is to read him as one whose situation marks a further step toward the thorough normalization of the emergent conditions of institutionalization that that term tries to name.⁶ No one was more attuned to this historically novel state of affairs than Wallace himself, who, in the 1988 essay “Fictional Futures and the Con-spicuously Young,” written shortly after earning his own MFA, worries out loud and at length about the many implications of the rise of creative writing programs but without letting those worries impede his headlong entry into the career of creative writing teacher a few years later

 

Emphasis mine. This tracks well with my own thoughts on Wallace.

Edited by NBooth

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Newsweek: The Turbulent Genius of David Foster Wallace:

 

But do we need The David Foster Wallace Reader? According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, probably not. Though the book seems like a Christmas gift in the making, it contains almost no new work. But I think I get what Pietsch is doing here, and I am all for it. You need evidence of miracles for sainthood; you need something only marginally more mundane to sustain a bid for lasting literary greatness, for entrance into that pantheon protected from the vicissitudes of literary taste. This is part of that effort, a reminder of how good Wallace could be, whether he was writing about Kafka or the Illinois State Fair, whether he was making stuff up or trying to see things as they actually are.

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