by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 1996
1104 pages / $17.99 buy from Powell’s
1. David Foster Wallace was born in a small town in western Ohio, best known for its jar factory. This would figure in the book, Infinite Jest.
2. The first three pages of Infinite Jest are like a key to the novel. Without them you’ll probably be lost.
3. A palm tree is a recurring motif in the book, which seems to represent an opening and closing of the author’s heart.
4. DFW first wrote the manuscript to Infinite Jest when he was 22. He put it in a box that he carried from apartment to apartment as he studied at various schools or followed various women about the country.
5. By the third chapter, with the introduction of the character of the cabbie, you’ll probably feel confused and even ready to give up. Most people do right here.
6. Infinite Jest will seem like the driest book you’ve ever read. DFW needed to wring out the wet in literature.
7. A capable reader will read 22 pages at a time. Don’t worry if you aren’t capable. Most of us won’t be.
8. DFW refound the manuscript of Infinite Jest at age 33, when he was moving out of the house near Tulsa. He didn’t think much of it, apparently.
9. In a survey of college students, most readers found themselves skipping an average of 2 pages every 10.
10. At one point, the cabbie finds a note from his wife. This seems to represent a fracturing of the potency of language. READ MORE >
December 20th, 2012 / 9:09 am
David Fishkind recently asked “Are You Afraid of Politics?“, and a lot of people, myself included, chimed in. Since then I’ve realized I have much more to say on the subject.
I normally don’t think of politics in Democrat/Republican/presidential election terms. I’m registered as an independent, and I prefer to live my politics on a daily basis—which is why I don’t drive, buy organic food when I can, and support local businesses run by people I know, etc. But it would be damn foolish of me to not recognize that “the political is personal” (to invert a phrase), and that the gentle people elected to the state and federal levels regularly impact both my daily life and my career as a writer. Specifically:
It made me very happy to read the various responses to Part 1, posted last Monday. Today I want to continue this brief digression into asking what, if anything, the New Sincerity was, as well as what, if anything, it currently is. (Next Monday I’ll return to reading Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose and applying it to contemporary writing.)
Last time I talked about 2005–8, but what was the New Sincerity before Massey/Robinson/Mister? (And does that matter?) Others have pointed out that something much like the movement can be traced back to David Foster Wallace’s 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (here’s a PDF copy). I can recall conversations, 2000–3, with classmates at ISU (where DFW taught and a number of us worked for RCF/Dalkey) about “the death of irony” and “the death of Postmodernism” and a possible “return to sincerity.” Today, even the Wikipedia article on the NS also makes that connection:
If the New Sincerity is anything real or coherent (and I wrote that post last Monday because I, like others, am trying to figure out whether that’s so, or will be so), then we should be able to identify the devices or moves that define it—that arguably make a piece read as being “New Sincere.” The “New” implies they produce that sincere effect right now, in the current literary landscape; whether the techniques or devices are entirely new doesn’t matter (they could be older techniques, fallen out of prominence, now returned). Similarly, it’s irrelevant whether the author using them is “really” being sincere. What matters instead is that
- Those devices exist;
- People think they “feel sincere” (as opposed to other devices, which don’t);
- “Being sincere” has some value at the present moment.
Why sincerity? What is its present value? My broad and still developing belief is that “sincere” writing is one means of breaking with the aesthetics of postmodernism and self-referentiality: invocation of Continental Theory, metatextuality, excessive cleverness, hyper-allusion, &c. What makes writing “sincerely” even more delicious when perceived against postmodernism 1960–2000 is that it proposes to offer precisely what pomo said didn’t matter or couldn’t exist: direct communion with another coherent, expressive self, even truth by means of language. (Don’t tell Chris Higgs!)
One of my first impressions of the NS came when I started noticing artists and authors using longer titles—in particular, long rambly ones with strong emotional resonances. My thought then and I think now was that both the length and the ramble, as well as the emotive quality, signaled non-mediation: a desire to appear uncensored, unrevised. Those titles stood out (defamiliarized the title) because they failed to comply with what a “proper,” “edited,” “thoughtful” title should be.
Is this a sensible thing to argue? Have I had too many G&Ts? Let’s pursue …
Winners of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize will be announced today at 3pm. Any predictions? The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has been awarded to no one, apparently. Nominees were Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. I’m curious what you think of the prize (Fiction category or in general). Is it
a) a highly prestigious stamp of approval that guarantees an enjoyable and edifying read
b) a mainstream award given to a conventional, palatable work (though the work may be formally inventive in superficial ways), leading to increased sales, certainly among readers of “serious literary fiction” but mostly among a segment of people who want to acquire cultural capital without too much effort
OR are you an enlightened in-betweener? If you tell me I will put it in a pie chart. I remember “at one point in my life” having a lot of fun making lists in a .txt file of Pulitzer winners and a future reading order that I would never end up following. I also remember (much later) finding Finding a Form by William Gass in the library, [I don't mean this to sound like a conversion story. Beloved was pretty phenomenal. Lonesome Dove features a river full of snakes.] and reading this on the first essay’s first page:
from “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize” by William Gass
Visual representations of Infinite Jest objects (movie posters, tennis tourny flyers, etc.). The Quarterly Conversation dedicates a symposium to David Foster Wallace; Who Was David Foster Wallace? And Unbound is a Kickstarter for books. Oh wait: the writer of 20% of all Simpsons episodes has self-published a bunch of novels.
In college I went through a stage of searching for and printing off as many David Foster Wallace interviews as I could find. I remember printing of the interview he gave to Larry McCaffery and reading it and stumbling into the passage wherein he speaks of ‘the click.’
At some point in my reading and writing that fall I discovered the click in literature, too. It was real lucky that just when I stopped being able to get the click from math logic I started to be able to get it from fiction. The first fictional clicks I encountered were in Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” and in parts of the first story I ever wrote, which has been in my trunk since I finished it. I don’t know whether I have that much natural talent going for me fiction wise, but I know I can hear the click, when there is a click.
Of course, I had to go find a copy of “The Balloon.” I had never read and Barthelme, had only vaguely heard of him and for some reason thought he was an author writing in the 1800s.
Elegant but problematic write-up on The Pale King in GQ by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Read it for the elegance, but I’d like to unfairly isolate the review’s conclusion, which alarmed me for the reasons articulated below. Quote:
Wallace’s work will be seen as a huge failure, not in the pejorative sense, but in the special sense Faulkner used when he said about American novelists, “I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” Wallace failed beautifully. There is no mystery whatsoever about why he found this novel so hard to finish. The glimpse we get of what he wanted it to be—a vast model of something bland and crushing, inside of which a constellation of individual souls would shine in their luminosity, and the connections holding all of us together in this world would light up, too, like filaments—this was to be a novel on the highest order of accomplishment, and we see that the writer at his strongest would have been strong enough. He wasn’t always that strong.
Insightful, or regurgitation of the “humanist” DFW diet? At what point will critics realize that there is not one single sense to DFW’s work–that is, Wallace as what Kyle Beachy, ironically or not, called the “empathy machine,” the brain with a heartbeat? There is no question that this caricature of Wallace suits our time, but it nevertheless should be considered as just that: a pitiful reduction of what Wallace demands, and the ensnaring of criticism in the dangerous matrix of “human values”–as if he awoke from his postmodern slumber merely to mourn the “souls who would shine”–which is, incidentally, my answer to Blake’s recent post. Answer: a critic should be critical, a problem which will be the challenge and measure of reviewing The Pale King.
This is for fun.
This is a contest. It is taken from a homework assignment in David Foster Wallace’s Extremely Advanced Composition class at Pomona College. It was a creative nonfiction workshop.
The contest is, correct these sentences for what Wallace, at least, perceived as errors in mechanics, grammar, punctuation, syntax, idiom, and/or usage. You get a point every time you are the first person to correct an error in comments (by rewriting the sentence correctly), but I’m going to wait to get lots of answers in to reveal the answers, so don’t hesitate to tackle a sentence that someone else has already tried. You may make multiple guesses on the same sentence, and you can guess out of order. Some sentences may have more than one error. One point per error. Prize TBA.
Some of these are pretty basic. Some are very obscure and speak to Wallace’s particular peeves, some of which I don’t share. The point is to figure out what he thought was wrong with these. No use arguing with a dead man.
And I quote:
English 183D 10 March 2004
” . . . every such phrase anesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”–G. Orwell
(1) It was the yuletide season like I had never seen it before.
(2) We were in Innsbruck, Austria and we could not find a place to stay the night.
(3) We passed by the inn.
(4) It has made its way into the mainstream of verbal discourse.
(5) Cross burning began in medieval times on the green hills of Scotland, where clans used them to rally their kin and kith against enemies.
(6) “Get used to it.” I said to myself.
(7) As the president is a Christian, he prays every morning.
(8) I can support this claim with quotes from several published sources.
(9) It consisted of only two brief 50-minute workshops which one speaker enticingly described as “therapy session sized.”
Today at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito linked to a Google document that showed differences between the recent David Foster Wallace excerpt in The New Yorker titled “Backbone” and a transcription of Wallace reading the same piece in 2000, what Wallace then called ‘a fragment of a longer thing.’
It’s common knowledge now that Wallace did not get close to finishing The Pale King, and that the book that will be published on April 15 represents a heavily edited and stitched together version of what Wallace left behind. Clearly, this book has been made to serve the many readers out there who would like to see a completed, standardized version of The Pale King.
For more, go to the full post.
This is in response to Kyle’s comment on Sean’s post. Or, maybe in reaction. In the comment thread, I responded to part of what Kyle said, but the rest of my response veers pretty far from what Sean was asking, so I’m going to develop it here instead.
I want to take up the ideas of workshop as democracy and workshop as therapy session. What does it mean, really, to say you don’t like those ideas? I should just let Kyle answer that first, but I’m going to say what I make of those terms first.
Workshop as democracy: If I was the one saying that, I would mean that a workshop is a chance to hear from a group of the kind of people who would be your readers. With nobody’s reading being privileged, including the professor’s, who is just one reader. The professor certainly is there to teach how to respond to peer work, how to read and respond sensitively, but hers shouldn’t be the final word. Bruce Covey was telling me last night that he never speaks during the workshops he teaches. Each workshop, a student facilitates. I think this is a wonderful idea. Sure, workshops can work beautifully in other ways, too, but I think this is one good way. This can come down to tiny details. It’s great to know whether 10% or 80% of readers don’t catch a certain reference. To be in control of that, of how obscure the references are. I prefer the perhaps squishy sounding term “focus group” to “democracy” for this function (not the only function, but one function) of a workshop.
Workshop as therapy session: This is thrown around a lot, always negatively. Workshop shouldn’t be therapy. I think there are two problems with this. One, what kind of therapy are we talking about. Substitute “person” in what Kyle says at the end. “…from there, to help a [person] do the thing the [person] really wants to do as powerfully and truly as the [person] can.” That can be (should be?) the goal of therapy, no? When I went to therapy, that’s what I was looking for, and I found it. This happened in many ways and on multiple levels, but I’ll use an example that has to do with writing. Toward the end of my course of therapy, my main problem was that I was behind on my thesis. (After I finished, my therapist said it was time I set new goals or quit therapy. I quit, and we kept in touch.) My therapist said, how about writing five pages a day (I think she said three at first, but I explained I wouldn’t make the deadline that way). I started writing five pages a day. I finished the thesis. I sent the critical component of the thesis–which was never workshopped–to someone I interviewed for it. He wanted me to adapt it for the magazine he edits. Made $1500 for the article. Didn’t pay for my whole course of therapy, but it more than covered the session where she said to just write 5 pages a day. Why shouldn’t a workshop do this?
The pendulum has swung, as pendulums are so woefully apt to do. When I was small, and first starting reading about what writers said about writing, they all seemed to say that it was better not to discuss a work in progress. At the time, this seemed a kind of magic trick, a superstition of some kind. But I’d be damned if I didn’t take their word for gospel, even though I didn’t understand it any better than I understood the actual Gospels (I heard “Jesus is everywhere” and imagined a thousand teeny tiny invisible Bethlehem babies lounging around even as I bathed).
Apparently, I was damned. By the time I started writing in earnest, the whole mechanism had to do with not only discussing but sharing your work in progress. In college, this was great, because I wasn’t in any way ready to complete anything to the point that it could be published. So participating in workshops was like army boot camp. I learned lots.
In MFA school, I still learned, especially in literature seminars, but I certainly didn’t complete anything publishable. But this time, I was probably ready to, but was hampered by the workshop process. There were three reasons for this, I think. 1, in no workshop that I took did anyone say that a piece should just be abandoned. All criticism was constructive, which was the point, but in reality some work needs to be torn down so that something better can be built in its place. I’m very impressionable, so after hearing my work discussed for 20 or so minutes, I became convinced it was worth my continued attention even if it really wasn’t. But I ran into trouble with the continued attention because 2, my classmates’ and professor’s opinions about any one piece, even a 3-pager, were so conflicted, and the problems they unearthed so convoluted, that I was totally lost when faced with revision. To make matters worse, 3, my professors and classmates (not to mention lots of other people in my life–they all agreed) also told me what book they thought I should write, and how I should go about it. Almost five years later, I have only just really decided that they were wrong, and that the book they had in mind is not the one I should write, at least not right now. Like I said, I’m very impressionable. I have confidence in my own work, sure, but there is something powerful about everyone you know saying they want to read the same as-yet-unwritten book by you. Powerful and dangerous.
Insightful read of Wallace’s philosophical concerns, passions. James Ryerson: Thank you.
Some of the most singular moments in understanding come on as if being shook: a presence entering the body unto some new consideration of how that entrance might occur. One kind of a map of a version of one’s self might be determined by considering among the terrain of the body a series of approached organs; objects imbibed, in what order, how one’s own output is affected; what is out there; what is. Seeing does this. Language, more indirectly, does this, too: entering as symbols and networks of orchestrations. Some strings of language, as well, leave in their wake a total reinvention of creation as an act, iconing on the map of self, and many selves; updating or widening or recalcifying what any kind of words can, could, or should do.
I can remember with unusual clarity the feeling in me the first time I read David Foster Wallace’s “Mister Squishy.” It was published under the name Elizabeth Klemm in the 5th issue of McSweeney’s in 2000, but by the time the magazine reached my hands I’d already heard on the Wallace listserv that this rather lengthy piece of fiction could only ever be written by him; there could have been nobody else. I was already a rabid Wallace freak; I’d pretty much begun writing fiction as a direct byproduct of reading Infinite Jest, and since then become obsessed. I read this story, long as perhaps 3 normal stories, on a futon in a house in one sitting under a skylight with legs crossed, already ready to be lit. And yet, the particular instance of “Mister Squishy,” even having then been well versed in a way that somehow placed the author’s presence in my daily thoughts (which has not since then stopped), rendered in me that the first time something different even than what I’d been ready to expect: some odd confabulation of provocation, confusion, inundated awe; a feeling rare not only for any kind of language, but particularly for a shorter work. This was something singular beyond even the already neon body of Wallace’s work in constellation, and in particular, beyond the confines of what a story as a “story,” or a novel even, or text as text, traditionally operationally assists to construe.
Since then I’ve read the 63 pages of “Mister Squishy” at least a dozen times. I’m not sure even still I can begin to wholly how to parse the innumerable levels of its moves, using tactics and employments that continue shifting with each reconsideration and further study in the way a Magic Eye painting might if it could get up and walk around: a kind of high water mark of contained language and ambition, since then, now ten years later, still uncontested in the ways of invoking the uninvocable, the void. It is a station, I believe, should be reexamined; it is, in many ways, a kind of key to a beyond, both in the content of the story, and the method of its opening a new kind of affect in languageground, one that still has yet to be, these years later, fully inculcated, or because of time’s way, even unpacked.
November 22nd, 2010 / 11:32 am