January 4, 2006

David Foster Wallace.

I can't say I've read much of his fiction, but I love David Foster Wallace for his nonfiction essays. One of my favorite books is "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," a collection of essays, including one about going on a luxury cruise, the supposedly fun thing he'll never do again that he saved me from ever having to do.

So I was happy to see he's got a new collection of essays, "Consider the Lobster." I should have bought it yesterday at Border's, where I had it with me on the counter, next to a latte and a stack of bluebooks, in a pile with a few other books, not including Ana Marie Cox's "Dog Days," which I looked for but found wasn't in stock.

"Consider the Lobster" gets a nice front-page-of-the-arts-section review in today's NYT. Michiko Kakutani writes:
The strongest entries in this volume are written in language that shows that it's possible to be serious without being sanctimonious, funny without being sophomoric, erudite without being pretentious, and these chapters unfold, beguilingly, from the particular to the philosophical, from small case studies to larger, zeitgeisty ruminations.
(That makes me think of blogging: I want to blog like that!)
...Mr. Wallace is capable of writing about things like metaphysics and the politics of the English language with the same verve and irreverence he brings to matters like the pornography industry and the cooking of lobsters. He describes language snobs as Snoots ("Syntax Nudniks of Our Time") and "usage Trekkies," and he argues that few people make "very deep syntactic errors" in conversation because "there is probably an actual part of the human brain that's imprinted with this Universal Grammar the same way birds' brains are imprinted with Fly South and dogs' with Sniff Genitals."...

He's similarly able to show why he disagrees with language Descriptivists (who claim that "so-called correct English usages like brought rather than brung and felt rather than feeled are arbitrary and restrictive and unfair") by drawing the following analogy: While it can be argued that the dictum identifying "pants instead of skirts" as the "correct subthoracic clothing for U.S. males" is similarly arbitrary, restrictive and unfair, the fact "remains that in the broad cultural mainstream of millennial America, men do not wear skirts."
(Subthoracic! I need to use more words like "subthoracic.")
Unlike the author's last two claustrophobic [fiction] books, this collection trains Mr. Wallace's acute eye not inward at the solipsistic terrain of people's minds, but outward at the world - at politicians, at writers, at ordinary and oddball individuals of every emotional stripe.
Mmm... yes. I love this kind of nonfiction. Spare me your made-up characters and stories and tell me whatever you have to say about the world you observe. I know it's too much to ask that Mr. Wallace blog, but this reminds me of so many things that I want blogging to be. And that I love to get a nice, fat, juicy book of essays from my favorite living essayist.

I went to a David Foster Wallace reading some years ago. I believe he was promoting "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," and that was the book I had in hand for an autograph. The man seemed terribly shy, as if it was quite painful for him to appear in public. In the question session, I wanted to ask him about it -- are you the person you seem to be in the essays? -- but I just couldn't bring myself to risk making him uncomfortable, even though, at the same time, I felt the flat questions he was getting weren't making him feel too good.

Suddenly, it was time for the signing, and with my usual way of being the first person to get to the front when a crowd moves, I was right there where the signing was to begin. Then, somehow, behind the second person that got to the counter, a long line formed. If I were to get in line then, I'd be behind 30 people. The hell! I was appalled at my fate. I was first, kind of. And now I was supposed to get behind all those who shuffled obediently into the line? Mr. Wallace noticed my distress and took my book to sign:

Autograph

He hated lines too, he told me. See what he wrote?

I recommend:

17 comments:

WisJoe said...

I am reading Infinite Jest now, and it is somewhat plodding (or am I?), but it is a fun read if only for fact it makes me hit the dictionary periodically. I read an essay he wrote in Harper's a while back that I just loved - it was about language, but I cannot remember the title of the essay. I agree his is a national treasure, and will be picking up the books you recommend (which have been recommended by one of my colleagues here at work).

Ann Althouse said...

WiJoe: The essay you remember is in the new collection.

Michael said...

Infinite Jest is awesome, but it's very hard to get into. I probably know a half-dozen people who have given up on it after the first 50 pages or so. Everything starts coming together after page 90 or so if I remember correctly.

Stick with it, and you'll be rewarded. It's been 6-7 years since I read it, but details of it pop up so frequently in my mind. Canada as a toxic waste dump, the tennis star turned NFL punter, wheelchair assassins, corporate-sponsored years (The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment)...

mzn said...

I've read very little of DFW and don't have an informed opinion of him. But I got a big kick out of reading this negative take on the Harper's essay:

http://www.languagehat.com/languages.php
(scroll down to the part beginning "David Foster Wallace Demolished")

PDS said...

How kind of you not to risk making him feel uncomfortable, a kindness towards him that he never even knew about. Such "kindnesses by omission" undoubtedly happen every day for most of us, but too bad--by definition--we are not aware of them.

Smilin' Jack said...

I too enjoy his nonfiction much more than his fiction...I got about halfway through Infinite Jest and found it much better described by the first word of the title than the second.

His "nonfiction" should be taken with a grain of salt, though, since some of it is, well, fictional. A commenter above gives a link to some of the problems with his language essay. And I recently read his Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. It's fun to read but there are several places where he gets the math completely wrong.

Pogo said...

His title piece in A supposedly fun thing... was indeed wonderful. I mention it in conversation quite alot, as the insight has myriad applications.

That said, my wife still wants to go on a cruise, Wallace's evidence notwithstanding.

Wade_Garrett said...

I like Wallace's fiction, but I like his non-fiction even more. As the NYT review pointed out, I sometimes find his fiction too bogged down by footnotes and long digressions. For example, if you spend two pages of text describing a door, then show us a diagram of the door, you're clearly just trying to provoke the reader into screaming "Get on with it!" . . . it serves no other purpose in the story. Also, his footnotes often contain information essential to the story, while the actual body of the story contains endless digressions. Its interesting how he re-imagines what a story can be, but when you're a busy person with a big pile of books you want to read, its hard not to imagine you have something better to do with your time.

I've loved every one of his essays though . . . I first read his "Snoot" essay on the english language as a junior in college, in Harper's magazine, and have saved that issue to this day . . . its wonderful.

Wm said...

For example, if you spend two pages of text describing a door, then show us a diagram of the door, you're clearly just trying to provoke the reader into screaming "Get on with it!" . . . it serves no other purpose in the story.

If you are referring to a scene from Infinte Jest, and I think you are (and if this is the scene that I think it is), you might want to consider that in that scene he was not describing the door, he was describing the door-knob, and he was not describing the knob for what it was, but for how it was spinning, and for how that spinning inspired the character observing the spinning to begin studying lenses, so that he could create an on-screen visual effect that would leave an impression on the viewer, which would be not at all purposeless but in fact, infinitely intimate to a major part of the story itself. And if you're not thinking of that scene from IJ... well, that's okay.

AJD said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
AJD said...

Oh, tsk, tsk, Ann.

My post did not violate community standards, it did not use offensive language, nothing of the sort. It just pointed out something you don't like about yourself.

Can't handle the truth, eh Ann?

How revealing, in your own censored sort of way.

Ann Althouse said...

You used abusive language.

miklos rosza said...

"Spare me your made-up characters and fiction." So all literature is ruled out. No more Shakespeare, no Saul Bellow, no Ian McEwan, no Pat Barker, no Norman Rush or Salman Rushdie, no Marcel Proust or James Joyce, no Edith Wharton, no Thomas Mann or Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy or Chekhov or Flaubert.

Just--journalism.

That's one step over from all television being some version of MTV's "Real World."

And all films being "based on a true story." But then that takes us into the endlessly exciting realm of the biopic, or into the untold story of some flake who murdered a celebrity ("brush with greatness" with a vengeance" so to speak).

And in case you don't realize it, an awful lot of airbrushing and PR-consultant touching up goes on in these personal essays, even in such as "Prozac Nation." You're not actually getting the honest truth, or rarely, not even the surface-level truth.

Sure, some personal essays (or histories, or biographies) rise to the level of art. Great fiction goes much deeper as a rule. Perhaps through having access to the lyrical, poetic mode (which invokes something akin to music).

Ann Althouse said...

Mikos: I'm just not in the mood to read fiction these days. I concede the value of great fiction. Most of it isn't very good. Just a pleasant pastime for those who enjoy it. I occasionally read a novel. I've read "Crime and Punishment" and "The Great Gatsby" recently. Those were good.

Noumenon said...

mzn, thanks for the link. The original essay is still a great read, but I always want a contrary opinion to something that convinces me so well.

rafinlay said...

"Sub-thoracic." What does it say about me that I immediately wonder if that shouldn't be "infra-thoracic"?

rsb said...

wow - he was really special.