A collection of articles, essays, speeches, book reviews and other miscellanea by the singular David Foster Wallace. A book suffused with deep sadness and humour at the same time. Regarding any of his pieces that touch on politics, he was either prescient or writing about timeless truths. In any event, the work of an astonishingly sharp and interested mind.
This is the first collection of essays that I am publishing notes for, and for Wallace this collection is not one with a cohesive theme. It ranges from his memory of the morning of September 11th 2001 through to a review of dictionary of American usage through to his rather more gonzo experience of a porn awards ceremony. There's not necessarily many points of argument to be made in each, so notes on each essay will vary in content and value, and will mostly be quotes I've picked out. It is what is, and that's just fine.
In which DFW attends the 1997 Annual Adult Video News Awards.
Early on in this piece, Wallace mentions the ever-present spectre of suicide in the adult industry which has not changed to this day (see: The Last Days of August). It then remains, underneath and through the rest of the article - a reminder of how damaging an industry it can be to the people that work within it.
There's a stunning description of where the AAVNAs takes place - Caesars Palace: 'The granddaddy. As big as 20 Wal-Marts end to end. Real marble and fake marble, carpeting you can pass out on without contusion, 130,000 square feet of casino alone. Domed ceilings, clerestories, barrel vaults. In Caesars Palace is America conceived as a new kind of Rome: conqueror of its own people. An empire of Self. It's breathtaking.'
This is mind-bendingly brilliant/bizarre: 'It is difficult to describe how it feels to gaze at living human beings whom you've seen perform in hard-core porn. To shake the hand of a man whose precise erectile size, angle, and vasculature are known to you.'
DFW makes an interesting point about the apparent tension between the need of the porn industry to be acceptable enough in the mainstream, yet at the same time retaining it's edge of unacceptability that many find so appealing. As one gains ground, the other must also. He predicts that this will continue to play out on a loop, going further and further. (Has it?)
A description of one vertically challenged male star: '5'0" in low gravity and platform shoes.' Brutal.
'A loud-voiced civilian in the cabstand crowd actually utters the phrase 'Va Va Voom,' which yr. correspondents had never before heard anywhere outside a Sinatra movie.'
'Max Hardcore is under a stetson the color of weak chocolate milk.'
Summary: this is the first of the essays in this collection where I think I started to 'get' how he functions when writing short pieces like this (I read the book in a random order). DFW has a fractal mind - when he is invited to write about something he opens all of the doors he can and explores every room. His writing is like playing an RPG game to utter completion - finishing every side quest and completing every challenge while slowly working through the meat of the main storyline. Yet nothing he adds seems to be 'too much'. It doesn't ever feel like he has much of a point to make, he is just endlessly curious.
In which DFW tears John Updike a new one.
'The clunky bathos of this novel seems to have infected even the line-by-line prose...'
'...seem[s] less like John Updike than like somebody doing a mean parody of John Updike.'
Summary: note to self - don't bother ever reading any Updike, maybe.
In which DFW gives a brief speech about Kafka.
'Our present culture is, both developmentally and historically, adolescent. And since adolescence is acknowledged to be the single most stressful and frightening period of human development - the stage when the adulthood we claim to crave begins to present itself as a real narrowing system of responsibilities and limitations (taxes, death) and when we yearn inside for a return to the same childish oblivion we pretend to scorn - it's not difficult to see why we as a culture are so susceptible to art and entertainment whose primary function is escape.'
'The horrific struggle to establish a human self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. Our endless and impossible journey toward that home is in fact our home.'
Summary: a short interlude of a piece and not really an essay at all, but interesting nonetheless. Ends up being more of a commentary on modern America and the state of Higher Education.
In which DFW reviews an intensely dry 'Dictionary of American Usage', but does quite a bit more than that.
"Dilige et quod vis fac." (Love and do what you will.)
Language and how we use it is important. The first level on which we might understand is this is the level 'SNOOT' - the 'Syntax Nudnick Of Our Time' - the pedant who is primarily concerned with what is the 'right way' to use the English language.
The whole essay is primarily concerned with the debate between prescriptivism (the favoured mode of the modern SNOOT) and descriptivism. The former is concerned with following the rules and the latter is more concerned with reflecting and supporting the language as it is currently used.
'English itself changes over time; if it didn't, we'd all still be talking like Chaucer.'
The descriptivist edicts:
To which Wallace then argues back:
This takes us full circle, back to the beginning.
Meaning is inseparable from the act of interpretation. Interpretation is always biased to some degree. Therefore, any lexicon (language in power) will be a product of the bias and ideology of the lexicographer (system or individual in power).
Language depends on interpersonal rules that are based on community consensus. This language is, and always will be to some extent public, political and ideological in nature. Language can be used to reflect the current consensus or as an instrument to dictate what the consensus should change towards.
One footnote details Wallace's incredibly awkward inability to end conversations. He claims he once said to a visitor, 'I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore.' What a chill dude.
One of the most interesting elements to the P/D debate is dialect. A usage dictionary can froth at the mouth as much as it likes about what is right and wrong, but there are many instances where SWE (standard written English) is the incorrect dialect to use, e.g. when you are a school kid with your classmates in the playground. That'll get you beaten up. The same true is in adult life in all manner of other situations. Herein lies the danger of how we teach our kids - what we praise and what we punish.
Wallace also talks about how dialect and usage intersects with race, specifically with the trade-offs between SWE and SBE (Standard Black English) and how he deals with this topic with his students - specifically in relation to a speech he would occasionally give about how he was going to teach and grade them in SWE whether they liked it or not. This did not always work out well for him, given his aforementioned awkward candor ('I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore').
'The reviewer's own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them.' In a country that appears to be untable, still, to have any meaningful or productive conversations about race, Wallace was perhaps way ahead of his time. Maybe he still is.
There is an interesting dive into political correctness, i.e. PCE (politically correct English). He connects the openly liberal descriptivist camp as being the genesis point of PCE which has, ironically, become an intensely inflexible prescriptivist mode of usage - one backed by the threat of real world consequences e.g. firing, public shaming, possible conviction etc. It is in many respects a form of censorship that ironically plays into the hands of more traditionally conservative forces, allowing a decoy/diversion from any political change that would actually be helpful with relation to the matters that PCE is trying to address through prescriptive use in the first place. Instead, there's a quagmire of an argument about language and free speech, stalling progress and maintaining the status quo.
A final note heavily criticises the worst dialect of all - academic English. Less said about this the better.
Summary: DFW as quasi-Chomsky-meets-Jordan-Peterson. Possibly the most interesting and engaging piece of the whole collection, dealing with the prickliest of issues from the point of view of what initially appears to be a bone-dry topic.
In which DFW recounts his memory of the morning of September 11, 2001.
Most of us born before 1990 will have some recollection of where we were on 9/11. For Wallace this was in a calm suburb where everyone else was able to put out their American flags but he couldn't find one to buy - anywhere - and is driven to distraction by not being able to find one.
'Nobody walks by or stops their car and says, 'Hey, how come your house doesn't have a flag?,' but it gets easier and easier to imagine them thinking it.'
'Whatever the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America.' [Than the America of the middle-aged woman he was watching the news from.]
Summary: considers/tries to parse the emotional trauma of the morning of 9/11 from the point of view of the individual and how it differs. On the one hand, it's a portrait of small town America and isn't about 9/11 at all. Some of these neighbours of his have never even been to NYC, so who is being attacked? he asks. And yet they do feel attacked, without realising they are not necessarily the intended target. The trauma overflows.
In which DFW dismantles the trite autobiography of a former tennis star.
I've never much liked sport, least of all televised sport. Particularly dour are the abysmal interviews after games. DFW paints a good picture of one:
'The baritones in network blazers keep coming up after games, demanding of physical geniuses these recombinant strings of dead cliches, strings that after a while start to sound like a strange kind of lullaby, and which of course no network would solicit and broadcast again and again if there weren't a large and serious audience out there who find the banalities right and good.'
Summary: I can't tell whether this is more book review or literary criticism. It sort of manages to be both.
In which DFW joins the campaign trail of the 2000 GOP Presidential Candidate, John McCain.
'When McCain says [that he will always tell them the truth], the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They're cheering for the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain's résumé and candor, in other words, promise not empathy with voters' pain but relief from it.'
'There is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote.'
'Coffee like hot water with a brown crayon in it.'
'A real leader is someone who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.'
There is a significant difference between a salesperson and a leader, even though the person in sales would like you to think that they have the characteristics of leadership. Ultimately they are most interested in themselves and what they stand to gain. Young voters can smell this a mile off, and it sends Wallace wondering about whether or not McCain has any engineered intentions underneath the earnest character he embodies (or portrays...)
Summary: Wallace wrestles with this one. On the one hand, he does not vote for the republican party. But then again, this McCain figure paints a compelling figure of an anti-politician who appears incredibly trustworthy. But... then again, there is doubt... could it all be calculated?
In which DFW attends the annual Maine Lobster Festival.
It turns out that lobster used to be fed to prison inmates - a sort of 'cucina povera', cheap and rich and filled with protein but suffering from poor PR.
'Friend and stranger alike sit cheek by jowl, cracking and chewing and dribbling.'
DFW perfectly encapsulates the shame of tourism in one footnote; to be a tourist, 'you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.'
He points out the bizarre nature of the whole affair by recognising that there is no possible way of ever hoping to attend a 'beef festival'. 'There's no way.'
DFW identifies himself as a sort of guilty carnivore, troubled by what he has seen but would rather ignore:
'I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious self interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I haven't succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.'
Summary: this is essentially an article about veganism without being an article about veganism. It's a question I imagine many of us would rather not think about too hard, because it doesn't bear thinking about for too long.
Having, to my great chagrin, read little Dostoevsky this brief 20 page review of a book by Joseph Frank about Fyodor Mikhailovich could barely interest me, good as I'm sure it was. I opted to skip it completely, which irked me and impeded my ability to wear a 'Yes, I Read The Whole Book' badge, but it did save me spending a long time having everything go over my head. You win some, you lose some.
In which DFW embeds with a conservative talk show radio host at his station in LA.
This is perhaps one of the more challenging pieces by DFW because of the spaghetti morass of footnotes that strangle every page with boxes and arrows that point to one another on every page, going 2 or sometimes three levels deep and drawing you on a constant diversion from whatever the main path might be.
The subject matter is conservative talk show radio with unnerving parallels with the media of today and the continued popularity and now much more mature extremism of some of the more bombastic hosts at work today.
'As is SOP in political talk radio, the emotions most readily accessed are anger, outrage, indignation, fear, despair, disgust, contempt, and a certain kind of apocalyptic glee.'
At times DFW is nothing less than prescient about the direction in which things might be going, from his vantage point of the early aughts, about how these hosts were turning, slowly, with a great deal of spin, the 'news' into something that only reinforces bias but presents itself as being entirely without bias of its own. Which, of course, is entirely false.
One neat (and still correct, I believe) analysis of Wallace is that the success of conservative news/radio/(and now) websites relies on the 'univocal template' of American conservatism to view and respond to the world. Things appear much clearer in terms of right and wrong when you have a clear template to respond from. As opposed to the left, who in contrast seem to deal more often in gray areas and spectra of morality, wondering over the many potential responses that each situation might elicit. Although a complex and nuanced approach to politics can be valuable, it's far harder to communicate to a large number of people and have them 'get' it, much less identify with it en masse.
Wallace wrote this piece in 2004, four years before the American housing/mortgage crisis took place. There is a brief and interesting interlude about advertising where he mentions that most of the ads are for mortgage and home-refinancing companies. 'Where did all these firms come from? What were these guys doing five years ago? Why is KFI's [the radio station] audience seen as so especially ripe and ready for refi?'
Summary: DFW's analysis from 16 years ago would work just as well today. Rather than just being about a radio station or a talk show host, this piece concerns itself with the commercialisation of the news, of politics and of opinions themselves where little thought is given as to the effect that it might have on the public, the gentle balance of consensus or any possible negative effects of plebiscite polemics. Do you want people to listen to you and help you make money? Well then, tell 'em what they want to hear! Get angry about it. Push the boundaries. Bring them back hungrier than ever. What effects does this have long term? Who knows! Who cares!
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