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This one particular boy’s goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.
March 1, 2011 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Backbone, by David Foster Wallace. (SLNYorker)
posted by HumanComplex (36 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
A couple of comparisons between this version (from The Pale King) and the earlier 2000 version read at Lannan by Howling Fantods & Lazenby. Hear Wallace read a version of the story back in 2000.
posted by mattbucher at 7:44 AM on March 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Man, The Pale King is going to be just harrowing, isn't it.
posted by pts at 8:26 AM on March 1, 2011


Damn, that was marvelous. I really wish he was still alive.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:33 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Man, The Pale King is going to be just harrowing, isn't it.

Yeah, I'm gonna read it, but I can't really say I'm looking forward to it. From what I've read so far, it won't be enjoyable at all for depressive types.

Fantastic links, mattbucher. Thanks. Mostly good edits, imo, though I prefer "age inappropriate" to "like nothing in this round world."
posted by mrgrimm at 10:02 AM on March 1, 2011


Sweet God I miss him.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:03 AM on March 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


I just wish I had been old enough to enjoy his writing while he was still alive.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 10:08 AM on March 1, 2011


I don't think he eliminated his map in spite of his understanding of "what it's like to be a fucking human being".
posted by phrontist at 10:20 AM on March 1, 2011


It's clear from the quality of the article that Wallace worked as hard at writing as his subject did at ... being supremely flexible. Could the impossibility of both pursuits explain Wallace's fate? Narcissus Ouroboros.
posted by Twang at 10:30 AM on March 1, 2011


Could the impossibility of both pursuits explain Wallace's fate?

Wallace suffered from chronic depression, an often fatal disease. He was on an extremely side-effect-heavy out-of-date antidepressant for much of his adult life, and under his doctors' advisement, attempted to switch to a better medication, which proved unhelpful. During the long process of attempting to switch back to his previous medication, he died. It's an extremely tragic but not entirely uncommon result of a grave illness. I find any speculation as to whether any particular frustration or disappointment extremely distasteful.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:38 AM on March 1, 2011 [19 favorites]


What was the out-of-date antidepressant? An MAOI?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:59 AM on March 1, 2011


Yeah. Nardil, specifically, which was developed in the late 50s. It has a lot of side-effects and is rarely prescribed for long periods of time, but Wallace was taking it for most of a period between the late 80s and 2007.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:05 PM on March 1, 2011


You can read more about Wallace and his illness in this long and terrifying New Yorker article.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:11 PM on March 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


"a green button-up sweater that looked as if it were made entirely of pollen."

That line made me smile.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 12:36 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wallace suffered from chronic depression, an often fatal disease. He was on an extremely side-effect-heavy out-of-date antidepressant for much of his adult life, and under his doctors' advisement, attempted to switch to a better medication, which proved unhelpful. During the long process of attempting to switch back to his previous medication, he died. It's an extremely tragic but not entirely uncommon result of a grave illness. I find any speculation as to whether any particular frustration or disappointment extremely distasteful.

I tend to agree with you, but I think 1) it's hard to know all the particulars of his particular case & condition and 2) this view characterizes depression as purely a chemical imbalance. If it were such, why would anyone agree to any sort of non-pharmacological counseling or treatment for depression? Does depression factor in any human emotions like frustration or profound disappointment? If it does, why is it not OK to speculate about what those frustrations might have been?
posted by mattbucher at 1:06 PM on March 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


There are many things I hate about DFW's anal and turgidly obsessive writing. Here's just one: the way he feels compelled to throw out words and then tell us what they mean - either directly or indirectly - like a smart-arsed little third-former who is just so sure he knows something you probably don't and simply can't wait to tell you.
posted by Decani at 1:07 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are many things I hate about DFW's anal and turgidly obsessive writing.

I'm sorry for you.
posted by aught at 1:14 PM on March 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


During the long process of attempting to switch back to his previous medication, he died. It's an extremely tragic but not entirely uncommon result of a grave illness.

When DFW treated depression and suicide (Good Old Neon, Kate Gompert) and, relatedly, alcoholism (half of IJ), he was, by my reading, portraying exactly this kind of medical view as impoverished and just totally non-palliative.

I've never read another fiction author who expresses so well what it's like to be an certain kind of first world person today. He spent a really exceptional amount of his time thinking about the really difficult problems of life, and I think understood our culture and individual angst unusually well, and then took his own life. I can't see that as an epiphenomena - I wonder if his understanding of our situation isn't precisely what undermined him.
posted by phrontist at 1:19 PM on March 1, 2011 [12 favorites]


epiphenomenon
posted by phrontist at 1:20 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I tend to agree with you, but I think 1) it's hard to know all the particulars of his particular case & condition and 2) this view characterizes depression as purely a chemical imbalance. If it were such, why would anyone agree to any sort of non-pharmacological counseling or treatment for depression? Does depression factor in any human emotions like frustration or profound disappointment? If it does, why is it not OK to speculate about what those frustrations might have been?

I think that your (1) answers your last question. I remember in the thread about Wallace's suicide, someone said something along the lines of 'McCain just had a big surge in the polls, maybe Wallace killed himself because he didn't want to live under McCain's presidency.' At some point speculation about motives for depressive suicide become reductive of the person who died. It seems little better than rumormongering and gossip, and threatens to turn the terrible realities of chronic depression, mental illness, and the sometimes-resultant death into a romantic sentiment or, worse, a talking point for one's given sociopolitical worldview. Wallace had an illness, one that is often fatal, and he died as a result of that illness. Like all illnesses, there were mitigating factors, complexities, nuances, hopes, fears, assurances, opportunities, and crushing blows. Guessing at whether some sensible-sounding thing caused Wallace to hang himself while his wife was at the grocery store seems, to me, callous and careless. YMMV.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:25 PM on March 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


If it were such, why would anyone agree to any sort of non-pharmacological counseling or treatment for depression?

Because when it is your head that is ill, you cannot trust your head to make good decisions on your/its behalf. You can't fix a tool using itself.

Which is not to say that I don't think that non-pharmological treatments can't be effective. They can. But you can't judge the suitability or efficacy of a given course of action on whether or not a depressed person thinks it's a good idea, or even in many cases on whether or not they think it's helping. Viz. suicide being an actual legally-mandated-to-list-on-the-packaging side effect of anti-depressant drugs.
posted by penduluum at 1:28 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are many things I hate about DFW's anal and turgidly obsessive writing. Here's just one: the way he feels compelled

Says the guy who comes into every.single.thread that has anything at all to do with DFW in order to tell us how much you don't like him. We get the point.
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:30 PM on March 1, 2011 [10 favorites]


P.S. If anyone is interested in reading a first-hand account of mental illness & its treatment, I highly recommend Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind. She is a professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins as well as a sufferer of bipolar disorder.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:33 PM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


the way he feels compelled to throw out words and then tell us what they mean - either directly or indirectly - like a smart-arsed little third-former who is just so sure he knows something you probably don't and simply can't wait to tell you.

Being approximately the most self-aware person possibly to have ever lived, he speaks somewhere about the possibility of being seen this way, and was very suspect of his own motives for being wildly pedantic. Can't find the link right now...
posted by phrontist at 1:41 PM on March 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


"I can't see that as an epiphenomena - I wonder if his understanding of our situation isn't precisely what undermined him."

I think about this a lot. Personally, my overriding emotional impression of Wallace's work has been of the grief in it -- what he once called "U.S. woe" in an interview -- too much of it for any one person to carry. I think the end of IJ set this impression in my mind, and subsequent events have sadly not dispelled it. But I do not know.
posted by FrauMaschine at 2:36 PM on March 1, 2011


Ugh, fucking cartoonbank.com.
posted by shadytrees at 4:18 PM on March 1, 2011


There are many things I hate about DFW's anal and turgidly obsessive writing. Here's just one: the way he feels compelled to throw out words and then tell us what they mean - either directly or indirectly - like a smart-arsed little third-former who is just so sure he knows something you probably don't and simply can't wait to tell you.

Okay, let's see if I can figure out what you're talking about here. The first instance of what could maybe be interpreted as this sort of thing shows up in the first sentence of paragraph three:

There is little to say about the original animus or “motive cause” of the boy’s desire to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.

Maybe you think this is Wallace telling us what animus means to show off his smarts. But animus brings to mind Jungian psychology and (from the Latin root) the notion of spirit, mind, soul. Motive cause, on the other hand, is straight out of Aristotle and suggests a very different and likely more materialist way of looking at the situation. It's appropriate to plant both of these ways of looking at things in the reader's mind at this point, especially given the rest of the story's take on questions of mind and body and religious practice. So there's a good reason to use both terms, and it has nothing to do with showing off.

And then there's the parenthetical in the following paragraph, which may also be the sort of thing you're referring to:

(The young boy thought, at that point, of the lateral malleolus as the funny knob thing on his ankle.)

But here again, there is another purpose for the sentence. It tells us a) that the boy is not a savant, not special in any way other than his obsession, and thinks of body parts the same way as other kid but also b) that as his obsession develops it will include the use of technical terms and a formal catalog of his body parts. Incidentally, this is also one of the first sentences that starts to give the reader an idea of the narrator as a distinct voice that does not always share the boy's point of view. So the sentence develops the plot and the voice, which again has nothing to do with being a know-it-all.

This is already getting long, and I just re-read the next several paragraphs looking for more examples of what you might be talking about and didn't find any, so I'll stop there. Not liking DFW's writing is fine.* But your certainty that you know DFW's motives for writing that way is both intellectually lazy and kind of a dick move.

*Ethically, I mean. I'll refrain from saying what I think it implies about your aesthetic sensibilities.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 6:00 PM on March 1, 2011 [14 favorites]


...who is just so sure he knows something you probably don't...

Well...
posted by reductiondesign at 6:08 PM on March 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


he feels compelled to throw out words and then tell us what they mean

I suspect you read only enough of the story to provide fodder for your attack, but if you had read to the end you would have seen that he in fact does not provide definitions for the various latin anatomical terms. I thought his reason for doing so was to draw attention to the kid's obsession with his own body and the ascetic nature of his task. Reminded me of Kafka, especially A Hunger Artist.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 6:22 AM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are many things I hate about DFW's anal and turgidly obsessive writing.

That is fascinating.
posted by IjonTichy at 8:39 AM on March 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's an extremely tragic but not entirely uncommon result of a grave illness. I find any speculation as to whether any particular frustration or disappointment extremely distasteful.

...

I've never read another fiction author who expresses so well what it's like to be an certain kind of first world person today. He spent a really exceptional amount of his time thinking about the really difficult problems of life, and I think understood our culture and individual angst unusually well, and then took his own life. I can't see that as an epiphenomena - I wonder if his understanding of our situation isn't precisely what undermined him.

I don't think this sort of speculation or consideration is tasteless at all. I'd call it insightful.

It's clear from the quality of the article that Wallace worked as hard at writing as his subject did at ... being supremely flexible. Could the impossibility of both pursuits explain Wallace's fate?

Perhaps not as insightful, but I don't really think it's distasteful either. We all want answers to impossible questions; none of us are sacred.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:17 AM on March 2, 2011


> the way he feels compelled to throw out words and then tell us what they mean

I got done with IJ a few weeks ago, and felt the same way. I found this interview with him, which sort of explains what he was up to (among many other things):
A certain amount of the form-conscious stuff I write is trying—with whatever success—to ... be uneasy. For instance, using a lot of flash-cuts between scenes so that some of the narrative arrangement has got to be done by the reader, or interrupting flow with digressions and interpolations that the reader has to do the work of connecting to each other and to the narrative. It’s nothing terribly sophisticated, and there has to be an accessible payoff for the reader if I don’t want the reader to throw the book at the wall. But if it works right, the reader has to fight "through" the meditated voice presenting the material to you. The complete suppression of a narrative consciousness, with its own agenda, is why TV is such a powerful selling tool.
Might not be an adequate reason, but at least it's not pure pretension. (He does admit in that article, though, to sometimes making it hard for the reader out of pure unconscious sadism.)
posted by Coventry at 10:03 AM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


"SLNYorker?" Really? Are you trying to be funny?
posted by MattMangels at 11:15 AM on March 2, 2011


Related: Rebekah Frumkin on the legacy of David Foster Wallace's fiction, a nicely written piece expressing how I generally feel about this sweet tennis and English fan who left too early.
posted by shadytrees at 11:35 PM on March 2, 2011


NB: all links past first Harper's link are PDFs.

Harper's Magazine has about ... 11 selections from DFW that it published through the years. My faves are The Depressed Person (love) and The Awakening of My Interest in Annular Fusion (which ends up in IJ, of course).

Something I never noticed. From the Memoir piece Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes:

"The only time I ever got caught in what might have been one was in June 1978 on a tennis court at Hessel Park in Champaign, where I was drilling one afternoon with Gil Antitoi."

:D

the way he feels compelled to throw out words and then tell us what they mean

And sometimes, the very opposite approach: Everything is Green (from the wonderfully sublime collection Girl With Curious Hair). Almost Carver-esque.

I re-read IJ last year; looks like it's time to get back into the earlier stories. IJ is a fantastic novel (Broom of the System is Not), but DFW's short stories fucking shine.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:28 AM on March 3, 2011


Related: Rebekah Frumkin on the legacy of David Foster Wallace's fiction, a nicely written piece expressing how I generally feel about this sweet tennis and English fan who left too early.

Thanks, shadytrees. This memoriam from Garth Hallberg says about what I would. Aside from the sadness about the writer as a person, the creative loss is crushing.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:31 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tried to get into this and failed. But I haven't given up on DFW yet. People really seem to like him (at least, around here). Maybe I'll find something of his that appeals to me.
posted by Eideteker at 3:38 PM on March 10, 2011


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