Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library
April 5, 2011 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library
posted by AceRock (71 comments total) 79 users marked this as a favorite

 
If I didn't think that DFW was a genius, I'd think this was an incredibly silly exercise. But, instead, I'm fascinated. Go figure.
posted by papercake at 1:24 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Very interesting post. Thanks so much for finding this AceRock.

It can be argued, in fact, that getting rid of the whole idea of special gifts, of the exceptional, and of genius, is the most powerful current running through all of Wallace's work.

I would suggest that it is not the gift of genius, the exceptional that is harmful but the narcissism that accompanies it in the person who is perceived, or perceives him/herself as special. There is harm done in the abject adulation by others of specialness because of losing balance in also valuing what is ordinary.

Putting specialness up on a pedestal ends up demonizing or ridiculing the ordinary in life, which is basically the substantial fabric of existence. When specialness becomes an obsessive focus, regular life ends up feeling like an unnecessary inconvenience; it is the simple, ordinary things of life that make up a great part of joy and cherishing life as worth living.
posted by nickyskye at 1:26 PM on April 5, 2011 [30 favorites]


Not a duplicate, but we've discussed the Ransom Center Archive previously.

And I just got an email from Amazon that my copy of the Pale King has shipped, which makes me both excited and sad.
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:27 PM on April 5, 2011


One of the things I love about DFW (among many) is how unpretentious he was, as a person.

A gentleman and a scholar, and yet absolutely willing to acknowledge the merits of mass-market culture.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 1:27 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


[A few comments removed. Please do not insta-derail threads.]
posted by cortex at 1:28 PM on April 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


A gentleman and a scholar, and yet absolutely willing to acknowledge the merits of mass-market culture.
posted by Narrative Priorities


I was just about to say basically the same thing. I was always really impressed by his skill for recognizing value in all levels of culture.

It's kind of amazing to see a writer of his ability praise Tom Clancy, for instance.
posted by COBRA! at 1:30 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the post--an intriguing reflection on addiction, mental illness, intellect and simplicity. I found his novels intimidating, his essays outstanding and his life moving. A story of many wrapped in genius.
posted by rmhsinc at 1:30 PM on April 5, 2011


Thank you for this. DFW is my own personal onion. I can hold him in my hands and peel back another layer but then I have to put him away when my eyes start to burn. I am always struck by the groundedness he seemed to possess.
posted by pink candy floss at 1:32 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
Oh god, ten days. Ten days to go. I don't know if I'm ready for this. I don't think I am.
posted by pts at 1:34 PM on April 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Some bookstores have it now. We saw it out on tables at Book Culture in Manhattan this weekend (and 20% off).
posted by ocherdraco at 1:36 PM on April 5, 2011


Some bookstores have it now. We saw it out on tables at Book Culture in Manhattan this weekend (and 20% off).

My copy from Amazon showed up yesterday. It's out there, just not in ebook form it seems.
posted by eyeballkid at 1:39 PM on April 5, 2011


Some bookstores have it now. We saw it out on tables at Book Culture in Manhattan this weekend.

WHAT

F—

AUGH

STUBBED MY FUCKING TOE ON THE WAY OUT THE DOOR
posted by pts at 1:50 PM on April 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


I am glad I read this. Thanks.
posted by Xoebe at 1:54 PM on April 5, 2011


IT'S OUT! I JUST DISCOVERED POWELLS HAS 23 COPIES. I AM GOING NOW.

Also, nice article. A bit unfocused, perhaps, but really great to see DFW's notes and highlights in the Drama of the Gifted Child. Also:

That's just the thing about recognizing our common humanity, our common burden. We're suspended for a moment on this spinning blue pearl, here together and alive right now, conscious, though no one knows why. It is a question of caring. When one of us considers the experiences of another, all the failings and the achievements in someone else's life, we are seeing from this common place, knowing that it's all taking place in doubt and the absolute solitude and terror of being human, and knowing that it's all temporary. All those who are unsure of themselves and suspect themselves of the worst falseness and wrong, bad things are to be not only pitied but loved, identified with and known. Wallace taught that, and suffered for it, and in a way he died of it, too.

It's cheesy, but you like it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:57 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is great, thanks for posting.

OK, so anyone want to take Dave's quiz at the end of the article?

WIN A LUNCH WITH DAVE, SPARKLING CONVERSATIONALIST, WELL-MANNERED EATER, BY SIMPLY IDENTIFYING WHAT ALL THE FOLLOWING WORDS HAVE IN COMMON:

Foreign
Big
Diminutive
Incomprehensible
Untyped
Pulchritude
S-less
Unwritten
Indefinable
Misspelled
Vulgar
High-class
Invisible
Unvowelled
Obscene

posted by nevercalm at 2:06 PM on April 5, 2011


oh I'm glad someone posted this, as I'd used up my post already. Great article, plus it's from the Awl, run by metafilter's own Choire Sicha, etc...
posted by sweetkid at 2:11 PM on April 5, 2011


I'm reading the Pale King now, and had a big thing typed out about my experience of reading it versus my recent reading of Franzen's Freedom and how Wallace's writing operates in a mode I might describe as "Christlike" but I think I'm still a little too jumbled with the thoughts at present to say much intelligent, so I'm just gonna say for now that the book is kind of slowly breaking my heart a little.

Page 61:
"The girl often wished she had a cat or some small pet to feed and reassure as she stroked its head. The mother feared winged insects and carried cans of spray."
posted by Greg Nog at 2:11 PM on April 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


IT'S OUT! I JUST DISCOVERED POWELLS HAS 23 COPIES. I AM GOING NOW.
It's gorgeous out right now, and between rainshowers. I just got back to my desk from Powell's; they have one less now.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 2:11 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I got mine from Amazon on Friday. I read the first chapter (or "chapter") and have stopped, for the moment. I can't decide whether I'm savoring it or what. There's a whole last-of-the-summer-wine feeling around the whole enterprise that I recognize isn't going to, you know, get any better, but at the same time it's having an impact on my ability to just read the thing that I'm not crazy about.

I have mixed feelings about unfinished works in general (and the intro kind of didn't assuage my fears), same as I do about works in translation. I feel like I'm not connecting with the intent of the creator. I feel like I can tell. I haven't read enough of this one to know whether it's going to bother me significantly, but yeah. Feelings are mixed.
posted by penduluum at 2:32 PM on April 5, 2011


OK, so anyone want to take Dave's quiz at the end of the article?

I haven't read the article, but: they're all words about words.
posted by penduluum at 2:34 PM on April 5, 2011


They're all words of traits that are not true about the words themselves.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 2:39 PM on April 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


Invisible?
posted by P.o.B. at 2:43 PM on April 5, 2011


Right. The word invisible is not invisible.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 2:45 PM on April 5, 2011


That was more for penduluum, uc. But I think it would be an easy win if it was just a list of adjectives.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:49 PM on April 5, 2011


Only "pulchritude" isn't an adjective. I get where they're going — it's not exactly an elegant-sounding word — but it does break the pattern a bit.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:52 PM on April 5, 2011


Invisible

It also says "s-less"
posted by nevercalm at 2:54 PM on April 5, 2011


Apparently the acceptable answer is that they're words that are untrue of the words themselves (each describes a set while not being a member of that set). So that's the right answer. But for what I said, I don't think the one that makes it wrong is "invisible". Invisible can definitely be a word about words. Words can be invisible. I think the one that makes it wrong is pulchritude.
posted by penduluum at 2:58 PM on April 5, 2011


Paradox: You will not get back enthusiasm for X until it's not the most important thing. The key to '92 is that MMK was most important; IJ was just a means to her end (as it were.)

I guess by "MMK" he's referring to (fellow writer and former lover) Mary Karr, here? And that "IJ" stands for Infinite Jest. If I'm interpreting this correctly (and of course there's no way to be sure of that), I find it very interesting that he thought, at one point, that he'd lost his energy/enthusiasm for writing because he was too wholly focused on it. This is the problem with being a professional artist... deadlines and the commodification of what was once only one's private pleasure can wreak a very strange and unbalancing transformation on one's relationship to one's work. I know it's a problem many people would kill to have... but that doesn't make it any less real. I'm fascinated -- and also feel slightly voyeuristic -- as I read his fragmentary thoughts on the matter.
posted by artemisia at 2:59 PM on April 5, 2011


OK, so anyone want to take Dave's quiz at the end of the article?

They are self-defeating or self-contradictory at one level or another.

On preview: yeah, what they said.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:00 PM on April 5, 2011


And by they I mean ultraviolet catastrophe, who put it far more aptly.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:01 PM on April 5, 2011


Very thoughtful and well-researched piece of writing. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to go through all those scribbles and scrawls in the margins, trying to suss out what has meaning and what is "merely" whimsical. Thanks for sharing this.

(just got the call from my local bookstore that my copy of The Pale King is here! Can't wait to get started)
posted by antonymous at 3:29 PM on April 5, 2011


I can't help but imagine his (still living, loving) mother's pain at some of his margin notes on these self-help books.
posted by availablelight at 3:29 PM on April 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


They're all words of traits that are not true about the words themselves.

You might even say they are Heterological.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:38 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


BF 637 P76 F56 1989 DFW

The call number for DFW's copy of the Now Habit. I could see making a pilgrimage to Austin to see what his reverse calendaring technique looked like... or if he just didn't like it at all.
posted by nutate at 3:57 PM on April 5, 2011


Some bookstores have it now.

Yep, I got my copy from my local indie bookstore today.
posted by statolith at 3:59 PM on April 5, 2011


I don't even know what to say. I guess the sadness about some people's passing never stops.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:59 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


She needed me to do 'bad' things—lie, be cruel to Amy, etc.—that would anchor me, threaten her love. Why? Dad was too steady, dependable
....
Mom fostered this illusion


Becoming what narcissistically-deprived Mom wants you to be - performer


DFW comes home broken in '82- not a 'perfect family.' Mom's lie here breaks down.

I don't care about motherhood and am not a huge defender of mothers, but this pissed me off.

I feel bad for his mother. She was the one who had to deal with his mental illness, fly all over the country to collect him and help him, take care of him when he was old enough to take care of himself. I'm sure she could get a self help book on being the parent of a mentally ill adult and write some notes in there herself. Did he even ever see it that way? What a toll his mental health must have taken on her?

And Papa Foster Wallace is off the hook because he wasn't as engaged with the kids? Convenient. Or maybe that whole exercise was just a way of telling himself that DFW wish he himself had never existed.

But instead of looking meta, he indulges in blaming his mother. What a cliche. He fails to show the maturity most people do when they get to a certain age and they go, oh, wait, Mom and Dad are people too. Maybe not people we want to hang out with or talk to if they weren't related to us, but people, people like us, with flaws and ugly parts and a healthy dose of short-sightedness. Perhaps his mother was too attentive to his needs after he reached adulthood and took too much care of him. Maybe she should have said, "Well, your dad and I paid for college and we hope you figure out the rest. See you during the holidays, kid."

Then again, he was fighting mental illness, so...okay, mom's an easy target in his attempt to understand why he was as he was.
posted by anniecat at 5:00 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


he was fighting mental illness

You could've saved yourself aaaaalllllllllll that typing and just stopped right there.
posted by nevercalm at 5:06 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I preordered my Kindle version but I'm trying to decide whether or not to just buy the hard copy. So hard to wait!
posted by Dr. Zira at 5:22 PM on April 5, 2011


You don't even need to bring mental illness into it. I felt sick reading that article - what could be more intimate than someone's margin notes in a self-help book? I'm sure that any of us could, if we wanted to dive into our feelings about our family dynamics and why we are how we are, write things that are simultaneously true and cruelly unfair. It's unfair to call someone's private ruminations "indulgent".
posted by moxiedoll at 5:37 PM on April 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


(When I say I felt sick reading the article, I didn't mean that it shouldn't have been written or to cast aspersions on the author. I'm very grateful for her work).
posted by moxiedoll at 5:40 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Only "pulchritude" isn't an adjective.

Is "s-less"? What is that?

Invisible can definitely be a word about words.

Not trying to nitpick here penduluum, but what about "indefinable"? Also, being that most of them could not be about words I just thought it an odd answer for a pedant like DFW.

Anywho, great post. I'm going to go back to reading about qualia, quality and property.

... that is unless someone can tell me if "s" is a word and what happens after you attach a suffix.
posted by P.o.B. at 5:45 PM on April 5, 2011


I understand anniecat's argument, but I think it's important to leave no stone unturned if you're serious about coming to terms with deep-seated problems. It's not a cliche or a cop-out to question the circumstances and relationships that took root during your formative years - it's almost Psych 101. And saying, "Mom and Dad are people too" may be a display of maturity, but it can also be an admission of "I'm so fucked up I can't even try to find answers."

I won't pretend to know what the Wallace family was like, but I don't think that DFW would go about reading and highlighting self-help books if he weren't trying to put some pieces together. Someone who is curious about the world and the human condition would have a hard time accepting a whitewashed version of their childhood with all the loose ends tied up neatly, no? Some who suffer depression are unable or unwilling to tackle their problems - I actually feel better knowing how hard he tried.

While I really liked the article (although the voyeurism made me uncomfortable), there are many passages in self-help books that one could highlight that could be taken out of context, and there are also many reasons to highlight various passages in books.
posted by antonymous at 5:52 PM on April 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


Maria Bustillos comes across very poorly in this article.

"I felt a little guilty for prying, but on the other hand I was like, look, you write a book that is basically a paean to 12-step programs, people are going to ask you."

So people are going to ask him and therefore she's entitled to an answer? DFW should have shut up after his second reply (when she felt "So scolded!") instead of humoring her with a further answer. She's of the same cut as the paparazzi when it comes to respecting the personal boundaries of others.
posted by BigSky at 5:55 PM on April 5, 2011


I can't help but imagine his (still living, loving) mother's pain at some of his margin notes on these self-help books.
posted by availablelight at 3:29 PM

Then again, he was fighting mental illness, so...okay, mom's an easy target in his attempt to understand why he was as he was.
posted by anniecat at 5:00 PM


I agree with these very perceptive comments, but I also think that being angry with your mother, along with bug phobias and fear of heights, as well as a few others, occur so often in major depression they are practically eigenvectors of the matrix, and can't be blamed on DFW any more than we blame schizophrenics for their paranoia.
posted by jamjam at 5:57 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dammit, swore I wasn't going to get all weepy reading this article, but I just got to the part about his mom and the swifties and.... FAIL.
posted by Dr. Zira at 6:09 PM on April 5, 2011


Wow, way too eavesdropping-on-therapy for me. Wouldn't it be more respectful to let him rest in peace?
posted by Space Kitty at 7:22 PM on April 5, 2011


... that is unless someone can tell me if "s" is a word and what happens after you attach a suffix.

Yeah, "s" is a word. It's a noun. Some people spell it "ess," and maybe that makes it clearer what's going on: the English noun "ess" refers to the symbol S.

And you can do all the stuff to it you'd normally do to a noun — attach an article ("an ess looks like a backwards zee") or pluralize it ("the esses go after the tees") or, yeah, throw on a derivational suffix and get an adjective like "s-less."

I guess they coulda spelled it "essless," but then everyone would have figured they meant "assless" and hit the wrong key.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:33 PM on April 5, 2011


Any noun+less describes a set which doesn't include itself (i.e. "assless" contains "ass") but Foster Wallace really should've excluded "pulchritude" because not everyone thinks it's not a beatiful word (and really, just roll it around in your mouth, it's quite pretty). The other one that doesn't make sense is "high-class."
posted by Kattullus at 8:41 PM on April 5, 2011


I agree with these very perceptive comments, but I also think that being angry with your mother, along with bug phobias and fear of heights, as well as a few others, occur so often in major depression they are practically eigenvectors of the matrix, and can't be blamed on DFW any more than we blame schizophrenics for their paranoia.

Very true...I don't blame Wallace, but I'm very uncomfortable and saddened by the fact that these private reflections of his (while he was groping to make sense of a bone-crushing depressive illness) are in the public domain and also out there for his mother to read. I wouldn't necessarily want what are essentially (self) therapy notes divulged to loved ones post mortem, without context or buffering.
posted by availablelight at 9:09 PM on April 5, 2011


I'm very uncomfortable and saddened by the fact that these private reflections of his (while he was groping to make sense of a bone-crushing depressive illness) are in the public domain and also out there for his mother to read.

Just curious: would you feel differently if his mother put them there or approved of their presence in the archive?

Also, would you feel the same about Sylvia Plath's notes or Hemingway's marginalia? Is it too soon?
posted by mattbucher at 9:29 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


1) Yes, I would feel differently
2) You're right, there is a "too soon" sense here that's driving my discomfort with this level of intimate disclosure, especially since Wallace was a suicide who may not have imagined the extent to which his notes on John Bradshaw books (for christ's sakes) might end up online....I suppose I am imagining his family's grief must still feel so fresh and private.
posted by availablelight at 10:06 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


A GREAT post. Thank you!
posted by littlemanclan at 11:44 PM on April 5, 2011


The other one that doesn't make sense is "high-class."

It makes sense if you think about the kind of person, company, or place that might describe itself that way. "posh" would work that way in England.
posted by atrazine at 11:46 PM on April 5, 2011


I knew that i was really quite far gone this year when i was at the book store cash with a copy of a cbt work book and ariel. i wonder if desperation occurs, and anything, could be thought to be helpful.

ase
posted by PinkMoose at 12:40 AM on April 6, 2011


anniecat: "I don't care about motherhood and am not a huge defender of mothers, but this pissed me off."

His mom doesn't need anybody to "defend" her. You didn't read it, or else you'd know that.
posted by autoclavicle at 5:13 AM on April 6, 2011


While I also feel a bit of the "too soon" feeling, I also think that in some ways . . this is hard to articulate . . In some ways his fans, many of us, *identify* with him so strongly because many of us recognize his struggles as our own. If his death is not going to be totally pointless, perhaps these kinds of studies and excerpts will help someone else. I don't know. I just feel like, knowing he felt the way he did about his intelligence - that it separated him from not only himself but other people - I know that feeling. And I'm not saying I'm some kind of genius, I'm probably just averagely-above-average-smart, but I know that feeling, and I know what it is to be alone in a room full of people. And intellectually you know you "should" be able to overcome that stuff because it's just your mind playing tricks on you, and you're smart, you should MASTER YOUR OWN MIND, but it's just not always possible.

If DFW battled with his mind the same way I do, the same way so many of us do, knowing that makes me feel less alone in that crowded room. Perversely it gives me hope. Which is why I've been drawn to him, and specifically drawn to the things he writes about being aware of other people, particularly some of the stuff in "This is Water:"

I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

So I hope this marginalia holds some meaning for someone besides inspiring tears, because if his public writing was so powerful for some of us, who knows?
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:44 AM on April 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


Thanks for this, AceRock. Like others, I feel a bit queasy reading this incredibly intimate stuff. But DFW was about as self-aware as a person can be, and he surely knew that unless he gave instructions to the contrary his papers and books and such would be pored over by researchers thus seen by the public, and that the lack of a directive to limit access or (horrors!) destroy the stuff amounts to tacit approval of endeavors like the linked piece. Who knows, maybe opening himself in this wrenching way is part of the sad project of humbling himself; he derided himself as a constructed persona and felt terrible guilt about his desparate need to control how others perceived him. Now he has relinquished control entirely, giving wholly to us what shards of himself remain.
posted by generalist at 8:52 AM on April 6, 2011


another nice write-up of the archives can be found here: http://thisrecording.com/today/2011/4/4/in-which-we-explore-the-archives-of-david-foster-wallace.html
posted by butterteeth at 9:33 AM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


That was better than I expected.
posted by dglynn at 9:36 AM on April 6, 2011


I found this both fascinating, and voyeuristic.

DFW, like Don DeLillo, always feels eerily prescient to me. I know this will sound crazy, but this piece makes me wonder if he knew that this stuff would reach the world. While I'll wager that some of it will be painful to his family, it is powerful, and humanizing to both reader and writer. Not to say that I think he's posthumously manipulating the message, but if his persona was really as constructed/artificial as he's suggested, there still may be some stagecraft left in place.

Or maybe I just don't believe that anybody will ever write without thinking, somewhere deep down, that they'll have an audience. Even Kafka. Who sometimes seems like one of Foster-Wallace's most evident precursors.

I, and many people that I know, are both revolted and fascinated with much of the modern "self-help" movement. What we see here seems fallacious, in that it is still much more "self" than "help". That overweening "selfness" is evident, and terrified, and humane, all the traits that drew out the most powerful conclusions in his more willingly disseminated works. The terrified part is what always moves me the most with his stuff, and here we're seeing more reasons why. The "help" in "self-help" is almost always about denying that terror, and here that might be the right thing to do. Which feels almost shameful to admit, because people admitting their own terror communicate better than almost anyone.

I don't know. The library that sailed a thousand theses.
posted by Arquimedez Pozo at 10:51 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I picked up my copy of The Pale King last night, and started reading immediately. Like Medieval Maven, I felt a connection with Wallace and his work that extended beyond the fiction. The therapy and probing I had done related to my own "depression" was similar to his, down to reading "The Drama of the Gifted Child." When I read his work I felt less alone, and it was easier to believe that my isolation was self-imposed, that the human condition is a struggle to communicate and share the rich interior worlds that all of us have. When I began reading Infinite Jest I had just entered the world of 12-step meetings and was struggling at a relatively young age with my own addictions and demons. The kindness and accuracy with which he portrays Ennet House amazed me.

Reading his work now is so bittersweet. I'm grateful that his work is there, and I can connect with it. Yet I feel a great loss that he succumbed to his disease. I don't begrudge anyone the right to end their life when it becomes too unbearable. When I heard of his death I was devastated because through his writing I felt as though he got "it" the absurd tragic beauty of this life, and if he couldn't survive it seemed there was little hope for the rest of us. I have never been affected by the death of someone I didn't know as much as his death. I'm grateful to everyone else who loves, appreciates and reads his work, it gives me hope.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 12:14 PM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was talking with the wife before about how I'm almost nervous to get my copy. But perhaps nervous isn't the right word. This is going to be very bittersweet, as it's the last new David Foster Wallace novel I'll ever buy. It used to be an event. And now......
posted by nevercalm at 5:25 PM on April 6, 2011


There were times reading this article when I had a very visceral sense that I was (courtesy of DFW's observations and notes and writing) closing in on some significant key in understanding my own experience of depression and desperation.

And then I remembered that this guy ended up killing himself, and I had to rethink that.

Still, the idea that someone sees themselves (and their problems) as so special that they're outside the reach of "ordinary" help (which, I'm beginning to believe, is really all the help there is) was powerful for me.
posted by Work to Live at 10:51 AM on April 7, 2011


(apologies; this got long)

You know, the thing that I wonder about David Foster Wallace is how he'll end up being looked at in 20, or 30, or 50, or 100 years time. Look back at the list of the people who have won the Booker prize since its inception. Plenty of still-recognisable names there – your Rushdies and McEwans. But also plenty of names and novels that have vanished from the cultural miasma: authors and their books who, in some cases, are now out of print. Go back further than the Booker and look at the earlier years of the Pulitzer prize: how many of the authors who were Pulitzer winners 80 or 100 years ago are still known names these days, let alone relevant literary culture touchstones who are constantly cited by their literary descendants?

Wallace's reputation has been some 30-odd years in the making, and it's not undeserved – he's one of the most perceptive, and human, writers of the past couple of decades, something which is all the more impressive when it can be (when it has been) combined with his ability to engage in the flights of intertextual literary conjuring which both fascinated and annoyed him. He loved the intellectual gameplay of those flights; that was what charmed him about them. At the same time, he (increasingly, I think, though it was something he was writing about in depth as far back as the essay E Unibus Pluram, in 1993 or thereabouts) became dismayed that those flights obscured everything else in the sky, like a series of jet engine vapour trails so dense that they blocked out the clear blue simplicity above them, which it seemed, in some ways, was what he as a writer (and a person) was striving for. But then I wonder: was that clear blue sky he appeared to be lusting after a sign that he'd like things to regress to a time before flight? And is that same simplicity – that stripped bare quality – that Wallace lauded in direct and not-so-direct ways (witness the Kenyon commencement speech, or any of the long passages of Infinite Jest in which he takes a scalpel to the 12 steps of AA and ultimately concludes that these simple, supposed banalities are ultimately much deeper than their surface wisdom, and to boot difficult for many to stick to because of their supposed banality) going to be what does him in, literary reputation-wise?

I don't mean necessarily that the underlying message that everyone should or ought to take away from his writing – no matter how tricksy and florid it may be at any given point – is that the adherence to and acceptance of emotional reality* should trump considerations about everything else – stylistic flair, cynicism, humour, arch references to pomo literary theory, what have you. More that, as time passes, it may end up becoming the underlying message. Might Wallace end up being – to the literary critics, to the studious young, to the kind of pop culture irony merchants he so disliked – the 2050 equivalent of how we, in 2011, view Edward de Bono, or Pablo Neruda, or Gurdjieff? People who were, when their writings were contemporary, viewed as deep and meaningful and above the chatter of their day's pop culture vacuity (but who nevertheless were part of that chatter and willing to be so), but who, from the perspective of 30 or 50 or 100 years hence, become synecdoches for a given time's embrace of a particular literary and psychological mindset, temperament and worldview? And as a result seem not so much hidebound, but rather exemplary figures whom we now treat with something between derision and condescension?

Given Wallace's diverse writings, given the easy lessons one can cherrypick from within them, and given culture's generally laser-guided ability to blast away the complexities and dichotomies of a body of work in order to leave a good-looking, coherent and ideological corpse, isn't it possible that David Foster Wallace might be the go-to self-help author of 2060? Imagine the books you could flog at bookshop and supermarket checkouts, each one a series of wisdom-nuggets from his writing: The Little Book of Infinite Jest – 12 Ways Your Inner Self Can Avoid The Howling Fantods; The Broom Of Your System: How To Sweep Away Negative Influence From Your Life; Brief Interviews With Happy Men: How Therapy Can Help You Overcome Your Fear Of Diving (Into The Pool Of Life).

It's not outwith the realms of possibility, I think. Particularly since he's dead, and isn't going to be chiming in anytime soon on how his legacy is being shaped by others. Indeed, it's, in some ways, already happening: look at the attention to his archives, now that they've been opened to the public. Any writer – any person whose life's work is the production of cultural artifacts, be they Wallace, Kurt Cobain or Mark Rothko – who kills him or herself is going to have his or her work scrutinised for signs, telltale clues, hints, reasons, justifications, or explanations why they decided to eliminate their own map, as it were. And there's some deeply uncomfortable stuff in the archives, particularly when it comes to Wallace's relationship with his own mother (the notes in the margins of those self-help books were pretty bleak reading, when you put yourself in her shoes); as that kind of stuff ends up being more widely analysed and disseminated – and it will be – the writing which he will produce no more of will necessarily diminish in cultural import, even when it still remains important in its own right. The intentional fallacy will grow like a glowing tumour, assimilating everything that it touches, as it has done with Ian Curtis or Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath. And as it grows, it's his work itself that will suffer: it runs the risk of ending up being digested into a series of soundbites, aphorisms, and quotable phrases, rather than continuing to be the rich, multifarious thing that it is for people aware of it in a context which doesn't involve him hanging from the rafters of his garage because he couldn't deal with what it meant to be human any more, even though (or especially because) being human was the thing that he most aspired to, but decided that he couldn't stomach.




*If you'll pardon the quasi-therapy-speak for a second; all I mean by "emotional reality" is the feeling Wallace was trying to get at when writing about the overwhelming influence of irony on pop culture: that it's somehow uncool to have actual feelings about stuff, when what pop culture tells you to have – demands that you have – is detached, snarkish perspective; which isn't actual perspective, but in fact a carefully deployed stance you assume in order to mask how terribly uncomfortable you are with real, actual feeling and emotion.
posted by Len at 3:52 AM on April 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


-Sad Genius: There's some evidence that the moderately depressed are less self-deceived
-How to Be Happy: The Ethics of David Foster Wallace
posted by kliuless at 6:00 AM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I felt sick reading that article - what could be more intimate than someone's margin notes in a self-help book?

Honestly, this is one of the big reasons why I never want to be famous. I can't imagine someone publishing all that shit I wrote in the margins. How embarrassing!

Reading The Pale King now. It looks like it's going to be a tough one. My two main concerns with the book are: 1) all the fucking fragments--what's up with that? has he ever used sentence fragments so much before?; 2) the first chapter. I'm pretty sure DFW would not have started his novel with that plane scene. I dunno. (the introduction indicates that the book later makes it clear how it should start, but I still dunno yet.)

As someone else above said, the introduction was troubling. I am still troubled. I haven't read anything online about the book, so I'm SURE there must be a kerfluffle over the editing (how couldn't there be).
posted by mrgrimm at 12:02 PM on April 18, 2011


About halfway through now, reading the second chapter written by "David Foster Wallace", and I'm hella amused by his self-portrayal as an uptight perseceuted fussbudget.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:18 PM on April 18, 2011


Yeah, I'm a bit behind you. The self-portrayal stuff is great. I smiled for the first time when I read "the book you (I hope) bought" but I wish he had followed it with "and are now (I hope) enjoying." ^_^

TPK feels really off-kilter and rough (e.g. why does the foreword say it starts on page 79 or whatever when it starts at 68?) but maybe it's supposed to.

I'm glad I stopped reading The Awl article about 30% in. Yay for Formalism. I'm not sure I would have liked IJ so much if I knew that Avril was really Ms. Foster, and Orin, Hal, and Mario, are all DFW.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:35 AM on April 19, 2011


TPK feels really off-kilter and rough (e.g. why does the foreword say it starts on page 79 or whatever when it starts at 68?) but maybe it's supposed to.

Presumably DFW didn't know how long the book was going to be when he wrote the forward, so he put "79" as placeholder text and the editor never fixed it. I don't know, it puzzled me at first but that makes the most sense to me.

I'm actually surprised at how coherent most of it feels. I'm with you on the first chapter though. Can't see how it fits in yet.
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:15 PM on April 19, 2011


Phew. Just under the wire. I finished TPK a few days ago on the toilet, which seemed appropriate for some reason.

This book really shouldn't have been published in this form, imo. To call it "unfinished" is a huge understatement. They should have thrown in the other 2,500 pages on a CD or something.

I don't have the book with me now, but to bring this thread full circle, I did chuckle during the part when DFW talks about the insipid self-help book he is reading (and annotating) during intake day. His fantasy is to mail the book, replete with withering comments in the margins, back to the relative who gave it to him with a saccharine sweet thank-you note, which only becomes apparent as sarcasm when the said relative opens the book and reads the critical annotations. But then he dismisses the thought as a pipe dream.

The whole book was a fucking pipe dream. There are enormous and wonderful possibilities presented, but it's ~529 pages of backstory. Nothing much happens, except character sketches.

I would have loved to see coherent fictionalization of the IRS's transition from moral vanguard to profit-seeking enterprise. I would have really loved to see Fogle, Drinion et al. battle Lehrl's A/NANDA system (or whatever it was called), but really, aside from Glendenning (?) getting dosed with tea at a picnic, and David Foster Wallace getting confused in a bureaucratic snafu, nothing much happens at all.

They should have just kept publishing the sections as separate pieces.

I did love the conversation with Drinion and Rand, particularly the end when she wraps it up. "So he didn't die?" "Needless to say ..." - I thought it was a very sharp, critical reference to the ending of Infinite Jest and some readers' problems with it. I have a feeling he was very defensive about that.

Anyway, now I can go read about it. The AV Club hits it concisely for me.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:24 AM on May 5, 2011


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