The David Foster Wallace disease
December 21, 2016 7:07 PM   Subscribe

He had the brain that ate itself | Wallace was depressed, and so his terribly powerful intelligence was, in fact, his terrible master.

"... I found Infinite Jest, probably through Googling something like 'book smart intellectual post-modern...' This is when I caught a kind of mental disease— call it Wallacitis: the immediate desire to make one’s work as Wallace-like as possible. This, like the simple envy of his stature, was also not a rare obsession. Later on, in university, I met a lot of classmates who suffered similarly. We were all hungry for a chunk of whatever secret mineral powered Wallace’s brain. We wanted some of that neural gasoline which lit up even the man’s minor work."
posted by I_Love_Bananas (74 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
I love bananas, too.
posted by rp at 7:17 PM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


So, I guess I should learn something about this David Foster Wallace phenomenon. Everybody says he's awesome. What should I start with? How much should I read before seeing the Jason Segal movie?
posted by BentFranklin at 7:20 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I hate this essay. It combines amateur pop-psychoanalysis with hero worship. The result is a series of questionable conclusions about the causes and difficulties DFW had in treating his Illness.
posted by humanfont at 7:24 PM on December 21, 2016 [34 favorites]


(I don't want that to sound dismissive-- just the opposite). It's that you just posted this at a point where my own history and experience vis a vis DFW and my own life just sort of converged on what's expressed here, and I guess it's just a bookmark in my own apparently-not-aloneness and even that sounds ridiculous.
posted by rp at 7:26 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


I remember my first beerlongform.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:26 PM on December 21, 2016


I am not into DFW by any means (I could not get into his stuff, it was too impenetrable for me), but I thought there were some beautiful descriptions of depression in this piece. Thanks for sharing.
posted by sockermom at 7:28 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


All of this is to say that sadness doesn’t possess the real teeth of depression. The symptom that distinguishes depression from any other state is something I would call terminal fragility, although it’s defined in a less hand-wavey way by the DSM as “guilt/worthlessness.” It’s the feeling that the world’s fundamental malignancy begins with oneself. It represents a categorical change in the way you perceive negative outcomes. You see pain as appropriate punishment, instead of occasional inconvenience. You see yourself as a burden—a net loss for humanity—somehow less worthy of life. Instead of thinking, “that shitty day happened to me,” you think, “as is consistent with my deservedly shitty life, that shitty day occurred, the pain of which is unmitigated by its predictability.”

. . .

You get worried that all your cerebral power is just a flashy procession of empty words hiding an essentially sick centre.

Wallace was a smart guy who often used his smarts to think about how terribly dumb being smart was. The engine of his intelligence was turned painfully inwards. He had the brain that ate itself.
I'm not much one for DFW, but these resonate.
posted by schroedinger at 7:37 PM on December 21, 2016 [52 favorites]


Just imagine an alternate reality where 'Infinite Jest' was published as two separate novels: 'Sci-Fi Tennis Academy'; and 'Rehab Story'... ?
posted by ovvl at 7:41 PM on December 21, 2016 [13 favorites]


METAFILTER: It combines amateur pop-psychoanalysis with hero worship.
posted by philip-random at 7:45 PM on December 21, 2016 [36 favorites]


Any tendencies I had to "wallacitis" were allayed by one of my first college instructors, the fellow who taught technical writing during summer session when I was between my junior and senior years in high school. "You are not writing to impress your audience," he said, "you are writing to convey information. You are not doing that if your audience can't understand you."

I took that to heart and found it a major failing of DFW when I was introduced to him; he was very much trying to impress me and failing since I saw what he was doing, and I saw that it wasn't necessary in the service of telling fictional stories.

There is occasional beauty in the carefully constructed convoluted sentence full of long words, but there is never beauty in twelve hundred pages of them. Or maybe I'm wrong about that; obviously enough people like Infinite Jest to keep it in publication. But it's a very hostile and worse elitist style. I have been known to write hostile stories myself, but at least I didn't craft them to congratulate myself on my own superlative IQ.
posted by Bringer Tom at 8:26 PM on December 21, 2016 [24 favorites]


I have read essentially everything that DFW wrote and I never got a sense of elitism or showiness. His writing tended to be both those things but in a self-conscious way. I'm not sure that makes any sense. I guess the way I read his particular style of writing is as someone who is intensely aware of his own motivations and feels suspicious of them. His insight was such that he could second-guess and third-guess and hundredth-guess what he was doing and saying as well as what everyone else was doing and saying. One of the themes of his work was the idea that people like to be nice to other people in general. This is a nice thing to note on the surface but, when considered more deeply, it makes one wonder if people are nice because they want to be nice or if they are nice because it makes them feel nice to view themselves as the kind of people who are nice. That thought process, applied to the self, can make the world feel very lonely. As a result, I always read his stylistic quirks as a sort of attempt at humor and playing with the reader rather than an attempt to dazzle or prove superiority. Maybe that was just my experience.
posted by MasterShake at 8:57 PM on December 21, 2016 [37 favorites]


Technical writing is not literature.
posted by Panthalassa at 8:58 PM on December 21, 2016 [32 favorites]


I was a fan, off and on throughout his career. I was puzzled by his lack of thematic consistency, although this improved.

I mean, he wrote killer humor pieces, and also 'Incarnations of Burned Children', one of my least favorite stories in English. (SPOILER: KITCHEN SAFETY IS JOB #1)
posted by mrdaneri at 9:02 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


What should I start with?

While I, like many, many other people put down Infinite Read after about 200 pages or so, I still remember reading this in Harper's back in the day, and being blown away by it:

THE AWAKENING OF MY INTEREST IN ANNULAR SYSTEMS
posted by My Dad at 9:21 PM on December 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Is it me or does DFW's prose lack musicality? This is the saving grace of obscure works like Ulysses and Moby Dick for me. You may not understand everything that's going on, but it sounds so sweet when read aloud.
posted by storybored at 10:00 PM on December 21, 2016 [7 favorites]


What should I start with?

I was only vaguely aware of DFW before I read String Theory in 1996. Fell in love with his writing and have since read about everything he's written. Just last week I re-read 9/11: The view from the Midwest, which is about being in Bloomington, IL (my home for ~15 years) on that fateful day. As it happens, I grew up about 30 miles from his hometown, so some of his work about growing up in C-U resonates with me, too, although he was born ~8 years after me.

I believe the only thing he published that I haven't read is Infinite Jest. I've been reluctant to read it simply because once I do, I won't have any more new David Foster Wallace to look forward to, which will be too much like another death.
posted by she's not there at 10:15 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think if you lack a real, fundamental belief that you are a disappointing disaster that also needs to try occasionally to work out that misery on paper because fear of death is still real and you are not already dead, or maybe you feel obligated to the single job you are still desperately trying to do despite just wanting to die, but being too ashamed to die because you need to get caught up on your work and help you students first because you can't just fail them completely, even though you know you are going to...he can sound like a real tool.

Yep-he can sound like a tool if you aren't as fucking ruined as he was. Finally, he doesn't care. He did his best- believe that. He sounds about right to me, sadly. Being ruined means we just keep going til we get the nerve (or energy, ugh) to stop. And we are pissed about everything because our brains, smart enough, sure, are fundamentally broken.

He just happened to be funny and insightful. He hits a nerve "living" people either love or hate, but the rest of the living dead just....yep. He's a mess. He's comforting, I guess?
posted by metasav at 10:15 PM on December 21, 2016 [15 favorites]


I took that to heart and found it a major failing of DFW when I was introduced to him; he was very much trying to impress me and failing since I saw what he was doing, and I saw that it wasn't necessary in the service of telling fictional stories.

Oh shit! The dedication in Infinite Jest -- "To Bringer Tom, from online" -- I never put two and two together there until now! Damn
posted by invitapriore at 10:37 PM on December 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Well, in defense of what Bringer Tom wrote, I know what that is. Because, when I was going through my fiction-writing days in undergrad, I was a huge Nabokov fangirl and I needed to make sure everyone in my workshop was aware of the fact that I'd read more widely and more sophisticatedly than they had. My work was super-obnoxious. And it wasn't fun to read, especially if you were one of the handful of older writers (22-year-old seniors) in class who I was specifically trying to impress. So I get that.

But I also really love DFW, because I have depression etc etc and I appreciate his way of self-deprecating (all the sentences that begin with "But so and") while truly knocking my socks off with high-grade prose.
posted by witchen at 10:45 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


obviously enough people like Infinite Jest to keep it in publication. But it's a very hostile and worse elitist style.

As others have noted, DFW's style is neither hostile nor elitist for many; and is instead suited to those who enjoy extended empathetic expositions on ennui.

Infinite Jest is not a manual.
But imagine if it was...
posted by Thella at 11:15 PM on December 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


What should I start with?

Up, Simba and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again are wonderful entry points. Originally published in Rolling Stone as "The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub," Up, Simba is his account of following John McCain's campaign in 2000. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again originally appeared as "Shipping Out" in Harper's, which apparently sent him on a cruise and got a great deal more verbiage than they bargained for. Both are compulsively readable.

I know a lot of readers find him willfully abstruse (and he has sent me on eye-rolling trips through the dictionary), but DFW's primary appeal for me is emotional. He writes lucidly and unsparingly about being depressed and anxious and prone to chronic overthinking, and reading him was a relief, like hearing a friend describe emotional terrain that mirrored my own. To me he seems really interested in the human condition and the nature of suffering and how to mitigate suffering (both your own and others'), in just how to live. It's almost like he couldn't help the virtuosity -- he had something like the literary equivalent of perfect pitch whether he wanted to or not -- but he was always striving for humanity. Put another way, lots of writers live and do and then find the words to describe their living and doing, but DFW had all the words and was trying to find a workable mode of living and doing. His prose is beautifully constructed, yes, but it's also beautiful, because so much of it captures the anxiety and uncertainty and contradictions of the human condition.

I have no academic chops to back up these assertions. I just love his work.

One final recommendation: his commencement address to Kenyon College. It's an accessible and vital reminder about how our frame of mind can determine how we experience life. Some of the best parts are excerpted at Brain Pickings if you don't feel like listening to the whole thing.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 11:18 PM on December 21, 2016 [18 favorites]


...enjoy extended empathetic expositions on ennui.
are you being funny?
posted by Puddle at 11:29 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


This essay of DFW's on his time on a cruise ship is classic and brilliant.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:47 PM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Oh shit! The dedication in Infinite Jest -- "To Bringer Tom, from online" -- I never put two and two together there until now! Damn
Well that was just mean.

I've always been amused by the self-centredness of depression.
Which in my experience instead of nudging one to get over oneself usually makes you think "not only am I a worthless piece of shit but I'm fucking selfish too!"

It also means discussing DFW on the Internet is about as fruitful as discussing intersectionality on XBox Live.
posted by fullerine at 12:30 AM on December 22, 2016 [9 favorites]


I recently saw a recommendation, possibly at Making Light, to start with a Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I tried it and found it hideous. I also tried the cruise ship story and wasn't sufficiently engaged to finish it.
posted by Bruce H. at 1:18 AM on December 22, 2016


Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story "Eveline" is this one: "She was tired." At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

--Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (from How to Write with Style)
posted by lazycomputerkids at 1:49 AM on December 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


The plight of writers eager to mimic DFW reminds me of the "Murakami children" in Japan, who loosely model their prose and plots after Haruki Murakami. (Of course, the Murakami Children label is often mistakenly applied to genuinely original and non-Murakami-like writers by critics.)

Is it possible that novelists who, like the author of this piece, are fixated "on stealing the Wallace style, even when [they know] the effort was entirely futile" come into being because of the lack of schools of writing that they can latch onto and use as a basis for developing their individuality? Could their existence be due to the fact that we no longer have "movements," such as proletarian literature or surrealism or the nouveau roman, that offer a prefab structure to writers, causing novelists to feel an inordinate degree of pressure to compete with and exceed the originality of writers like David Foster Wallace?
posted by Gordion Knott at 4:52 AM on December 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


There's a passage in Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (a book I maybe understood 50% of) where DFW talks about not being able to get out of bed because he's worried about how the floor may not support him that both comforted and terrified me, as I have many anxieties myself.

I did not like the ending of Infinite Jest the first time I read it (I readily admit I didn't get it; I loved the rest), but the second time, oh. It's about time for me to read it again.

The only thing of his I didn't like altogether was "The Girl with the Curious Hair".

He is not my favorite author (the above-mentioned Murakami is), but reading DFW makes me feel like my soul is unraveling. It's a very strange feeling, but a good one, mostly.
posted by minsies at 5:16 AM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


does DFW's prose lack musicality?

He could turn a phrase with the best of them; there are some extremely lyrical bits in the earlier short stories and I.J. There's a tendency toward avoiding obvious consonance in some of his essays, but I've always assumed was the neurotic author trying to dodge cliched phrasing.

Is it possible that novelists who . . . are fixated "on stealing the Wallace style, even when [they know] the effort was entirely futile" come into being because of the lack of schools of writing that they can latch onto and use as a basis for developing their individuality?

a. Haven't novelists been doing this since the early twentieth century? A lot of movements and schools are described after the fact, right? Faulkner inspired similar generations of imitators, and he's also easy to either cram into a 'school' or treat as a unicorn.

b. I guess it depends on what you count as a school, but Wallace and Murakami were both influenced by Raymond Carver and some of the other Iowa Workshop writers, and there's some Gaddis/(Donald) Barthelme/David Markson in there somewhere too.

"Broom of the System" and early short stories DFW fits for me in a continuum with Bret Easton Ellis on one hand and George Saunders on the other; Miranda July seems like a successor.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:30 AM on December 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Are people really "stealing the Wallace style"? I mean, aside from, say, adding footnotes to a novel? Who?
posted by chavenet at 5:45 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Did any of you guys actually read The Depressed Person, in which DFW out-and-tells-you that he's actually acutely aware of how fucked up his own mental processes are, how crippling his imposter syndrome is, and how he'd do literally anything to make it go away, even at the cost of lo longer being the precocious literary wunderkind?

As a person who has the same affliction, albeit not as severe, it's the most viscerally painful short story I've ever read. The long and tortured prose is a rhetorical tactic, meant to evoke in the reader the same sense of twisted recursive self-annihilating thinking that produces the disease.

Anyway, the answer to "Which DFW should I start with?" is always Think, from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
posted by Mayor West at 5:48 AM on December 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


The thing I've always loved about DFW, and that I'm always surprised he doesn't get more credit for, is the way he wrote dialogue. Like, I was not a fan of Infinite Jest as a book, it was too rambling and convoluted and plotless for me — but there are conversations in there that sound closer to the way actual English conversations sound than just about anything else I've read in print, and that's really cool. (Even the "and but so" thing, which other people I guess tend to read either as showoffy or as self-deprecating, mostly just made me think "Oh hey! Neat! Yeah, I totally do sometimes start sentences that way when I'm talking! I never noticed that!") I always found myself wishing he'd ditch the footnotes and the self-loathing and the other convoluted stuff and just let his characters hang out and chat with each other for a while.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:02 AM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


I find this essay profoundly annoying. First the author clumsily puts David Foster Wallace on a pedestal and then clumsily knocks him off. If you want to have a better breakfast reading experience, read DFW's Consider the Lobster.
posted by ball00000ns at 6:13 AM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Technical writing is not literature.

Actually it is, and one of our most important and neglected forms at that, usually committed by people who have no idea how to do it because they were trained to build things, not to write. That instructor was rather eclectic and tied in a lot of seemingly unrelated stuff; I recall we spent an entire class discussing Buddhism.

Anyway he encouraged us to look closely at all of the writing we encountered and I was very impressed with the applicability of that advice. It's not that you never use a four-syllable word when a two-syllable word will do, but you should always know why, and the sense I get from DFW (which I think DFW would have partly agreed with, based on his depression and insecurities) is that he is shouting LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ALL THE FANCY WORDS I KNOW LOOK HOW SMOOTHLY I CAN USE THEM.

And DFW didn't always do that; A Supposedly Fun Thing is one of his most popular essays exactly because it is accessible. And I think he wrote it that way because he wanted it to be appreciated by the kind of people who might take a cruise. He knew how to do that if he wanted to.

And while I do think he was writing IJ to impress someone, I would also say that the person he was trying to impress was himself and he is a very difficult audience. I get that the result does work for some people; my wife has read it four times and considers it one of her favorite books, and I have LOL'd at some of the stuff she's related to me about the narrative. But I know all the fancy words too and I've never been able to get more than 40 pages in without wanting to bang my head against a wall.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:18 AM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


Oh, in case anyone was wondering, the [real] Infinite Jest dedication reads To F.P. Foster, R.I.P. who was his maternal grandfather who died before DFW was born.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:26 AM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Bringer Tom: You seem to expect meaning to be defined and floating on the surface of the words. DFW and other great writers are working in the murky depths. And, sometimes, the journey downward needs to reflect the strangeness and darkness to be found there.
posted by papercake at 6:32 AM on December 22, 2016


Also, your hubris in stating you know why Wallace did anything, especially as it pertains to a book that you have so little acquaintance with, is risible and makes your conclusions immediately dismissable.
posted by papercake at 6:37 AM on December 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


I think Wallace is at his best when he writes about the longing to connect, about the liberation of being out-there rather than in-here. But that longing requires a lot of validation, and for me, reading him becomes an endless exercise in validating his wordplay, his dilemma's, his pathos. Yes, David, such-and-such is so-and-so. Yes, David, how to love indeed. Yes, David, the mind, eh? At some point I just start to bristle -- but then that is acknowledged and turned back on itself as another dilemma, and I end up feeling trapped, like I'm talking to a very drunk friend who is processing their break up, and my role is just to dispense endless amounts of compassion and understanding.

I got that same feeling reading this piece: "The plate of nachos was enjoyed alone on a Monday around midnight. It troubled my very essence. It was traumatic." Right, well, I'm sorry you feel that way, but it seems a little over the top, and I don't want to validate you on that.
posted by dmh at 6:47 AM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think the piece 'The Depressed Person' captures the essence of what dmh is writing about very well.

Overall, I am net positive on the piece. I think it hits the mark of conveying what MDD is 'like' to the uninformed reader, without falling into a sense of of alienating self-pity. There is a wry bit of humor to the piece.
posted by mrdaneri at 6:53 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


I read Infinite Jest in 2015, and emailed friends about it as I went. I am self-indulgently pasting some of what I wrote here.

The tl;dr version is: you should probably just skip to the next comment.

I AM READING INFINITE JEST, AS YOU MAY KNOW

As some of you know, I am reading Infinite Jest as the second book in what I am calling my Three-Book Challenge: I already read Middlemarch, which I was impressed by and enjoyed, and next I will read Moby Dick. I’m struggling with Infinite Jest, though. Not just because of David Foster Wallace’s endless digressions and his inability to mention something without giving its entire history. I’m a Neal Stephenson fan; I’m OK with digressions and extensive explanations of things that don’t necessarily really need to be explained. I’m even fine with the fractured narrative, although, to be honest, I’m very bad at following plot, even in nicely linear books, if they’re at all complicated, and one reason I like the binge-watching TV era is that it allows me to keep track of things I otherwise tend to forget completely if I have to wait for episodes. It’s OK, though: because I don’t necessarily expect to be able to put all the pieces together on a first reading, I’m not especially troubled by being unable to put the pieces of Infinite Jest together.

No, I’m more troubled by these things:

1. Sexism. Like our friend Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon, DFW manages to write an immense novel without a single female POV character. Worse, though, the women he does write are all horrible. And I have just read a passage in which a fat girl—called the USS Millicent Kent, because what’s funnier than a fat joke?—makes unwelcome sexual advances on one of the male characters. Oh, ha ha. I tend to make this mental distinction between what I think of as passive -isms and active -isms in literature and media. Passive only within the context of a single work, that is, not in the context of an entire industry. But it’s a passive ism for a work to have, say, 5 male characters and only 1 female (think of The Avengers). It’s an active -ism for a work to contain explicitly -ist content. So, Neal Stephenson is to blame for not trying harder to fight against what might have felt natural to him, making all the POV characters in Cryptonomicon male. But that is a lesser crime, in my eyes, than including women only to make them horrible , or falling back on the idea that a fat girl having sexual desire is laughable and grotesque, or (I think I won’t even get into the very icky handling of the character of Steeply, the cross-dressing spy). I nearly gave up on the book at the USS Millicent Kent scene; that kind of crap is just something I don’t feel obliged to subject myself to.

2. Lack of empathy. There is a certain style of writing that I can never quite put my finger on describing, though I’m sure someone has done it, that is characterized by a kind of detachment, that tends to describe characters from outside and not supply much in the way of glimpses into their inner life. This kind of writing is often very minimalist—a la Raymond Carver—but DFW seems to be achieving it despite his maximalism. This kind of writing tends to leave me feeling anxious and antsy. Being inclined to permeable boundaries myself, I want inner lives and empathy. DFW doesn’t offer that. He is maximalist when it comes to a footnote cataloguing all the different kinds of benzodiazepines or the complete history of the tennis academy where much of the book takes place, but when it comes to the people, he stands back from them. They seem disconnected from their own actions; even when we’re told they’re driven by some emotion—like Marathe, the Quebecois terrorist who is either a triple or quadruple agent because he hopes to get paid enough for his treachery (by at least one of the sides he’s betraying) to save his ill wife. We’re told this over and over, but there is never anything that gives us a hint of Marathe’s feelings about his wife, or that allows us to feel it along with him. Books that have this quality of detachment are very unpleasant for me and can leave me in a very uncomfortable psychic state.

I shouldn’t be surprised by DFW’s lack of empathy; it’s been present in all his writing. All I’ve read, anyway. His essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” for instance, in which he is given an assignment to go on a cruise and write about it. The essay is hilarious, but it’s also entirely devoted to making fun of the cruise and the people on it, people who lack DFW’s ability to see how above it all they should be. Eventually, he retreats to his cabin and spends the rest of the cruise there, reading. See also his essay on the state fair. He consistently takes the position of an uninvolved outsider, of someone who sees more clearly than the people who let themselves get involved, who are too foolish to see how false and ridiculous it is. It’s interesting that he takes this stance in Infinite Jest, which is based so heavily on his own history as a tennis player and on his time in rehab, which the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic) in the book is based on. I’ve read an excerpt from the biography of him that was published a couple of years ago, about his time in rehab, and letters he wrote to his friends show that he felt himself superior to the other residents; until he fell apart from drinking, he’d been a grad student at Harvard, and he seems to have felt that he belonged in places like Harvard but not in places like the rehab floor of a psychiatric hospital. He mined the other residents for their stories but never told them his own, and even as he was living there, was already turning the experience into a story.

And I get that, I do. I do the same thing. Raymond Carver’s poem “Your Dog Dies” speaks very much to my experience:

It gets run over by a van.
you find it at the side of the road
and bury it.
you feel bad about it.
you feel bad personally,
but you feel bad for your daughter
because it was her pet,
and she loved it so.
she used to croon to it
and let it sleep in her bed.
you write a poem about it.
you call it a poem for your daughter,
about the dog getting run over by a van
and how you looked after it,
took it out into the woods
and buried it deep, deep,
and that poem turns out so good
you’re almost glad the little dog
was run over, or else you’d never
have written that good poem.

That’s not quite the whole poem. I don’t like the ending so I have truncated it. I am editing Raymond Carver! I am improving him. But I get that feeling of being grateful for a story even if you have to suffer to get it.

So, why don’t I care for David Foster Wallace doing it? Because he doesn’t enter into his own experiences, or into the experiences of the people whose stories he listens to. In rehab, he held himself apart from the ridiculousness of chanting AA slogans, and calling on a Higher Power you didn’t even necessarily believe in. He held himself apart from the kind of damage the people around him had experienced: one of his roommates, who had a stroke while on cocaine and had lost much of the use of one side of his body, for instance, who made DFW profoundly uncomfortable. In rehab with them, he was nonetheless convinced he was not like them, and this is true, also, of the people he was on a cruise with, and the people he was at the state fair with. He was an observer, watching from a superior position.

I don’t know how this connects to the writing style in Infinite Jest. In some of his essays—like his wonderful essay on Roger Federer—he is full of appreciation and evokes the beauty of high-level tennis very nicely. On the other hand, he also wrote an essay about a young elite tennis player which was, in part, about how a person must turn themselves into something of “a monster” to master a sport at that level, distorting an entire life for the possibility of making it big.  He grew up in the midwest, in Illinois, but he shook off the midwest so completely that when he came back to it, for his essay on the Illinois State Fair, he had defined himself so much as “not a midwesterner” that he needed a guide: “No anthropologist worth his pith helmet,” he wrote, “would be without the shrewd counsel of a colorful local, and I’ve lured a Native Companion here with the promise of free admission and unlimited corn dogs.” He longed to leave the midwest behind and be part of the east coast intellectual community, and he was! This essay was written as a commission for Harper’s; Jonathan Franzen was one of his best friends; and so on. But he never seems sure of his position there; he sometimes seems to be playing to an audience of people he wants desperately to be liked by.

I am afraid that by the time I finish reading Infinite Jest, all my affection for David Foster Wallace will be gone, replaced with a cold appreciation of his genius. This would be a sad outcome. But I don’t know if I can spend 1100 pages with a writer who seems, himself, to have no affection or empathy for his characters, and retain my fondness for him.

****

After cruising along enjoying Infinite Jest for awhile, I hit another rough patch. A thing I’m realizing is that all the characters talk like David Foster Wallace writes. One character’s mother writes him a letter; the letter sounds just like DFW. Two characters talk on the phone; they talk like DFW. I’m increasingly convinced that DFW wasn’t actually interested in much outside himself, that outside events and people were interesting to him only insomuch as he was interested in his own thoughts about them. Infinite Jest isn’t a novel in which characters have been carefully thought through and differentiated; it’s more like they’re little homonculi DFW created so he could talk to himself, little shards of his psyche personified. 

****

So I am not surprised by how much DFW reminds me of, say, Neal Stephenson, who also likes to digress, to stop the forward motion of his narrative to give a little lecture on the laying of undersea cables or the best way to eat Captain Crunch or the history of the computer punch card. This is a thing that many people do not like about Neal Stephenson, though I do like it, for the most part. In DFW, though, it starts to feel like a writerly tic that has taken over so completely that he’s nothing but tic; or, not that exactly, but that the more words, phrases, footnotes, digressions, and footnotes-to-the-footnotes (I just read a long footnote that had sub-footnotes a-l. That’s L as in lion.) he can pile up between the reader and his meaning, the happier he is. He said in interviews that IJ, which seems to many people not to have an ending, does indeed have an ending; it’s just not in the book. DFW felt that the ending can be inferred from the book, that if certain through-lines are continued past the end of the physical book, they will converge in a way that should be obvious to most readers.

This is just insulting. Dude, you wrote an 1100 page book but you expect us to finish it for you?

In an early interview, DFW said that he saw his audience as people like him: guys in their 20s and 30s, affluent, educated enough to know that working hard at a piece of literature could have a payoff. He also said “true empathy is impossible,” and that the purpose of art is to vicariously experience the suffering of others, so. Later in his life he expressed lofty aims: to change the way people saw the world, to “restructure worlds”; he seems to have come to think that art should have an impact, but it seems truer to me that he was working in and for a rarefied audience; sometimes, in IJ, I think the only audience he cares about is himself. I’ve heard him called solipsistic, and…yeah.

I was going to say that, while he and Stephenson have a similar habit, Stephenson is truly a novelist. I’m thinking of course about Cryptonomicon, the book I’ve re-read most often. But the people in it are people; they are not all alike. They have opinions and values that are not the same as each other’s and therefore presumably not the same as Stephenson’s. You can actually care about them. When they fall in love or die, you can feel something.

But DFW, who does not believe in the possibility of empathy and doesn’t seem to have been burdened with much of it, puts his writerly habits and tics to work keeping everything at a distance. I wonder if there’s been a text so committed to burying itself since Heart of Darkness, which is famously distanced from its story: the narrator is retelling a story he heard from a guy who is remembering it. We don’t see or hear anything as it happens. There’s no way to know what’s been distorted by time and memory, by miscommunication, and by the original disorientation Marlowe felt in the Congo.

DFW uses different techniques but his purpose is the same: to subvert meaning, to hide it, to withhold it from the reader. He said once, "You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.” He was talking about people experiencing their daily lives, but in Infinite Jest he passes that responsibility largely to his reader as well. What does it mean? How does it end? DFW needed 1100 pages specifically so that he could avoid having to reveal these things.

No one should ever feel bad for not wanting, or not being able to, read Infinite Jest. It’s like Heart of Darkness, or Ulysses, or anything by Gertrude Stein. In that it is, paradoxically, a book whose primary purpose, somehow, is not to be read. But instead to somehow either demonstrate something that can be done with language, even if that thing is not something you’d want to see more of, or to mark out a space in which the author can explicitly say, “I am not communicating.” To passively not communicate is unsatisfying; sometimes it’s necessary to make a show of it. How else will anybody know? It’s the literary equivalent of the person who can’t just say “no thank you” when offered a hot dog but has to say, “I don’t eat processed foods.” Or of the toddler who asserts over and over, “I’m not speaking to you.”  It’s performative, but what is being performed is the act of not communicating.

****

In my bibs and bobs of downtime, I kept reading Infinite Jest. I have, of course, more to say about it. Four things, I think, looking at my list:

1. I admit to skimming. I am not at all ashamed of this. I skipped an entire multi-page conversation between the two guys from Quebec because every section with them in it before has been incredibly tedious and I find the cross-dressing character offensive. If I find later that I have missed something, I will quickly google it.

2. I commented on Facebook that I’d hit a patch of either bad or unedited writing, where DFW was repeating himself a lot. “A beautiful woman, quite beautiful.” Things like that. It happened so much in that one section, and then stopped happening again, that I decided it must have been deliberate. When I got to a section about two people from francophone Quebec, and DFW was using constructions that mirror French syntax, like “the wig of him” and “to smooth rather fussily the blanket on his lap,” I was the more convinced that he was doing something on purpose. What his purpose was and whether he achieved it, I don’t know. I’d say he was trying to vary his narrative voice but the fact that it just read like mistakes to me suggests he was not entirely successful.

3. After I said the thing about everybody sounding like David Foster Wallace, I reached a section that included several footnotes to indirect quotations. A direct quote is like: He said “I’m going to the movie.” And an indirect quote is: He said he was going to the movie. There were several lengthy passages in this section that were indirect quotes of some of the students at the tennis academy, and there were at least three phrases or sentences that were footnoted with some version of “he didn’t actually say bread and breath,” or “The speaker doesn’t actually use the terms thereon, most assuredly, or operant limbic system, though she really had, before, said chordate phylum.” In other words, just after I commented about DFW being unable to write a character in any voice but his own, he began shining a light on this failure by pointing out that that various people had not actually said the words he wrote for them. He never says what they actually said instead. I’m not sure he knew what a person might say instead of thereon or most assuredly.

4. If you find yourself wondering how and why I keep going through a book so challenging, disappointing, infuriating, and only intermittently rewarding, I’d say there are two answers to that. The first is, of course that intermittent rewards are the most reinforcing. I am certainly hanging in for the next section that really lights me up. There have already been parts I was happy to read, glad not to miss, and I expect there will be more of these. I read on in the hope I’m not wrong about that.

It should also be noted that I am a highly-trained reader. Almost a professional reader. That is to say, I went to grad school in English Literature. One of the first things literature undergrads need to learn—and this is very hard on them, they resist it terribly and some of them never get it—is that “Did you like it?” is the least interesting question you can ask about a book, if you are a lit scholar. It is even, I would say, something close to a forbidden question. When I was in grad school, I found myself sometimes teased, both affectionately and not, for being “enthusiastic.” That is to say, for showing that I liked what we were reading and that I enjoyed reading it. A regular reader—a civilian, a lay person—can follow merely their own pleasure, and they may, quite sensibly, put down a book they find difficult or unpleasant or boring. A scholar may find a book interesting whether she likes it or not.

Here I will invoke the old cliche: you can take the girl out of grad school, but you can’t take grad school out of the girl. I will probably never again be purely a reader. I couldn’t even read the kids’ board books when they were toddlers without thinking like a scholar—did you ever notice that one of Virginia Lee Burton’s interests, plainly shown in both The Little House and Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, is progress and urban growth, and the people and lifestyles that are destroyed or left behind by the change? Displacement, I think you could say, is one of her themes—the little house, of course, refuses to be displaced and finds itself surrounded by a city, and Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann are among many, many steam shovel/operator pairs who find themselves out of work as more efficient gas, diesel, and electric shovels come onto the market. The book is the story of how they find a place for themselves again, but it requires them making a deal that they’ll dig a cellar in a near-impossible amount of time or go without pay; and of course once they’ve dug the cellar, they’re trapped in it: Mary Ann becomes the boiler that heats the building above them, and Mike spends the rest of his life as her tender.

See what I mean? Themes of urbanization and displacement. I could write a paper on it.

So, the thing is, I wanted to love Infinite Jest, and I wanted to love David Foster Wallace. And I’m not liking either of them all that much. But they are still interesting to me. I am still curious about what this book does and how it does it. I want to understand what David Foster Wallace was trying to do, and whether he managed to do it.

****
In case you think I was totally off-base email yesterday arguing that Infinite Jest is a kind of elaborate performance of non-communication, I have just read a passage in which DFW describes a group of Las Vegas crooners who go on strike, and their protest takes the form of getting on stage and lip-syncing their songs without making any sound. He calls this “performative silence.”

quod erat demonstrandum, motherfucker!

DFW knew what he was doing. I am grimly satisfied that I seem able to know it, too.
posted by Orlop at 7:17 AM on December 22, 2016 [26 favorites]


Papercake: Bringer Tom: You seem to expect meaning to be defined and floating on the surface of the words. DFW and other great writers are working in the murky depths. And, sometimes, the journey downward needs to reflect the strangeness and darkness to be found there.

You seem to think words have some implicit deep meaning. They don't; words mean what people think they mean. Fine shades are constructed out of understanding, not some "murky depths." Even among literate people who regularly use words their meanings shift over time as they are used. When you use words very few people know, you are challenging most of your readers to figure out what you mean from context, or to look it up in a dictionary; you are essentially building a puzzle rather than telling a story. And I have met a lot of people who agree that IJ is as much puzzle as story. And because of the way it uses language, it is also a puzzle very much steeped in the era when it was written; it will be all but incomprehensible to anyone but scholars in a century or two.

Also, your hubris in stating you know why Wallace did anything, especially as it pertains to a book that you have so little acquaintance with, is risible and makes your conclusions immediately dismissable.

Risible, eh? This comment is its own best rebuttal.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:32 AM on December 22, 2016 [5 favorites]


orlop I would keep going, on Infinite Jest. I think that you're picking up on some authorial choices that were quite intentional, as far as creating certain empathetic distance, and these are resolved in the second half of the narrative, in surprising ways.

Also, consider the Hal::Gately dichotomy, as far as this is concerned, and the portrayal of empathy.

I would also consider the 'Madame Psychosis' character a woman, and quite central to several key narratives. She is portrayed quite sympathetically.

I don't want to pick up the DFW defenders arsenal, as that ground is too well covered by many others, but IJ is worth a read, I think, and worth reading in its entirety before rendering judgement.

As for its ending, it works completely for me. It is not a 'trick', as it first appears. It does require understanding the 'call:response' structure of the book, but as you note, after 1,100 pages, most people have that down at that point.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:38 AM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I didn't get to IJ until after DFW's death, and so the fact of his suicide colored my interpretation of the book. I wonder what it must have been like to read the book prior his death.

I mean, Hal is clearly DFW's stand-in. Knowing DFW's ultimate fate, it's hard to imagine anything good lay down the road for Hal.
posted by panama joe at 7:47 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Powerful evidence that even *talking* about DFW will set most authors to masturbating all over the page.
There is insight here, in the same way that vomitus could be considered "nutrient rich."

This articles flirts dangerously with the idea that suicidal depression is somehow born of powerful intellect, a necessary byproduct of genius. It's a troubling notion and one that, if seriously embraced, could lead to others hurting themselves needlessly.

Without deeply examining the philosophical question of suicide, it's worth knowing that it's not the inevitable, terminal landing pad for a certain demographic segment.

It's not particularly romantic, and tying it up with genius gives it an allure that's not well-deserved.

For the record, I like DFW, and even this piece, but not for the reasons, I suspect, that the author hoped.
posted by jgooden at 7:53 AM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I was able to pull myself away from this morning's intensive masturbation, to point out that there is substantial evidential findings that writing, genius, and certain mental disorders are genetically mediated and travel together.

But, you know, speculation is fun.
posted by mrdaneri at 8:08 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


I was able to pull myself away from this morning's intensive masturbation, to point out that there is substantial evidential findings that writing, genius, and certain mental disorders are genetically mediated and travel together.
So then we ought to accept suicide as an inevitable conclusion? My point is that it doesn't need to be accepted as the default byproduct of creative genius, even if the comorbidity might be common. Beyond that, calling an experimental sample size of 30 "substantial" rather belabors the term.

Of course, that may have been lost in my artless wording because I'm not nearly as talented as DFW or the author.

I'm just saying that we don't need to romanticize the notion of creative geniuses offing themselves because of their peculiar brilliance.
posted by jgooden at 8:32 AM on December 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Technical writing is not literature.

Actually it is


It really isn't, no matter what your Buddhism-discussing technical writing instructor said. Technical writing does not foreground language for language's sake; it does not inscribe meaning in its own structure; it is not fictional; its main aim is not to be an aesthetic object in and of itself and it is not an intertextual or self-reflexive construct. Those are some of the conditions generally taken to be necessary (though not sufficient) for a work to be literature.
posted by Panthalassa at 8:48 AM on December 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


This is fun! It's like combining a literary salon and a water-balloons-filled-with-urine fight.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:51 AM on December 22, 2016 [17 favorites]


Lack of empathy.

Wow. You and I read completely different books.

Dude, you wrote an 1100 page book but you expect us to finish it for you?

In my experience of reading IJ, the "ending" was never the point in the first place. The point, I think, was more about exploring and experiencing the nature of addictions both large and small, obvious and unexamined, and the sources of these addictions in a culture steeped in irony and avoidance of depth.

For me the massive weight of the details of the characters' situations and histories is what builds the empathy for them within the reader. It's an exaggerated form of "everyone's life is burdened with suffering." DFW doesn't write "aww, these people have hard lives," he just piles up the details of how their lives are, and lets you find your own empathy for them. The absurdist extremes of some of the addicts' histories are of a piece with the extremely warped world he's created, which is just our own pushed and stretched to the nth degree.

Like, I certainly was perplexed a bit when I finished. And yeah, when I googled to find a good explanation of what the presumed ending is I did think "huh, yeah, no way did I pick up on some of those points that are meant to be clues." But I basically didn't care, because I think the whole idea is that the experience of this crazed world in the book should be leading you to re-think your relationship to your own real world. Just the way he uses the phrases "the right to be entertained" and "spectation" gave me reasons to pause and think about my choices in television and movies.

(I'm probably not explaining myself as well or as thoroughly as I'd like, but it's been a while now since I read it so it's less fresh in my mind. But yeah, in general, my experience was that the "plot" was never the focus, and too much griping about the "missing" ending suggests possibly one missed the real idea.)
posted by dnash at 8:54 AM on December 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


And while I do think he was writing IJ to impress someone, I would also say that the person he was trying to impress was himself and he is a very difficult audience.

There's some evidence to suggest that Infinite Jest was written, in part, to impress writer and infatuation Mary Karr. DFW scribbled in the margins of a self-help book:
"The key to ’92 is that MMK was most important; I[nfinite] J[est] was just a means to her end (as it were)."
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:23 AM on December 22, 2016


I cannot possibly be the only one who finds DFW's writing style to be perfectly clear and comprehensible. I wouldn't call it transparent, but I could name a dozen other authors I love off the top of my head who don't have a transparent writing style (and a dozen more that do.)

My personal writing style is nothing like his and I don't have any urge to imitate it. I'm not DFW, in the same way I'm not any other author besides myself. But I find his writing neither obscurantist nor obscure.
posted by kyrademon at 9:40 AM on December 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


There's some evidence to suggest that Infinite Jest was written, in part, to impress writer and infatuation Mary Karr.

That's... interesting. Mary Karr did an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross in which she had quite a lot to say about DFW, much of it not flattering, including this:
GROSS: We've talked about what it's like for you to write about people you're close with, including having written about David Foster Wallace. Did he write about you in a disguised form in any of his fiction?

KARR: He certainly did. He certainly did. He wrote about a lot of people in disguised form. I mean, I read an excerpt of "Infinite Jest" where he used the names - the real names - of people. And he used their stories in a way that I found very irresponsible.

GROSS: Were these people who had been in a recovery group with him?

KARR: Yes, people who had been in a halfway house with him. They're people I knew well. And I saw them - I saw their stories. And I saw them excerpted in these kind of cartoony, grotesque ways. And I was horrified. And even then, I sort of felt like, well, it's his book. It's none of my business. And then I met his editor, Michael Pietsch, at a party, and - right before "Infinite Jest" came out. And he said, you know, I now understand this character David wrote about because she talks just like you, and she's from Texas, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I really had a hard time. I thought about it. And I thought about it. And I prayed about it. I talked to a priest about it.

And then I called the editor. And I just called him on the phone 'cause we had mutual friends. And I said, you know, these people in this excerpt are real people. And I'm not a litigious person. I'm not somebody who's going to sue anybody over a piece of fiction. It's none of my business. I don't care. But, you know, he could fix this. It's just not that hard. He could make this person blonde instead of brunette. He could make her from Arkansas or whatever. But you certainly shouldn't be using their real names.
She's also quite compassionate regarding his personal problems, at least in parts.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:51 AM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


I cannot possibly be the only one who finds DFW's writing style to be perfectly clear and comprehensible.

I do as well, mostly. The only thing I would call maybe "elitist writing" about IJ is the non-chronological structure and the ending. And maybe a few rare-ish vocabulary words like "annular."
posted by dnash at 11:26 AM on December 22, 2016


The Depressed Person...it's the most viscerally painful short story I've ever read

No kidding. I was on the CTA when I finished the story, tears running down my cheeks, and I swear it literally hurt to stand up and walk the few steps to the train door. Had it been an option, I would have curled up on the bench and cried over the very existence of "psychic pain incompatible with human life". (DFW's words, but at the moment I can't recall the source.)
posted by she's not there at 12:22 PM on December 22, 2016


It really isn't, no matter what your Buddhism-discussing technical writing instructor said. Technical writing does not foreground language for language's sake; it does not inscribe meaning in its own structure; it is not fictional; its main aim is not to be an aesthetic object in and of itself and it is not an intertextual or self-reflexive construct. Those are some of the conditions generally taken to be necessary (though not sufficient) for a work to be literature.

I passed over the first comment because it didn't seem worth the effort, but come on. The technical literature is a literature which (like most genres and forms) is disposable, regurgitated, near-algorithmic pulp in its lower echelons and elsewhere meets all of your (questionable) criteria handily.

The only way you can get away with this kind of thing is to assert that technical writing which rises to the level of literature is not technical writing. You might as well get to letting us know that something which looks to the untrained eye like Science Fiction is really an artifact which is literature instead because it Transcends Its Genre, and did you all know that Video Games Can't Be Art.
posted by brennen at 2:04 PM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


To those of you lucky enough to be reading Infinite Jest this century, there is a wiki with page-by-page annotations explaining many of his little clevernesses. I read the book along with his annotations. He would not have approved, but I don't feel obliged to participate in that game. It was a glorious read.

From the article:
Here’s the synopsis of the book: a bunch of people working for the Internal Revenue Service feel weird about stuff. Tax people feel emotions.
I believe this badly misses the point of what Wallace was trying to do in The Pale King. The book has a strong theme of deriving meaning in life from service to one's community, and seems to be Wallace grasping for some way out of the trap imposed by his depressive thinking via such service. Wallace was confused by a perception that most meaningful service is stultifyingly boring, the prime example of this in the book being the work of an IRS agent. I believe there is an interview with Wallace out there where he discusses these themes in the context of the book, but I don't have time to track it down... It's possible it was an interview with someone who discussed the book with him, instead.

I think what Wallace missed in the book, and what kept him depressed and ultimately led to his suicide, was
  • that it didn't matter what heights of service he achieved with his writing, it would do nothing to lessen the habitual tendency he'd developed to perceive himself as a worthless piece of shit
  • that it didn't matter how glorious, engaging and joyful an experience a meaningful duty would seem at first, it would do nothing to lessen the habitual tendency to boredom
  • that the escape consists in attacking these tendencies at the root through a kind of "affective discipline" which he was unable to conceive of because our civilization is so ensnared by the notions of receptivity to some kind of authentic experience, as developed by the German Romantics. (Might seem like I'm coming out of left-field there. If so, there is more context in the preface of that link.)
posted by Coventry at 4:59 PM on December 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


The technical literature is a literature which (like most genres and forms) is disposable, regurgitated, near-algorithmic pulp in its lower echelons and elsewhere meets all of your (questionable) criteria handily. The only way you can get away with this kind of thing is to assert that technical writing which rises to the level of literature is not technical writing.

I don't know if we're talking about the same thing. Let's first move the goalposts back to 'technical writing'. Shall we take a look at this pdf on technical writing from MIT? If we consider it as being a good handle on what the very best technical writing should aspire to, I'd say it decisively distinguishes technical writing from literature starting from the italicised bits of the quote on the second page, continuing with the list of bullet points under 'Good Tech Writers Practice' and nailing the door shut with all the headings that come after. I think most technical writers would be horrified if their writing was read as literature, because that is decisively not the aim of technical writing.

You might as well get to letting us know that something which looks to the untrained eye like Science Fiction is really an artifact which is literature instead because it Transcends Its Genre, and did you all know that Video Games Can't Be Art.

Look, I know I've opened myself up to accusations of snobbery because of my tone. But really, those criteria I mentioned set a very low bar—really they do. I've never read a work of science fiction that I wouldn't call literature, and I've played several video games that I would be advocating with if we were having the games-as-art discussion. I couldn't get very far into Infinite Jest myself, for much the same reasons as Bringer Tom, but I'm certainly not going to make excuses for myself by holding it up to the standards of a completely unrelated field of writing.
posted by Panthalassa at 5:03 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I suspect we are having different values here for the word literature, which seems like a simple enough word but obviously has murky depths multiple meanings. Some of the criteria seem downright fanciful, for example, "fictional?" Does that mean The Making of the Atomic Bomb isn't literature? How about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? What does "foreground language for language's sake" even mean? If something cannot be [art category] if it is not meant to solely be an aesthetic object, does that mean architecture can't be art?

I wasn't judging DFW because he is a bad technical writer, because that would be silly. It's just in that class I was given a measure that has proven very useful across various fields, because it is a hella sharp cutter of bullshit. I think it is a given that IJ isn't really telling a story, it is doing something much more complex; some people might think that is better, others might think it makes the result unusable, but it's not just a story.

I don't care how you define "literature," but I do maintain that if you are trying to tell a story you have to tell the fucking story in a way your reader can understand. It does not have to be as well defined as the instruction manual for your tricorder but it does have to convey information, which is the point my instructor was trying to make back in 1980. Your first duty as a writer is to convey information, because if you don't do that the rest is bullshit. You can convey that information in a straightforward technical manual or artfully or in iambic pentameter or with other poetic flourishes, but if you don't actually convey the information because your reader can't understand what you wrote, you are basically masturbating.
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:34 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


maybe the reader's stupid
posted by edeezy at 5:43 PM on December 22, 2016


maybe the reader's stupid

I believe you would be the main character in Thomas Disch's The Squirrel Cage.
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:48 PM on December 22, 2016


My Dad, it's funny that you mentioned everyone gets 200 pages in and then puts it down. I did the same thing, but a few weeks later I decided to try again from the first page. The first 200 pages made more sense the second time through and then I was hooked and loved the rest of the book - mainly for managing to get me immersed in its quirky story. Hal and Pemulis were also very sympathetic characters.

In Infinite Jest I found DFW's writing-by-thesaurus thing annoying at first, but eventually it came to feel like another aspect of the book's slightly off kilter world and of Hal himself.

Anyway, I loved IJ except for the fact that it ended really abruptly. Apparently DFW claimed the ending was intended to be that way but it seemed to me like it was time to stop writing or too long so he just stopped.
posted by duoshao at 6:20 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


I suspect we are having different values here for the word literature, which seems like a simple enough word but obviously has murky depths multiple meanings. Some of the criteria seem downright fanciful, for example, "fictional?" Does that mean The Making of the Atomic Bomb isn't literature? How about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? What does "foreground language for language's sake" even mean? If something cannot be [art category] if it is not meant to solely be an aesthetic object, does that mean architecture can't be art?

Look, I'm happy to get into a lengthy discussion about the criteria I outlined, which were massively, perhaps unwisely, condensed for the sake of making a point. But if you're not willing to avoid making rhetorical moves like turning 'main' into 'solely', I don't think we'd get very far. Besides, it's all not really relevant to the main point at hand, which is that just because you didn't understand the information conveyed / didn't understand that information was in fact conveyed doesn't mean it wasn't conveyed.
posted by Panthalassa at 6:31 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Your first duty as a writer is to convey information, because if you don't do that the rest is bullshit

A strongly worded opinion that has no basis in fact. Honestly your arguments here are not particularly persuasive, or clear. Technical writing is literature?!! You know a lot of people who think...??.. and so on. These are not arguments. They are emotional tantrums.
posted by humanfont at 6:36 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


In my experience of reading IJ, the "ending" was never the point in the first place. The point, I think, was more about exploring and experiencing the nature of addictions both large and small, obvious and unexamined, and the sources of these addictions in a culture steeped in irony and avoidance of depth.

I agree with you—and also, of course, the beginning of the book is also the ending of the book. Which is a really bold move on DFW's part. He believed that he would have readers who would not only stick with him through this very difficult book, but that they would read it more than once in order to fully appreciate it.
posted by Orlop at 8:14 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


I came at Infinite Jest 3 times -- no luck. Then I went through, skimming, finding and holding to the writing about addicts in recovery, and in those words I found the finest writing on the subject -- ever, by anyone -- that I have had the pleasure to come across. Wallace absolutely nailed it, home run.

My honest take on IJ is that DFW was on and in a huge manic run as he wrote it, his mind flying, his pen flying, neither of them touching down long enough to give us a comprehensible fkn book. (No, I don't know if he suffered manic depression, but it sure looks to me to be a possibility.)

I *love* much of his other writings, essays and short stories. Incredibly talented, remarkably fun and funny, too. He really was a gift to us, I know that it enlarged me a lot to have read him; reading him when he wrote clearly, I could just about hear him laughing. Such a distinctive voice in his writing. Reading DFW was like walking around with Feynman on a casual autumn afternoon and Feynman explaining to me the secrets of the physical world and having it bring us joy as he did so.

Here is a bit DFW wrote about suicide, written 25 years before his own suicide:
"The so-called 'psychotically depressed' person who tries to kill herself doesn't do so out of quote 'hopelessness' or any abstract conviction that life's assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire's flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It's not desiring the fall; it's terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling 'Don't!' and 'Hang on!', can understand the jump. Not really. You'd have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling."

It's clear that he had a good lay of the land.

His method of suicide suggests wanting to suffer even as he headed out the door: unless you're fortunate enough to break your neck when you step off the chair you'd stood upon, death by hanging is torturous, agonizing, as bad as drowning, your consciousness continuing for a long, long time as you dangle and strangle and kick and twirl. Wallace was smart, he had to know that the method he was choosing wouldn't be fun. I can't help but think it was intentional. Perhaps not consciously aware of wanting to suffer as he died, but intentional nonetheless.

I've read that "The Depressed Person" was based upon and written to lampoon a vain, self-centered woman -- Elizabeth Wurtzel -- whom DFW had spent some time with, and came to loathe. That said, no one could write better about depression than DFW; it's just that this particular short story was *not* written about himself, though he was one of the few human beings who could chronicle depression as he did in that story. I recall how angry I was as I read it -- I also am a person who has suffered tremendous depression, and it felt to me that the story was incredibly mean-spirited. Which it was. But I damn sure didn't set it down, wanted to read all about myself on the page. Remarkably accurate writing.

It hurt like hell when DFW died; it hurt like hell when John Lennon died. Brilliant, charismatic human beings who I never knew yet felt a real loss when they were gone.

Last: 30 short stories and essays by DFW, courtesy of "Open Culture"

RIP DFW

.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:16 AM on December 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


TONS of good DFW writings, readings, interviews, thanks yet again to Open Culture.

Start here
That is a very high quality video of an interview on a German television special about DFW; I've watched *lots* of DFW interviews, listened to many also. IMO this one is the best.

And here is pretty much everything DFW related on Open Culture. One hell of a resource.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:47 AM on December 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Me: Your first duty as a writer is to convey information, because if you don't do that the rest is bullshit

humanfont: A strongly worded opinion that has no basis in fact. Honestly your arguments here are not particularly persuasive, or clear. Technical writing is literature?!! You know a lot of people who think...??.. and so on. These are not arguments. They are emotional tantrums.

I honestly find this response mystifying. (And frankly, I think the "emotional tantrum" accusation reeks of projection.) What I said isn't exactly an unusual point of view (yeah, "lots of people," that is literally true). And if the first purpose of writing and language itself isn't to convey information, I'm honestly curious as to what you think it might be instead, because I've read some anthropologists who probably want to hear from you.
posted by Bringer Tom at 4:20 PM on December 23, 2016


Appealing to the authority of anonymous anthropologists is not a convincing tactic, neither is pressing the argumentum ad populum. Writing does encode language using graphic symbols; but that doesn't impart a purpose or suppose an audience -- a requirement if its purpose is to convey information. Throughout history the majority of humanity has been illiterate and the purpose of writing was often driven by religious practice. In many of those instances transcendence was more the purpose of writing than conveying information. Consider the multitude of diaries updated this day, how many are ever meant to be read by another soul, or even to be re-read by the author.
posted by humanfont at 7:17 PM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


There is a certain style of writing ... that is characterized by a kind of detachment, that tends to describe characters from outside and not supply much in the way of glimpses into their inner life.

IJ can be criticized in lots of ways, but to say that DFW doesn't provide insight into the inner lives of characters is... surprising to me.
posted by nnethercote at 12:13 AM on December 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


DFW's nonfiction essays (see the link above at Open Culture) are some of the best things I've ever read. Just superb.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:14 AM on December 24, 2016


Consider the multitude of diaries updated this day, how many are ever meant to be read by another soul, or even to be re-read by the author.

I find this genuinely baffling, but also possibly illuminating. Perhaps IJ is one of these things that DFW really didn't care if it was ever read by another soul? I personally cannot imagine going to the effort to actually write down such a thing, but now that you mention it I suppose it must be a more common activity than I suppose.

I think I can actually get behind the idea that IJ is more of a sacred introspection than a story meant for others to read; that would explain nearly everything about it except the fact that it got published, which I guess we can put down to it being by DFW. This is really a very interesting idea. There are implications.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:36 AM on December 24, 2016


Your first duty as a writer is to convey information, because if you don't do that the rest is bullshit

This is completely true, and I think Wallace did that. It's really a question of what it was he was trying to convey: it was too much for a little homily on a napkin.

Really good lit is expressing something that hadn't been expressed before, that we may not even have words for.
posted by Strange_Robinson at 12:12 PM on December 24, 2016


Would you consider that DFW may have intended IJ to be read by others, just not by you? It is impossible to tell a universal story that appeals and conveys meaning to every possible reader.
posted by humanfont at 4:33 PM on December 24, 2016


Would you consider that DFW may have intended IJ to be read by others, just not by you?

Yes. This is actually encoded in the story -- I have read and know more about it than you might realize thanks to the wife. We had a talk about it last night. I do believe language and writing are about conveying information, but perhaps it is a bit different when the primary recipient of that information is the Divine. Obviously some people receive the message encoded in IJ. I am a bit of a hypocrite having written a story designed to piss off all its readers in a very different way, for what may actually be similar reasons. I will now concede.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:44 PM on December 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


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