Friday, March 20, 2009

consider David Foster

Wallace, RIP. I am on the verge of finishing reading his last collection of essays entitled, Consider The Lobster. I've been reading the book like Charlie eats Wonka chocolate, limiting myself to only a few pages each day in order to prolong the experience. Last night I splurged and plowed through the collection's title essay in one read, and this morning I've got a Wallace hangover, which is precisely the opposite of a regular hangover, in that my mind is spooled up and sparking out in all directions.

This is Wallace's great gift to his readers. His prose confers upon the reader the experience of the author's wonderful thinking-- which is hyper-intelligent, expansive and surprisingly accessible. Reading him reminds me of the stream-of-conscious writing exercises we would do in early writing workshops. His writing leaves you thinking it's just rolling out from under his pen, but is so erudite and intellectual that it can't possibly be. It has to have been labored over and revised over and again and not even attempted until a rigorous groundwork had been laid down first. Exhaustive research on the subject matter must have preceded the writing, and then only slightly less exhaustive research upon a myriad of subjects tangential to the subject at hand, so that, by the end of the essay, you consider the author to be not only an expert on the subject, but also an entire solar system of subjects that orbit around it.

Yet, Wallace gives you the impression through his voice that he's just writing off the top of his head. His shorter essays, like "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed," could believably have been written sometime after he ate breakfast and before he took his morning shit. He's that good.

In addition to his diction's wizardry, there's also the way that he transcends the subject of his writing that I find so appealing. I was struck by this quality in his first collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. The title essay was written for Harper's; it was supposed to be a magazine article about the experience of taking a cruise. It was supposed to be, you know, a travel piece. What it ended up being was not only an article fiercely critical of the cruise ship experience, but also profoundly critical of contemporary culture in general and what we conceive "vacation" to be.

He reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson this way, who was also paid by x publisher to write about y event and then, essentially, wrote whatever the fuck he wanted to write about. However, where the media event became merely the backdrop behind Thompson's political rants and chronicling of his drug-and-alcohol abuse, the event is a nexus for Wallace that he not only explores exhaustively, but around which he also discusses whatever seems to come to mind, no matter how far-flung that whatever might be.

"Consider the Lobster" (the essay) starts as a piece of reporting on the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine; it ends up moving from his own witty observations about the lobster festival to an examination of the festival-as-an-experience in general. He explores the ethical question of whether we can be morally justified in killing and devouring another sentient being that experiences pain, and how we rationalize our responses to this question. DFW admits himself to being unsettled that he can't justify his own appetite for animals anymore than a) he'd developed a taste for them and b) it would be inconvenient not to eat them.

Perhaps my favorite essay in the collection is "Authority and American Usage," a review about a reference book-- the Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. Its opening line is thoroughly DFW: "Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?"

Here Wallace is at the top of his game. He proceeds to just goes nuts on the topic. His stated plan in the essay is simple enough; the essay is a review (like any review) meant to suggest why you should (or shouldn't) buy the book being reviewed. In order to explain why you should or shouldn't, though, he says he has to put the book into context. He then proceeds to summarize the historical context of English usage in America (no small feat) and familiarizes the reader with the major camps (Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist) and key shifting points in contemporary usage debates, in order to then make his argument for the book and its worthwhile contributions to the field. And he does it in such a way that this very SNOOTy topic of conversation holds your interest, even if you care as much about your own language usage as you do... say, the French.

He makes it interesting not only by drawing upon your attention with good writing -- by hitting the hot-button "near-Lewinskian" issues in usage and writing about them in an interesting way -- but in two other ways, as well. He personalizes the topic and generalizes it.

This is applicable to all of his essays-- not only does he know his shit, and write well about it, but in writing about it, he makes it his own and enables his readers to make it theirs, as well. In a nutshell, this is why DFW is great.

In "Authority and American Usage," the essay is filled with (footnotes of) personal anecdotes of his childhood and his mother's insistence upon correct usage, and hearing these particular insights into the writer's early years increases the reader's interest in his writing and the topic of usage. DFW then takes his fleshed-out understanding of usage and applies it to common parlance, to pop culture, to academic usage (I love how he attacks the phenomena of Political Correctness,) and (most illuminatingly) to politics, and beyond... it is here that he shows you how the lexicographical debates engaged in by a cloister of SNOOTs in these dense reference books actually have heavy load-bearing consequences in the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and he makes you (the reader) at the very least pause and look into the mirror and ask yourself, "Have I ever really thought about how I use the language that I call my own?"

DFW's ability to enact this pause in the reader makes him a great writer-- not merely "this generation's best comic writer" as J. Keirn-Swanson, of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, blurbs on the back of my paperback copy of his book. He may be the generation's best comic writer, but to laud him as such when he is so much more than comic in his writing, well... it's just flat-out irresponsible for Keirn-Swanson to characterize him this way.

I compared DFW and HST above, but in doing so, I didn't mean to suggest an equivalence in their writing. The contrast is stark. HST was gonzo journalism, the 60's counter-cultural literary equivalent to, say, today's shock jockeyism of Howard Stern. HST did not engage his subject matter like DFW in its journalistic writing, nor did he engage himself and his readers in its subject matter, as well.

I thought to compare the two writers because 1) they got paid to write pretty much what they wanted to and 2) they both killed themselves. The latter must have been at the forefront of my thoughts. Wallace's death in September last year passed here without mention in this blog, and after reading his last essay collection, I felt compelled to comment upon the man.

With HST, we lost a larger-than-life personality and celebrity that transcended the medium (journalism) in which he wrote. With DFW, we lost something larger. He not only transcended his medium, but he sought to transcend humanity through his writing, as well. He was less a great writer than he was a great philosopher who brought his wisdom and keen insight upon the world to us via the written word.

In praise of DFW, in my copy of Consider the Lobster, David Lipsky, on NPR's All Things Considered, is quoted as saying, "After reading him, I feel buzzed-up, smarter-- I'm better company."

While HST's death surprised few, given his uncompromising train-wreck lifestyle, DFW's death was truly tragic. I've read that it was a straying from his anti-depressant medication that led to his suicide, so his death can be viewed as largely accidental. I like to think of his death this way. I like to think of him as having slipped and lost his footing while doing our culture's heavy lifting, thought-wise.

I like to think if he hadn't slipped, and continued to write, we'd continue to gain a better understanding of ourselves, to be better company to one another. I think we lost as close to an Atlas as can arise in our time, and in a world that is increasingly less and less comprehensible, his absence will be sorely missed.

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