Tag Archives: dfw

A Supposedly Fun Thing (a book review)

I wrote a review of David Foster Wallace’s book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in 1997 for the late great Boston Phoenix, whose archives don’t seem to be online anymore.  (SOB)

But I have a pdf copy, so here it is, for my own reference, and yours if for some reason you need it!

I should have anticipated this and downloaded all my Phoenix stuff. The first pieces I ever reported were there, a short one about a Michael Moore rally and a long one about the MLA. They’re gone. But wait! I was able to recover the MLA piece from the WayBack Machine.  Thanks, WayBack Machine!  I’ll post that later.



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William Deresiewicz gets David Foster Wallace now

Just looking at William Deresiewicz’s piece on Mark Greif in Harper’s, where he writes:

Like David Foster Wallace, albeit in a very different key, Greif is willing to be vulnerable, to forgo the protections of irony and nihilism.

True!  (At least of DFW; I don’t know enough about Greif.)  And satisfiying, because I complained before about Deresiewicz mischaracterizing Wallace:

As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.

Maybe he reads my blog!

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Although of course you end up becoming yourself

It’s mostly a book-length transcript of an interview David Lipsky conducted with David Foster Wallace in March 1996.  I’m about a quarter of the way through.  It’s hard going — hard meaning sad, not hard meaning difficult.  Notable things:

  • “In those essays that you like in Harper’s, there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am.”
  • Something that I think has been retroactively forgotten about DFW is that he meant his writing to be in the experimental, avant-garde American tradition; he was thinking about John Barth, and I guess about Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme too, though he hasn’t mentioned them yet in this book.  I think this has been retroactively forgotten because no one cares about that tradition anymore.  When I was an aspiring fiction writer everybody read Barthelme, but I haven’t heard him mentioned in years.

Some googling reveals that DFW did like Barthelme.  In fact, here’s a whole interesting chunk of an interview he did with Larry McCaffrey:

For most of my college career I was a hard-core syntax wienie, a philosophy major with a specialization in math and logic. I was, to put it modestly, quite good at the stuff, mostly because I spent all my free time doing it. Wienieish or not, I was actually chasing a special sort of buzz, a special moment that comes sometimes. One teacher called these moments “mathematical experiences.” What I didn’t know then was that a mathematical experience was aesthetic in nature, an epiphany in Joyce’s original sense. These moments appeared in proof-completions, or maybe algorithms. Or like a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions. It was really an experience of what I think Yeats called “the click of a well-made box.” Something like that. The word I always think of it as is “click.”

Anyway, I was just awfully good at technical philosophy, and it was the first thing I’d ever really been good at, and so everybody, including me, anticipated I’d make it a career. But it sort of emptied out for me somewhere around age twenty. I just got tired of it, and panicked because I was suddenly not getting any joy from the one thing I was clearly supposed to do because I was good at it and people liked me for being good at it. Not a fun time. I think I had kind of a mid-life crisis at twenty, which probably doesn’t augur real well for my longevity.

So what I did, I went back home for a term, planning to play solitaire and stare out the window, whatever you do in a crisis. And all of a sudden I found myself writing fiction. My only real experience with fun writing had been on a campus magazine with Mark Costello, the guy I later wrote “Signifying Rappers” with. But I had had experience with chasing the click, from all the time spent with proofs. At some point in my reading and writing that fall I discovered the click in literature, too. It was real lucky that just when I stopped being able to get the click from math logic I started to be able to get it from fiction. The first fictional clicks I encountered were in Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” and in parts of the first story I ever wrote, which has been in my trunk since I finished it. I don’t know whether I have that much natural talent going for me fiction wise, but I know I can hear the click, when there is a click.

I quote the whole thing in order to concede Wallace is in some sense disagreeing with my disagreement with James Wood.

Anyway, here’s “The Balloon.”  And here’s my favorite Barthelme story, the one whose presence in a high-school anthology made me want to be an avant-garde fiction writer, “A Shower of Gold.”



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David Foster Wallace was not famously depressive

The LA Review of Books, reviewing Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s All Things Shining:

It may seem strange for a book about the good life to make such an extended example of Wallace, given that he was famously depressive and hanged himself.

No!  David Foster Wallace was not famously depressive.   Lots of people who read him very, very thoroughly, including me, didn’t know he suffered from depression until after his death.  His depression is only intermittently present in his writing and never governs it.  To read his books as a warm-up to his suicide is to waste them.

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David Foster Wallace did not write Catcher in the Rye

William Deresiewicz drills into the soul of the modern hipster, or purports to, but in his capsule generational roundup we get this:

As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.

This is in fact the exact opposite of what happens in the fiction of David Foster Wallace, unless somehow the phrase “late ’80s and early ’90s”means that WD is using the phrase “the fiction of David Foster Wallace” to refer to The Broom of the System only — and even in this case a better argument would be “their affect ran to obsessive self-examination and an overreliance on analytic philosophy as self-help,” which, let me tell you, would have made for a much more awesome early ’90s than the one we actually had.

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Franzen blows a joke

Given the weirdly ambivalent best-friendship between Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, it’s sort of a strange choice to invite Franzen to give this year’s Kenyon College commencement address, the 2005 edition of which seems destined to be the essay of Wallace’s that stands in the popular imagination as a portrait of the man himself.  (Not without reason.  And if you haven’t read it, then maybe do that instead of continuing on with this somewhat small-minded blog post.)

Franzen’s essay is good, but I thought he made a mistake in one place:

If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).

Surely the joke is much stronger without Trump, or the parenthetical:  “You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or running for president.”  Then, instead of going for Leno-style yuks, he’s actually gently reminding the high-achieving students at a fancy liberal-arts college that an unreflective drive to achieve, and to win, is second cousin to corrosive melancholy.  That would have been a good nod to Wallace.  And it still would have gotten laughs, while gently turning the knife.

Instead, Franzen talks bird-spotting, reiterating the similar material in his much-discussed New Yorker piece on Wallace and solitude.  This part didn’t sway me.  Jonathan Franzen likes birds, we get it.  Not all enthusiasms have a lesson to teach.

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A Supposedly Shining Thing

My friend Sean Kelly has a really interesting new book coming out:  All Things Shining:  Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (with Hubert Dreyfus.) Lest that sound retrograde, note that the circle of “Western Classics” is drawn broadly enough to include David Foster Wallace.

The book has a blog, as books do.  Today’s entry is actually a short conversation between me and Sean, about my favorite paragraph in Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and what it has to do with Sean’s argument about Wallace, Nietszche, Melville, and the ocean.  Sean was kind enough to let me read the chapter on Wallace in advance, and it’s great; I hope other DFW enthusiasts will read it, and the rest of the book too.

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Duel at Dawn

Speaking of Galois, my review of Amir Alexander’s Duel at Dawn is up at BN Review today.  The book draws an interesting connection between the Romantic literary area and the invention of the “romantic” mathematical hero, of whom Galois is obviously the sterling example.  But Alexander commendably reaches past the endlessly-repeated Galois story to cover a lot of material less familiar to readers of pop math; I learned a lot about Abel, Bolyai, D’Alembert, and Cauchy (who was constantly getting rebuked by his deans for teaching epsilons and deltas in first-year calculus!)

The uncollected and very worthwhile David Foster Wallace essay “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama,” which I mention towards the end of the piece, can be found in .pdf here.

Also, writing this review gave me the opportunity to use the word “emo” in print for the first time.  I hope my younger readers will let me know whether my usage is roughly correct.

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Don DeLillo to David Foster Wallace, on reading math

Kottke has a scan of some correspondence between Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace: a DDL->DFW letter from 1997 and a DFW -> DDL from 1992.

This from DeLillo is striking:

Once, probably, I used to think that vagueness was a loftier kind of poetry, truer to the depths of consciousness, and maybe when I started to read mathematics and science back in the mid-70s I found an unexpected lyricism in the necessarily precise language that scientists tend to use  My instinct, my superstition is that the closer I see a thing and the more accurately I describe it, the better my chances of arriving at a certain sensuality of expression.

So work hard on your papers, folks — a great American novelist might be nicking your prose style.

There’s also an interesting and strange bit from DeLillo about how he pays attention to the shapes of individual letters on the page, trying to make a pleasing pattern of “round” words and “tall” words.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this from a poet, but in a novelist it seems (to use DeLillo’s own word) superstitious.  Is it possible this is really contributing to the effects he’s trying to achieve?  Look, I’m a hardliner on the point that how a sentence sounds is more important than what it means.  But this comes off fussy, even to me.

Wallace’s side of the correspondence is mostly a fan letter.  I was pleased by his love for End Zone, my favorite DeLillo novel and undeniably the funniest.  He suggests that a piece of Infinite Jest “owes a rather uncomfortable debt” to End Zone; which piece?

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