I cannot believe this class is over

I debated for a little bit whether I should write this post or not. I didn’t want it to be cheesy, but it’s really hard to believe that this class has ended. Our project for this class was so big (possibly infinite?) in so many ways–if we count the number of pages, the number of blogs, the number of hours. But there’s more to this class than the monumental workload. I’ve never taken a class like this before, where the issues we dealt with and the points of discussion were all so pressing, so urgent, so relevant, and all so related to our lives. Maybe this class will be a once-in-forever-class, never to be taught again. But even if it does get taught again, it will be taught at a different time, a later time, when temporally, everything will not be as near or immediate. Maybe this doesn’t even make sense. Anyway, it’s just hard to believe that this has come to an end. It feels like we all stumbled across a hole, jumped into it together, and dug deeper into it throughout the semester, and now, we are walking back out of it–feeling bittersweet and wishing we could all just sit around the classroom and discuss Wallace’s stories, novels, and essays together just one more time. Echoing what an earlier blog post said, It’s been fun. And it will be well-remembered. I wonder what I’m going to do with a DFW-less semester next fall. Or how closely these texts will stick with me into the future.

Wanted Pages

Something I’ve just noticed: there’s a link on the “special pages” page of the wiki to a page called “Wanted Pages,” which lists all the pages that have been linked to within the rest of the site but that don’t yet exist. Seems like good territory for page-creation, if you’re seeking something to do…

This became a stream of consciousness

I wanted to talk about the last two stories that we didn’t get to discuss last Monday from Consider the Lobster which were “The View from Ms. Thompson’s” and “The Host.” These were some of my favorite stories in this collection because they have  reoccurring  themes that we have seen in Wallace’s works. Such as the nature of humans and what I think he might label as “lack of humanity.” I say this for one reason: I think Wallace is trying to tell us in his works how far society has destroyed man. Well not society per se but  criticize  how humans function now.  

For example in the Broom of the System  we were shown the degrees of manipulation one can go to in order to achieve what they want. We see Vick Rigorous and how he is able to, or at least attempts to, manipulate Leonore to become his object of affection; I think this shows a prominent human characteristic. That we want to be in control and when we don’t have what we want we will reach such negative extents in order to achieve our goals.

Furthermore, we see a comparison between a self and an other    which I think Wallace presents in many of his works. That we cannot define ourselves and need someone, or something to show us what we aren’t, and in this way know what we are. Such as the example of the black dessert in Ohio and the representation it has for the population. This reminds me of a play by Jean-Paul Sartre called “No Exit” where the 3 main characters are stuck in a room together which the reader can assume is hell. The characters debate amongst themselves and compete for each other and we get examples of the lack of satisfaction one has when they cannot see themselves and instead need someone else to tell them who they are, what they look like, etc. This is a trait I see in many of Wallace’s works; the idea that we do have an inner debate with our selfs and our  others.

Which brings me back to these last two essays of Consider the Lobster. What struck me in these essays was the images brought up and how inhumane they were talked about by the characters in the essays. In “The View from Ms. Thompson’s” we see the after effects of 9/11 in a small town and the sudden movement of patriotism shown by the American flags. It disturbed me that the show of patriotism came only after such a tragic event happened, the fact that it took something catastrophic like that to give people a sense of pride made me feel like this was flag showing was false pride.  

In “The Host” one of the first images that horrified me was when John Ziegler was upset that the media was not willing to show the Berg videotape of the American soldiers beheadings. You would think that people wouldn’t want to see such images but the comment here is at how willing and anxious we become for watching something like that. It just reminds me of movies now a days like Saw and … [well I don’t watch scary movies so you can fill in the blank] and the acceptance that exists of watching such  gory  images. I felt Ziegler’s need to watch that tape was showing a lack of humanity and distance from being human if you can be okay watching the beheading of another human being.

I realize now that this post became more about general themes seen in Wallace’s works that stuck in my head rather than just those two essays I mentioned I was going to talk about. I guess this is okay since it is my last post and like many other posts before mine, I wanted to share a bit about what I learned this semester.

Its Been Thoroughly Enjoyed

It’s over.

It’s over!

It’s over?

This is the last blog I’ll ever write, and I’ll admit, the timing couldn’t be better. At the same time, this blog has been an amazing platform for exploring personal questions Wallace has stirred up in my head, and it has considerably expanded my understanding.

At the start of the semester, we read the McCaffery interview. Throughout this course one quote has stuck with me. He claims that the distinguishing quality that separates good writing from bad writing lies in:

be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow”.

The first time I stumbled on this quote I took it to be a standard by which I could evaluate Wallace’s own writing. He writes after this:

“Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this”

I can’t avoid the fact that Wallace’s death, the blow that it was, has undoubtedly affected my interpretation of his words. Though, when he mentions “be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader”, his death shouldn’t be thought of as a way of instilling his work with a sense of posthumous prowess. I think this quote has lasting significance in my mind because it communicates how much heart, mind, and soul Wallace strived to fill his work with.

Another memorable quote taken from the McCaffery interview, perhaps due to its thematic prevalence throughout Wallace’s work, is:

“The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness.”

This thought seems to become a fact after reading the loads of substance abuse and degrees of distance from reality present in his writings. What I find most compelling about Wallace’s body of work is how exactly frustrating it can be. This frustration likely comes from a combination of Wallace’s superior intellect and insight in respect to my own, and how his work can be either fiction or nonfiction, but no matter what, it always has room for philosophical meditation.

The feature of Wallace’s work that leaves me asking can be mind-blowing frustrating, but at the same time I know that this is one of the reasons why I like him so much. Most of the work that I currently read raises questions or offers areas of ambiguity, but in the end clarifies these areas and leaves me with a sense of satisfaction. This satisfaction though is so accurately described as an “anesthetic against loneliness” though, and that’s the problem. Wallace’s work, on the other hand, frequently leaves me unsatisfied and questioning and this seems to be the real point. In my opinion, Wallace’s work is most meaningful and provocative because of the questions it leaves unanswered. It fails to provide a quick fix, but leaves in its place a weird hung over feeling inside of you. There’s something uncomfortable about not knowing, and knowing that you might never know, but in the end it’s infinitely more gratifying knowing that something is there to be figured out.

While I’ve grumbled over my keyboard on several Sunday nights, this blog has really helped me begin to hack away at some of the questions I’ve gathered from Wallace’s work. Its been fun.

the man behind the words

This weekend I had to sing at the alumni memorial service because I’m in glee club.   After we sang, we sat up on the stage while President Oxtoby read all the names of alumni and faculty who died in the past year.   I found myself oddly surprised when he read off “David Foster Wallace,” and moved on to the next name.  

                      When Wallace died I had barely been at Pomona a month and had absolutely no connection to or knowledge of him or his work.   So it seems odd to me that now, after his death, I have a much stronger connection to this man than I ever did before.   I was surprised to hear his name in the service because he has become more alive to me throughout this semester.   He’s played a role in my thoughts that never existed before this class.   It’s really odd to me that I feel like I have become friends with this man after he is already gone.

                      But I know I have not.     I have become friends with the voice of Wallace as a writer, not Wallace the person.   I only get samples of what he is like from his authorial voice, and while I would have liked to know the man behind the words, all I can try to absorb is what he has left us in language.   I know I have to be fair and try to separate Wallace’s life from the fiction, to allow him to create without automatically assuming that everything is coming straight out of his own life.   But I do believe the reader-writer relationship Wallace has created is almost as close to human as possible for an author.   It’s not so much the experiences of characters, but his own vulnerable and relatable voice behind them.

                      Which brings me to what I think is astounding about Wallace, particularly in my experience.   Wallace’s voice somehow creates an entire person behind this work.   There is not a stone wall behind the narrator, nor an empty space.   No matter how ridiculous a narrator might be, I have always felt like Wallace is standing right there behind the words.   It might be comforting, maybe powerful?   A connection that does not leave me lonely, because while many authors might step back and try to distance themselves from the actual text, Wallace’s daring is in his willingness to become intimately close to the reader, to embarrass himself at times, and to maybe bear a little too much.

                      There is this frustration with the limits of language.   We’ve discussed it numerous times and I am always left wondering if this is really how Wallace felt. Was he just so limited that he often felt unable to communicate?   He kept writing and communicating because he knew he could attempt it better than most.  I am most thankful for this.   I find a lot of hope in Wallace’s writing.   Despite the human sadness and hopelessness that he is able to illuminate quite brilliantly, Wallace’s human voice that trusts that we will listen and listen carefully gives me a lot of hope in our abilities to trust people.

Gately’s Upbringing and the Origin of Addiction

Keeping it simple this time.  So, towards the end of Infinite Jest, DFW gives us a detailed look into Don Gately’s past and looks at the beginning of his substance abuse problems.  All this invites the reader to guess and check, trying to pin down the cause of Gately’s downfall, but there is so much wrong, that it becomes just a vague, futile game.  Why does Gately end up how he does?  

Gately, high school football star, could not handle the academic part of high school, relying for a while on compassionate teachers and one drug synthesizer/tutor named Trent Kite.  School had no real end or set of results in Gately’s mind, and neither did his outside life, given his broken family life and friend circle that focused on substance abuse.  All he had was football, and even then, “Quaaludes and Percocets were lethal in terms of homework, especially washed down with Heffenreffer, and extra-especially if you’re academically ambivalent and ADD-classified and already using every particle of your self-discipline protecting football from the Substances” (905).  He’s still in high school here, but having gotten such an early start, I think it said he started at nine, the addiction has already taken on a life of its own, deserving of it’s own capital “S,” Substances.  Once Gately’s Mom went to the mental institution he fell off completely, coping by trying newer and harder drugs and letting them take over his football career, a battle he lost unfortunately early.

Gately’s story’s a sad one, but brings up one final point about addiction: where does it come from? I mean exactly? Clearly we all don’t need such a tragic story like Gately’s to become addicts, but it would certainly push me down that road.  Is it something everyone is capable of?  Or is it more from a set of outside factors?  Some combination?  Would Gately still have been an addict had he not been in such a harsh school and home environment?  Or is it in him anyway?  Is it in everybody anyway?  God I don’t know.  Thanks everyone!

Faces and Floors, Beginnings and Endings

The end of Infinite Jest-abstruse and surreal-in a way brings the reader back to the beginning of the giant novel. Images from the first scenes of the novel float into the last scene, with Gately lying in the hospital room, feeling disembodied and gravitating his attention toward the floor.

Gately’s feeling and perception of disembodiment reminds us of Hal’s description of the cold room of the university administration office in the opening pages. The narrator informs us in the end that Gately experiences a physical sense of disembodiment:   “Gately felt less high than disembodied…his head left his shoulders” (981). Although Hal does not explicitly describe his own sense of disembodiment, the entire first scene deals with the university deans’ concern with “using a boy for just his body” (10) and the haunting disparity between Hal’s voice in his head and Hals’ voice-or “sounds” (14)-projected and heard by the people around him. Why is this sense of disembodiment present in both characters, and furthermore, in the bookends of the novel? How is Gately’s experience of disembodiment different from Hal’s, if at all?

Not only do Gately and Hal experience a sense of disembodiment themselves, but they also display a keen awareness of disembodied heads and faces around them. In the end, Gately perceives only faces (with the exception of the chinks and the Oriental-who are not exactly described, but just sort of thrown into the picture). The narrator, as if through Gately’s eyes, describes, “P.J.-J.’s face was gray and blue. The floor came up slowly. Bobby C’s squat face looked almost pretty, tragic, half lit by the window” (981). Thus, the concluding narration gravitates toward faces as opposed to whole bodies or whole people. The difference, between Gately’s perception of these faces and Hal’s, however, lies in that Gately describes these faces in vivid detail, as if they are close and familiar to him, while Hal describes what he sees as simply “heads and bodies…Three faces have resolved into place above summer-weight sportcoats and half-Windsors” (3). Hal seems to be far more detached and distant than Gately in relation to the faces they identify. What accounts for this difference in their perception of faces? Is Gately’s ability (or Gately’s narrator’s ability) to vividly express these faces indicative of a trajectory of progress or some kind of healing or convalescence by the end of the novel?

Another commonality between the first and final scenes of the novel is the recurring image of the animated floor and its relation to the two main characters. With respect to Gately, the floor moves upward. In fact, the floor’s upward movement coincides with and intercuts Gately’s description of faces (see quote above). The narrator explains that “the last thing Gately saw was an Oriental bearing down with the held square and he looked into the square and saw clearly a reflection of his own big square pale head with its eyes closing as the floor finally pounced” (981). Thus, a pouncing floor (and an Oriental) stand out as the last things Gately sees and as one of the last images we as readers receive. Meanwhile, the word “pounced” dictates a sense of violence and in particular an animalistic one, which can be traced back to metaphors comparing Gately to animals throughout the novel and to Hal’s animalistic tendencies in the beginning:   “This sort of awful reaching drumming wriggle. Waggling” (14). Hal, on the other hand, seems to talk at or even to the floor:   “‘There is nothing wrong,’ I say slowly to the floor. ‘I’m in here'”(13), and later in the novel, we discover that Hal has nightmares in which he sees faces in the floor. Does “I say slowly to the floor” suggest that Hal simply looks down when he speaks these words, or does Hal actually talk to the floor? Is there something-another world or a phenomenon-on the other sides of these floors that the novel consistently and insistently wonders about?

An Interesting Parallel

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been reading DFW for the last couple months, but when I was watching this lecture by Randy Pausch (professor at Carnegie Mellon) I was seeing Wallace-ian elements everywhere.  The way that Pausch unpacks cliches to reveal important truths made me think of AA in Infinite Jest, as well as Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech.  This lecture is worth watching in its own right, but also interesting in some of the ways it parallels some of the ideas in Wallace’s works.


I’ll start off by saying that it’s been a pleasure. There was a part of me that was hesitant to take a course for which I’d already done all the reading and the subject of which is so close to my heart, but the class hasn’t disappointed. My biggest fear was that the joy and pleasure I get from DFW’s work would be sucked out by being forced to reread and write about it. Though I’m sure some of us are burnt out on DFW – after all, we’ve read about 3000 dense pages of exclusively his work this semester – I’m still going strong. My biggest hope for the class was that I would get to spend time talking and  working  with other people who care and think as much about DFW’s writing as I do. I spend a really unhealthy proportion of my time reading and rereading and thinking about his work, and I’m glad to know now that I’m not the only one around here.

So I’ll devote my last blog post to what has stuck with me most strongly this semester. It is a single line from one of the first weeks of class, but is has informed the way I’ve thought about Wallace’s fiction and literature in general for the last three months.  In his interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace proposes that “good fiction’s purpose is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” (McCaffery 127). Reading Infinite Jest with this notion in mind helps to explain a great deal about the text, and also helps us determine the methods behind the book’s success (or failure). After all, Infinite Jest is in no way a normal piece of fiction: it is extraordinarily written, extraordinarily structured, extraordinarily dense, extraordinarily long. It is a daunting bundle, impossible to see fully through any single lens, impossible to grab hold of entirely with any single analytical handle.  Nonetheless, we must determine which single analytical handle will give us the best grip. Given the book’s density, length, and obvious ambition — and given a desire to get to the very heart of the novel’s intent — it seems reasonable to frame our discussion in terms of Wallace’s writing’s most fundamental goals. Fiction’s general purpose — comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable — is the best way to grab hold of the bundle.

And the above framework applies just as easily to Wallace’s other work as it does to Infinite Jest. It even applies to the nonfiction, I think. It wasn’t until I read that line in the first week of class that I got a real sense of what it is in Wallace’s writing that makes it resonate. What makes Wallace’s nonfiction so extraordinary is that is has the same goal of comforting that side of us which is afraid and disturbed while simultaneously forcing us to keep thinking, even when it makes us uncomfortable. “Consider the Lobster” is a perfect example of this. Wallace forces us think about unpleasant philosophical questions and simultaneously admits that he has no satisfactory answers either. Even as we are asked to confront our most basic instincts, we are given implicit permission to fail in our  reconciliation  of desire and thought. “TV and U.S. Fiction” is like this, too. And so is “Up, Simba.” And “A Supposedly Fun Thing” and etc. You know what I’m talking about.

This, I think, is why Wallace found writing nonfiction a little bit easier than writing fiction. Confronting the real world through real experience requires feats of empathy and imagination more ordinary than those required by writing good fiction. Fiction involves creating entire worlds and entire perspective with this goal in mind. In nonfiction, the world and perspective are given.

Even as I try and fail to get a handle on the infinite complexities of his work, one thing I can’t help thinking is that everything he tried to do was, in this way, wonderfully simple.
Signing off now, I’ll admit what was my most basic and simple motivation for taking this class. I don’t think I realized it until just now, actually. Since September, I have been grasping for ways to separate the man Dave Wallace from the work he created, the work means so much to me and has comforted me through many of my formative years. There are some easy but ultimately unsatisfying intellectual ways to this, I’ve found. I’ve tried to let the philosophy and morality that rises from every page of his work remain alive and valid even after its author’s awful death, to keep them legitimately separate. I wanted to take this class basically because I thought it would force me to  intellectualize  DFW’s work to such a degree that I might really be able to think about what happened with some distance, but I’ve found that no amount of philosophical acrobatics, literary theory, or close analysis can really get me there. The good thing is that I’m less and less sure that we need to separate the work from the man. I’m less and less certain that Wallace left us as high and dry as I felt he did in September. I’m more and more certain that feeling both comforted and disturbed is precisely how Wallace would have wanted to leave us.

Bill Murray and the Wu-Tang Clan

“You know, before I gave [coffee] up, I used to drink it every night, every single night, up until it was time to go to sleep, just to make me dream faster. You know, like when they flash those cameras on those Indy 500 cars, and they just fwhoowishfwhoowishfwhoowishfwhoo. That’s how my dreams were, just whizzin’ by.” – GZA, from the “Delirium” section of Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes”

Last post. Man, too much pressure.

I picked the above line for several reasons. One, Jim Jarmusch is awesome, and the movie is doubly awesome, and GZA and RZA drinking caffeine-free herbal tea while Bill Murray drinks coffee straight from the pot is more awesome still. But anyway. The other reason is because I’m kind of feeling like it’s all just blurred together, like an endless stream of cars passing you on the track. Blink, gone.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t learned a lot. There’s something particularly valuable about getting people together and just talking about literature – something I’ve sorely missed having. Even coming back to works I’ve read (more or less) in the past opens up bold new prospects. DFW is particularly good for this. I’ve discovered themes, plot points, and details in IJ that I’d never dreamed of noticing the previous time, and all of his works have expanded my view. It would be a rare day that I would come back from DFW class without my hand covered in brainstorms, sketchy ideas, or revelations to incorporate elsewhere in writing and life, and that’s pretty damn impressive for a class I almost didn’t end up discovering or getting into. Pretty damn impressive indeed.

And I can at least say to myself that I came close to the real thing. Part of the reason I came to the Claremont Colleges was because DFW taught just down the street, but I never had the chance to share the campus with him. It’s kind of painful, actually, to hear recollections from former students, envying them their experience while sympathizing with them for their true loss. It’s like the universe, fractured into an endless framework of coincidences, circumstances, split decisions, random occurrences, and opportunities, all collapsing and coalescing. The world out of control… it’s hard to deal with, lost time. But I digress.

I don’t think there’s much to be said, honestly. Ironically, there really seems to be little uncovered, unturned. All that’s left is time to say