Monthly Archives: February 2009

An Article from the Future

A friend of mine told me about this article (amusingly dated 9 March) about DFW from the New Yorker. It’s quite an interesting read.

From Rain Taxi

Here’s a nice little piece about Wallace. There’s a relevant sentence about “Octet” 3/4 through.

Wittgenstein in the Book Review

Just thought I’d share Jim Holt’s review of Alexander Waugh’s new book The House of Wittgenstein

Forever Overhead

“She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking.   And now you have made yourself part of it, too.   The rhythm seems blind.   Like ants.   Like a machine” (12).   I’ve always loved stories in the second-person narrative like this.   I know that it’s just a tool writers use to draw the reader into the story, but I totally succumb to it.   It makes the story feel more personal to me, and especially in the case of DFW it forces me to consider the comparisons I can make between the narrator and myself.  

“You decide this needs to be thought about.”   Okay, let’s think about it.  

“It may, after all, be all right to do something scary without thinking, but not when the scariness is the thinking itself.”   Jumping off the high dive for the first time is scary, so it’s okay to do it without thinking.   But the second half of that sentence seems to be saying that it is not okay to not think because you are scared of thinking.   This statement sounds redundant when you spell it out, but I think DFW is trying to say something a bit more subtle here than just that.

“Not when the thinking turns out to be wrong.”   To be afraid of thinking is to be afraid of exploring your thoughts, or to be afraid of expanding your horizons, or challenging your beliefs.   Is DFW giving us a little lecture here about how we should not be afraid to challenge what we think?   I think he might be.   After all, in many of his stories DFW seems to be trying to locate something that is “real,” whatever that may mean, and in order to locate this “real” thing he needs to break down those unreal beliefs that we all blindly trust.

“When it all turns out to be different you should get to think.   It should be required.”   When we notice that something is different from the way we have always thought it was, then we especially cannot be afraid to think about it.   We should require ourselves to push what we believe in order to determine what is real and what is unreal, what is right and what is wrong.  

But, “The lie is that it’s one or the other” (16).   In class we have talked a bit about how DFW seems to have this ethical code, a moral standard against which he judges the people he writes about.   But when DFW himself does not live up to this code, does that make him a hypocrite?   He at least points out these failures and shortcomings, and by pointing to them he seems to show that it is possible to correct whatever wrongs he has committed.   However, the more DFW I read, the more I start to feel like there really is no way to point at what is right or wrong, or real or unreal.   The lines are all blurred, and I think DFW would say that’s something that we just have to learn to deal with.

Bear with me

In a conversation with an unnamed classmate who had just finished reading “The Depressed Person,” she (i.e., the unnamed classmate) asked me why it was that Wallace, in writing about the depressed person’s inability to communicate, had also seemingly lost his ability to communicate (all those “i.e”s!). The story is not, in the conventional sense of the word, enjoyable. We feel, as readers, a pretty dire frustration. We are in unceasing  intellectual  and emotional pain, as readers, driven to the bounds of madness by this incredibly repetitive and deeply annoying narrative. Sound familiar? Sound like someone we know?

It is up to you whether or not you like the story’s overall purpose, which is pretty clearly to frustrate and annoy and pain the reader. You can’t really deny, though, that it achieves its goal in this regard. In short, “The Depressed Person” is aiming to make us feel some fraction of the desperation that our main character feels. We don’t have to be in the story for very long before we want out.

At the same time, from a  different  perspective, there is something terribly impressive about what Wallace  has  done. Without knowing about his Depression, the story strikes us as a stunning feat of  imagination. It seems that Wallace has somehow managed to imagine the unimaginable. Once we know about Wallace’s Depression, though, its real power lies beyond the Intentional Fallacy. Its real power is tied up in our suspicions about the author’s reality, and just how difficult it must have been for him to articulate the terrifying and frustrating and  emotionally  wrenching contents of his own mind. It in many regards make us suspect authorial Depression, even without de facto knowledge of it.  How could anyone really imagine so intricately the permutations of this Disease?

And that, it seems, is a principle that can carry over to nearly all of Wallace’s stories, certainly  to all the stories in Brief Interviews. We must read these stories generously, the way we would read Joyce. (In reading parts of Ulysses, it becomes important to back away from the text and ask honestly what reaction Joyce thought certain stylistic choices would elicit. Parts of the novel are annoying and  over-stylized, but it always makes us better appreciate the parts that strike us as genuine and straightforward. [e.g.: compare  narrative  style of “Cyclops” with Bloomcentric sections]) We must realize, in order to genuinely understand or critique, that the author has a stunning level of control over his text, and that he almost  certainly  realizes the effects his work will have, even (particularly) on a sentence-by-sentence level. The unease we feel in “Octet” or certain parts of the “Brief Interviews” is part of the text’s goal. Wallace’s frustration becomes our frustration, a struggle to communicate felt on both sides.

Of course, to read these things the way I do, you must commit the Intentional fallacy and, more importantly, the Affective Fallacy. But there’s just no other way to read self-conscious, unconventional fiction. The nontraditional nature of these texts is certainly intentional on the part of some authorial agent – the stories do not have any pretense of telling themselves – and fiction really has no purpose except to create a reaction in the reader, to affect.  These stories in particular seem designed to elicit reactions in the reader, few of which will be amusement or pleasure.

It is also important to admit that I am willing to allow Wallace more patience and benefit-of-doubt that I would nearly any other writer (Joyce gets similar treatment). I read his books as works of genius, possibly where they do not warrant such generosity.

Anyway, just a brief rambling on. Thoughts?

Octet- interhuman sameness or obscene secret shame?

In “Octet,” DFW claims that he wants his piece to do all these incredible things. I admire his ambition, but I’m not atr all sure he suceeds. I want him to suceed in producing “belletristic fiction” that “works,” but I really don’t know if “Octet” is anything more than some “mortal gymnastics equiptment” (156).

For starters, why doesn’t DFW actually just “ask the reader straight out whether she feels it, too, this queer nameless ambient urgent interhuman sameness” (157). Why does he create a barrier to that sameness he claims to so urgently feel by hiding behind this metafictional “you”? He claims that the “unfortunate fiction writer – will have to puncture the fourth wall” (157), but does he? He comes so close, and this is what frustrates me the most: he acknowledges, at length, exactly what he would have to do to puncture this fourth wall; he knows how to do it, but he can’t, and I think the big question, the one the stories in the octet and, perhaps more importantly, DFW’s seeming inability to actually come out and be honest, asks us is:

Can we ever transcend/stop hiding behind our own self-consciousness and become truly, genuinely “other-directed” (138)?

We are ashamed of our self-consciosness because it is a sign of self-involvement, but isn’t that shame just self-involved on a whole new level? I.e. if DFW just came out, unarmed, and said “‘Do you like me? Please like me‘” (154), would that be more, or less, self-involved? Is there any way to penetrate that wall? If “the idea of sayig this sort of thing straight out is regarded as somehow obscene” (154), does that mean it actually is obscene? Is it obscene (improper, immoral, indecent, all those bad things) to be totally naked/unarmed? Isn’t it only obscene because we’re trapped in a fourth wall of post-lapsarian/post-modern cynical self-consciousness and “secret shame” (141)?

In Pop Quiz 6(A), “X’s secret conflict and corrosive shame finally wear him down so utterly and make him so miserable at work and catatonic at home that he finally swallows all pride and goes hat in hand to his trusted friend and colleague Y” (139). My Pop Quiz question for DFW (who I really think needs to be quizzed here) is why can he write characters who do this but never do it himself?

My question to you- do you think he succeeds? If so, WHY/HOW?

Pretty compelling truth in a page and a half

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace examines dozens of human tendencies or compulsions that produce emotional pain or confusion.   The one-sided interview format personifies these issues, making them not only easier to read but also more entertaining than otherwise. One of his short stories, however, “The Devil Is A Busy Man,” contains no explicit emotional or sexual dysfunction, yet exposes just as much about human nature as the longer interviews.   Here DFW riffs at once on human cynicism and on the nature of family relationships using the voice of a young child.    

On some level, we as readers already know that people are often, if not always, skeptical about anything that’s being given away without compensation.   Everyone loves free stuff, but everyone is also suspicious.   This suspicion and cynicism about giveaways, even with charitable intentions, has ingrained itself into modern capitalistic culture.   There is no free lunch.   That’s why potential customers would act curiously around the narrator.   “They’d shake their head and talk to their Mrs. and dither around and about drive Daddy nuts because all he wanted was to give an old tiller away for nothing and get it out of the drive and here it was taking him all this time jickjacking around with these folks to get them to take it” (BIWHM 70).   When the father changes his ads to include a price, even a dirt-cheap one, the general consumer response shifts.   “Where’d you get it at what’s the matter with it how come you want shed of it so bad” (70), becomes “Tickled to death to get an old harrow for next to nothing” (71).   Next to nothing is far more attractive than nothing.   Adding monetary value to something worth nothing makes it way easier to get rid of than instead relying on the charitable spirit of the seller.   The father only figured this out due to frustration, but that makes the principle no less true.   The logic is basic, as the consumer is always aware of the seller’s motivation, but Wallace calls to attention the cynicism necessary for this to become the dominant normative trend.   Using a child’s traditionally innocent point of view also helps to emphasize this contrast. This notion may influence the title, but likely there’s more to it than I can figure out.   Any ideas as to the title’s meaning?

The narrative also illustrates some of the dynamic of familial relationships.   It is immediately apparent that the father and child are close, even if their daily interactions are gritty and at times profanity laced.   The child has even adopted some of the nuances of his father’s speech, like the cursing and probably “jickjacking” and “some fool price” (70).   When people show up to buy the father’s junk, the child notices, “Their faces was different and their wife’s faces in the truck, fine and showing teeth and him with an arm around the Mrs. and a wave at Daddy as they back out” (71).   As opposed to faces “all closed up like at cards” (70), it could be that money and successfully negotiating markets tend to reinforce relationships.   That good feeling from beating the system (but not really because they could’ve gotten their item for free) is founded upon the idea that monetary value should be emphasized over basic charity.   This idea has taken such deep root that it affects even deep human interaction, like family interaction, which only institutionalizes this cynicism and drives it deeper.  

It’s pretty incredible to see DFW convey so many ideas (and there’s definitely way more to say about this piece than my little bit), so effectively in such a short space.   Perhaps it’s a testament to not only interesting perspective but also careful characterization.   Both of these qualities seem to mark many of these stories, especially the brief interviews.


Appearance in “A Supposedly Fun Thing”

One of the things I found most interesting in the “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” essay was DFW’s almost neurotic attention to his own appearance as it is seen by the crew and his fellow cruisers on the cruise ship. It’s something we touched on in class for a moment but didn’t really discuss in detail.

The most obvious example of DFW’s concern over his own appearance is when he calls for room service in his cabin. He writes:

Usually what I do is spread out my notebooks and Fielding’s Guide to Worldwide Cruising 1995 and pens and various materials all over the bed, so when the Cabin Service guy appears at the door he’ll see all this belletristic material and figure I’m working really hard on something belletristic right here in the cabin and have doubtless been too busy to have hit all the public meals and am thus legitimately entitled to the indulgence of Cabin Service. (296)

DFW essentially creates a false image of himself in order to justify, to whoever will bring him his food, his need to order Cabin Service when there are so many other eating options available on the ship. He seems to have a fear of being judged. In this particular case, his need to create an outward appearance also stems from the guilt that he feels from indulging in such extravagant pampering. (This is connected to what we were talking about in class w/r/t DFW’s self-conscious hypocrisy of questioning the excessive pampering, but at the same time, indulging in it himself.) But, he ultimately creates a façade of himself in order to escape judgment or criticism from whomever he comes across.

Another example of DFW trying to control others’ judgment of him is in his relation to Captain Video: “Captain Video’s the only passenger besides me who I know for a fact is cruising without a relative or companion, and certain additional similarities between C.V. and me…tend to make me uncomfortable, and I try to avoid him as much as possible” (308). He deliberately avoids C.V. because he doesn’t want to be connected in any way to one of the ship’s “eccentrics.” He doesn’t want to be seen as weird or eccentric himself.

I have a feeling that both of these instances of DFW’s self-consciousness stem from his own dissection of everything and everyone around him. In his militant attention to detail, DFW makes very pointed and sometimes unflattering (though usually wonderfully funny) descriptions and critiques of those around him. And though all of the descriptions are truthful and probably unembellished, a lot of them are not particularly complimentary. When he first arrives at the pier and sees all the cruisers in their cruise-wear, he points out that “men after a certain age simply should not wear shorts…they legs are hairless in a way that’s creepy” (272). And when playing ping-pong with Winston, he also notes that “Winston also sometimes seemed to suffer from the verbal delusion that he was an urban black male…” (329). Now, both of theses comments aren’t necessarily mean or untrue, but they are delivered in a fairly critical way.

Because DFW notices and reports on all of the minute eccentricities and oddities of everyone around him, his own self-consciousness must stem from the fact that he doesn’t want to fall victim to any criticism himself. He seems to have a slight fear of being that person that he makes fun of or judges. So when he can, he tries to make himself seem as he wants others to see him, in order to avoid putting himself in a position that might allow others to scrutinize him in the same way he analyzes others. I don’t really think this means that DFW feels much guilt for his unflattering descriptions of people, for his descriptions are all truthful. But maybe this causes him to feel some pangs of self-reproach? I’m not sure.

In realizing that on the ship DFW creates appearances of himself, it makes more sense now to assume that the DFW-narrator that we get in the essay is also somewhat of an appearance, some type of persona. Not that the DFW-narrator is completely different from who DFW the author was, but what we see in the story is probably just a slight alteration of his actual character. Just as he does on the ship, in the essay he creates himself to be how he wants us to see him: funny, affable, insightful. And he is wildly successful.

Dreams in Infinite Jest

In the first hundred pages of Infinite Jest, a number of dream sequences occur, at least two of which are directly related to the Enfield Tennis Academy. One of these dreams, which begins on page 61, is not in conjunction with a specific boy at the E.T.A–in fact, it is not clear who the narrator of this scene is. Rather, the dream is told in the second person, giving the reader the sensation that he or she is the one with the terrible nightmare. One aspect of this dream that is particularly interesting is that, while described as a nightmare, it’s not particularly frightening. The narrator describes a face in the floor of the dorm room on a student’s first night away from home; he describes how “all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face . . . a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong” (62). While perhaps startling, the face in the floor seems more like a cheap Halloween trick than a frightening nightmare. The dream also has a universal quality to it, despite the extremely specific information given-the narrator claims that “you lie there, awake and almost twelve, believing with all your might” (63). Yet the use of the term “you” somehow fools me into feeling more connected and in tune with the dream (even though I’m not and never was a twelve year-old boy).  This universality and seemingly unreasonable fear makes me think that the motif of a face in the floor is going to come up in Infinite Jest again-it seems too strangely emphasized here to have no further direction or connections later on.

Another dream sequence that interested me belongs to a specific player at the E.T.A: Hal. Beginning on page 67 (and very close to the other dream sequence, I’m now realizing), Hal describes a recurring dream that he has about a tennis competition. He states that “the whole thing is almost too involved to try to take in all at once. It’s simply huge. And it’s public.   . . . we sort of play. But it’s all hypothetical, somehow. Even the ‘we’ is theory: I never get quite to see the distant opponent, for all the apparatus of the game” (67-68). Interestingly, Hal discusses how “unpleasant” this dream is, and how it was “beginning to grind me down and to cause some slight deterioration in performance and rank” (67). In fact, to get past this recurring dream, Hal has to resort to drug use before bed in order to calm himself down enough to sleep through the night. But as with the last dream, this one is not at all frightening-it too seems somewhat comical and exaggerated, particularly given that the tennis court of the dream is “the size of a football field” (Ibid.). While this dream helps explain Hal’s penchant for pot, it seems less universally important and less likely to come up in the novel than does the other dream.

It seems as though in these two passages, Wallace is making some sort of a commentary on dreams, particularly ones that seem frightening but are really just exaggerations or have comical undertones. It is interesting that, although both dreams involve the E.T.A., only one actually involves tennis, and this is the dream that is much more specific to one member of the academy. Furthermore, both of the dreams are startlingly complex, more so than most dreams that are later remembered are. Perhaps this is just a testament to Wallace’s descriptions and attention to detail, or perhaps these details will somehow become important-either as they are now or transformed in some way-later in the novel.

Note: mistake in class today

Today I said “The Depressed Person” is in Oblivion. It’s not. It is in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and we will actually read it for Monday, which is good. My bad, though.