Author Archives: erinlikescupcakes

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.

a quote and questions.

“I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”

I was going to write a blog post on something we’d just read, but this sentence scared me so much that I could only really focus on what it means.   It’s a piece of the Kenyon speak that DFW made and it’s quoted in a recent article on,  Sorry there are so many questions in my post.

First, I appreciate the bluntness of this statement.   Wallace lays it out like he sees it.   He’s not trying to comfort us in the least, and his statement gives an air of urgency- if we don’t “get” this liberal arts education, are we doomed for life?   Will we forever be “imperially alone”?   And conversely, is the liberal arts education the only thing that can free us from being slaves to our heads?   Sometimes it seems to me that we end up being slaves to our heads in a different, conscious way, because we learn to examine and analyze so thoroughly.   Wallace’s statement is all about consciousness and being able to step out of our comfortable ways of thinking.   But how does this make us less alone?

I’m wondering if I need to take this whole liberal arts thing more seriously.  Wallace is pretty honest and serious himself here- liberal arts just might be our savior from being trapped in our own heads forever…?  So really, this whole thing is supposed to bring me to a place where I can escape loneliness?

Throughout the course of all these readings, I have struggled to understand whether Wallace really believes we can be free.   Unalone.   Somehow connected with the rest of the world.   I see a straining and a hope for connection, and I see Wallace encourage readers to look beyond themselves.   I see Wallace analyze and criticize just what it is about people today that makes it so difficult to not feel alone.   But is there really, truly a way out of this solipsism?   Can we eliminate it just by figuring out why it’s there in the first place?

Perhaps education is a solution, but I’m unsure whether simply learning how to think differently can change our degree of loneliness.   This is what our education is “supposed” to be about, but just how successful is it?   Often it seems that Wallace comes to the conclusion that we might be trapped in this box.   How specifically do his characters end up being free from the constraints of language and selfishness?

-Choosing not to let that questioning side take hold.   In “Good Old Neon,” this David Wallace character must quiet the dark part of him that contemplates suicide.

-Finding other lines of communication.   People find connection physically, without words or language (think BOTS)


what i like about the kafka essay:

Wallace’s handle on what we, Americans, find funny.   He has the anatomy of our humor down pat.   His explanation of the painful dissection of a joke (61) just about gave me the same pain.   I would never have come up with the same explanation, yet it feels just right in its explanation of just how jokes work.

His deep understanding of the American sense of humor hasn’t failed me yet.   And I appreciate his knowledge of the everyday reader- not someone in academia or the upper-eshilons of literary analysis.   He respects our dislike for the analysis of humor.   He wants to allow us to just enjoy the humor without having to rip it apart and examine each piece to see how it works.   Rather, as he is trying to explain through Kafka’s work, there is a chance to step back and see humor at face level.   To stop looking a million layers deeper and allow Kafka’s work to be funny for what it is and what it says about us.   It’s almost as if we have been trained against reading the way that Wallace is asking us to read Kafka’s stuff.

I found that a lot of Wallace’s descriptions of Kafka’s writing ring true for his own work.   This doesn’t pertain to all the descriptions, but the parts about Kafka’s writing being “nightmarish,” with characters that are “absurd and scary and sad all at once”(63) reminded me particularly of Oblivion.   Perhaps Wallace’s humor is packed with more wit and irony, more entendre and cyncism, but I have also seen and resounded deeply with his honest characters.   They are not caricatures, just as Kafka’s authority figures are not “just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed”(63).

Wallace’s hold on language and its place in our lives also enhances his analysis of Kafka’s humor.   He notes that Kafka’s writing draws upon our intuitive leanings on particular words.   But this part got a little confusing for me when I considered the translation- surely, “take shit” is not the same phrase with the same connotations when it is translated from Russian to English.   The words Wallace suggests students look at are words that we have specific connotations with because of our experiences with language, so I’m not quite sure how the translation would work, and he only addresses this for a second.

The whole word relation thing becomes interesting once again in the English Usage essay- specifically, his argument about language being inevitably public.   We naturally have private associations with words, but they only come from our association within a community.   It’s these communicative associations that seem to be important with the study of Kafka’s work.    

not quite finished

After finishing Oblivion, Good Old Neon, Mr. Squishy, Incarnations of Burned Children, I felt a little frustrated with Wallace.   Not that the stories don’t live up to his normal standard of writing.   To the contrary, some of these, including Good Old Neon and Incarnations of Burned Children, might be his best short works.   But it seems that in this collection Wallace really doesn’t want to placate the reader.   Each time, we are left before the moment of completion.   We’re close to being resolved, but not quite close enough to be satisfied.    And it’s not just that the endings are difficult to interpret.   We’re left (it seems to me) with a hollowness that lacks the unfamiliar twinge of hope or at least humor that we usually find by the end of Wallace’s pieces.  

My interpretation of this is a bit like my mom’s favorite life lesson- instant gratification.   As readers, we are always seeking a gratification of our needs right away: our need to be calmed, resolved, entertained, fulfilled, completed… Throughout the DFW stuff we have read, it’s always been a challenge for us, as readers, to trust and hold on rather than give up.   Wallace likes to make us wait a bit with the promise of understanding later.   But these stories seem a little mean at times.   He keeps dumping stuff on us at the last minute: what is with the last dialogue in Oblivion?   The whole story I was dying to see Hope embarrassed to find that, in fact, Randall was truly awake and not snoring each time she yelled at him.   He had me right on a leash, following to the end to see exactly who is at fault.   And the end dialogue, from what I got out of it, was trying to point toward something completely different, with no winner or loser(reality vs. dream?   relationship? whaaaat?).   Not to mention the lack of resolution of this creepy sexual step-father complex everyone has that is fairly disturbing and unsettling.   I couldn’t even quite decide whether I liked the narrator, because the whole Audrey obsession thing seemed fairly normal to him by the end.   Similarly, in Mr. Squishy we seem to be waiting for something the entire time.   Descriptions and exposition seem like build-up and preparation for the main action that is to come… but somehow the main action never comes.   Is the main action actually the build-up?   Did we completely miss the point waiting for the real exciting part to come?   We are so accustomed to getting to the climax that we miss what comes before.

Even in Good Old Neon I felt frustrated by the end.   Yes, the narrator does the deed that he’s been readying us for all along.   He’s promised to do so, and follows through in describing what it feels like to die.   But the end threw this “David Wallace” spin at us too quickly to resolve.   We’re left sort of in the lurch, uneasy.   I was hoping for at least another page of some kind of slow unravel.   Rather, David Wallace is introduced to us on the second-to-last page and sort of blows through an entire emotional battle/ inner turmoil before we quite get what is going on.

Not to complain.   Surely Wallace has reasons for making these endings more difficult for the reader than usual.   And I think it’s more than just making us work harder.   I can’t help but lean toward some cliché “carpe diem” thing, you know, enjoy the moment before you get dumped off to soon at the end.   That somehow our lives become these waiting games, pushing towards that thing that we think we’ll maybe achieve tomorrow or next year.   Or perhaps the joke is on us, because we have allowed Wallace to string us along waiting for the main action to take place (Mr. Squishy), or for our expectations to be proven true or false (Oblivion).   Maybe we, particularly as American readers, have come to expect some sort of trauma to come (Mr. Squishy).   From what I know of Wallace, there’s got to be something philosophical going on in these dissolved endings.   Thoughts??


Maybe we already mentioned this and I totally missed it, but I was googling IJ and ran across the “poor yorick” passage in Hamlet.  We noticed the connection with the movie production company in the footnotes, but I just realized that the title of the book might be derived from this passage as well:

Let me see.[Takes the skull.]Alas, poor Yorick!–I knew him,
Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he
hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred
in my imagination it is!


thoughts on burned children

First off, from my first read I got the impression that the child died at the end of the story, because “by then it was too late”(116).   But reading it again, it seems that he lives despite “whatever was lost” and grows into an adult who can work and live.   But this living is “untenanted,” empty, lacking a soul.   So is the boy actually alive?   Could be that he is living physically, but when his soul left him to remove itself from the pain of the burns, it never came back again.   By this ending passage it seems that his soul is bouncing back and forth between the body and this distanced position, perhaps because this is the way the child has learned to deal with pain.

After reading some reviews of the story I became curious as to if the ending was really necessary.   This last section, beginning with “when it wouldn’t stop” and finishing out the piece, softens the overall intensity of the piece.   Somehow the pain is able to transcend with this last passage, and the story feels cheapened.   The visceral impact of the story, with everything steaming and sizzling and burning, is somehow wrapped up into this floating imagery of falling rain and the sun setting and rising.

I think DFW’s illustrating the way a child so scarred and damaged by an experience is able to survive and live without dealing with the pain.   With this idea the ending is justified, because DFW has to somehow show us how the child might possibly live.   But I felt disappointed by the ending, because it seems that after all the described trama, the poetic explanation of the child’s existence isn’t really fair.     The explanation of his transcendence doesn’t give enough weight to the pain and fear that the child must still bear.

The story becomes universal with its neutrality- the parents are only Daddy and Mommy, and the child doesn’t even receive any proper title other than the child or the toddler.   The setting’s general description allows for it to have occurred in any home in America.   The gender roles here become a little problematic- why must the mother remain helpless while the father, with his “man’s mind”(114) is the one who moves quickly into action?   The father’s frustration with the mother’s fear and inaction paints her into the role of helpless female, unable to react in a time of crisis.   I only suggest this because the universal feeling of the story might imply that this could and has happened with many mothers and fathers.

thoughts on constant worship

I think it was last Wednesday when we went in depth discussing AA, and what Wallace might be saying about our “pursuit of happiness.”   The whole idea of constant worship, our constant submission to some power, really stuck with me.   This is the idea that we are constantly worshipping something- be it alcohol, rehab, drugs, God, sex, math, whatever.   The idea with AA was just to transition into worshipping something else, although I’m not exactly sure what one is worshipping- recovery?   Truth?   Some kind of raw admittance that one is messed up?   Or perhaps what AA is looking for is just the acknowledgement that one is always worshipping.   Perhaps by knowing that we are always worshipping we can be more aware of just what and how we are worshipping.

 I was curious as to what DFW had said more on this topic directly, and although I think this link was already posted, I wanted to look at a piece from his Kenyon graduation address:

“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

The first part might reveal something about DFW’s view on religion.   He sees religion as the only form of worship that might keep us from being “eaten alive.”   But beyond this, he sees another option- one that might not even include a higher power.   If somehow we can be constantly conscious of our worship, choosing to worship rather than “gradually slipping into it.”   It is this conscious choice that can make life deliberate, because we are always aware of our aim.  

This deliberateness is what can make me see religion as beautiful.   A belief in a higher power requires us to consciously look outside of ourselves and our attempts at ruling over our lives to look to something greater.   But here DFW suggests that the real reason to choose a higher power is simply that there may be nothing else that can allow us to live.

DFW begins suggesting this alternate lifestyle, and it is difficult to define.   It doesn’t sound like it necessarily involves religion, but just an awareness and effort.   I’m unsure, however, as to how this sheer effort can completely get rid of “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”     Where does that gnawing go once we start trying harder?   It seems that our efforts to be aware and to consciously love others can come to the very same empty gnawing as we feel in addiction.

Where does AA stand in all this?   I think it definitely leans towards a sort of awareness and change in our style of worship.   Just whether it can get rid of the gnawing completely (rather than just numbing the ache) I am not sure.

sexy math?

Can we talk a little about DFW’s use of the word “sexy” in Everything and More?   I know it’s minor, but the word choice proved to be distracting for me.   Every time he noted that something was for “sexy technical reasons” (73) I was completely put off and spent a while trying to figure out what he could possibly mean calling a mathematical theory “sexy.”   I came to two options: either DFW is forcing humor to criticize our society’s obsession with sex appeal, or he genuinely believes that this math stuff is sexy.

At first I thought maybe DFW was being a little ironic.   I’d never venture to call anything mathematical sexy.   It just seems silly to refer to something that is logical, lacking emotion and passion, and probably written in a textbook as sexy.   Perhaps the usage of the word is a kind of nod to the way the media these days likes to use the word “sexy” to describe basically anything.   This comes up a lot in advertising, where anything from Kleenex to apples can be marketed as a sexy product.   We’re eager to label something sexy to sell it to someone, because sexy has become the desirable adjective.   The placement of a math theory next to the word sexy seems like the extreme outcome of our strange fascination with sexiness.

So is this all in jest?   Is the “sexy” terminology here poking fun at the way pop culture can turn anything into sexy, even numbers?   Or does DFW genuinely believe math can be sexy?   Certainly he finds math to be “beautiful” (1) and wants to convince the reader of the same.   But sexy seems to be a bit of an extreme- do we even want to see math as sexy?   I’m a bit hesitant.   DFW seems to view the complexities of complex math to be compelling.   He would like us to engage and become somehow personally involved with the concepts in this book.   But is anyone actually convinced that infinity is sexy?

It comes to this question of whether math can be emotional and personal.   Is it simply objective and purely logical, or is there personal feeling involved?   I’d guess that someone with more experience in math than me could explain a mathematical intimacy that I can’t quite comprehend.

where’s the love?


“Suicide as a sort of present” presents a common issue of relationships and their almost inevitable dysfunction.    At first glance it might seem that this mother’s attempts to become her child’s “lone refuge in a world of impossible expectations and merciless judgment” (286) would strike one as loving, driven by a mother’s unconditional love for her child.    But for this mother, both the desires and hatred she possesses for her son are simply manifestations of her deep insecurities and self-loathing.    So really, everything that the mother does in relation to her son is just an outward expression of her own feelings about herself.    She lives in a  constant cycle of trying to redeem herself in both her own eyes and the eyes of others.    I’m not sure which comes first- the desire to please others or the desire to please oneself, but the two are intertwined and continue to wrestle one another.    The cycle is illustrated as a banking system, with funds and accounts filling and emptying as the mother attempts to fill up and empty out her own self-hatred.

I can’t help but feel that this piece is one of DFW’s most hopeless ones.    It pretty much lacks the familiar irony and friendliness of most of his stories.    Some familiar language, colloquialisms like “a hard time indeed” and “heavy psychic shit” remind the reader, at the beginning, that this is DFW speaking and not some objective viewer, but this feeling sort of wore off for me as I went on.      He gets to the point of trying to speak “from an objective perspective” (285) which seems fairly contradictory to his normal efforts to remind the reader that nothing written is objective.    So why is DFW leaving us here without any assurance that there is hope or a solution? Is this simply another explanation of what suicide can be?    It might change our views of why people become suicidal in the first place.    Somehow the son’s death is sacrificial, as he becomes a martyr for the sake of his mother’s pain.    But we learn that not even this action stems from love or devotion, but only the son’s own psychological need to please and repay his mother.    Every action that might seem loving is explained here purely for its psychological motivation.    Everything is driven by need, hate, or inadequacy.  

I came in expecting, by the title, that eventually this mother-to-be would kill herself as a present to the world, or as a present to herself.    But by the end, I’m assuming that (correct me if I’m off!) the son is the one giving the gift of suicide.    The son’s carrying of his mother’s burdens is not what I expected, and logically we know that doesn’t fix anything- does it?  

I’m left with a better understanding of how relationships might lead to suicide, and the ironic possibility that the taking of one’s own life might in fact be a gift to another… but I’ve never felt that DFW would leave me with such despair and no hope of getting out.    


someone understands me!

So I related quite personally to Supposedly Fun Thing.  Last spring break I went on an all-expenses paid Royal Caribbean cruise to Mexico, expecting it to be the trip of my life.  Cruises are supposed to be all luxury and fun and convenience.  Instead, after spending days watching the same conga-lines and crazy cruise directors DFW describes, I felt this impending angst and unease.  In all its luxury and splendor, the cruise ship screamed overconsumption and faux joy to me.  Since someone else was paying for my trip, I felt guilty even thinking about this.  I was, of course, grateful for the experience, but the whole cruise thing really was kind of disturbing.  People I met in the hot tub proceeded to tell me about the nine other cruises they’d been on- they call themselves “cruisers.”  There’s this whole kind of world of people who cruise around, having food and staff on hand at any hour of the day.  DFW’s essay gave me much relief; finally, I had found someone who feels the same way I do.

I appreciated the way DFW made this a comical adventure, engaging his approachable yet intelligent sense of humor, while still managing to make cultural commentary.  Or at least raise some questions about consumption that echo his views about tv and society.  He recognizes this “unbearably sad” (261) feeling about the ship.  Maybe that’s just a physical thing, explained by the huge vastness of the ship and the relative smallness of a person.  He further expands on this feeling of smallness and selfishness, the “wanting to jump overboard,” the despair.  I don’t think it’s a matter of size or the vastness of the ocean.  The cruise ship is a manifestation of all of our culture’s desires- youth, convenience, luxury.  Having literally everything provided for you.

It’s similar to the idea of television.  You can literally go through a day on a cruise ship without cleaning up after yourself.  The waiter at my dinner table continued serving all the desserts on the menu until we flat-out refused.  Things are being shoved at you left and right, offers for activities and merchandise and drinks.  Your interaction is completely your choice because there is no need to make an exchange (other than money.)  It’s just instant satisfaction at your fingertips.  I often wanted to be able to wander around the ports for longer, to be able to get lost and talk to locals and shop in the markets before having to rush back onto the ship.

Ok, so I probably sound like cruise ships are hell on the ocean.  It’s just a vacation for a few days, an escape into relaxation and peace.  Maybe it’s ok for it all to be artificial; at least the people are nice and everyone is having “fun.”  But it just became apparent to me throughout my trip what an incredible, and sometimes frightening, little microcosm of overconsumption the cruise ship displays.  Sometimes I really wanted to throw up or jump off.  But now, at least, I know I’m not alone.