Author Archives: hopscotch

Thoughts on Up, Simba

As I was reading this story, I couldn’t help but think “what would he say now?” Towards the end of this essay, DFW dwells upon the difficulties of a being a young voter in todays world, that is, how we as a generation are so used to being sold to, that we can’t really believe in anything anymore. This thought process is a constant theme in Wallace’s work of what’s gone wrong in today’s TV obsessed, irony saturated youth culture, that being that we don’t believe in anything anymore. So much of political campaigns is tied up in getting people to believe in a candidate, not so much to believe what they say. Reconciling that goal with today’s culture where supposedly nothing can be said with sincerity is what makes this article so interesting.

Much like after reading “E Unibus Pluram” we discussed what Wallace would say today about TV and fiction writing, what now would Wallace say about youth involvement in politics about the great Obama campaign of 2008. He dwells in “Up, Simba” about how young Americans would simply roll their eyes at the famous JFK musing; “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country!” yet we saw very little eye rolling at Obama’s Grant Park speech in November claiming “Yes we can!”

Does this mean that the cynical age is over, and we as Americans are ready to “suck it up” and believe in a politician or even just another human being again? The overarching theme I found in this essay collection is simply the Wallace yearned for the world of yesterday where people had ideals and morals and codes, and while at times it seems that we are as far away from that as ever, occasionally we can see glimpses of a simpler time. A time where people don’t role their eyes at an inspirational speech, where the media circus around a politician is there to make sure we believe in him, not just sit by as we are sold to his politics.

In short, this post is just simply here to ask exactly what you guys think Wallace would say if he wrote a similar article about Campaign 2008. Are we as Americans ready to drop the cynicism?

Like a Kid in a Candy Shop

As I was reading “Authority and American Usage,” there were several moments that I couldn’t help but just laugh. I was immediately taken by the sheer quantity and length of the footnotes in this story as compared to his other stories, and it suddenly hit me why this was so funny. Reading Wallace write about language directly is kind of like listening to a kid talk about their day at the amusement park. He has so much to say and is so passionate about and excited by everything he is saying, that it comes out too fast. Just like the little kid coming back from Six Flags who can’t decide exactly what he wants to tell you first, Wallace emits that same type of energy in this story.

Not to say that I think this is a disorganized piece. Quite the opposite, actually. Just like the little kid, this story is oodles of fun. Seeing Wallace react this way gives such a nice contrast to so much of his writing. This one, to me, is just pure fun. Beyond the general style of this seeming almost free spirited, there were so many moments that remind the reader of Wallace as teacher that bring a lightness to the story. So often when I am reading Wallace, I forget that he was a professor, and simply being reminded of this fact adds a whole new level of humor to his stories.

Reading footnote 6 on page 70 where Wallace details his experience of turning every class into a crash course on grammar was one of these such moments that made me smile. When we read and discuss and dissect all of Wallace’s books and particularly his discussion of language, now thinking of how he would react to something I write is particularly tickling. Beyond that, I am just specifically touched by exactly how a room full of Pomona students would react to basically being told that they don’t know anything.

Another such moment which really got to me, especially as thinking of Wallace in the politically correct mecca that is Pomona is his standard speech given to a minority student that he offers to us on pages 108-109. Simply imagining this speech being contained within the walls of Crookshanks is one of the more outrageous images made in any of the things we’ve read of Wallace’s to date. After reading “a couple of the students I’ve said this stuff to were offended–one lodged an Official Complaint–and that I have had more than one colleague profess to find my spiel ‘racially insensitive’ (109),” I could practically see the “Bias Related Incident” e-mail that is commonly sent to all students after such a complaint is filed. Granted, I know that this essay was written before his time at Pomona, but I can only presume that he was the same here as anywhere else.

I have very little analysis in this post, and I suppose I have nothing analytical to say about this story, but I simply needed to share just how funny I found this piece to be. After analyzing Wallace and language time and again, we finally are given a rendition of exactly what he things about American usage of the English language, and it is exacltly what I was expecting.

What’s the Difference?

A theme we are often addressed with in David Foster Wallace pieces is that which forms the identity. In Broom of the System, we are addressing this theme through the lens of language, and how much of who you are is tied up in what you say. In Oblivion, we are reintroduced to this idea, although maybe a bit more abstractly. I want to focus specifically on “Good Old Neon,” and how what is lost can really be too much.

In this story, we are being spoken to from beyond the grave by a man who simply could not live with this identity crisis. That is, this character is so tied up in his outward appearance that he finds himself becoming what he wants people to see him as. It is this exact calculated life that leads him to believe he is a complete fraud, and thus cannot bear to live. However, much like Dr. G. mentions, how fraudulent can one be if one knows that he is a fraud?

It is this type of paradox that Wallace really specializes in. How can we believe anything this narrator is telling us if he first tells us he is a fraud? This question is quite provocative, yet the more subtle question Wallace poses really is “What is the difference?” That is, if this person for fraudulent reasons or not becomes “the statue” or becomes the best baseball player, isn’t that just what he is? In other words, regardless of intent, that seems to be what defines his identity. This type of dilemma is analogous to that which Wallace poses in The Broom of the System, namely that you are what you say, or in this instance, do.

This dilemma posed in “Good Old Neon” has the Wallaceian ability to make the reader very introspective and decide for themselves where this distinction lies. In TBOTS, as opposed to this story, we are given fairly concrete proof of why Wallace believes that there is more to a person than words, but in this story, we are left guessing. It is this subtle difference that makes this story more powerful, and particularly honest. In research I did for my paper, I came across a critic who claimed that Oblivion was totally impossible to relate to because of the unrealistic nature of the stories. In this particular one, he claimed that Wallace’s use of a deceased narrator failed to make this story resonate. I disagree completely.

It is exactly in the frankness of this story that I feel the resonation. Because Wallace offers no easy out to the life of a fraud, because he gave us a character who couldn’t handle it and we knew all along he couldn’t handle it, Wallace point blank tells us that he doesn’t have any answer. This story, much like his Kenyon speech, helps his reader think about how they should live their life, and exactly why it’s important for them to realize what’s important. In other words, he is emphasizing the importance of figuring out exactly what the difference is.

Everything and More not quite enough?

My name is Ellie and I am a math major. I admit it, I find myself a hard sciences person enveloped in the world of literature, and I thought that this book would be the missing link in my education, yet I find myself….underwhelmed. I was reading this book on my camping trip over break and my vacation companion asked me, “Could I read that if I don’t really know anything about math? I mean…what would it be like if I didn’t really understand the technical stuff?” I answered that I honestly didn’t know, as I have only approached it from the perspective of a relatively math-savvy person. However, upon reconsideration, I think the answer is quite clear: This book isn’t written for me at all, but precisely for her.

Consistently in the text, Wallace emphasizes his efforts to make this particular book accessible to the non-mathematician, but coming from the other end of the spectrum, I feel a little slighted. I feel like this text, though still distinctly charming in the way only a DFW book can be, is a perfect example of why no one ever writes math in a literary way. Simply stated, you can’t. There are many instances in this section where Wallace attempts to make a very rigorous proof understandable in plain English, and he quite literally loses the definition of the thing mathematically speaking.

Maybe I am being to picky after having had to sit through the rigorous proofs of these theorems and theories and I don’t like to see them boiled down so simply, but I genuinely feel like something has been lost in translation. Wallace himself has claimed that learning the language of math is almost like learning a different spoken language, and I fear that the jump from math to English wasn’t done quite fully.

That small complaint aside, I feel like the parts of the book not spent explaining theory have validated my choices in life. In short, Wallace articulates perfectly the reason I chose to do math and made me feel very good about this decision. The abstraction, the impossibility and the beauty of the infinite and the mind bending skull cracking problems that permeate your skin. When Wallace discusses the perplexing nature of the infinite set of infinite sets on pages 73-74, I am reminded of the first time I was told that something was “provably unprovable.” That is, that it can be shown that you cannot show that there are different “sizes” of infinity (i.e. 1,2,3,… is not “bigger that 2,4,6,…). The class where I learned that was the first time I was totally fascinated and completely baffled by a mathematical concept. In this book, Wallace completely validates that feeling.

I think it is pretty clear that I have mixed feelings on this text. I, like many of you that have already posted, entered this book with a bit of trepidation. After the first 157 pages, it remains. I think that Wallace has spectacularly touched on the interesting nature of the philosophy of the mathematics, but has fallen short in the actual theory. The main point of this post, I suppose, is to see how the other half lives. Without extensive experience in math, is the theory just as riveting as it is something new and different? Or is it just as boring as me talking about my own experienes? Please, elaborate…

Re: Wallace and Psychotherapy

Well, Chris, it’s clear we are in the same discussion group, because the second I read The Depressed Person, I knew it had to be the subject of my blog post. Now, rather than saying anything original, I will just expand on your ideas. There is no doubt that Wallace portrays therapists in a poor light in Broom of the System. Not only is there the incident of the family therapist, but Dr. Jay’s distrubing lack of respect for the doctor-patient confidentiality is enough to keep me out of therapy forever. An important nuance of how he comments on therapy in these two pieces is, however, that in one he insults the professionals and and one the profession.

Not to say that he has a completely wonderful view of therapists in The Depresses Person, after all he does insult her decision to “accidentally” overdose. On the other hand, though, Wallace more goes out of his way to comment on the detriments of therapy. Chris is very correct to point out the problem of dependence, but I think the more striking problem pointed out by Wallace is the problem of the false friend. In walks this depressed person with all of these trust and anxiety issues and she needs to pay someone to listen to her. That is, someone who already has a difficult time including people in her so-called support system has this “friend” in her life that is also on a payroll.

What Wallace is aptly pointing out here is the very delicate relationship that inherently exists between a therapist and a patient.   For someone as paranoid as the depressed person, the fact that the therapist is being paid to sit and listen and care is always going to be an issue. As soon as she begins to think that the therapist cares, she will immediately be reminded that the therapist only cares because she is getting paid. And, is she wrong?

What Wallace has done with The Depressed Person is point out exactly what could be someone’s problem with therapy. Here is a person who cares deeply about your issues as long as your check clears. It is in this problem, I believe, that we truly see what Wallace’s problem with the practice is. In TBOTS, no doubt, we saw that he is maybe not so keen on those who practice it. Truly. though, how much can one really care when his time is worth $90 and hour?

Journalism or Autobiography?

I couldn’t help but continue thinking about the discussions that we had in class today and have reached a conclusion: Does it really matter?

The thing that I have noticed about DFW thus far, keeping in mind that I hadn’t read any before the start of this class, is that reading a piece by Wallace is a completely unique reading experience. That is, none of the articles we read in A Supposedly Fun Thing… where really journalism, but I wouldn’t call them autobiography either, and it is that lack of categorization that makes it so unique.

Like I mentioned in class, I do feel there is a journalistic aspect to what Wallace offers us, but it is a completely different spin on it. Or, more aptly, it is a spin without the writer trying to deny it. When I am gearing up to go to a state fair, I am more interested in one person’s account of the fair than I am in who the administrative bits and pieces work, so in that sense, Wallace has done a fine bit of investigative reporting. On the other hand, it is those little tid bits about himself thrown in every once in a while that makes me feel like what he’s saying is accurate.

Though it seems counterintuitive, the fact that he toes the line between journalism and Dave’s Life Story makes me feel like his reporting is at least honest. Like it was mentioned in class today, every reporter has a spin, so now that it is at least mapped out for me, I don’t feel so much like I am being forced to think what they are.

In other words, DFW is a personal journalist. He goes into the world and reports things, perhaps not in a traditional way, but report he does. So, do I really need to worry about just how I can classify his specific style? Though interesting fodder for discussion, at the end of the day, the fact that I’m not really sure what type of writing I just read is really what keeps me coming back for more.

Midwestern Identity Crisis

This post I am about to make is going to diverge a bit from critique and analysis of Wallace’s pieces, and just focus on one thing that tickles me: Wallace’s struggle to come to terms with his midwestern past.

I have seen this type of tick before in some of my favorite writings, and I might not notice it if I wasn’t also from the midwest, but it is something that always hits my funny bone just so. In many of the works that we have read so far, most obviously in his stories in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Wallace alludes to how exactly the Midwest shapes his identity. Often times, for Midwesterners who migrate to the coasts or even out of the country, they spend the rest of their lives figuring out how their childhood spent lost in the middle changes who they are.

In the case of Wallace, he attributes his love of math and his tennis skill to being from Central Illinois, yet he also claims that the flatness and general ambiguous landscape forced him into these things, rather than free will. Furthermore, in his essay about his return to Illinois for the state fair, how his east coast synicism more or less prevents him from having a good time.

In this same essay, a moment he has with the Native Companion really sums up this identity crisis, and in a way, offers a metaphor for the postmodern dilemma. As NC apologetically enjoys the Zipper despite the overt sexual harassment, Wallace once and for all sees the difference between the Midwest and the Coasts: the cynical coasties (as we lovingly refer to coastal people back home) would get their enjoyment from protesting the sexual harassment, where as a midwesterner would allow themselves the basic enjoyment of the ride in spite of the blatant disrespect of the assholes. (100-102)

This incident, though seemingly insignificant, could be the answer to the question of irony that we have been looking at since day 1. Wallace, who left Illinois to go to western Massachusetts, left the world of simple pleasure to get his cynicism sharpened to “east coast standards,” and despite his efforts to return to his down home Illinois roots, he was incapable of just having fun. In other words, once you go irony, you never go back.

So, what do you guys think? Is this only funny to me as a displaced midwesterner? Can you ever really go home?

Who I am in 493 Words

At some point in every single one of our lives we have been asked to describe ourselves in 500 words. Without thinking about how absurdly difficult that is, we begin to mindlessly put things on paper. I run for fun. I do math. I am from Chicago. These three trivial things nearly always enter my consciousness when I need to describe “who I am” on paper. Given the prevalence of such a task in our society, I have no reason to believe that Lenore (Gramma, that is) is incorrect in saying that “life is what can be said about it (119).”

On the other hand, something inside me knows that that can’t possibly be true. There must exist something inside of me that cannot be put into words, and I think we spend our time in TBOTS learning that very fact. Even Lenore who, ironically, is only a life created out of words and language gives us the sense that she has something more to her by the end of the story. The moment that I felt Lenore’s character developed on its own (that is, through the words of the omniscient narrator…) was after her interaction with Lang. That is not to say that Lang has freed her from her own obsessive nature, but it is only after her talk with him that she is truly free of her connections with Rick and we see a genuine tender moment with her character. It can be said that Lenore’s crying, though it is an event that can be recounted, was the first time we see Lenore expressing something of her life that is not made of words.

And in a true turn of events, it becomes clear (to me at least) that it is in fact Rick that is dictated by what can and can’t be said about him. Rick, the one who so desires Lenore to say in words how she feels, the one who insists on putting their whole lives within a greater context of fiction, is finally the one who (nearly) says that he is a man of his word. Quite literally, indeed.

An earlier post suggests that DFW perhaps goes back on his suggestion that words are immensely powerful in our lives, but I have to disagree. What Wallace does with impressive delicacy is point out that of course words are powerful. Lenore Beadsman allowed words to control her life for 24 years, but what he leads us to realize by the end of the novel is that it is only the unhappy few who are only their words. Rick is a man of his word, Mindy makes her living simply by saying. It is only Lenore, who has this awareness of the power of words, who can overcome it.

As Lenore realizes in her largely wordless exit from the novel, as we as a culture all know unflinchingly, is that whatever you can say about yourself in 500 words cannot nearly say everything.

In defense of TV

I admit it: I love TV. I spent the first 16 years of my life not watching it, and I feel I have used the past 8 to make up for it. For so much of my childhood, I lived on the outside of this cultural “in-joke” Wallace references so often. Since the return of the television into my American household, I have wanted to be in on those jokes I was always want to understand. I by no means sit in front of the television (or, more aptly, computer) for six hours a day and watch my life get enveloped by watching other peoples lives, but I certainly do enjoy it.

Yesterday as I, like record numbers of Americans, sat in front of the television to watch the Super Bowl and its dazzling commercials, it occurred to me that perhaps there has been a sea change in the way Americans relate to their televisions. Although I will not attempt to say that watching large amounts of TV is at all good nor will I even begin to say anything positive about the “reality” TV wave, I think there may be a new condition for the Joe and Jane Briefcases out there.

That is, DFW notes that televisions main appeal is that it draws us into a fantasy world and that, for a moment, we can escape from the hardship of everyday life. He also astutely observes, however, that “as a treat, my escape from the limits of genuine experience is neato. As a steady diet, though, it can’t help but render my own reality less attractive (because I’m not just one Dave, with limits and restrictions all over the place), render me less fit to make the most of it (because I spend all my time pretending I’m not in it), and render me ever more dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasant (75).” But what is one’s reaction to television that shows an increasingly mundane life or a television that focuses on increasingly faulty characters?

What I wish to argue here is that, although we still inhale unhealthy doses of this treat, perhaps it now makes us feel less bad about ourselves. After the Superbowl, I of course stayed on board for the special hour long episode of The Office, and at no point did that program make me feel like my life was anything but splendid. In place of the Cleaver families of classic TV, we have the Michael Scotts who make us feel oh so good about the universe we live in. This is not to say that we are now justified in watching “too much” TV, but rather that TV now holds less of a one-two punch in the downward direction of quality of life.

Now, after I turn off my television, I feel not only good about my life, but also guilt free about the way I spent my last half hour. So, risking sounding unintelligent, I will end this post vehemently defending television, defending what it is doing to our culture, and finally being glad that I am finally in on the in-joke.