Category Archives: discussion

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.

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.

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.

all at once

I feel like this class would have been a lot different if I had been in, as they say, a ‘different place.’ My freshman year I blogged my heart out, but now I just feel like I’m running out of gas. Probably senioritis doesn’t count, but it sure feels like it should. (It may not be senioritis. It may be Wallace-itis. Something that fills and deepens a need I have yet to pin down). Thanks to Wallace my poetry has improved and I’ve been experimenting with footnotes. The aspect of Wallace I enjoy most is his humor. Something I recently liked was the bit about someone reading Howl aloud in a Chaucerian accent. Also; “You’re the second most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, the first most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen being former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher” (925).


This class has pretty much defined my semester (perhaps my year), and it’s all I can talk about. My dad said, “Sorry for talking you into that class.” It’s a strange body of work to be digesting right as I’m heading out.  On Friday I was overjoyed to be done with Infinite Jest and I’m looking forward to discussing it. Last night when everyone was having a jolly time at the Seven Deadly Sins party all I could talk about was the different kinds of depression.   Today I wiki-ed for a little while, and I got pretty overwhelmed (is emotional distress a sufficient excuse for anything anymore?). I don’t know if I have the right kind of something for this kind of thing. All I want to write about is Infinite Jest and I told my dad today that I’m going to reread it this summer. Who knows if I actually will, but it’s a nice thought.


I can’t get the room full of all the meat he’ll ever eat and all the excrement he’ll ever shit out of my head. So maybe that’s my problem. Like Hal, I’m thinking of everything all at once. Joelle tells Gately “this is why I couldn’t get off and stay off…Did you ever hear of this fellow Evel Knievel? This motorcycle-jumper?” (859).  Side note: Also, I was sure that something was going to happen between Joelle and Gately.

The Pale King: Boredom, the Tradition of Being Dull, and Originality

Boredom, the Tradition of Being Dull (or The Tradition of Boredom), and Originality

DFW’s novel about a group of IRS agents attempts to tackle the topic of boredom in perhaps what is perceived to be one of the most boring of professions: that of the tax accountant. I say “perceived to be” boring because it is the profession that Wallace chose as the center of his novel and being a right-brain person I perceive most left-brain activities to be innately boring when they don’t require the right brain’s functions.

Though in thinking about why DFW decided on accounting as a profession to analyze boredom, why he took classes in accounting as prep, I start with a theory I call the “Tradition of Being Dull.”

This tradition is one where an institution believes that being professional means being humorless, dry, tedious, by-the-book, repetitive, uninteresting, characterless, bland, bromidic, humdrum, lifeless, mundane, stodgy, unexciting, tame, wearisome, and generally un-creative.

An example from my personal experience is when I suggested books for the freshmen summer reading.

I recommended Jon Stewart’s “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction” and Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America (And So Can You!).”

Both are public figures popular among the freshmen student population and both bring attention to news events that frosh most likely would not have heard about otherwise – the results of last year’s Pew Survey showed that watchers of their respective news shows are more aware of current events than viewers of “real” news channels.

Link: Report on Pew Survey on HuffPost

Poll results:

The Colbert Report 34%
The Daily Show 30%
News magazines 30%
O’Reilly Factor 28%
Lou Dobbs Tonight 27%
C-SPAN 24%
Daily newspaper 22%
NBC News 21%
Letterman/Leno 20%
Larry King Live 19%
ABC News 19%
CNN 19%

(My summer reading was a book by Fareed Zakaria, and his network (CNN) ranked at least 15% below Stewart and Colbert, who broadcast for only an hour four days a week.)

Fox News 19%
CNBC 17%
Personality magazines 13%
Religious radio 12%
CBS News 10%
National Enquirer 9%

Considering it’s the last summer before college, providing relief with comedy would ease the transition better than some dry work that probably won’t get read by most students (and if the books aren’t read by the majority, hasn’t the school poorly invested money?)

And though there is data from a respected survey to back up making the decision to make the summer reading something that will more likely be read, the deans respond by saying “we need something more serious.” And thus the deans enforce the Tradition of Boredom even though it may be costing them money.

On the flipside, The Office acknowledges the Tradition of Boredom and changes one element: it makes the tedious humorous. There is nothing more bland or unfunny than paper products. The writers for the show acknowledge this and their success is the result of bringing jokes into a setting that is usually humorless — this element occurs within the show and in the general idea of why The Office would be entertaining: the audience sees a familiar place and reacts to the silliness of the familiar being broken, and within the show the other “offices” of the corporation are portrayed as being boring and less successful in comparison with the Scranton branch (the story’s main setting) — a story arc involved this analysis wherein the company’s executive (named David Wallace) asks the boss of the Scranton branch what he’s doing at his branch that makes it more success than the others. The punch-line is that the boss doesn’t know what he’s being asked, as his own silliness seems normal to him — it doesn’t occur that he is part of the element that breaks the Tradition of Boredom, and we, the audience find this hilarious and the show seems endlessly successful as a result.

This analysis thus leads me to think that The Office fulfills part of what Wallace wanted to do with his third novel: analyze how boredom breaks down within an IRS-like context.

Thanks for an awesome class

I have not yet finished Infinite Jest, but I would like to write my final blog post now so I can spend Sunday doing Spanish homework and finishing the book in a more relaxed manner, so I guess this is just a random collection of reflections on Wallace’s work and the class as a whole.

Prior to taking this class I had only read one or two of Wallace’s short stories. This was during the summer after I had gotten in early decision and someone had informed me of this apparently brilliant author that taught at my future school. At this point I was pretty obsessed with finally going off to college and anything Pomona related. I bought Oblivion and read through a few of the stories (Mr. Squishy left me rather disappointed, to be honest), but I think I mostly had the book because it was one more thing that I could buy that had some Pomona significance and I   was so pumped to come here. When Wallace died I was really shocked and selfishly disappointed that I never got to take a class from him, but I still had not grasped how amazing and important a writer he was until I started reading some of the articles written following his suicide.

When I was looking through the available courses for second semester a friend informed me that the DFW class had been added to the list. I guess I just took it because it fit into my schedule and I was curious to see what all of the fuss was about. Over winter break I joked with my parents that the course might only entail reading Infinite Jest and writing a book report, and that this would be a plenty big enough workload in itself. When I learned that we would be reading all of Wallace’s work, I got a little worried.

While this has certainly been the most reading I have ever done for a class in addition to a fair deal of work writing on the blog and so on, it has also been my favorite class so far in college, perhaps in my life. The more of Wallace’s work that I read, the more I grow to appreciate his genius and the unique qualities that make his style of writing so enlightening. It would be an educational enough experience to simply read all of Wallace’s work, but to have twenty-some other students, all of whom are very intelligent, as well as a professor who knew the author personally helping to analyze and interpret the writing is a phenomenal thing. I really wish I didn’t have any other classes. It is fantastic that we can all sit around a room and open the doors to new ideas for one another, see things from each others many different perspectives. And the work is such that there is always more to find. Had I been reading these books alone, I am sure it would have been enlightening, but I wouldn’t have come close to the comprehension or grasp of his writing that I have right now.

I guess all I am really getting at is that I am extremely glad I took this class instead of macroeconomics or intro to psychology. Not only have I picked up some new favorite books, but it has enabled me to begin to have an understanding of where literature can go in this era, how our modern day issues ought to be dealt with in writing. I feel an even stronger (selfish) regret that I never got the chance to learn from him when I was in just the right place to now that I have taken the class, but then again, I have learned from him, just not in person.    

Did You Know…

…that “onanism” means masturbation according to the OED?   I didn’t.   That puts a new spin on O.N.A.N.   Or maybe it’s just DFW jokes for joking’s sake.

Considering the lobster

After the usual hyper-observational riffs on the Maine Lobster Festival, DFW asks the question that sets the piece apart from most food/gourmet journalism: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” (243) This seems to be the most salient question, and is often referred to in books reviews that attempt to summarize “Consider The Lobster” or point out what makes it special. But DFW goes on to ask a set of related questions: “Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?” (243)

The last of the related question seems to engage in ethical theory: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals “thinks that the morality of lobster-boiling is not just a matter of individual conscience”. This led me to wonder what the immorality of boiling the lobsters consists in–that there is something intrinsically wrong in the act–as well as whether this vague sense of moral discomfort has to do more with how squeamish it makes us feel (individual conscience). The latter prompts (at least) two further questions: 1) Why does it makes us squeamish to think about what goes on when we boil lobsters? Is it because we feel pain and can therefore imagine how torturous it would be by projecting ourselves to be in a similar scenario? 2) What if someone is simply quite unperturbed and possesses an extremely limited capacity for such squeamishness? What if a lengthy explication on animal rights and the neural make-up of lobsters is met with a blank countenance and a “so what”? Thinking such a person to be morally regrettable would seem to blame the person for having a limited capacity for such moral squeamishness, but can someone be blamed for such a thing?

One of the reasons for abstaining from inflicting harm on others and to treat all other humans as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end is that we all share the capacity for rational thought. It is this rational nature that distinguishes us from animals. The importance of this fundamental similarity is that it provides us with a reason to treat others as we would want others to treat ourselves. Our rational nature affords us dignity and thereby forms the basis on which all human actions have to take as the supreme limiting condition. But I don’t think most of us would consider a lobster rational. What then, would the Archimedan point be, that would enable us to convince a blank-faced-shrug-of-the shoulders-lobster-afiocionado that there is indeed something morally repugnant about boiling a lobster in a pot? Or is there nothing intrinsically wrong about the act itself? Is it that all we can do is to express our distaste for such as act, which would then render PETA and the like sententious and even self-righteous for thinking something subjective to be objective, and wanting to impose (forcefully) what is essentially nothing more than an opinion on others?

Authority and the Usage…

“Authority and American Usage” was to me, one of the funniest stories in Consider The Lobster. The snoot of a character that we are presented with was comical in the way he expressed his love for language. Statements such as his dislike for “people who use dialogue as a verb” made him look as a very nit-picky character who is obsessed with using language correctly. We get the sense that he is snobby, and even though he was funny, he was also an unlike able character because he made me feel like he was talking down to me. On the other hand, there was also a great respect for someone who cared so much about language, and using it properly.

The splurge David Foster Wallace gives in pages 108 and 109 about SWE (standard written/white language) was one of the best aspects of this essay. While giving a talk to students he states his purpose in his course and the need for good writing. Wallace says that “–it’s not that you’re a bad writers, it’s that you haven’t learned the special rules of the dialect they want you to write in.” Who is “they” though? Professors teaching English? Dictionary makers? The fact of the matter is that there is a Standard Written Way of writing, it’s why we have professors grade our papers and mark down it down for syntax, diction, etc. And if we do not follow the standards of swe then we fail (or at the very least get a 0 on a Spanish paper for 5 mistakes on accents).

I was outraged by some of the things he was saying, and I did think to myself how can he say that these are the way things are that we have to conform, especially when in past works we have read Wallace has said that in order to get out of the loop writers are in now they have to write about what they truly think, not what writers think the public will like. But right after that he says something that made me forgive Wallace.

“This reviewer’s own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them” (109).

This I think is his response to acknowledging the way English exists now a days. There is a standard way of writing and it may be bias and racist and whatever else you may choose to call it, but if we ever want to change the standard of writing then we first have to acknowledge it. Which does make sense, in order to solve a problem, you have to understand what is the problem before you can go about changing it. But what Wallace doesn’t answer is HOW exactly we are supposed to go about that change. Ideas?