Monday, September 15, 2008

Brief Reviews of Cadaverous Men

I woke up today to an email from a friend and a Facebook message from another, both distressed about the apparent suicide of David Foster Wallace. Much like an afternoon in 1994, when I watched a girl stumble through a hotel hallway in Washington D.C., Alice Cooper treaks of mascara running down her face, bleating "Kurt's dead, Kurt's dead—omigod, Kurt's dead," I wondered why this was such a big deal. (Actually, in that case, the first thing I wondered was, "What is a girl who wears mascara doing listening to Nirvana?") It took my working out my thoughts on Joe Posnanski's blog comment section to realize why: David Foster Wallace was a rock star.

I've always had a strange relationship with DFW, none of it personal, naturally. A close buddy in college practically worshipped Infinite Jest, considered it the greatest novel ever written and, if I remember correctly, had personal rules about when and how often he could re-read it to prevent the spoilage of over-familiarity. I hated it. I still hate it.

I wanted to like it. Since this friend, who was also my writing partner and drinking buddy, loved it, I felt like there was something wrong with me when I didn't. It just seemed inconceivable that he and I could both think torturing characters with geography trivia and having an Italian zombie teach bocce to a boy as a means of increasing his masculinity was hilarious but disagree on a novel so massive and so acclaimed that it had to at least be pretty good.

I labored to understand why I disliked it: I felt like I owed it to my friend and myself to arrive at my negativity honestly and after pursuing every alternative of rationalizing an enjoyment. No dice. I've put down so few books in my life that I can count them on a hand, but I got halfway through Infinite Jest twice and twice bailed on it. To this day, I can't tell you what it's about. I seem to recall the least interesting or fearsome terrorists in history, something that was the most entertaining thing in history (which seemed like a cruel taunt at the time, as it seemed to describe the book's polar opposite), someone who played tennis, another person who was a drug addict and endless, endless taxonomies of his drugs, their means of delivery and on what surface he laid them out before taking them.

I have no problems with novels about nothing. I love Oblomov and that's a book about a person who virtually never leaves a couch. I even finished a Nicholson Baker novella, despite the fact that, if a person lost all ability to utter the words "almost completely meaningless," he could merely keep a folded copy of the front cover in his back pocket and flash it at people whenever the phrase was needed. Yet Infinite Jest's emptiness still angers me, because never has the chasm between the worth and grace of a writer's staggering talent and the aimlessly hollow story he tells with it been better illustrated. Years later, I finally understood the searing rage that basketball fans felt while watching Michael Jordan bat just north of .200 for one of the Chicago White Sox's farm teams when I watched as line after line of DFW's God-given verbal sublimity catalogued the heritage of a fucking spliff.

I hate to excoriate a book I never finished, one, furthermore that I last not-finished nine years ago, but Michiko Kakutani's appraisal of DFW in the New York Times made me sputter on the iced tea I was drinking. Kakutani writes
In a kind of aesthetic manifesto, [Wallace] once wrote that irony and ridicule had become "agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture" and mourned the loss of engagement with deep moral issues that animated the work of the great 19th-century novelists.
Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a better example of post-modern ironist detachment than Infinite Jest. Hundreds of pages pass without any violent emotion, either good or bad. He commits himself, over thousands of words of involuted prose, to the insipidity of drug lineage. I can't verify this, but I'd wager he wrote more words about tennis than John McPhee did in Levels of the Game (and that's the greatest book about tennis anyone's ever written). The footnotes — which I've alternately heard described as brilliant, smug or infuriating — repeatedly tear the reader away from immersion in the narrative itself, derailing its pacing with further involution about nothing.

While I don't agree with the "smug" comment, I can see how easily some might see these digressions as Wallace congratulating himself for his unnecessary depth of knowledge about something. (Even Kakutani describes the book as "self-indulgent," "badly in need of editing" and "[clocking] in at an unnecessarily long 1,079 pages.") Instead, I see it as akin to the situation the author finds himself in, in the film The Wonder Boys. Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) wrote a brilliant and critically acclaimed novel years ago, and has labored for a decade on his sophomore effort. Hannah (Katie Holmes), his student and a boarder in his house, finally gets a hold of the 2,600-page manuscript and offers an opinion.
Grady, you know how in class you're always telling us that writers make choices? And even though your book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it's... it's at times... it's... very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses, and the dental records, and so on. And... I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all. And I was just wondering if it might not be different if... if when you wrote you weren't always... under the influence.
I remember watching it and pointing to my roommate and saying, "THAT! That is what I fucking think about Inifinte Jest."

My appreciation for the novel probably wasn't helped by the fact that my criticism of it caused a visiting student to attend my college. He overheard me and decided that the sort of iconoclasm I'd just displayed confirmed that mine was a school of radical thinkers unafraid to ask the tough questions and challenge the highest pieties. Halfway through the first semester of his freshmen year, he'd taken to drinking my brand of beer, smoking my brand of cigarettes, writing retreads of comedy bits I'd written the year before, letting himself into my room uninvited, hitting on my girlfriend and devoting large parts of his mental architecture and conversations with others to speculating about me. Also, everyone called him "Columbine"; he was once forcibly institutionalized by the campus police, and he later turned out to be bisexual, which both explained and darkened his pathological mimicry. Good times.

However, just as my fondness for DFW was at its nadir, I read his article, "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage." I adored it. It was the most fascinating thing I'd read in months, and I talked friends' ears off about it and even mentioned it to my parents despite the likelihood of their enjoying a usage dictionary being virtually nil. I immediately started noticing how quickly people took to adopting neologisms and incorporating usage patterns. (Well, more so than I already did.) I began reading any Wallace essay I could get my hands on.

What they afforded me was another means of appreciating Wallace's curiosity and astounding verbal talents. The trouble with someone who is curious about everything writing an epic (or at least epically large) novel is that, in the compulsion to investigate everything, you communicate nothing. Witness my twice reading 500-600 pages and coming away incapable of remembering any plot. (Witness, too, criticisms that Infinite Jest is a book without an end.) The attempt to literarily circumscribe the totality of human existence leaves you with a tiny smudged sketch of each thing, with few leaping fully three-dimensionally off the page.

With his essays, though, Wallace found ready-made plots within established, concrete boundaries. That he was able to still investigate the human experience via data within the boundaries he'd established for himself speaks to the profoundness of his insights and his gifts of extrapolation and interpolation. The obligation to narrow and focus his scrutiny only heightened his gift for observation while highlighting his verbal gymnastics by giving the reader a conventional background to perform in front of. His collection, Consider the Lobster, is absolutely outstanding.

Around that time, too, I started falling in love with Wallace's voices. I had a college friend who I admired very much, who loved Wallace. He lived in the same apartment complex I did and often threw amazing, marathon parties. I remember once drunkenly explaining my complaints about Infinite Jest and writing off its author with the line, "David Foster Wallace is a fuck" — a callback to an inebriated mistaken insult he once tried to make about obese non-funnyman Louie Anderson and accidentally wound up making about jazz legend Louis Armstrong. (Louie Anderson is a fuck, for what it's worth.) Unfortunately for me, from a foot-mouth standpoint, my friend loved Wallace and was constantly in a state of rereading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

(Of course, when I started to change my opinion about Wallace, I was too embarrassed by my emphatic categorical dismissal of his long fiction to ever own up to my growing fondness for his short fiction. I should have said something, because it was at my friend's parties that Wallace's voices got to me.)

Wallace was the only author I knew who people would sit down and listen to. Granted, in high school, there was always some insufferable wank who’d start reading Burroughs or Kerouac aloud without anyone’s asking him to. But by college, that sort of behavior got bred out of everybody the least bit socially aware (except apparently me, since I still thoughtlessly read at people); literary readings stop having anything resembling social appeal or "a good time" pretty much the instant everybody starts having sex on a regular basis. Wallace was the only exception to this rule, and I don’t really know anyone who minded.

Those NFL-and-barbecue parties at my friend’s apartment were daylong bacchanalias of genial verbal abuse. Everyone getting absolutely wrecked. People walking around with scotch-and-sodas in one hand and a Beck’s in the other, listening to Public Enemy and making fun of Kurt Warner’s lizardwife, Mike Martz's bewildered doughy German Burgher face, and Brett Favre GUNSLINGIN'* another interception. Putting one booze-delivery-device down only when it was time to devour another drumstick in approximately 8 seconds. Often at these parties, someone would tell a story or say something obnoxious, and someone else would say, "That reminds me of this Wallace story/character/phrase," and invariably someone would just fish the book off my friend's shelf (or out of the bathroom) and try to find whatever they were talking about.

* — The term "gunslinger" has long been in use to describe particularly strong quarterbacks who resemble dangerous loners who live out on the fringe and occasionally fire a ball straight through triple coverage for a touchdown. The trouble was that the NFL announcer hagiography for Brett Favre's GUNSLINGIN' kicked into high gear at just about the time he started firing multiple balls per game through triple coverage for interceptions. Sports satirist DJ Gallo suggested that, in the interest of further sloppily praising Favre, we should acknowledge his interceptions for the frozen-rope-right-at-a-defensive-back beauty they exude by referring to them as "GUNSLINGS." Favre is in sole possession of the NFL record for GUNSLINGS at 289. Though none of us thought of this incredibly useful term back then, I like to think we were well ahead of the curve in mocking Favre and announcers' treatment of him and were really just short one excellent word for all of it.

This probably isn't really a great place to make note of this, but I had to do it eventually, because the GUNSLING thing will doubtless come up again. Also, it seems inappropriate to write anything about David Foster Wallace without including a footnote.

Not only were Wallace’s words important enough to a bunch of drunks to actually stop and do research, but people would want to listen. Amid the noise and distractions (most of us were also gambling on these games; not me, because I am a giant wuss), if someone had remembered something from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and tracked down the exact wording, someone else would say, "Screw it, just read the whole thing."

Wallace got individual voices so right that even inexpert and inebriate readers could evoke a unique character just by blundering through the text. Even someone else’s imprecision was secondary to hearing a whole and living voice. This is how I got sucked into a fascination with how he used dialogue to craft a three-dimensional character: standing, with a beer, overhearing a slurry performance of two pages of male narcissism, waiting for my brat to finish cooking.

Ultimately, I might quibble with his long fiction and some of his opinions — "Tense Present," despite being one of my favorite essays ever is also wildly incorrect, prejudiced and mostly unoriginal — but I’ll always remember Wallace for his sound. I may not have liked the point he was making or the person he was creating, but I could sit back and just experience its tone and cadence and richness, in the same way that people who are drunk or stoned can gather together in a room and not utter a single word for all forty-three minutes of Dark Side of the Moon. I had always wondered why fans of Wallace treated him like such a rock star until I finally heard someone read him out loud. People treated him like a rock star because he was. His sound, the drama and animation and wit and humanness of his sound, captivated people. So much so that drunks at a party wanted to sit back and just listen.

Rating: Consider the Lobster, 5; Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, 4
Despite the problems cited with the "Tense Present" article, "Lobster" is probably the most entertaining "serious" essay collection ever written. It's worth it for "Big Red Son" alone, in which Wallace attends the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas. "Interviews," despite the excellence of the language, can simply wear on you. These are, after all, hideous men.