Wednesday, November 07, 2007

David Foster Wallace

Are there any David Foster Wallace fans out there? He's probably my favorite contemporary writer, a dazzling stylist who works the postmodern metafiction territory of Pynchon and Barthelme, but who tempers his cynicism and "look ma, no boundaries" zaniness with a surprisingly compassionate vision.

His best known work is probably his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which is utterly uncategorizable, but which the Wikipedia article bravely attempts to summarize as follows:

The book's plot centers on a lost film cartridge, titled Infinite Jest by its creator James Incandenza, and referred to in the novel as "the Entertainment" or "the samizdat". The film is so "entertaining" to its unwitting viewers that they become lifeless, losing all interest in anything other than endless viewings of the film. In the novel's future world, North America is one unified state composed of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, known as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year, eliminating traditional numerical designations; e.g., "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," "The Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland." Much of what used to be the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada has become a massive hazardous waste dumping site known as "The Great Concavity"/"The Great Convexity."

And that doesn't begin to tell the story. It is, for example, the best and most realistic study of addiction I've ever read.

I've been reading Wallace's 2004 collection of short stories called Oblivion. There's a story there called "The Soul is Not a Smithy" that is set in Columbus, Ohio in 1960. I've lived in Columbus, Ohio most of my life, including as a first-grader in 1960. The story takes place in an elementary school classroom and on the streets of Columbus. Foster, who to my knowledge has never lived in Columbus, not only accurately captures the zeitgeist of specific Columbus neighborhoods at the fag end of the Eisenhower era, but perfectly recreates a 1960 classroom, including the way the desks were bolted to the floor, and the pattern of the tiles on the ceiling. In true metafiction fashion, there's nothing straightforward about any of this. The story also contains a chilling description of a substitute teacher's mental breakdown in front of his students, and a young boy's gentle, lyrical reminiscence of his father's soul-sucking life, stuck in the headquarters building of a downtown Columbus insurance company, doing menial work for day after day, year after year, until he was a hollow shell. I don't know. Maybe it's because I know Columbus, and I know the neighborhoods Foster describes. Maybe it's because I'm currently stuck on the 16th floor of a downtown Columbus insurance company building, using my Creative Writing degree to write about database capacity planning and forecasting. But it hit me in the gut. It's an astonishing piece of writing. But then again, he regularly astonishes me.

As an added bonus, he's also written the only commencement speech worth reading, which he delivered to the assembled graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. As a general rule, don't waste your time reading commencement speeches. But read this one.

Sometimes I play the "if you could meet anyone alive right now, who would it be?" game. My answer varies, but I know who it would be today.


Leonid said...

ah, Infinite Jest sits on my bookshelf, untouched from when I excitedly purchased it from half price books. the 2 inch thick binding is a little intimidating in these busy times, but maybe I should crack it open.

hope you're feeling better and got a chance to listen to that music I sent over! let me know.

Leo/ Spanish Prisoners

jackscrow said...

Great address.

Ben McFarland said...

On the strength of that address and recommendation I have reserved Infinite Jest from the library. 1000+ pages? Gulp. But the author's obviously not full of himself, on the evidence of his speech ... I'll have to report back in a few months when the book's done.

PS: As Bob Dylan said, "Gotta serve somebody."

Brian Estabrook said...

What a speech.

Thanks for sharing.. that really made my day.

Anonymous said...

what leo said. x2.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about your issue that requires the tube. I will pray for you about that.

Thanks for posting about good writing. I will be reading Infinite Jest soon.

I was looking through your profile, hoping to find the answer to "I wonder what Andy Whitman likes and what kind of a guy he is" since I only know you from brief hellos at church. It's good to see someone who appreciates truly great writing. Perhaps you wonder, like I do, how Graham Greene does it. I still get chills whenever I think of the first time I read "The Quiet American". Truly brilliant stuff.

It's sad that more than most people, when asked about Van Morrison, would say "I love Van Morrison! Brown Eyed Girl is one of my favorite songs!"
It makes me very depressed.

It's like saying "I like that Andy Whitman guy. He wrote this funny thing about his privates once..."

Anway...keep up the good writing. Maybe we can discuss great books someday.


Andy Whitman said...

Thanks, Mike. And I'd love to get together to talk about good books or Van Morrison or anything else. Let's make that happen. I'll talk to you at church.

scott said...

How are you doing?