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A Students' Tribute to David Foster Wallace

Three years on from his suicide, Cherwell commemorates the life and works of a cult literary genius
Cherwell Culture on Saturday 12th November 2011
Photograph: Giovanni Giovanetti

The difficulties of David

Benjamin McEvoy introduces Foster Wallace’s works

Foster Wallace was that rare breed of writer, indeed a rare kind of person, who strongly believed in the pleasures of hard work in reading and art. It feels like, in our television/internet/fast food culture, we have lost that. Wallace lamented the population’s growing affliction of not bothering with something – be it a complicated piece of music, a painting that is difficult to interpret, or his own dense collection of work – if that something does not immediately give you its pleasures in a neat little package. Wallace understood that there was, however, a very small corner of society that derived great pleasure through work. This minority think for themselves and enjoy doing so. They are not content to be spoon-fed. It is for this small pocket that Wallace writes. His books are a challenge. They are beautifully constructed Fabergé eggs. They are tapestries with the imperative ‘think’ woven delicately into them. The Pale King, Wallace’s posthumous work, has long sections communicating and exploring the powerful emotion of boredom – at the patient reader’s expense.

Infinite Jest, Wallace’s portrayal of the nature of addiction and entertainment, contains a baffling bombardment of vocabulary specific to the realms of geometry, tennis and stoners, clarified only by an extensive set of footnotes. His short story collection, Oblivion, delays reader gratification of events by inhabiting the consciousness of his characters for long, daunting, unparagraphed amounts of time. It isn’t just Wallace’s rhetorical tools that make him hard work, but his subject matter: disdain for popular culture, addiction and mental health pervade his narratives. The great unsaid being explored through fiction, enhanced and further saddened by the great man’s untimely death. It would be against the spirit of Wallace to take this feature as anything more than a small jump-off point into his work. Take no given knowledge from this, but approach him, think and reap the rewards.

 

‘This is Water’

Hattie Soper on Foster Wallace’s 2009 address to students in Ohio

 

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’’

During an address to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio, in 2005, Foster Wallace delivered a few words on the subject of ‘making it to thirty, or maybe fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head’. His speech moves through scenes of the ‘stupid and infuriating’ difficulties of life and comes to a precarious rest with the reflection which must be constantly repeated like a mantra: ‘This is water, this is water’.

Foster Wallace’s way of tackling life involves vigilant self-monitoring, making ‘a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to,’ and as such gives a very vivid insight into Foster Wallace’s painfully acute perception of his own mind and of others.

But the bleakness of his speech comes from his understanding of the inaccessibility of others, as part of the isolation and constriction of self which magnifies and distorts the world and is potentially inescapable. The only way to try, though, is through efforts of compassion and mindfulness. ‘Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship’. And I suppose Oxford students need a shaking-up more than most to grasp the importance of avoiding worshipping what will ‘eat you alive’.  Foster Wallace’s excruciating level of awareness prompts both his depression and his hope. He fights through layers of banal cliché and ‘default settings’ to get at something real, which, for a moment, is possible.

 

Off the Wallace

 Matthew Perkins on Foster Wallace’s zany subject matter

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men one of Foster Wallace’s ‘interviewees’ discusses a recurring fantasy. The institutionalised son of a physicist, he has fetishised a gesture of an actress in Bewitched, a circular flick of the hand which enables him to stop time and thereby sleep with the frozen athletic women in his local gym. His fantasy collapses as the ramifications of suspending the sun’s orbit, which he knew was at a ‘25. 53 degrees angle to the earth’s own spin’ and other such inconsistencies prove overwhelming: ‘The bed is so awash with sheafs of my calculations that there would be no space for me to masturbate even if I had been able to do so’. 

In McCain’s Promise, Foster Wallace interrogates the equally irreconcilable paradox of John McCain, the ‘anti-candidate’ on his 2000 campaign trail. Challenged by a woman at a Q&A session whose son’s patriotism had been knocked by slanderous cold-calls, McCain stops the meeting, offering to pull his negative ads if Bush does the same. Foster Wallace take us painfully through every possibility: can McCain  have meant every word as sincerely as his ‘straight talk’ campaign-line suggests? Did he twist the events to his political gain? McCain’s campaign is ‘a moment when an anti-candidate becomes a real candidate’; but ‘how can you sell someone’s refusal to be for sale?’.

Foster Wallace’s fiction asks questions concerned with the absurd and erotic, but  his message is also political. Over-intellectualised postmodernism can become meaningless and despairing, but Wallace insists that his readers find meaning in his strange characters and bizarre plot twists.

 

Art of Suicide

Joy Green discusses the effect of death on literary reputation

It’s hard to think about Foster Wallace without dealing with his suicide. In 2008 he hung himself in his family home, leaving behind several volumes of short stories, numerous essays, and two novels. Since his death, his undergraduate thesis, a third novel, and an address he gave at a graduation have all been published, and the sales of all his books are higher than before his death. An author’s suicide certainly makes them more glamorous, and the publicity surrounding a dramatic celebrity suicide (Foster Wallace hung himself on his patio, arms bound by duct tape) is always huge. Yet do we value an author’s words more if they are dead? And do we somehow connect genius and suicide? Sylvia Plath’s reputation is intimately bound up with her depression, and it’s impossible to read her work without considering it. It’s hard to say whether great artists are great despite their depression or because of it; some of Foster Wallace’s greatest insights come from descriptions of isolation and depression.  In one infamous passage in The Pale King, he explains how ‘everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it’. Perhaps mental illness allows artists greater insights into the darker workings of the mind However, it cannot be beneficial to view artists only through the lens of their personal lives. Foster Wallace’s death  was a result of his medication’s gradual failure to work, not a growing disillusionment or hatred of life. It is easy to romanticise the deaths of iconic figures, but it would be a disservice to Foster Wallace to see his death as just another piece of his art, defining and affecting our view of his writing.

 

‘You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer’

Tom Cutterham burrows deep with the meta-and meta-meta-levels of DFW’s short story collection

Sometimes a quantitative difference becomes a qualitative difference, like when a few grains of sand become a beach, or a few casual conversations become a friendship. The difference between Foster Wallace’s short stories and his mega-novel Infinite Jest is like that too. With the latter, the soul of the thing is its size. And the short stories, at least the ones in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, are soulless.

In the title story, which isn’t actually a story – none of these are really ‘stories’ – and which is spread out in four places through the book, men talk about themselves, especially their love- and sex-lives, in response to a hidden interviewer whose questions are simply rendered ‘Q.’ On a meta-level – everything here is on a meta-level, we’ll get to that – that’s what this book is about. One voice speaking, trying to answer a question no one can hear.

Foster Wallace’s stories are a performance of self-questioning anxiety. In ‘Octet’, for example, it is the anxiety of writing: this is a story, in the form of a series of ‘pop quizzes,’ about writing an ‘unworkable’ story– ‘Pop Quiz 9: You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer,’ and so on. But in ‘The Depressed Person’, it is the anxiety of self-exposure. ‘The depressed person,’ it starts off, ‘was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor of its essential horror.’

Reading ‘The Depressed Person’ is meant to be, and is, like talking to a depressed person: it is a test of mental strength in which your initial sympathy is systematically worn down. By the end, not only are you disgusted with the depressed person, but with yourself, for your own moral failure. Like I said, these are not really stories, not even ‘experimental’ ones. They are experiments to which you subject yourself.

Everything here is on a meta-level. And a meta-meta-level. Foster Wallace can’t just worry about what he’s doing. He has to say that he’s worrying, and then worry about the fact that he said it, and what that means. He can’t just be self-conscious. He is conscious of his self-consciousness, and of his consciousness of his self-consciousness. Of course, Foster Wallace is both the unfortunate fiction writer and the depressed person. It’s only in that context that the infinite reflection of meaningless sadness in his stories could be more satisfying to us than it was, in the end, for him.

 

Nearly finished

Christy Edwall tries (and fails) to conquer Foster Wallace’s novel  Infinite Jest

In the summer of 2010 I read one fifth of Foster Wallace’s mammoth Infinite Jest (which has a total of 1104 pages including endnotes in the paperback edition, and has a shipping weight of 1.1kg) but never finished it. A friend of mine discovered DFW just before this past summer and – after slaying volumes of essays and short stories - moved onto Infinite Jest in August with the aim of finishing it within two months. It is the end of October and just 70 pages from the end (excluding notes), he still hasn’t finished. We’re not slow readers: Foster Wallace’s books are ballast round the ankles.

What is it about his novels that weighs one down? The narrative hook is present, his linguistic pyrotechnics engaging; the novelist is ostensibly the same writer as the essayist. Perhaps it is because in Infinite Jest one is dealing with a tome rivalling the Exam Regulations in heft. Half the battle (the battle with one’s will) is fought before one opens it. But it isn’t just size. Anna Karenina, for example, at around 900 pages, is a jaunt.

Perhaps it suffers from what Craig Raine describes in his essay in the latest issue of Areté as Foster Wallace’s excessive language: the verbose adjectives, minute and specific non-essentials (‘encyclopediac’ says Raine), the lists, the exclusive acronyms, and the sense of drug-induced proliferations. Perhaps, it’s because DFW’s reputation gets in the way. He is now, for better or worse, known as a young dead ‘genius’ writer. Infinite Jest is known as ‘hard’, the way Ulysses has been. To have read and finished it is to be awarded bragging rights. One inevitably begins it with the feeling of invincibility, like starting a marathon too fast. Soon you can’t look at it without feeling slightly sick, a slow-acting intimidation becoming a sickly unwillingness to re-engage, to defeat, to end. Is it worth beginning a project (probably) doomed to fail? If the writer is doomed to fail (taking a line from Beckett), why shouldn’t the reader? Or perhaps, to rearrange an old cliché: it’s better to have read David Foster Wallace and stopped than to never have read it at all.

 Infinite Summer

 Madison Mainwaring embarks on a summer reading project

Infinite Jest is a formidable novel, both in the physical and cultural sense. Its 10,00-plus pages, with at least one hundred of those dedicated to Wallace’s copious and semi-neurotic footnotes, are difficult to fit in a backpack; and, while reading in public, one tends to receive looks which sway between the bemused and annoyed. The book’s name itself has become a bomb, dropped casually by those eager to demonstrate their literary sophistication.

And then there is the heaviness of the subject material itself: the inquiry into addiction presented in a way which mimics the addictive experience; the encyclopedic, self-referential nature of the text which threatens to swallow the reader; and the unavoidable dark corners of Foster Wallace’s prose which one cannot but help link to his suicide.

To navigate these difficulties, one can find support in the form of the online community of Infinite Summer. The network of IJ devotees was created by Matthew Baldwin, a contributing writer to the magazine The Morning News, who started the project as a tribute to the deceased author. He instigated the season-long challenge in 2009, thus managing to turn one of the heaviest of books into the summer read of thousands. The novel was divided into 12 sections, with 75 pages covered each week.

The project’s website, infinitesummer.org, has been at a relative standstill since the summer’s conclusion and 2009 will always be the year most closely associated with the phenomenon. But the website is active, and the wealth of tips and insights for the novel’s reading are still available.

I was at first skeptical when I heard of the project. How could a book, which seems to be devoted to the individuality and subjectivity of experience, be reflected upon in a group setting? And how could this be done on the Internet of all places, where the facelessness and flatness of text seems contradictory to Foster Wallace’s plea for empathy?

Then, on a bus, I met an active participant. Matilda (who was otherwise a complete stranger) was the first one to tell me about Infinite Summer. She had reached page 400 or so, a few sections behind schedule; but she said that she had only managed to get to that point because of the community of fellow readers. The website was monitored by four guides, who expressed their sincere reactions to the book, both positive and negative. People were willing to admit their appreciation and confusion, their sense of hope and depression in response to IJ. Matilda spoke of her own sense of anxiety after reading the first fifth of the book; what allowed her to trust the author in his work was the idea that other people were doing the same.

This seems to be an experience shared on a collective scale. I spoke with Avery Edison, a writer and comedian who was recruited as one of the four guides for the Infinite Summer project. ‘It’s no secret that Infinite Jest can be a struggle to get through for some (most?) people,’ she said. ‘There are parts of the book that are hard to digest, and it can be helpful to think of the individual bites rather than the whole meal.’

Her advice to those just starting out: use two bookmarks (one for the main text and another for the footnotes) and, if you’re having trouble getting through it, treat it like an assignment.

Edison found the public arena to be a motivating factor for the reading of and reflection on the book, but also vocalized the dangers of such a collective. ‘I think this was one of the central themes of the Infinite Summer project — the desire to avoid canonization of DFW, while at the same time never wanting to denigrate or under-praise him.

I think it’s unavoidable, at least while it’s so relatively soon after his death. Perhaps in 10 or 15 years, if such a project happens again, [it may be] more honest and raw. Responses to the work will emerge. It was hard not to read the book as the opus of a martyr because that’s what it is.’

Since 2009, the collective reading experience has been relived. There was an active Facebook page dedicated to those who attempted to do so in 2010. No such follow-up occurred last summer, but the blueprint still offers a plan that can easily be adapted to any point of time or situation. It is not yet too late to join in the shared tribute that is Infinite Summer.

 

A posthumous publication

Foster Wallace’s literary agent talks to Barbara Speed about putting together The Pale King

The Pale King,  like Northanger Abbey, most of Kafka and all those extra appendices of The Lord of the Rings that no one reads, is a posthumous book. Published after Foster Wallace’s death, it was found on his desk, nearly finished, by his wife Karen Green and literary agent Bonnie Nadell. Foster Wallace’s longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, then edited and published it with the subtitle ‘An unfinished novel.’

Bonnie Nadell, talking to Cherwell about the process of editing a dead man’s book, said that she and Karen felt a duty to have the work ‘read and recognised’ after Foster Wallace’s death. Pietsch made a vow when editing to avoid adding any scenes; only removing parts that seemed extraneous to the plot. Nadell has enormous faith in Pietsch’s editing, saying, ‘Michael spent an enormous amount of time figuring out David’s intentions for this novel and I think it is best, when the editor knows the author’s work intimately, to follow as closely that vision as possible.’ A new paperback edition is coming out in April, with some of the removed chapters included. ‘The additional pages in the paperback are scenes that did not fit with what already existed of the book as a whole,’ Nadell explained. ‘We felt that it would be fun and interesting for readers and scholars to see other possible scenes and ideas that were not as fully fleshed out, or simply were plots that never were finished or resolved.’

Publishing a book after an author’s death is controversial, and it is hard to avoid accusations of trying to cash in on unfinished works. However, the determination of Nadell and Pietsch to tamper as little as possible with Foster Wallace’s manuscript means that this novel is unique - an insight into the processes of writing and editing, and a compendium of Foster Wallace’s last ideas. Explaining the subtitle, Nadell endearingly says, ‘It is called an ‘unfinished novel’ so no one would be disappointed when they bought it, thinking it had a resolution.’ It is up to the reader to imagine how the novel might have been finished: a fitting way to demonstrate Foster Wallace’s ongoing influence, and to ensure his ideas and memory live on.

 

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