Monday, September 29, 2008

Sunday Re-reading: David Foster Wallace

It’s hard to say anything smart or insightful about a writer’s work right after they die, especially when the death is tragic and unexpected and too soon. And even more especially when the writer is as inventive and hard-to-classify as David Foster Wallace. You can see this lack of focus in the public statements that have been appearing across the media, mainstream and otherwise. Here is one eulogy in the NYT's. Here are a bunch of remembrances among the McSweeny's crew. Most of them focus on the journalism and generic rubrics like “post-modern" or just what a surprisingly modest and nice guy Wallace was. I do remember one review awhile back that I’ll never find now which said that Wallace developed a colloquial--both apparently casual and erudite--digressive style which defined first-person journalism style of the generation. It’s how everyone writes now, especially in personal, digressive forms like blogs. I think that’s probably true. Whatever his flaws—which were mainly of excess—he definitely carved out new territory. You don’t have to look far to see how breathtakingly wide his range is.

Someone, maybe A.O. Scott, compared Infinite Jest to Pound’s Cantos, another great work of excess and experimentation, which is and will be more influential (on future writers) than much read in the future. I think that’s probably true too, judging by the success of his followers like Dave Eggers.

Whenever I’ve made a similar case for Wallace, I tend to compare him to Gertrude Stein, who carved out Modernist territory made more accessible and popular by those who followed in her wake, Hemingway chief among them. But the world of artistic production is full of such examples. Wallace wrote about David Lynch in these very same terms (in an essay which originally appeared in Premier and was collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) as a truly original imagination, pretty much a brilliant freak, who was going to follow his imagination wherever it led him. It was up to, in Wallace's account, crude popularizers like Tarantino to bring his dark inventions to the masses.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to any one who knows me or reads any of these posts that I’m on the side of the messy innovators here too. Not (just) because I’m a snob, but because I don’t really read for entertainment. Not that’s there's anything wrong with it. as the saying goes, but for me, reading is too hard to waste on entertainment. I’d rather watch all the great TV we have now and I watch a lot: Mad Men and Project Runway and Shameless among many others. If going to bother reading, I want feel a real, weird imagination at work, moving stuff around inside my head. Though I'm probably the exception here.

That’s about all l’ve got to add to the subject right now, spoken about by so many others so recently. My writing friends and I who knew him in various degrees can’t seem to come up with a proper tribute. A moment of silence seems all wrong. One friend suggested a moment of:


But for lack of anything better, I’ll return to my moment of discovery, which happened to be Girl with Curious Hair, which I picked up in Prarie Lights in Iowa City in 1990. I read the opening lines of a few of the stories and that was all it took. I knew there was something special going on. Here, as my tribute, are the opening lines of the 10 stories in that first collection. Hope it inspires a few more readers. It’s all we’ve got now.

It’s 1976

An account representative, newly divorced, finished another late evening of work at his office, in Accounts.

Gimlet dreamed that if she did not see a concert last night she would become a type of liquid, therefore my friends Mr. Wonderful, Big, Gimlet and I went to see Keith Jarrett play a piano concert at the Irvine concert Hall in Irvine last night.

My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nun Junior wronged the man that wronged him and fled to parts unguessed.

Her photograph tastes bitter to me.

I am a woman who appeared in public on “late Night with David Letterman” on March 22, 1989.

A thing that is no fun? Stomach trouble.

She says I do not care if you believe me or not, it is the truth, go on, and believe what you want to.

Though Drew-Lynn Eberhardt produced much, and Mark Nechtr did not, Mark was loved by us all in the East Chesapeake Tradeschool Writing Program that first year, and D. L. was not.

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