A Supposedly Fun Blog

June 25, 2009

Why Am I Here?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ezraklein @ 2:10 pm
Why do I care about this man?

By Ezra Klein

I have a confession to make. I don’t even like David Foster Wallace. And I don’t mean that I found Infinite Jest too lengthy on the first run-through. I mean his accessible stuff. His tales from cruise ships and lobster festivals and tennis matches and radio studios. I’m not saying it’s not brilliant. It is! His discussion of the role of preference in eating animals is, in particular, masterful. But I’m a blogger. I like to get to the point. Wallace doesn’t. His pieces are rambling and indulgent and, if this could actually be understood as a writing style, neurotic. The endnotes are clever, but in the aggregate, they’re hedges. They’re the product of a writer who’s never sure if he’s said enough.

So why am I here?

The short answer is that David Foster Wallace died. The slightly longer answer is that David Foster Wallace died and I cared. That was, to me, a surprise. Lots of people die. Just the other day, Ed McMahon died. It hardly registered. But Wallace was different. I read everything I could about his final days. I posted a memoriam on my site. I watched readings on YouTube. It affected me. I don’t know if it’s because he was a young writer who was felled by the violent bubble and froth of his own mind and that a small part of me relates to that. I don’t know if it’s because he was, in some way, unique to my generation, and as such, one of my own. I don’t know if it’s just because I want to somehow explain away his fate, to pinpoint the reason why success and charm and brilliance and companionship weren’t enough to rescue him from despair. But whatever it is, it was enough to make me purchase that book and join this project. So here I am.

This reading club is connected to Infinite Summer. It will adhere to their schedule. It won’t spoil later portions of the book. It will hopefully, supposedly, be fun. But we’ll see.


  1. Ezra, I have to take issue with you when you write: “The endnotes are clever, but in the aggregate, they’re hedges. They’re the product of a writer who’s never sure if he’s said enough.”

    Au contraire. The endnotes could also be a device that DFW used to bring his Infinite Jest into the canon of something like, say, The Riverside Shakespeare a lot of us still have from way back in college. The Hamlet/Shakespeare references are legion here (e.g., “Infinite Jest” comes from a Hamlet soliloquy, let’s not forget). And what’s not scholarly if not endnotes? Don’t discount the idea that Wallace is commenting on academia here, too. In addition to entertainment, politics, drugs, booze, sex, and (of course) tennis, global hegemony, terrorism, beauty, and death.

    Comment by Lee Graham — June 26, 2009 @ 11:21 pm | Reply

  2. I recently finished Infinite Jest, after having picked it up shortly after his death. I had tried to read it the first time and got about 1/3 of the way before I gave up. This time, I made it all the way. I felt like I understood the book so much better once I knew more about his demons. One of the characters, Kate Gompett, I believe, one of the residents of Ennett House, gives a description of depression that is as good as any I ever read. I have worked as a therapist for a long time and I am haunted by his death, because I wish I could have talked to him, but I know his problems were beyond my skills. To me the book was a haunting and wonderful experience.

    Comment by Ralph — June 27, 2009 @ 12:12 am | Reply

  3. The reason his death shook me is his obvious genius. Whenever someone who has such an understanding of the World decides it’s not worth it, I can’t help but think I’m missing something. I know brilliance isn’t necessarily tied to self-destructive behavior, but for DFW, a cult writer if there ever was one, it wasn’t hiding from the fame that made him take his life. It seems like he was a casualty of thought, and I can’t help but respect that. This article about his undergraduate philosophy work is insightful as hell: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/magazine/14wwln-Wallace-t.html.

    Comment by mpharris — June 27, 2009 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  4. Ezra,

    I think you are deeply, deeply wrong about DFW’s footnotes and endnotes. He was not hedging so much as trying to explore every side of an issue. DFW’s quest as a writer was, on some level, *accuracy* on a profound, almost obsessive-compulsive level. Part of what makes his essays so brilliant is that he inserts his own deliberative process into them. Most essays are attempts at getting across the *product* of that deliberative process. In a way, his essays are actually much closer to reading a whole year of someone’s thinking on an issue on a blog. only he does it more penetratingly, more articulately, more humanely and more intelligently than any blogger (or most of his contemporary writers) could.

    Take the essay you reference obliquely here– Consider the Lobster. One of the fascinating things about it, is that DFW refuses to come down on one side or another about the question he teasingly offers at the beginning– is it okay to boil another creature alive for our own gastronomical enjoyment? At the end, he comes down on “it’s not resolveable” and leaves it more problematized rather than less. he leaves the issue *more complex* than it was before and simultaneously leaves the reader significantly more informed about both the festival itself and the ethical issues it raises. He does this in a scant few pages. It’s masterful.

    Few writers are able to make the simple more complicated in a way that’s actually profound as opposed to bewildering, and Wallace does it again and again and again. The foot and end notes are part and parcel of that project.

    Comment by isaac — June 29, 2009 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  5. Well said, Isaac.

    Comment by Maria Bustillos — June 30, 2009 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  6. His tales from cruise ships and lobster festivals and tennis matches and radio studios.

    I’m repeating a comment I made on a later thread, but for the love of God, man — how can you leave out the link for tennis matches? That’s his best piece!


    And if you don’t like DFW, you’re in for a loooong summer. I too undertook this read as a result of his passing, and he was one of my favorite writers before I started, but after I finished this book I wanted to dig him up and bury him again. That being said, he is now my favorite writer, and IJ is now my favorite book.

    Comment by scythia — June 30, 2009 @ 2:50 am | Reply

  7. Wallace was my favorite writer since IJ was published, and IJ was the first (!) of his works I read. A friend suggested it. (He knows me well.) DFW’s work is to this day the only “let me know when the next one is published” setting at Amazon.

    I often tell people to start with “A Supposedly Fun…” and just say, “It’s a primer. If you like the writing in that, you may like IJ.” And I often refer people to an essay within, E Pluribus Unum as the greatest examination of television’s influence (really, locked grip on our proverbial nuts) on society/culture ever written, meaning read by me, of course. Sure, it took three or four times through to reach that conclusion; as Wallace would say, I don’t have the firepower to comprehend it on a first pass.

    For me, the pure genius in a unique mind was enough. His death shocked and saddened me to seriously abnormal degrees. But it didn’t surprise me. Afterwards, it wasn’t hard for me to see that his was a mind that needed to understand, above all, and the complexity of the human condition makes that a tall order, indeed. I think his mind was overloaded…read (another short one) Good Old Neon, from Oblivion, which so beautifully describes “mind time vs chronological time” and is about a suicide, but is mostly about how much passes through our heads in so brief a time and how little of who we are actually makes it out of our mouths and behaviors. Just…brilliant. Are we all frauds?

    Also highly recommended and seldom mentioned, Everything and More: A Brief History of Infinity, a book he wrote as part of an educational series that is about great mathematicians’ grappling with infinity as a math construct.

    Consider an acknowledgement in “A Supposedly Fun…”, attributed to Amy Wallace, I’m pretty sure his sister: “Just How Much Reader-Annoyance Are You Shooting For Here Exactly?”

    He didn’t care. He wrote for DFW, and hoped the rest of us liked it.

    I miss him. He made me smarter.

    Comment by John O — June 30, 2009 @ 1:01 pm | Reply

  8. […] Ezra: The endnotes are clever, but in the aggregate, they’re hedges. They’re the product of a writer who’s never sure if he’s said enough. […]

    Pingback by Infinite Bloggers « –scott’s blog– — June 30, 2009 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  9. The endnotes are clever, but in the aggregate, they’re hedges. They’re the product of a writer who’s never sure if he’s said enough.

    And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Ezra Klein is paid to talk about politics instead of art.

    Comment by Wax Banks — July 1, 2009 @ 3:42 am | Reply

  10. ““Infinite Jest” comes from a Hamlet soliloquy,”

    No, the line is addressed to Horatio. “I knew him, Horatio – a man of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy …”

    Note too that several hundred pages in, DFW [filtered through Joelle] mocks the pretension of his own choice of title.

    Comment by Knemon — July 1, 2009 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

  11. Ezra cried like a South Carolinian governor when Billy Mays died.

    Comment by Infinite Incest — July 1, 2009 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

  12. I’m also participating as a tribute, nice to see someone else is, too.

    Comment by Madame Psychosis — July 2, 2009 @ 12:56 am | Reply

  13. “I’m a blogger. I like to get to the point. Wallace doesn’t. His pieces are rambling and indulgent and, if this could actually be understood as a writing style, neurotic”

    In a novel that reflects so much on entertainment I think that it is not without a significant dose of irony that DFW uses a writing style that is indirect and detail oriented to describe the ultimate form of entertainment that is neither of those things. While I have yet to finish it, Infinite Jest the novel seems to be the anti-Infinite Jest the film so perhaps Wallace was trying to make a point about just getting to the point.

    Also, on a personal note, I like the writing style. I think DFW described it as being a maximalist. One of the things I have enjoyed most about IJ is how the novel encourages/forces me to be self-reflective. When I read the novel it is like I am observing carefully selected moments of reality picked to highlight certain features of the human condition. I think it is for this reason that DFW describes everything in so much detail (and uses endnotes): he is attempting to mimic reality in both its incredible richness and non-linear nature. In this way, rather than simply get caught up in a story about a tennis academy, we see ourselves reflected in the tennis academy.

    Comment by Hideous Man — July 2, 2009 @ 4:12 am | Reply

  14. […] and then the longer-form articles in Rolling Stone and the New Yorker and elsewhere. Unlike Ezra, I love his non-fiction work and read nearly all of it over the last two years, in the collections […]

    Pingback by Good to Be Here « A Supposedly Fun Blog — July 3, 2009 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  15. Another reason to be wary of DFW: he was curiously something of a social conservative.

    Here, he praises the AIDs epidemic as blessing in disguise.

    LINK: http://www.theknowe.net/dfwfiles/pdfs/Wallace-Hail_the_Returning_Dragon.pdf

    That’s the kind of talk I would expect from Pat Robertson.

    Comment by Matt Cale — September 16, 2009 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

  16. vive la france et les etats unis et tous les autres pays jevous aime big up

    Comment by vive l'anglettere — November 9, 2009 @ 1:42 pm | Reply

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