A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 9, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Rewrite

Filed under: Uncategorized — chrisbeam @ 2:37 pm

By Chris Beam

A great journalist once said: Write every piece twice.

David Foster Wallace seems to have taken this advice to heart. Reading Infinite Jest, it’s hard not to notice a lot of overlap with his non-fiction.

Sometimes it’s a quick turn of phrase, like when Hal teaches his mentees that tennis is “an individual sport. Welcome to the meaning of individual. We’re each deeply alone here. It’s what we have in common, this aloneness.” To which one kid, Ingersoll, replies, “E Unibus Pluram.” (p. 112) Infinite Jest was published seven years after a Wallace essay called “E Unibus Pluram” about the alienating, ironizing effect of television on human communication. Clearly playing tennis and watching TV are very different activities. But they’re similar in that no matter how many people you play tennis or watch TV with, they’re ultimately solitary acts. The same phrase applies to both.

Other times it’s a momentary name-dropping that you know Wallace knows more about, but is holding back. For example, the offhand reference to Schitt’s knowledge of “Cantorian” mathematics (p. 82). In a footnote, we learn that German mathematician Georg Cantor was “the man who proved some infinities were bigger than other infinities.” What we don’t learn is that Wallace wrote an entire book about this guy and his theories. In Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, Wallace tells us that Cantor is also the poster boy for genius mathematicians gone mad. But Wallace says that’s not fair:

“In modern medical terms, it’s fairly clear that G.F.L.P. Cantor suffered from manic-depressive illness at a time when nobody knew what this was, and that his polar cycles were aggravated by professional stresses and disappointments, of which Cantor had more than his share. Of course, this makes for less interesting flap copy than Genius Driven Mad by Attempts To Grapple With [Infinity]. The truth, though, is that Cantors’ work and its context are so totally interesting and beautiful that there’s no need for breathless Prometheusizing of the poor guys’ life. The real irony is that the view of [infinity] as some forbidden zone or road to insanity—which view was very old and powerful and haunted math for 2000+ years—is precisely what Cantor’s own work overturned. Saying that [infinity] drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon: it’s not only wrong but insulting.”

Setting aside parallels to Wallace’s life, I just want to point out how, even in the quick scientific and pop culture asides—the stuff most people would copy from Wikipedia, paste, and reword slightly—Wallace has some pretty deep grounding in the subjects. Who knows, maybe there’s not a story behind every obscure pharmaceutical he mentions. But I bet there is. It gives you the frightening sense that the endnotes, if Wallace wanted, could have extended forever.

But the most obvious overlaps are the ones where entire portions of his fiction seem lifted from his non-fiction, or vice versa. See his description of the video of lifelong tennis player Stan Smith “hitting textbook forehands, over and over again, the same stroke, his back sort of osteoporotically hunched but his form immaculate, his foot-work textbook and effortless … [H]e looks desiccated, aged in hot light, performing the same motions over and over, for decades … The soundtrack says ‘Don’t Think Just See Don’t Know Just Flow’ over and over, if you turn it up.” (p. 110) The idea being that tennis players become good not by thinking but by doing, over and over, for what seems like forever, until perfection becomes instinct.

That theme is familiar to anyone who read his review of tennis pro Tracy Austin’s memoir (“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”), about how genius on the tennis court by no means translates to genius in, say, forming sentences. Quite the opposite, he concludes. The mental flatness required to practice the rote repetition of ground strokes for years and also achieve serenity in the heat of competition is poorly suited to dramatic retellings. Austin’s book, which Wallace savages for its failure to transcend cliché, could easily be called “Don’t Think Just See Don’t Know Just Flow.”

The list goes on. Wallace’s elaborate descriptions of tennis form in Infinite Jest predict those in his rhapsodic New York Times Magazine essay on Roger Federer. His obsessions with authenticity (the stodgy authority figures), hierarchy (the tennis ladder), and complex systems (the ventilation system Hal uses to smoke up before practice) are everywhere in his non-fiction too.

One area Wallace never did explore much in his non-fiction—at least from what I’ve read—was depression. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) It’s on full display in Infinite Jest. The clinical scenes with head case Kate Gompert, the weird vignette about a guy accidentally shooting up Drano, the kid waiting in mental anguish for his weed. But for some reason, he never really tackled these themes in a literal, personal, here’s-what-happened way. It always hovered at the edges—A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is about staving off despair. But I would have liked to see just one essay that started, “There was this time I went to the hospital …”


July 8, 2009

Nails on chalkboard

Filed under: Uncategorized — annielowrey @ 7:25 pm

By Annie Lowrey

Some sort-of spoilers ahead, for those not caught up. (By my count, we should be at page 150 by last Sunday, page 225 by next.)

Oh god. I knew it had to happen at some point. I knew it would be there, lurking among the fascinating diversions — and how diverting they are! — on robbers and diapers and tennis and the body architecture of athletic girls and Quebecois separatists and bug-trapping. It wouldn’t be entertaining. It would be grating. Nails-on-chalkboard grating. I got there. And wow, it was horrible.

My eyes glazed over, my temples started throbbing. I desperately yearned for the cool half-inch space of the paragraph tab or the refreshment of the apostrophe. I paused for a moment to ruminate on how important the conventions of grammar and punctuation are to our understanding of the written word. I couldn’t really bring myself to read from page 128 to 134. If something important happened, someone else will have to tell me. I skipped it. Starting about a hundred words in.

Phew. I’m happy I got that out of my system. Now, to relate it to the ongoing discussion, of aesthetics and the purposeful challenge of the book…

The multi-page drivel I just described irritated on many levels. It was, to use James Wood’s term, a hysterical moment of hysterical realism. If the rest of the work uses some sort of broken narration, this was back-broken. The new narrative voice felt lost in a fog of words. It was unprecedented in its weirdness. It was hard to read, literally — and I kept losing my place. It was, one one level at least, purposefully obnoxious, a trick the book plays on the reader, almost a dare to keep going. Yrstruly, I wanted to say, go fuck yrself.

What would keep one going through it? Well, maybe other readers are hardier than I. Maybe other readers believe that some nugget important to the emotional or narrative arc of the book was in there. Me? I’m counting on a big emotional and narrative payoff for wading through these aesthetics. I’m having a hard time with them.

On Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 4:48 pm

By Kevin Carey

Blogging about a novel means wading into issues that are a long way from public policy and other things about which I normally write. E.g., I know bubkes about literary criticism and its various attendant debates. So I found this post at A League of Ordinary Gentlemen to be worthwhile. Freddie says:

Conor Clarke of the Atlantic writes, prefacing a negative review of David Foster Wallace’s work from James Wood: “Wood likes aesthetics — fine phrasing the precise language and unobvious ways of describing an obvious world.”

This is something you hear so often in literary criticism that it almost goes unnoticed, and certainly I wouldn’t want to scold anyone working on A Supposedly Fun Blog about it for that reason. But despite its ubiquity, it’s actually incredibly destructive, and a symptom of a really pernicious attitude that pervades our appreciation of literature. Careful: James Wood likes James Wood’s aesthetics. “Aesthetics”, in literary criticism, has become as question-begging a term as “realism”. Both assume a narrow vision of important concepts, like what constitutes aesthetic pleasure and what exactly realistic representation entails. The traditionalist tells the punk rocker that he prefers music which “sounds good.” For those of us who are interested in novels which continue to push up against the walls of our expectations and heave away– for those of us who have read “Daisy Miller” and like it fine but don’t need to read yet another author rehash its style, voice and structure– ceding the definition of the word aesthetics is to give up the game. What constitutes beautiful and moving art is precisely what we are arguing about when we argue about literary greatness.

Again, this is so prevalent an attitude, that one and only one set of evaluative criteria carries the pride of place that comes from representing aesthetics, that you can’t blame anyone for thinking that it’s true– particularly for those who aren’t academically or professionally involved in literary criticism. But it’s a constricting and arrogant attitude, full of a noxious combination of elitism and faux-populism, and it’s one that we should push back against. The right to define aesthetic pleasure is part of a private contract between reader and writer. Don’t be fooled into thinking anyone, even someone of James Wood’s institutional authority, has the ability to usurp that interchange.


all of this, the aggrieved and distrustful critical reaction to any novel that comes within a quarter mile of what we might call the postmodern, has been established for years. It was well established, I mean to say, when David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest. Which means that he, like all authors today, wrote in the knowledge that the literary world would be filled with exactly those kinds of readers and critics who would dismiss his work out of hand for its artiness and pretension. And yet Foster Wallace wrote on, like a lot of writers do, in the stubborn belief in the  good faith of his audience.

I actually find much of Infinite Jest to be very pleasing on  purely aesthetic grounds–Wallace had a finely-tuned ear for cadence and rhythm as well as a knack for deploying obscure, melodic words. As Dave Eggers notes in the introduction, the sentences may be challenging but they’re never flabby. And when the language isn’t beautiful there’s almost always a pretty clear reason why. It’s interesting, the use of words and phrases that gratify the senses in describing ideas, emotions and circumstances that are often full of pain and degradation. What does it mean to write with beauty and clarity about ugliness?

July 7, 2009

Feral Hamsters Are Not Pets

Filed under: Uncategorized — chrisbeam @ 5:06 am

By Chris Beam

This is going to start happening a lot. You have a conversation about something totally innocuous and irrelevant to anything in real life, and later, when you pick up IJ, it turns out to have been eerily relevant after all.

For example, this weekend a friend and I were discussing whether hamsters live in the wild. On the one hand, yes, of course they do. But who has ever seen a wild hamster?

Later that day, I came across, if not the answer, an answer:

“It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. …

“The noise of the herd is tornadic, locamotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine. …

“Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetablish if in the path of a feral herd.”

So now we know. Next time I have an itchy question, instead of reaching for the nearest iPhone, I’ll flip through the nearest Infinite Jest.

Even Longer Than It Appears to Be

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 2:48 am

by Kevin Carey

Infinite Jest is, famously, very long. My copy runs 1,079 pages, and they strike me as above-average in terms of size and word density–in fact according to Amazon the book contains 483,994 words, which, when divided by the industry standard of 250 words per page, yields a normalized length of 1,936 pages. In any event, it’s long. And one of the (many) reasons is that Wallace periodically takes the reader on extended first-person journeys into the minds of people gripped by (often chemically-induced) obsession. The first comes very early, the “Erdedy waits for pot” story that begins on page 17. They’re some of the most un-put-downable parts of the novel, both in the sense that they’re compelling to read and that there’s really no way to make sense of them without imbibing from start to finish in a single, breathless, no paragraph-breaks-allowed gulp. That forces the reader to engage with the mental state of the character directly, to approximate the feeling of succumbing to a larger, implacable and seemingly arbitrary force–in this case, the author Himself. These questions of will and self appear throughout the book as the characters grapple with the paradox of how finding freedom from one sort of master might mean surrendering to another, just as the reader’s natural instinct to make narrative sense out the book is deliberately manipulated and confounded.

July 6, 2009

The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 1:08 am

One interesting wrinkle to reading Infinite Jest on its tenth anniversary is that we’re now more-or-less living in the “near future” in which the novel appears to be set. And we can tell that, for example, the short-lived video-telephony revolution that Wallace forecast never came to pass. At the same time we can also tell that Wallace didn’t foresee the actual communications revolutions of the past ten years—things like the rise of IM and SMS to a position of ubiquity.

But what I found fascinating about the passage on the rise and fall of the video phone was that despite its inaccurate (and outlandish) account of technological progress, I thought the depiction of the psychology of communications technology was dead-on. And when we think about what new ways of dealing with one another have become popular in recent years, I think in part they’ve become popular precisely because of the same underlying issues that Wallace describes as causing so much anxiety around the video phone. What we’ve wanted out of communication isn’t more interaction with our interlocutors, but less. The ability to communicate while substantially obscuring what we’re really doing—to reduce our interaction to a think strand of text—has proven immensely popular.

July 3, 2009

Good to Be Here

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 2:35 pm

By Kevin Carey

If David Foster Wallace were alive today, I wouldn’t be reading Infinite Jest.

But he died, and for a couple of days I obsessively read the obituaries and tributes, 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 and elsewhere. (The introduction to Best American Essays 2007 is very good, as is, well, nearly everything else.) But I hadn’t tackled the fiction, because it was long and “difficult” and who has the time? Then he died, and I wanted to know more. I bought the book in April, tried to get some momentum going, failed, and then started again about a month ago. 

The experience of reading Infinite Jest has been permanently altered by Wallace’s suicide, I think. A lot of the characters experience intense psychic pain, and it’s hard to read Katherine Gompert say things like:

“I didn’t want to especially hurt myself. Or like punish. I don’t hate myself. I just want out…The feeling is why I want to. The feeling is the reason I want to die…I feel it all over. In my arms and legs…All over. My head, throat, butt. In my stomach. It’s all over everywhere. I don’t know what I could call it. It’s like I can’t get enough outside it to call it anything. It’s like horror more than sadness. It’s more like horror…Everything gets horrible. Everything you see is ugly. Lurid is the word…I don’t want anything except for the feeling to go away. But it doesn’t. Part of the feeling is being willing to do anything to make it go away. Understand that. Anything. Do you understand? It’s not wanting to hurt myself it’s wanting to not hurt.”

and not wonder–even assume–that Wallace was describing what he’d felt and would feel again. I’m not sure if that makes the book better or worse, but surely different in an important way. Particularly since Wallace’s mind and voice are so deliberately obvious in the reading. Some of the best non-fiction writers–Jonathan Harr is a good example–manage to completely erase their presence from their prose. Wallace was clearly able to write nearly any way he chose, including straight concise narrative and, in many sections of the book, long and evocative passages, just beautiful lyrical descriptive work. So when he doesn’t write that way, you know it was for a reason, and you wonder why, and when you wonder that’s based in part on your sense of who Wallace was, how he thought and what he felt, and that sense is much different now than it was before.

(Update: As I should have noted, Annie Lowery covered a lot of this ground earlier.) 

The repetition in Gompert’s chapter, certain phrases insisted upon, four, five, six time and more, appears throughout. Maybe Wallace lacked confidence in his clarity, but maybe he was also representing the human need to be understood and the difficulty of communicating in a loud, crowded, anonymous world. 

I’m about 350 pages in at the moment and for those of you pounding away at the opening chapters, I can tell you that for me the book got substantially easier to read around page 200, which is about where the constellation of characters, settings, and larger ideas begins to come into focus.

July 2, 2009

Staying and Fighting

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dayo Olopade @ 10:03 pm

By Dayo Olopade

Greetings, all! I am extremely excited about the prospect of ranting and raving about this deeply frustrating, yet rewarding book. I’ve long believed that reading and writing are extremely antisocial behaviors and that all journalists are a shade defective because of that fact–the life of David Foster Wallace is perhaps a case in point. And so I relish the opportunity to both read and write in a communal fashion.

I also want to confess my own head start on Infinite Summer. On a recent trip to Nigeria, I downed about 500 pages of the “paper brick” before returning to the states and losing not my motivation but my time.

Part of that problem comes from the unbelievable neediness of this book. The sense that Wallace himself, not to mention the compelling cast of characters and precepts that are arrayed before the reader, is tugging at your sleeve, insisting that you stay and fight. Further, the book does not go down like short stories or essays or the tremendous nonfiction journalism that is my favorite part of Wallace’s legacy. It’s broken up into 70-page marathons of engaging prose or short scenes that end abruptly, or footnotes that must be read with care and yet a thumb in the rest of the book and perhaps thrice before the reality sinks in. In other words, it’s really, really hard to start and stop.  The extra weight of this being an “important book” likewise compels the reader, as many have already discussed here, to stay and fight.  You’re in it or you’re out.

When I was in this book it was good (I even devised a very helpful system for keeping up with the dread footnotes, on which more later). For months, I’ve been out–and kudos to the gang here for sucking me back in (though there was talk of sangria, don’t play).

So I’m here, and will clear the space to do this properly. Because time is paramount, as Dave Eggers’ introduction to the most recent edition makes clear:

The book is 1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, it’s deeply felt and incredibly moving. That it was written in three years by a writer under 35 is very painful to think about. So let’s not think about that. The point is that it’s for all these reasons—acclaimed, daunting, not-lazy, drum-tight, very funny (we didn’t mention that yet but yes) — that you picked up this book. Now the question is this: Will you actually read it?

Yes, fine. In. I’ll get into my complaints and my embarassing gushing in short order–but there’s no backtracking because hey, I just said that I would read it with these fine friends and the internet hates liars.

Wallace on Rose

Filed under: Uncategorized — dylanmatthews @ 12:37 pm

By Dylan Matthews

Chris already linked to it, but Wallace’s interview on Charlie Rose from 1997 is strangely riveting, and actually quite helpful in trying to interpret the odd, disorienting jumble that is the first hundred-odd pages of IJ:

The whole interview (which begins at 23:15) is worth listening to, but I found three excerpts particularly relevant to reading IJ. The first starts at 40:39 and goes until 41:02:

I have this problem of thinking that I haven’t made myself clear, or that the argument hasn’t been sufficiently hammered home, so I will make the same point five, six, seven times. The “E Unibus Pluram” thing in [A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again] is an argumentative essay that I did six or seven years ago, and I just gave up after that, because it seems as if to make the argument truly persuasive requires five, six hundred pages, and nobody wants to read it.

Obviously, this “problem” (if it really is one) isn’t really limited to his essays. But I actually think of it as one of Wallace’s great virtues. Even in the twelve percent of the book I’ve finished, his tendency to repeat points through different characters and scenarios does result in the themes being more powerful.

The second picks up right after, at 41:10, after Rose asks about Wallace’s usage of, yes, endnotes:

In Infinite Jest the endnotes are very intentional, and they’re in there for certain structural reasons and you know, you hear about it. It’s sort of embarrassing to read [A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]. You can almost chart when it was written, because the first couple of essays don’t any, but the footnotes get very, very addictive. It’s almost like having a second voice in your head…It is a way, I’m just going to look pretentious talking about this…There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. The difficulty about writing about that reality is that text is very linear, and it’s very unified. And you, or I anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disoriented. You can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but no one’s going to read it.

So, you know, it could have been worse. I do find Wallace’s consistent characterization of his writing style as some kind of defect or pathology, shown here by his reference to footnotes as an “addiction” which it’s “pretentious” to discuss, unsettling.

Finally, there’s this, from 53:33, about his drug use:

Here’s why I’m embarrassed talking about it. Not because I’m personally ashamed of it, but because everybody talks about it…It sounds like some kind of Hollywood thing to do. “Oh he’s out of the rehab, and back in action!”…I did some recreational drugs, I didn’t have the stomach to drink very much and I didn’t have the nervous system to do anything hard. Yeah, I did some drugs. I didn’t do as many drugs as most of the people I know my age. What it turned out was, I just don’t have the nervous system to handle it…That’s why I’m embarrassed to talk about it. It’s just not particularly interesting. It’s very average.

This is just bizarre to me. Substance abuse is such a crucial part of IJ, something that’s shared by most of the major characters and treated with a nuance and sophistication that is startling on first reading, that to hear Wallace dismiss it as an insignificant phenomenon, or “not particularly interesting”, caught me off guard.

July 1, 2009

The Misspelled Assassins

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 2:56 am

By Matthew Yglesias

On page 87, we’re introduced to one Marathe, an operative with the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, a Québécois separatist group whose name we’re told (in a footnote, naturally) means “Wheelchair Assassins.” But as best I know, “rollent” is not a French word at all—”wheelchair” is, rather, “fauteuil roulant.” My first guess was that perhaps this is Quebec dialect or something, but Google indicates that’s not the case—the only hits for Wallace’s spelling are direct references to Infinite Jest.

I suppose I’ll chalk this up as just another minor effort to disorient the reader, which is clearly one of the overarching goals of the early sections, but would be interested to know if anyone else has a grander theory.

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