Tuesday, March 27, 2012 10:38 AM
Beautifully captured stop-motion
How social networks make
it tough to see ourselves as part of a larger group, like say, a class.
A NASA project that studies surface-level ocean currents is
Gogh’s Starry Night come to life.
Why thinking green could actually be bad for
What 2050 may really
look like (minus the flying cars).
Backronyms and downright falsehoods: debunking linguistic
The specifics on our brave
new digital world.
What house mice can tell us about where
the Vikings have been.
New research on the other
How the heat wave in the Midwest
NOAA’s climate software.
David Foster Wallace wants you to turn
the music down.
A new app lets Facebook users “enemy”
instead of “friend.” The app, developed by a University of Texas researcher, is called EnemyGraph, and purports to encourage a more accurate reflection of our social lives than the "friending" and "liking" can.
Image by Andreas Bauer, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, April 18, 2011 1:40 PM
David Foster Wallace is a difficult genius. Starting with the publication of his debut novel The Broom of the System in 1987, the postmodern author’s dense, grandly-footnoted, ontological examinations of mundane subjects—cruise ships, high-school tennis, the IRS—have beguiled, daunted, and delighted readers. The Pale King, Wallace’s almost-finished novel chronicling the life of a tax auditor, was posthumously published (Wallace committed suicide in 2008) on April 15. In the weeks leading up to The Pale King’s publication, Wallace’s last work was met with both ebullient praise and sharp criticism.
Jonathan Franzen is probably Wallace’s most high-profile fanboy. Now that Franzen’s has some freedom from Freedom, he penned a piece for New Yorker about his travels to the remote Pacific Island of Masafuera to catch up on some Robinson Crusoe and mourn Wallace’s death. (Subscription required).
Authors David Lipsky (also Wallace’s biographer) and Rick Moody praised The Pale King on KCRW’s Bookworm. Moody reads the novel’s opening lines as well. You can listen to the podcast here.
If you want to dig deeper into Wallace’s personal life, consider joining up with his cultish fanclub, The Howling Fantods. Or, for that matter, you can follow the path of The Awl’s Maria Bustillos and visit the Wallace archives at University of Texas at Austin’s Ransom Center. Make what you will out of his obsession with self-help books.
As Kottke points out, even Wallace’s classics aren’t universally loved. A prankster posted the opening page of Wallace’s epic tome Infinite Jest on Yahoo! Answers under the subject line “First page of my book. what do you think?” Although the expertise of the commenters shouldn’t be forgotten, the experiment elicited some interesting responses. “Honestly, my first thought was, ‘There are so dang many HYPHENS!’ and I couldn’t concentrate until I didn’t see any more,” wrote one; “No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don’t care what shoe you’re wearing. If you take out all the unnecessary details, you’d be left with about seven words,” wrote another.
Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin is no fan of Wallace herself (“I expect my current obsession with Henry James is met with bafflement by quite a few who feel the same way about him”) points to a sharp piece of criticism from Prospect’s Geoff Dyer, who suffers from a severe literary allergy. “I liked the idea of someone swimming in big modernist and postmodern theory and still making room for human feeling,” writes Dyer, “but a page—sometimes even a sentence, or an essay title—brings me out in hives.”
Sources: Bookslut, Bookworm, Kottke, New Yorker (subscription required), Prospect, The Awl
Friday, October 17, 2008 12:55 PM
Houghton Mifflin recently published its 2008 edition of The Best American Essays with Adam Gopnik serving as guest editor. The Best American series is always a good showcase of the year’s finest offerings in a genre, and a reliable gauge of each form’s contemporary direction.
While this collection is led, as usual, by standout pieces from the New Yorker and Harper’s, it also culls some brilliant offerings from smaller magazines and literary journals, providing a modest cross-section of the essay-writing talent in the independent press. Pieces from PMS (Poem Memoir Story), Transition, Pinch, Swink, and Open City have all made the cut.
Part of the fun of these collections for essay-geeks like me is to see which luminary they’ve invited to guest edit. David Foster Wallace presided over last year’s collection, and the essays he chose had an immediacy that previous editions lacked; several of them addressed pressing issues like war, class, and politics, contradicting the frequent charge that personal essays are too solipsistic.
Gopnik’s introduction is similar to previous editions’ in that it makes a compelling case for the importance of good nonfiction in today’s literary world, and continues to defend the form—especially the subgenre of memoir—against the too-frequent charge of self-indulgence. But Gopnik provides a solid argument about the universal urgency of even the most personal essay:
Certainly people attack the memoir, and the memoir essay, in exactly the way people once attacked the novel. . . as vulgar and above all self-indulgent. But “self-indulgent,” fairly offered, means that expression is in too great an ascendance over communication. . . .In truth, the impulse to argument that is part of the essay’s inheritance. . . makes the memoir essay, even of the mushiest sort, the least self-indulgent of forms, the one where the smallest display of self for self’s sake is practical. A novelist can muse motionlessly for pages on the ebb and flow of life, but if an essayist hasn’t arrived at the point by the top of page three. . . if the leap into a higher general case, from the specific “I” to the almost universal “you” doesn’t take place quickly, the essay won’t work. . . . Memoir essays move us not because they are self-indulgent, but because they are other-indulgent, and the other they indulge is us, with our own parallel inner stories of loss and confusion and mixed emotions.
Gopnik and the series editor, Robert Atwan, have chosen big names like David Sedaris, Lauren Slater, and Jonathan Lethem to sit alongside relatively obscure writers: Joe Wenderoth, Patricia Brieschke, and the British-Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub.
I’m personally hoping John O’Connor’s “The Boil” makes it into next year’s collection—but I won’t hold my breath.
Monday, September 15, 2008 11:49 AM
Toward the end of the last century David Foster Wallace appeared on the literary scene and blew the minds of countless readers, overhauling the way they thought about literature and life—first with his debut novel The Broom of the System, then with his superb short story collection Girl With Curious Hair. But as impressive as those books were, they were simply clearing the decks for his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which landed on bookshelves with a brainy thud in 1996.
Infinite Jest is a sprawling but meticulously constructed epic about addiction, depression, and the insidious toxicity of mass entertainment, weaving intricate plotlines and beloved characters into something far more than a post-structuralist literary stunt. It is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. It is a clever and complex but eminently readable book that I eventually picked up in college when I read all of Wallace's then-published works in rapid succession. I plowed through Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages in only three weeks, not because I’m a fast reader—I’m not—but because I was simply unable to put it down.
Until I discovered David Foster Wallace I didn’t really have a favorite author, which was odd for an English major and aspiring writer. I was passionate about Kundera and Brautigan and the Beats, but had yet to fall obsessively in love with a single person’s writing. That semester when I read Infinite Jest marked the moment when I finally left a certain intellectual plateau, transcending everything I thought I knew about literature and entering the next phase of my development as a writer and thinker.
It was a phase marked by fitful, pretentious attempts to emulate Wallace’s writing in my own. As so many novice writers besotted with Wallace probably have, I peppered my short stories with footnotes and digressive asides and sentences whose objects were miles away from their subjects. (Some of these tendencies are obviously still on full display.) Like we inevitably do when we mimic our artistic role models, I approximated Wallace’s style but not his substance. The latter is far more difficult than the former, and I will spend a lifetime attempting to infuse my writing with even a scintilla of the wisdom he could pack into a single sentence, knowing I’ll probably never even come close.
It’s my experience that the people most critical of Wallace’s writing are those least familiar with it, who seize on the surface facts of his books—extremely long, dense, riddled with footnotes and endnotes—without ever addressing their content. These critics write him off as the poster-boy of postmodern irony and literary absurdity while failing to notice that in both his fiction and essays, Wallace was strongly anti-irony, bent on moving beyond post-millennial ennui, satirizing the noise of contemporary pop culture, and exploring life’s perennially unsolvable riddles. The pyrotechnics of his prose were not just there to dazzle; they were put to writing’s best possible use, illuminating the darkest recesses of the human condition.
And they could be pretty dark recesses. His last two short story collections, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion, are populated by miserable characters at the end of their ropes and about to let go. While Infinite Jest and Girl With Curious Hair can rightly be described as fun, his latter work was still occasionally humorous but far more somber. One could almost see, on any given page, the author’s formidable mental gears grinding in an attempt to unravel and express the reasons why people do unspeakably terrible things to each other and to themselves.
So it was not, unfortunately, a total surprise that Wallace’s death would be self-inflicted. Time and again, his characters literally destroy themselves, most recently in Oblivion’s “Good Old Neon,” whose narrator describes his own suicide from beyond the grave. A half dozen of Infinite Jest’s primary characters attempt suicide, some of them succeeding with gruesome finality. And Brief Interviews features “The Depressed Person,” a crushingly dense narrative whose title character’s various attempts to avail her own misery are fruitless.
But for as much as Wallace expended his prodigious talent plumbing the harrowing depths of depression, addiction, violence, and loss, and for as much as his biography suggested he’d known those demons intimately, I was confident he’d found a way to transcend them. I took solace in the notion that, by carefully and exhaustively reasoning out the ways in which we destroy each other and ourselves, he’d emerged on the other side whole—if not in a place of understanding, then of compassion—and could help his readers do the same. The few characters in Infinite Jest who manage not to destroy themselves—most notably, the recovering drug addict and reformed criminal Don Gately—seem to have figured something out their peers haven’t: a way to keep the pieces glued together and cope with the pain in their lives while never dispelling it entirely.
Suicide is baffling, the most absurd and haunting end to a human life. Mapping any kind of logic onto suicide is futile, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I had always believed, perhaps naively, that by examining—with great patience, compassion, and wit—the frailties of human existence, Wallace had found a way to cope with them, much like the damaged but redeemed Don Gately. I had to believe that, like Gately, he was coping, because to imagine that he wasn’t—which, as we learned over the weekend, he surely wasn’t—is so bleak: to think that one of the smartest writers in history had spent his entire adult life wrestling with the absurdities and injustices of the human condition, and still hadn’t found a solution—well, where does that leave the rest of us?
Image by Steve Rhodes, used with permission.
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