Tuesday, September 23, 2008

And but so: Last thoughts on DFW (for now)

For the past week and a half, since I learned of David Foster Wallace's suicide, I've been reading the papers, the magazines, online, saving the clippings, putting my favorites in the folder I have on top of my bookshelf where I keep all of my favorite magazine pieces. I've cursed at some of the obituaries and teared up at others. I've read the growing tribute McSweeney's thoughtfully has made a place for (and among which my stab at memorializing the man, previously posted here, is included). People I haven't heard from in a long time got in touch, whether via email, phone, text, or blog comments to express their condolences. People knew what he meant to me. People seemed to like what I'd written about him, after. And but so I sat on Sunday morning, after a good visit from my dad and my brother for most of last week (with a special guest appearance by my sister on Saturday), and flipped through my books of his, including my three copies of Infinite Jest (it's the only book of which I own multiples). I saw the highlighting, the underlining, the notes, the bits of in-class comminques preserved within, the weather, the wear, the tear. All of which I've got, too. And so sitting there in the half-light of my room, Sunday morning, brother just departed—and feeling that sense of disconnection, that sense of one's plug being pulled out from the wall socket that I've begun to see is a pattern for me—I sat there and it got to be more OK. The notes from people throughout the week, the appraisals I'd been reading in the papers, his books on my shelf, my and others' deep feeling for the man and his work—

I got to thinking about Bob Dylan's "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," a poem from Bob for his idol, which ends thusly:
And where do you look for this hope that you're seekin'
Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin'
Where do you look for this oil well gushin'
Where do you look for this candle that's glowin'
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you go to Brooklyn State Hospital

You find God in the church of your choice
You find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In Grand Canyon

I like that. I also started to think just now about how people used to graffiti "Frodo Lives!" on things back in the '60s and '70s, after the hero of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (which was the first Big Important Book for me). So I hereby propose another graffiti: DFW Lives! And he does.

And but so for now that's where I'll leave my memories of the man. Now, onward and upward. Dave would want it that way. Soon we'll return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

* Last (foot)note: Thank you—sincerely, deep down—to everyone who wrote, called, texted, or posted on this blog or Facebook to say hey, and that they were sorry to hear, and hope I'm OK. I really truly appreciate it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Eulogy for David Foster Wallace; Or, Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!

Toward the end of 1996 I was in my parents' living room reading a Time magazine. It was one of those year-end wrap-up issues, with various lists and capsule reviews of the best books, films, art, and so on of the year soon to bow out. This was my senior year of high school. I had a girlfriend, or was moving toward having a girlfriend—My first "real" girlfriend. I was reading the magazine and in the books section, one book caught my eye: A book called Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I don't remember why, but something in the capsule review sparked my interest. I had always been a reader, but this book—1,079 pages, about an "entertainment" called Infinite Jest that is so pleasurable that those who saw it lost all desire to do anything but watch it, and thus died—seemed a whole other order of magnitude beyond what I'd been reading.

I bought the book. I think this was in December. I bought the book and started reading it. For the whole second half of my last year of high school, January through May or thereabouts, I read Infinite Jest. I read it in class, and got in trouble for it. I gave it to my girlfriend, Shannon, for Valentine's Day, and she was touched because a boy had never given her a book before.

Infinite Jest was indeed about this entertainment, but it was about so much more. It was about addiction and a real American sort of sadness; it was about the future, and maybe where we were headed. It was also about two characters, Don Gately and Hal Incandenza—characters that are as alive to me as any other real living and breathing person. They live with me still today.

Infinite Jest turned me on to serious reading, and to the style of writing that I've come most to prefer: the sprawling, encyclopedic novel. David Foster Wallace turned me on to Pynchon, to Joyce, to Gaddis, to DeLillo. DFW—as he would come to be known to me—made me want to be a writer. But why?

For this reason: Infinite Jest made me feel less alone. And DFW meant to do that. In an interview published in 1993 in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, he said the following:
I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction's job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of generalization of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy's impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with characters' pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might be just that simple.
I was disturbed and Infinite Jest comforted me. I was comfortable and Infinite Jest disturbed me. Infinite Jest made me feel less alone. And but so, ever since that late winter, spring, and early summer of 1997, I've been trying to write—and trying somehow, in my own small way, to follow in David Foster Wallace's footsteps: To make others, through writing, feel less alone. If I have ever written anything that anyone liked, that even for a moment made them feel unalone, then I have succeeded. And success is entirely relative; though I will in all probability never achieve near as much as DFW did, it doesn't matter—A drop of water is the ocean in miniature.


David Foster Wallace is dead. He hanged himself on Friday at his home in Claremont, Calif. He was 46.


I could go on. I could tell you about reading all his other books, from Broom of the System (his first novel) to his most recent, a collection of essays called Consider the Lobster; I could tell you about how I gave Infinite Jest to a friend once, and how she later brought it back to me, signed; I could tell you how another girlfriend got another of his books, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, signed by him for me, the summer she was in New York, and how she gave him a copy of our school's literary magazine, in which I had a couple of poems; I hoped that maybe he flipped through it on the plane ride back to the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where he was teaching at the time, and read my poems and maybe liked them; I could tell you about how I very nearly went on a pilgrimage to see him in Illinois, but didn't, and how I wish now that I had.

I could tell you about how he was a laugh-out-loud funny writer—He had to have been to have worked into a 10,000-word review of a dictionary an analogy to a stoned person watching the PGA Tour with Oreo crumbs all over his shirt's front and being caught in a loop of thinking about what the color "green" really means. I could tell you about all the times I've told friends,s significant others, and virtual strangers, "You have to read this book." Or I could tell you about how, in the special edition of Rolling Stone published soon after 9/11, David Foster Wallace's take on that day's tragedy, called "The View from Mrs. Thompson's House" (since reprinted in Consider the Lobster), was the most dead-on and honest assessment I've ever read about 9/11, in its throwing-up-the-hands-and-saying-I-just-don't-fucking-know-ness. I could tell you about how once I got to see him in New York, with Jonathen Franzen, as part of The New Yorker Literary Festival, and how he blasted Franzen—no dope himself—entirely out of the water.

Or how now, reading Infinite Jest for the third time around in 11 years, having gotten sober myself, in the last 100-page home stretch, this evening on the couch before a dinner party, and then the dinner party and outside, after, smoking a cigarette with some people, and a guy getting a text message and saying that David Foster Wallace had killed himself felt first like a friend had died, and then like a repudiation of something, a core-shaking of my own personal foundation—

But I'll not tell you about all that. I'll leave some things for memory and choose not to go down certain roads; I think DFW would want it that way. But, I will tell you this: David Foster Wallace's writing made me and millions of others feel less alone. I know that. And for this he should be praised, and mourned. I hope he has found the peace that eluded him in this life.

Rest in peace, DFW. I'll still be here, pushing your books on friends.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I Turn My Camera On; Or, Letter from Bryant Park, Fashion Week

I'm sitting here in Bryant Park watching people go apeshit over fashion models and designers. Just saw a bunch of photographers run to get shots of Anna Sui, who I sort of recognized but didn't know who it was until I heard someone say "Anna!" The photogs, schlumpfy guys all, are standing around in little clusters of two and three looking down at the little screens of serious-looking black cameras they've got slung around their necks. Then there are also a lot of younger women, Japanese and American, milling more hesitantly, with smaller ordnance cameras.

One guy, earlier, almost fell into me at the little green desk-table I was sitting at, as he got pushed out of a scrum of photogs surrounding two tall black models, with aquiline features and wearing Egyptian goddess, Isis-type garb. The big cameras, when they go off, sound like thwack thwack thwack. Directly in front of me, a middle-aged black photog, with a French bulldog's squished-up expression and the suggestion of an afro, is taking pictures, but not getting up to do so from where he's sitting, of random women who look good but obviously aren't models as they walk by. One other civilian-looking woman saw this just now, as she was standing here. She smiled, and walked on.

The scene has now calmed down somewhat. Directly across from where I sit is the Bryant Park Hotel, all black brick and gold trim. To my right is the green and gold, old-style carousel, ridden by kids on ornate up-and-downing horses. A blue baseball-capped black man just pushed a flat of cases of Peroni beer past me. Impossibly thin models, vaguely Russian-looking, keep swishing by. Photogs move up and away, as the models pose while walking or stop and pose, either giving a smoldering look or smiling wanly. It's like a kind of chemical or magnetic reaction, electrons drawn and then repelled from a nucleus. The models' breasts move around in their shirts or dresses like a sped-up grandfather clock's pendulum. Another flat of 25 cases of Peroni beer, pushed and guarded by five black guys, just rolled by.

It occurs to me that, women-wise, a man could probably clean up in this vicinity of town with civilian women during these Fashion Weeks.

I am wearing a tie and pink tennis shoes. I look good but not great. Thumping, irregular bass is and has been this whole time issuing from the big white tent complex (where the actual fashion shows are held) directly behind me. I am sitting at the back end of the tent complex, away from the entrance, which is festooned with voting- and election-themed Fashion Week slogans, on 6th Avenue at 41st Street.

The photogs have this way of running up ahead of the models, humping gear, about 15 feet, then turning and shooting. I wonder if the civilian women walking by, in their own finery, harbor a secret desire to be mistaken for a model, and shot.

Several people walking by, Anna Sui one and maybe Ralph Lauren another, have been wearing black T-shirts bearing the legend, in a stone color, "Save the Garment District." A leaf just fell from the air in front of me—the first falling leaf I think I've seen this fall. Soon more, soon all, will fall. All of my friends at the Rough Guides office in New York, where I got my first real job, as an editorial assistant, were laid off this week. With respect to Fashion Week: I cannot decide whether I do not care about the models, the hubbub, or whether I do care, deeply, but refuse out of pride to admit this to myself, and move up to the front. I feel sort of the same conflicted way that I do about Anne Hathaway and The Devil Wears Prada, when I see it come on TV.

I have freckles and am 28, for a little while longer.

A white bum named Tim, carrying a metal-frame rucksack and wearing two hospital bracelets—one blue, one white—just approached me. He had a twang in his voice so I asked him where he was from.

"I'm from Savannah, Georgia," he said. "Where you from?"

I told him.

"I just get outta the hospital," he said. "My lung collapsed."

I gave him a dollar and he shook my hand, a strong handshake that lapsed into looseness.

"I been panhandlin'. I just get outta the hospital but I'm gon' panhandle the shit outta these people."

He shook my hand again and asked my name. I told him.

"Hell," he said, "I got a son that's got a son named Hunter."

To my left, a couple dressed in black that both seem very drunk, she tottering on heels and he holding the smoldering ass-end of a cigarette, keep putting their tongues into each other's mouths, slowly and very deliberately. Tim had reeked of alcohol. I don't know whether these fashion shows are ending or beginning. I have an hour to go until my therapy appointment. A motherly-looking handler woman who's holding an iPhone keeps hustling up late girls, coltish, into the back of the tent. She just called one "sweetie." Two women walking with a pair of NYPD just walked by, one woman shaking one of the cops' hands.

The trees are the kind that look camouflaged, from shedding bark, and their green leaves, way up high where the sun breaks in over the skyscrapers surrounding, have begun to have a yellowish tint about them. The flagstones are big gray squares and rectangles. No one has taken a picture of me directly, but I bet I'm in some anyway. Watch the newsstands, the magazines. You might see me there, writing this, mustached, pen in one hand and cigarette in the other.

* Late-breaking correction: A woman did just take a picture of me, a long woman with long brown hair and a handsome face in a white dress and a slim, flow-y, almost ankle-length orange sweater-type thing. She said, with an accent I couldn't place, that "I looked so cool. I like your style, weird and funny." This picture she took was for "her fashion blog." This was right after I ran into my friend, former roommate, and fellow Arkansan Jessica, a red-haired beauty who walked by where I was sitting and whom I wolf-whistled at, to get her attention.

The McCain Campaign, not the Hadron Collider, Will Be the Death of Us All

By now you've all probably read about the "lipstick on a pig" controversy. If not, let me sum up. Yesterday, Sept. 9th, Obama was talking about McCain and his policies and said the following:
“John McCain says he’s about change, too—except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics. That’s just calling the same thing something different. You can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change; it’s still going to stink after eight years.”
Not long after, the McCain campaign comes out blasting against Obama for a "schoolyard insult" against Sarah Palin. Wait, what? Just because she mentioned lipstick in her acceptance speech, suddenly an old idiom is off-limits? Also, McCain's memory may be going: He used the exact same idiom to describe Hillary Clinton's health care plan on Oct. 11, 2007.

Reading about this trumped-up, ridiculous, so-called controversy this morning made my blood boil. And then Obama's remarks about the controversy calmed me down. He's just so reasonable. Really, if you have four and a half free minutes, watch this—He's amazing.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Letter from Raleigh

It's hot in Raleigh, N.C. Hurricane Hanna's passed, which last night had the weather cloudy and spitting rain, while overnight she hit, blowing over tents downtown and dropping a few inches of rain. This morning was gray, rainy, and windy, too. We ate breakfast at Big Ed's, in the City Market portion of downtown, little shops and old brick buildings. Ed's is famous for its owner, the barrel-chested, red-checkered snap shirt and overalls-clad owner, who sits down to tell stories at table after table—Plus of course for its grilled biscuits and pound cake-batter pancakes.

I'm sitting outside of Big Ed's right now, on a bench flanked by rusty brown farm implements, right across from the 1914, redbrick City Market building, with stucco tile-roofed overhangs around its sides, like the French Market in New Orleans. But the place is empty, disused, with a green and white "available" sign in its window, bearing the logo of Hunter & Associates. There are more than a few H&A signs in windows around here. Journey is playing from the speakers of a bar/restaurant called Woody's @ City Market across the way. A gray H2 Hummer just rumbled by. I'm sitting on the redbrick sidewalk on Blake Street, between Parham and Wolfe. There are a couple of choppers out in front of Woody's. A country-fried voice just called out, "Ain't that a purty motorsickle?" There are more black people in this part of town. Last night at the brand-new Marriott City Center, a debutante ball was going on, all white faces in tuxes and dresses, the girls with their skirts hiked up as they waited for shuttle mini-buses, because of the rain pooling on the ground.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Let's Contrast & Compare, Shall We?

From Senator Joe Biden's V.P. acceptance speech:

John McCain is my friend. We've known each other for three decades. We've traveled the world together. It's a friendship that goes beyond politics. And the personal courage and heroism John demonstrated still amaze me.

But I profoundly disagree with the direction that John wants to take the country.
From Senator Barack Obama's acceptance speech:
Now, I don't believe that Sen. McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know.

It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.

But what I will not do is suggest that [Senator McCain] takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism.

The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain.

From Governor Sarah Palin's V.P. acceptance speech:
I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening.

My fellow citizens, the American presidency is not supposed to be a journey of "personal discovery." This world of threats and dangers is not just a community, and it doesn't just need an organizer.

Our opponents say, again and again, that drilling will not solve all of America's energy problems — as if we all didn't know that already.

We've all heard his dramatic speeches before devoted followers.

Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?
Now who's bitter?

From Senator Barack Obama's acceptance speech:

I know there are those who dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values. And that's to be expected. Because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.

You make a big election about small things.

And you know what — it's worked before. Because it feeds into the cynicism we all have about government. When Washington doesn't work, all its promises seem empty. If your hopes have been dashed again and again, then it's best to stop hoping, and settle for what you already know.

Bingo: That's the Republican strategy right there, as exemplified by Palin's smug, sarcastic, and mean-spirited speech last night. The Republicans have one worn-out playbook, and they won't put it down. Let's hope that enough of the country has gotten wise to their game over the past four years that we don't allow this cynical strategy to work yet again.

Here are another few lines from Obama, to close out this post:

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.

There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.

There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?

That's from the Democratic National Convention—in 2004. He's been saying this all along, and he's calling us to something better, something higher. He is saying (and has said), "America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this."

Are we? Do you want to find out? If so, maybe go here to donate $10 or $25 (or more if you've got it) to this inspiring, historic campaign.

I'll close with a story. Back in early 2003, in the run-up to the Iraq War, a big protest was held in Manhattan. I debated whether or not to go. At this point, most people believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as our government told us they did—and, if they did, well, I wasn't sure what needed to be done. I had bought some of the lies. But I was thinking about it and I was also wondering, What does it matter if I attend the protest? It won't change anything.

In the end, I went. I talked to my dad and decided that, whether or not we went to war, whether or not Iraq had WMDs, and whether or not the protest changed anything, that I wanted to be on the right side of history. Five years later, I feel I was on the right side of history, and I'm glad I decided to go into the city that day, to stand and march with hundreds of thousands of others—because "they" really, finally, completely win only when no one shows up to say "no."

So, in this election, which side of history do you want to be on?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Hot New Sentences

Reading the NY Times' coverage of Hurricane Gustav this Monday, I came across this beautiful sentence:

As the wind blew through the deserted streets, a group of bored police officers sat on rolling office chairs outside on Tchoupitoulas Street, watching a few of their colleagues “wind-surfing” down the long thoroughfare, one of them explained. Two officers would hold up opposite ends of a sheet and wait for the gusts to blow them down the traffic-less street on their rolling chairs.

Really the first sentence is the best, especially up until "thoroughfare." Just say it out loud to yourself; it's really musical, rolls off the tongue. Almost poetry.

Then there's this, from an Onion article about Cheney waiting until the last minute (again) to buy 9/11 gifts:
Although Cheney himself has never received any Sept. 11 gifts, with the exception of a pair of silk pajamas from his wife and a second term in office, he insisted that he gets more joy from giving than receiving.
That made me laugh out loud at work today.

And finally, in more serious news, Thomas Friedman published this op-ed yesterday in the NY Times, about the choice between two "green" candidates having been, after McCain's pick of Sarah Palin, drilling advocate, as his running mate, narrowed to just one (meaning: The One).

Friedman writes:
By constantly pounding into voters that his energy focus is to “drill, drill, drill,” McCain is diverting attention from what should be one of the central issues in this election: who has the better plan to promote massive innovation around clean power technologies and energy efficiency.

Why? Because renewable energy technologies — what I call “E.T.” — are going to constitute the next great global industry. They will rival and probably surpass “I.T.” — information technology. The country that spawns the most E.T. companies will enjoy more economic power, strategic advantage and rising standards of living. We need to make sure that is America. Big oil and OPEC want to make sure it is not.

That right there is a bull's-eye. What is going on with respect to oil and energy right now is a challenge, yes—But it's also a big opportunity. The U.S. has the ability to define the debate, to lead the charge, to do what we've always done: Put our best minds to work on a massively difficult problem. We need a new Apollo Program for energy indepedence. And that, Gentle Reader, is what Obama promises. See here, from his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last Thursday night:

And for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

We will do this. Washington -- Washington has been talking about our oil addiction for the last 30 years. And, by the way, John McCain has been there for 26 of them.

And in that time, he has said no to higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars, no to investments in renewable energy, no to renewable fuels. And today, we import triple the amount of oil than we had on the day that Senator McCain took office.

Now is the time to end this addiction and to understand that drilling is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution, not even close.

As president, as president, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I'll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America.

I'll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars.

And I'll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy -- wind power, and solar power, and the next generation of biofuels -- an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced.

America, now is not the time for small plans.
Damn straight. Now let's elect him, shall we?