Monday, September 29, 2008

David Foster Wallace

But my faith in love is still devout

This is my hundredth blog post. I wanted to do something special for #100 and so I’ve tried to write a little about my feelings about David Foster Wallace, whose passing I mentioned briefly in a previous entry called “Words Fail, Sometimes”. Please understand that the following was written through the blurry lens of grief. Grief has a scattering rather than sharpening effect upon me; so caveat emptor.


I’m a fan of David Foster Wallace.

At heart, even though I’m a professional writer, I am foremost a fan. I’ll have my photo taken with musicians and writers I admire. Typically I’ll have something I’d like them to sign, a CD insert, a record jacket, a book. The books I tend to have signed usually bear the scars of our relationship, with their spines bent, their covers creased, and pages marked with margin notes and bright yellow highlighter ink. When I'm at a book conference and supposed to be promoting my own work I'm usually looking for the opportunity to go meet or listen to other writers. I’ve always thought it was important to seek out people whose work has meant something to me, thank them for their creation, and let them know I look forward to their next creation.

For the record, I don’t believe I’m confessing to a character flaw when I write that I’m a fan (I have plenty of those that I can cop to in later blogs), although many of my friends are completely uninterested—and may even be embarrassed by—the sort of fandom I exhibit. It works out for me, because these friends dutifully will hold my gear and snap the photos at the concerts or signings or whatever, but I can’t help but feeling sad for them. I don’t know if they feel we are too old (is there something absurd having a CD signed by someone half your age?), too cool (unlikely) or that we should be too jaded and world weary for such activity. I hope, sincerely hope, that their lack of fan-response hasn’t anything to do with an inability to get truly excited, and truly appreciative for, anything other than ourselves, which is a condition I fear afflicts people in my generation (although better to be world-weary than to intrude on dinner, scream shrilly, or rend clothes and hair).

I’ve never really thought about meeting an author and having them sign a book as purely about “me”, any more than I thought it was about “them”. I always try to conceptualize the exchange as being about “us”—you created something that meant something to me, I let you know (briefly, there are fifteen other people in line) that your creation meant something to me, and for that moment in time, at least, there is a shared link of communication. Maybe that link leads to something else—I’ve gotten all fannish with people who are now friends of mine.

I set goals for myself and my writing career every New Years’ Eve, committing them to paper. It is how I set some boundaries around the playground that is my life, my way of imposing at least a modicum of order on something that my personality would quickly let fly into chaos. Over the past few years I’ve done pretty well with the goal list, managing to hit upwards of ninety percent of them. I’ll never achieve one of them for this year. The third goal on my list reads “to meet David Foster Wallace”.

At the time I wrote “to meet David Foster Wallace”, the goal seemed to have all the characteristics of a good goal, being achievable, realistic, and measurable. This year, thanks to some book touring, I’ve been able to meet a few (albeit unlisted) literary heroes of mine like Tobias Wolff and Ethan Canin, and have formed Internet relationships with a few others. I felt reasonably sure that I’d find a way to meet him this year.

I’m struggling, as I’m sure many people are, with expressing myself regarding how deeply his death is affecting me—I certainly have never taken the death of someone I didn’t know as hard as I am his (although when Joe Strummer died I was blue for days). Losing DFW is like losing Jimi Hendrix; there’s this sense that one of the earth’s true geniuses, with so much beautiful work left ahead, is gone, just when they were beginning to bloom as artists.

I was managing a bookstore and writing at night when I first read Infinite Jest (unlike at least 90% of the eulogists, who, against all reason, seem to make a point of saying they “could not get through it”, I finished it and have gone back to the fountain many times. I’ve read almost everything he published; I feel like a poser for not having read what others refer to as “the math book”, Elegant Complexities: A Complex History of Infinity). Sometimes in life, the readers among us—especially the readers who want to write—are fortunate enough to stumble across the right book at the right time, and that book will continue to act as a sort of literary bellwether throughout our entire lives. Infinite Jest was and is that book for me, in the same way that The Catcher in the Rye (and soon after, the rest of Salinger) was when I read a few years earlier. When I finished the book I immediately started reading it again, and then reached into the past to read his preceding work and then waited somewhat impatiently for more work to follow. He was, for a time, one of only three authors whose name alone on its table of contents could persuade me to buy a magazine.

I saw—and here I’m relying on personal impression rather than actual scholarship—threads running between the works of Salinger and Infinite Jest. Hal’s last name, “Incandenza”, I took as serving a similar function as Salinger’s “Glass” family—“incandescent” having among it’s definitions “strikingly bright, radiant, or clear”. The Incandenza family, like the Glasses, are chock full of geniuses. Without attempting to turn this into a half-baked senior thesis, I saw many points of intersection among the smaller details of IJ and Salinger—tennis, cigarettes, boarding schools, etc.

In my blind, grasping way, I imagined IJ as an expansion and modernization (or post modernization, if you prefer) of some of Salinger’s pet themes. Whereas Holden and Seymour Glass are overwhelmed emotionally by seemingly insignificant details they pick up, details that appear to be outside the “plots” of the stories but are actually integral to them—a girl on the sidewalk, the color yellow—my sense of things was always that Hal feels these types of emotions just as intensely, instead suppresses them—for a time—through chemicals.

Another connection I’d always made between Wallace’s work and Salinger’s was with the title essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing I Would Never Do Again and the story “Teddy” from Salinger’s 9 Stories. The first is Wallace’s brilliant, hilarious account of a trip he took on a cruise ship, the second, a story about a child genius—a spiritual as well as intellectual genius—who also happens to find himself on a cruise ship. Beyond the cruise ship/genius points of intersection, I connected the two because I believed there to be a shared sensibility in terms of world-view and literary values between the two authors (although I should mention Salinger’s conceit that “Teddy”, along with The Catcher in the Rye, was actually written by Buddy Glass, the second oldest of Salinger’s fictional Glass family. Wouldn’t you love to know what old J.D. thinks of all of Himself’s films?). Teddy’s intelligence is such that he can predict the future, which one gathers is the end result of his being in tune with the universe, a sort of spiritual savant. From the first page of his essay, DFW establishes himself as truly “one upon whom nothing is lost”. There is such detail, technical and human detail, in the writing that I could well imagine DFW predicting tourist deaths, hijackings, shuffleboard winners, you name it.

I reread these two works after DFW’s death, and then came across, among literally hundreds of anecdotes, quotes, and outpourings of grief, a passage in an interview with DFW that I received a link to from a DFW list group that I’d joined, available on the Amherst college website. The interviewer, Stacey Schmeidel, asks DFW “What writers move you?”

His response is characteristically thoughtful; he begins by saying “The question’s verb is tricky,” and then differentiates the “moving” capabilities of works like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bridges of Madison County versus more “top-shelf literary fiction”, and closes by saying that he’s never found anything as purely moving as The Velveteen Rabbit when he first read it.”

His answer reminded me of this exchange in Teddy, where Teddy is being questioned by a man he meets on the ship, Bob Nicholson, who has read accounts of Teddy’s interactions with various institutions that want to study him. Teddy uses the moment to drop some knowledge on Bob, and discusses his thoughts on the nature of God and love. After Teddy defines how he loves God, Bob asks him if he loves his parents. His answer:

“Yes, I do—very much,” Teddy said, “but you want to make me use that word to mean what you want it to mean—I can tell.”

Later in the story, Teddy and Bob discuss Teddy’s apparent ability to predict “how and where and when” someone will die. Teddy says (again, clarifying terms and definitions) that isn’t true, and that he was able to ascertain when someone should be careful, and that the deaths were not “inevitable”. Then he gives an example where he could be killed going to his swimming lesson.

“What would be so tragic about it, though? What’s there to be afraid of, I mean? I’d just be doing what I was supposed to do, that’s all, wouldn’t I?”

The story ends with Teddy dying in the very manner—(or so we imagine, the event occurs off camera)—that he’d just described. This death, regardless of whether or not you buy the implied metaphysical preordination that Teddy alludes to, always struck me as a sort of suicide. A few paragraphs prior Teddy says that the deaths he could predict were not “inevitable”, so why toddle off to his own?

But DFW was not a fictional character, he was a real human being, one, as “the truth” unfolds, had lived with a great deal of emotional pain and depression his entire life. With so many people rushing back to his work to seek “the evidence” of his pain, there are, undoubtedly, tons of lines and paragraphs he wrote that might be interpreted to give insight to his mental state, perhaps even some that could be taken as a plea for help, or evidence of a suicidal nature. But I think it is a mistake to think it possible that “we” could have “saved” DFW through a closer reading of his work, much as we all would have liked to. There’s a line in “Teddy”, where Teddy quotes a line of Japanese poetry that reads “Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die”. Reading this days after DFW’s death was like a psychic rabbit-punch, one that left me dazed and incoherent (more so than usual) for hours.

Unlike in real life, where a person is defined primarily by their actions, in fiction an author is defined less by his character’s actions than by how those actions influence, change, and reinterpret their fictional world. An author can write about a psychopath without having actual psychopathic tendencies, but watch closely how the fictional world that the author has created reacts, responds to, and assimilates the psychotic behaviors, because the author could certainly be a psychopath. In Infinite Jest, there are addicts (recovering and otherwise), terrorists, phobics, and yes, suicides—but despite all this, and despite the downbeat beginning/end of the book, I come away from the book feeling positive about life, no matter what section of it I read, because Wallace’s was able to write so expansively, so insightfully, so authoritatively on the difficulty of human communication.

How difficult it is—how increasingly difficult it is—for humans to communicate! Much as Salinger’s work is concerned with the difficulty of true communication, understanding and being understood, Hal literally is unintelligible at the beginning (and chronological end) of IJ. In the essay “Greatly Exaggerated”, also from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Never Do Again (which, along with “E. Unibus Pluram:Television and U.S. Fiction" from the same book, are among the few essays I can point to that I believe shaped my “operant aesthetic” as a writer), there’s a line where DFW writes, in a critique of a book regarding the “existence of the author” (a subject which he warns might be of interest only to “professional critics and hardcore theory-wienies"), he writes “For those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems sort of arcane.” Infinite Jest, for various reasons and traumas I was experiencing and had experienced, was an act of communication that I sorely needed at the time I read it (each time I’ve read it, actually). There is so much in the book worthy of commentary, but Wallace’s ability to communicate about communication is the one that really continues to draw me in, the one shining gift that actually made me feel less alone in the world.

Which is why, of course, it is hard for me not to feel utterly devastated. I’m saddened that there won’t be any more of his work, no more beautiful novels, no more trenchant essays, no more sharp stories, no more communication. I’m saddened that I never took the chance to say thank you, that I never communicated what his communication meant to me. But mostly I’m just sad he’s gone.


Although I’ve written as much about Salinger and DFW’s essays as Infinite Jest, it is really that book that is more the life-changer, the life enhancer, the life preserver for me. I’m kind of afraid to write about it, really, not because I might be wrong (as, I freely admit, I might be in the “insights” of this blog) but because what I write could sap someone else’s joy to read it for the first time. Criticism, even well intentioned criticism, can sometimes calcify hearts against subjects where the critic meant only to celebrate. So instead I’ll make a recommendation for readers of my blog, many of whom are much younger than I was when I first read IJ, with the “college experience” still ahead of them. Read Infinite Jest the summer before you go to college, and read it again the summer after you graduate. Um, and also you need to have read all of Salinger first (don’t worry, this will actually take less time than reading IJ).

I promise you will find the experience life enhancing in so many ways. I actually envy you.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Wild Life, Part XXXIII

We got a love between us that is like electricity

A week ago I saw a skunk so large it should have its own entry in the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. It was at least two Bonnys in size, maybe three. I was at my desk writing and I saw the critter, whose head had so much long white-blond hair, or fur, that it looked not unlike that of C.C. DeVille, the guitarist from Poison (who must, come to think of it, be related to similarily-coifed Cruella DeVille). I watched as it loped beneath my window and went behind the garage, the same path that the giant woodchuck and the pheasant run down towards the apple trees.

Of course, I summoned my children, thinking they would be content to stay in the safety of my office and gaze out at the beast. Not so.

Still in their school uniforms, they ran out the house to get a closer look. They reached the corner of the garage. I could only see the bushy head of the skunk as it appeared, but it's mouth flopped open just like Muppet Beaker's whenever he was about to blow up the lab. My kids, screaming, turned around and ran back into the house. I haven't laughed that much in months.

The skunk must have been as terrified as they were, because it bailed on the scene without pausing to snatch one of the apples.

When I caught my breath I told the kids that that was without question the largest skunk I'd ever seen. My son, also catching his breath because of his rapid flight, made a beautiful comment that once again revealed to me that he has the soul of a poet.

"Yeah, Dad," he said, eyes wide. "He must be filled with stink!"

Thankfully, the skunk retained his stink without spraying my fleeing children.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

More Self-Aggrandizement

True love is the devil's crowbar

Hi kids!

I'll be signing books (I say that, but who knows? people need to show up for me to actually sign anything!) at the Barnes and Noble in Canton, CT this Thursday at 6:00. I've got cool Generation Dead wristbands that I will give away to anyone who smiles at me. I told people at the NEIBA convention that the wristbands were good for one free drink at the hotel bar but a) I didn't specify which hotel and b) it was a total lie.

The B&N is at 110 Albany Turnpike #305 in Canton, CT. They have coffee and books, I have wristbands and a full pen. Any zombie that comes will get a wristband for each wrist.

Also, I'd like to thank Chris Ohm, who did an interview with me for his school newspaper. You can read the interview here atNews in a Click. Please check it out, if only for the really cool photo that Chris did that accompanies the interview. I think the girl in the photo looks very Margi-esque, how about you? And thanks, Chris, for trying to help me sound intelligent and interesting!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Oooo Weee Oooo He Looked Just Like that Dude from Winger

I was fortunate to be in Boston with an old friend (Lord, did he look old)last night, someone that I went to both high school and college with. Of the many halcyon memories that we sifted through, we did an extensive deconstruction of all of the concerts we went to back in the day, not only the big arena shows (Danny's Fun Fact: I was almost killed coming home from the Monsters of Rock--Metallica, Van Hagar, Scorpions, Dokken, Kingdom Come. I was sitting in the shotgun seat and woke up just in time to scream at the driver, who had fallen asleep and was in the process of drifting over three lanes of traffic towards the concrete barrier. After narrowly avoiding a deadly collision, he asked me how I managed to wake up just in time, and I told him that I had a dream where the ghost of Cliff Burton was yelling at me to wake up and get out of his dream. We pulled over and pounded a six pack of Jolt cola immediately after) but also club shows and the local stuff we saw while at UConn.

I asked him if he'd ever seen Avant Garde when he was there, and I was disappointed when he said he hadn't. Avant Garde looked like a hair metal band, all spandex and hairspray, and lyrically they could stray into hair metal territory with songs like "Never Forgot" and "Standing in the Paris Rain",which are songs about being all sensitive with girls. Musically, though, I thought they had more in common with bands like Fates Warning or Metallica than Poison--the song "Renaissance" off the demo tape in particular has a great twin guitar riffs and some wicked drumming.

They were five kids from the high school that bordered UConn, and I thought they were great. I heard them play two or three times, and ended up buying a tape they were hawking at the shows. Here it is:

I thought they had real promise. The songs were original and catchy. They cleary spent some time crafting both their songs and their presentation, but they also seemed to have a sense of humor and fun about what they were doing. There's a partial song on the tape called "Free Fall" that they sang as "Tree Frog" during one of their sets, which they and their fans, myself among them, thought was pretty hilarious. I remember being particularly impressed by their drummer, a tall red headed guy who set up his kit in this weird vertical way. I think he played at the front of the stage with his back to the audience, so that everyone could see what a titanic skin basher he was.

I think I saw them twice, and would have gone to see them again but they stopped playing locally. I heard a rumor that they'd all gone to L.A. to seek their fortune. I looked forward to them maybe getting signed and producing a whole album, but instead I never heard of them again until about a year ago.

I kept the tape, though. It was one of the few that I kept after my Great Cassette Purge of 1995. I listened to it quite a bit, and was smart enough to make a copy so as not to degrade the original, and I've since burned the songs to mp3 and have them on my iPod. And, ha ha! You'll never get them! And they're awesome! Ha ha ha ha!

Sorry. A year or so ago I read somewhere that one of the Avant Garde guys--the guy I actually bought the tape from--was Rivers Cuomo of Weezer fame. This kind of broke my brain for a bit, mainly because Rivers is now one of the least metal-y looking guys in rock, and also because I'm huge Weezer fan. I have most of their music on vinyl, which I mention to quell any doubts about how hardcore a fan I am. "In the Garage" off the blue album could practically be my biography.

My old friend (I was just kidding about him looking old, that was just me being bitter about him having retained more of his hair than I did--he showed me the bag he keeps it in) now works at Harvard, where Rivers graduated from not that long ago. Isn't that cool? Why do we say "small world" when the tiny moments of synchronicity like this actually expand the realm of possibility?

One of the other things that my friend and I talked about is some of the ways kids will differ from our generation (X) as time passes. X'ers use Internet tools like Facebook, etc. to track down a small percentage of friends we regret losing touch with. Contrast this with the youth of today, who have grown up attached at the e-hip with everyone they've ever gone to school with since the age of seven. Instead of tracking down forgotten chums and teen sweethearts, y'all will spend the rest of your lives trying to cyber-ditch all those people who just won't go away. I feel bad for you, too, because ditching is a lot harder than finding.

Sorry, kids, but history will prove me right on that one.

In the meantime, Weezer have a new album. You should get it

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wish You Were Here

Today the world lost Richard Wright to cancer. I've written often of my love of Pink Floyd and I'm quite sad about this.

But I've decided to become despair's greatest foe. On Saturday we invited a puppy to come live with us and here she is:

She's a ten week old beagle and her name, which we didn't change, is Star. My wife and daughter call her
"Stargirl" (Kim read and loved the Jerry Spinelli book of the same name) and my son calls her "Star". I call her, alternately, Deathstar, Superstar (a la Mary Catherine Gallagher) Ishtar, Starro the Conqueror, Dog Star, Meatloaf, or some other incredibly clever nickname I haven't thought of yet. Actually my favorite thing with her right now is to call "Starchild!" with the weird echo-ey voice Gene Simmons uses to tell Paul Stanley (Starchild) to use his mystic power of super-eavesdropping in the classic film KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, which you can (and should) watch in it's entirety on Disc One of the second KISS Anthology DVD set.

Ole Starro is a good dog, she didn't come housebroken but seemed to know instinctively that outside is where the deed is done, and she hasn't whined or howled at night at all. The kids are pretty smitten, and she seems to be smitten with them as well.

Tonight I plan to sit Star on my lap, program Wish You Were Here, DSOTM, Meddle, and key selections from my extensive Pink Floyd bootleg collection onto the iPod, and start reading Infinite Jest for the fourth time.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Words Fail, Sometimes

I just learned through a message group I subscribe to that a personal hero of mine, the author David Foster Wallace, took his own life last night. His novel Infinite Jest is one of my favorite books. He was only 46.

I don't have the words to express how I feel right now.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Kiss of Life

May 2009!

WARNING! SPOILER ALERT! The jacket copy has spoilers for Generation Dead, so read that one first, or avert your eyes!

Click image to supersize:

Friday, September 5, 2008


I've had both a MySpace account and a Facebook account for three years. I can't even remember why I signed up for them, but a current friend send a friend request--my first--for these services a couple weeks ago. How pathetic is that, to be friendless for three years???? I feel kind of like Homer Simpson when he found out there was a "No Homerz" club. Anyhow, I'm now "Live" on those services now, although I'm not really sure how to use them and make them all pretty yet.

And in a delightfully synchronistic moment, a post came in here and in Tommy's blog today that I'm putting front and center here:

manicboo said...
Hey! I'm totally new here and I have no idea if this is the right way to be doing this, so apologies if I'm making some terrible faux pas...Basically I just wanted to let you know that my friends and I have created a group on Facebook for fans of Generation Dead, because we all love the book and want to share our opinions and ideas with other fans, as well as hopefully encourage more people to read it!The link to the group is below (hopefully I'm doing this right!) I hope you'll check out the group and approve of what we're doing - the group was only created a couple of days ago so members are a little thin on the ground as yet, but we're sure that'll soon change!Thanks

Wow, thanks, Maz! I'm honored and touched (in the head, but still)!

I hope they let me join...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Makes No Sense At All

I didn't see any Ouija Boards, deer, or pheasants on my run this morning, but I was beset upon by yamaglatchis. Only my mastery of the ancient art of Crewka Crewka saved me.

The things I do for good health.