Posts Tagged ‘Infinite Jest’


This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on January 4, 2011 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace-10th Installment

Discussing Suicide Part 3

I wouldn’t venture into the forest of trying to synthesize some meaning for suicide (or Wallace’s suicide, in particular, either) out of Wallace’s fiction and essays (we’ll leave interviews out of this for now, for reasons that will become more obvious in a bit) if it didn’t seem like a necessary, albeit trapdoor fraught, step, and won’t do so without first establishing caveats. Both concerns, fortunately, can be handled nicely by this quote from an episode of Charlie Rose, from May 17th, 1996.

“I think part of the fun for me was being part of some kind of exchange between consciousnesses; a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff that we normally can’t talk about…like we’re sure not going to be able to talk about this stuff here…” 

Which also should reveal why interviews will be disregarded. Wallace said it in during the show’s second half segment, that was a panel discussion on the purpose of fiction among which included two other authors, Mark Leyner and Jonathan Franzen.

Now despite the overall attempt to view suicide with a new, less sanctimonious and horrified lens, the word ‘fun’ is not a word that’s ever going to come anywhere near it. But if you can isolate the idea of fun from the rest of the quote (it may even be a good idea to go one step further and treat ‘fun’ here as a circumstantial term, exchangeable with words like ‘rewarding’, ‘cathartic’, or even ‘satiating’, or ‘invigorating’, none of which really fit well with suicide either, but are at least more thoughtful than ‘fun’…perhaps ‘moving’ or ‘compelling’ would be closer…) and focus on ‘a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff that we normally can’t talk about’, you should be able to understand why it’s more than just a good idea but practically necessary to look at DFW’s fiction, as well as, to a lesser, more discriminating extent, his essays (Wallace claimed he was a little foggy on the definition of this writing form in his Introduction to The Best American Essays: 2007Deciderization 2007-a Special Report, stating “I think I personally prefer the term ‘literary nonfiction’). In order to fully understand why you have to be somewhat familiar with Wallace’s life (which, since you’re reading this, you most likely are), important details of which will be included, or somehow or other gotten to, further on. For right now, its important to make sure, as we go ahead and look into his writing, to be aware of the influence of his major depressive disorder and suicide, with which he had his first serous struggle in college (at least in a way that can be attributed to a time line), before any of his fiction was published.

It feels as though I’m now actually beginning to talk about suicide.



Here’s a video of the entire May 17th episode of Charlie Rose in 1996, in case you’re interested in getting a better feel for the conversation and time.

Read past blogs on David Foster Wallace here which you can also get by scrolling to the bottom, where all of our recurring topics are listed and linked.


This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on December 29, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace-9th Installment

St. George

Yeah, so the idea of rifling back through Wallace’s stories, essays, and interviews for a kind of composite, total expression of his experience with suicide and then, out of which, some complete explanation of suicide itself, is just a little too sentimental. It fits too easily into this narrative template that, stripped down, goes more or less like ‘all that exists of a person after he/she is gone are what he/she left behind’, which is useful in its own right and could work in many circumstances, but in this case is just too small and simple, and the opposite of robust. Applied here, it would be like being given the answer to a riddle or like an android version of true meaning.

Here’s relevant a quote from Everything & More, in which the specifics are not carbon copies of DFW’s, but it is obvious how they correspond-

“The cases of great mathematicians with mental illness have enormous resonance for modern pop writers and filmmakers. This has to do mostly with the writers’/directors’ own prejudices and receptivities, which in turn are functions of what you could call our era’s particular archetypal template. It goes without saying that these templates change over time. The Mentally Ill Mathematician seems now in some ways to be what the Knight Errant, Mortified Saint, Tortured Artist, and Mad Scientist have been for other eras: sort of our Prometheus, the one who goes to forbidden places and returns with gifts we all can use but he alone pays for. That’s probably a bit overblown, at least in most cases.”

And there’s a footnote that comes later in the paragraph that is not attached to anything in this quote, but expands on the concept and is essential to the point I want to make-

“In modern medical terms, it’s fairly clear that G.F.L.P. Cantor [who is the ‘mathematician’ of concern in the quote above and whom Everything & More is about] 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 ∞…Saying that ∞ drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon: it’s not only wrong but insulting.”

This is taken out of context, somewhat, since the statement was tangential to the text, included for the sake of setting boundaries for the reader. The point was about how a to look carefully at a person’s biography and what the reader is able and unable to learn from it; how, embedded in this vehicle, are untruths married to truths like conjoined twins. But if I’m wrong about what DFW meant by it, or have myself twisted its meaning, you at least now know without having to have read the book. To say that Wallace is the sum of what you can quote from him is not only wrong…it’s insulting.

(aside: Can you insult someone who is not present to receive the insult and be affected by it, and could never possibly be in a position to receive or be affected by it? is a metaphysical question so I’ll just leave it at, it certainly feels like it will insult someone; and wrongly too.)


Read previous blogs on David Foster Wallace here.


This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on November 30, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

-8th Installment

Discussing Suicide: Part 2

I don’t know what most people’s experience is, but I’ve repeatedly found that the topic of suicide rarely, if ever, leads anywhere past its own introduction into a conversation. (And if I’ve understood this with any irony stemming from the definition of suicide, it’s been little other than that kind of dead irony, straight out of Hamlet’s Alas! Poor Yorick.) The catalogue of responses which includes, in a nutshell, ‘Such a shame’, ‘It’s a selfish act’, ‘It’s cowardice”, the more promising but ultimately just as ineffectual and disconcerting, ‘How could someone ever take their own life?’, and (not to be overlooked for lack of conformity) seconds of blanket silence, is pretty small and tentative, and about as complete as Hollywood’s depiction of love or Hallmark’s treatment of significance. Then there are people who will get angry nine times out of ten, simply by suicide’s entry into the discussion, and will become surprisingly authoritative (and on other more basic levels, just simply surprising) in the other 10%. But this seems to suggest something like difficulty beyond what we’re accustomed to dealing with, in the normal patterns of our daily interactions and engagement in the world, rather than some unbridgeable gap of meaning.

This last sentence may come off as a little obvious and trite; and it may even be that most people feel the two statements in it really shouldn’t be juxtaposed, but more like one conjugates the other (most likely though not limited to, the people who tend to get angry when suicide is brought up). I just want to make it known that I’m aware of this and what I want to do (what I think there is an opportunity to do in this format) is try to rehash the question of whether or not we actually could go a little further to refine our assumptions and language regarding suicide, in a way that’s ultimately positive and useful, or helpful, to people.

Right off the bat there are trap doors to Wallacean grade paradoxes in this, such as the notion that whatever ways in which we try to discuss suicide must be predetermined as helpful or positive may undermine the earnestness with which the attempt is supposed to be made in order to really qualify as an honest-to-goodness attempt and that, furthermore, the recognition of crevasses like this puts the attempter, again, in no better position to deal with them than all the past attempts from which he is trying to separate himself, but possibly worse. It’s this sort of room filled with mouse traps you automatically enter when talking about it that partially explains the hypersensitivity that seems dream-like or Greek in its ability to fold the tent from the get-go on the whole endeavor. The rest is probably explained by a collection of personal issues, pressure from a Catholic-like sense of responsibility to give the right answers and anxiety over extreme, guilty notions that wrong answers could somehow be extended to personal culpability for past, future, or current suicides happening in the world, outside the realm of what anyone would rationally regard as control, and, finally, the prescient recognition of far off conclusions that feel both inevitable and unacceptable.

In Although Of Course…, Lipsky wrote, in what I imagine is one of the more memorable, quotable, passages of the book, “Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.”

That may be true, but it may not be the whole case. You certainly can’t talk about David Foster Wallace now without getting to, or having to put in effort (possibly the amount that would take up six or seven long blogs) to avoid, the subject of suicide. But, still, and this is an unabashedly fan-boy statement to make, there is so much more to talk about in his writing and interviews, and even his apparent approach to living (of which those of us reading and writing about him have had little access except for what has come out since his death. For instance, I did not know he had MD. And I don’t think it’s totally fair when people look back on his writing and say ‘that makes sense’.), that is completely insulated from his suicide; that is life-affirming (which is a term I had used regularly when trying to describe Wallace’s writing before his death, and still do after). Like Galileo’s Paradox about infinity (Wallace’s favorite subject, other than loneliness, but I suspect they were interchangeable), the whole seems to be equal to the part.



Impromptu Post

In Imrpomptu Post,Matt on November 26, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace-Connected Reblog

DFW Forever is a blog dedicated to David Foster Wallace, who is the writer, to limit myself to saying ONE thing about him, addressed the discord between literature and the experience literature is supposed to represent that just kind of always bugged people on a level that never really had an opportunity to express and so most likely contributed to our relinquishing of much of our attention to literature in general. (adjunct to this one thing…) Wallace was maybe the first to create a way to express it…perhaps more on this another time.

Here is a recent post of theirs:



David Foster Wallace memories

The largest collection of DFW memories on the web. It is perhaps the most touching thing I have ever read.



This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on September 21, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

-5th installment


Alongside the pain, there is an dutifully present irony within the mental heap formed mainly out of thoughts engendered by Wallace’s prose and his suicide (that which is fragmented [obviously in its existence as a ‘heap’] but also interconnected in more abstract ways [also obvious but not so front-and-center] that I think are probably felt in those same streams of pain and irony, among others). The irony is the fan’s alone though, not Wallace’s. A lot has been written about him since his death, and it seems the volume of blogs, books, and articles has expanded steadily and will just continue to expand. I predict that soon after A Pale King comes out this April, his will become a house-hold name and, he, a literary figure of Hemingwayian stature in American culture.

A cursory illustrative list:

  • To-date and in the future; Blogs like The Howling Fantods and Forever DFW.
  • Up-coming; Biography by D.T. Max, writer for The New Yorker.
  • September 14, 2010; Archive of personal papers opens at the Harry Ransom Center in the University of Texas.
  • April 13, 2010; Release of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky, the first biography-ish.
  • September 25, 2009; film version of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, adapted and directed by Joh Krasinski opens in theaters.
  • June 21-September 21, 2009; “Infinite Summer”- internet based collective reading of Infinite Jest and chat forum run by writer Matthew Baldwin
  • April 14, 2009; This Is Water a small coffee table type publication of Wallace’s speech at Kenyon College is released.
  • September 12, 2008-present; approx. 300 reports, obituaries, and in memoria, since his death in all major media publications you can think of, NYTimes, Wall Street JournalLATimesRolling Stone, Playboy, internet forums like, and broadcast such as ABC News, as well as in Spanish, German, and Italian.
  • etc.

But to the David Foster Wallace reader, which is a more gracious way of saying ‘fan’, the only writer capable of writing a sufficient expiation of his suicide, of sorting through that heap, is Wallace himself.


-check out next …Week’s Article for the 6th installment

Audio from David Lipsky\’s Roadtrip with DFW


Tuesday’s Article (08-17-10)

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on August 26, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , , ,

audio of DFW interviewed by Michael Silverblatt in 1996. It isn’t intrinsically linked to the content in the blog. But it does have him talking about his writing at his most sobering.

Tuesday’s Article

David Foster Wallace

2nd Installment


When to pull the plug on explanation, especially when you get into the maze of recursion, is the job of the writer to decide, on his own. Which also means it is his responsibility not to abdicate it to the reader.

It seems simple enough when you lay it out like that, but when you’re actually in charge of doing it, whether it’s something you took upon yourself or somebody else put you it to, it ends up being possibly one of the hardest things anyone could want to do. Or maybe it’s more astute to say it breaks some sort of hardness threshold (obviously, for a parent to deal with losing a child would be much harder, or lifting a car over your head, which would be impossible and, therefore, definitively, harder. But please, I’m asking for a little charity here. I couldn’t find another word that is more adequate. ‘Difficult’? But it falls in the same trap. ‘Tricky’ is too narrow. ‘Painstaking’: how’s it better?…) which, once past, by-passes all scaled comparison.

I would say, without much second thought, that it is the central task of writing.

In “Desiderization 2007-A Special Report”, an introductory essay to 2007 edition of The Best American Essays series, of which Wallace was the editor, he calls writing both scary and hard and compares it to a tightrope extended over two, divided abysses:

“Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.”

(He is drawing a difference between fiction and non-fiction. I’ve extracted a part of the point for my own purpose, but you can decide if I am taking too much license with the essay here.)

It’s the same idea as the ‘middle-road’ or dividing a number to its smallest half. Writing is an impossible task.

Well, not exactly.

Infinity was a theme throughout Wallace’s work. The thing he’s most famous for, Infinite Jest, is not an arbitrary title. He was consummately concerned with how to cross the infinite distance between him and the reader.

Part of this task is to not allow yourself to be swallowed up by the “seething static of every particular thing and experience”, like every damn sidebar to any motion in each line of thought you follow. But on the other hand, it’s equally incumbent to make sure you’re not just floating lame ducks, which I guess would be akin to being silent, saying “nada”. And sometimes you can’t just will yourself to do this. Sometimes how you structure a piece, you can paint yourself into a corner this way. If I thought about it, I could probably point to handfuls of examples representative of both sides, enough to disqualify any proclamation tagging either as the ‘thing that’s wrong with the world today’.

Even just saying this doesn’t account for any of the work in actually doing it. And somehow, it’s awfully close to not saying anything at all. But it’s important as a start, like a marker, or the old carrot on a stick.

Wallace was the best, and most precise, at setting that mark and, to date, made it the farthest out on the tightrope.

to be continued…

-see also “How Everyone Feels”. Aug. 3, 2010