Posts Tagged ‘Thoughts on David Foster Wallace’


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.




This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on October 12, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

-7th installment (the real 7th installment, not the ‘really 6th, but for the typo 7th installment’)

Discussing Suicide

Discussions contain their neurological rewards, but they are rarely satisfying the way a dinner or a good movie (or a good book) can be satisfying. Not because they don’t possess the same potential as this other stuff; a long conversation on the phone, after a dinner, in a park, at a meeting, in a school, in a place you wouldn’t expect, anywhere, can be satiating (although after dinner it might be piggy-backing on the meal you just had and your full stomach), but the difference is that, unlike the other engagements, discussions depend not only on the consent of the two participants, but the willingness and effort brought by both, and then the sustainability of each, all of which seem to loop and feed off each other and burn out in the same respect. It takes a lot of maintenance, which is probably why the best discussions or conversations seem to happen totally unexpectedly, because if either person realized beforehand how much work they were portioning out for themselves, she/he would duck out or lampoon her/himself by becoming too stressed over how to go about it that they’d never anything going in the first place.

You can cook a good meal and eat it in like an hour and a half and watch a movie in like two. A book’s a little different because it just takes longer physically, but nevertheless…And you could cut and paste lots of other activities such as exercising, cleaning, masturbating (just as long as it’s spaced out at wide enough intervals), whatever and they would all pretty much fall under the same class because their production is well within your control. But things like discussions, sex, cooperation, etc., again, are rarely satisfying the way these other things are because more has to go right in order for them to be; and then when they are, they aren’t necessarily more rewarding (although it seems we take for granted that they have more potential to be, or have higher range). Which class writing falls into could be argued forever and so I’m just not going to get into it because that’s not what this is about. Matter of fact, this plump little scan over the nature of discussion is nothing more than a set up anyway for something else, and probably not anything anyone wouldn’t already be pretty well knowledgeable of so that she/he would need explained.

It’s just a way of getting at the problem of discussing suicide, which is that it is never satisfying; that there is something inherently UNsatisfying about it. Most of it seems to be laboring to get away from the subject itself.

Two years ago, while taking classes in psychology at Stony Brook without any direction, (for what I understand now was essentially to prove to myself that I was better than 2.6 GPA I graduated with when I earned my Bachelors 3 years earlier, while, even more deeply essential, continuing to delay the maturation that, had I just accepted it in the first place, would have cancelled any possible following analog scenario and therefore desire to prove to myself in any such way) I volunteered almost a year at a suicide/crisis hotline. It also was during this period that Wallace hung himself. I remember finding out through a text message I received while in my morning class, the only one in which I was still enrolled, having dropped two others out of the three I had originally signed up for, the first early enough to avoid being lassoed with that big INCOMPLETE mark, but not the second; so I was already on my way out. It was a small, seminar style course and so, even though I felt the phone vibrate in my pocket, I couldn’t look at it until about an hour later as I was walking out of the room, half forgotten, and probably more out of general pacifier-like impulse than eagerness to find out what it said. It was a friend who knew what a big fan I was.

“David Foster Wallace RIP”.

I think my immediate reaction, which lasted only a nanosecond, was to think he was referring to Wallace’s new book, which I knew Wallace had been working on, but nothing else about it, not even the title, and which I had been anticipating. Then, I thought it was some kind of weird black humor code for saying something else, like calling him eternal or something (I don’t know…). Then the whole realization soaked in like warm water into the bottom of your sock, from a small, invisible puddle left on a carpetless floor, and I knew what the only reasonable interpretation was. All of these reactions were more like layered on top of each other rather than sequential, but this is how I order them in retrospect. He was found in the evening and pronounced dead at night, so this must’ve been the following day.

This feels a little trite to say, but it is a really weird thing to feel that kind of real mourning for someone you have never met and never spoken to. And by weird, I mean, like in a creepy way; like someone who you’ve just met but have somehow gotten into an involved conversation with veering into periodic descriptions of her/his experiences in therapy that become increasingly frequent creepy; or person in a similar situation suddenly giving an explanation about how he courted his barely legal girlfriend through a succession of temperate emails exchanged after friending her on Facebook creepy; or confiding in you personal information about his/her family without, seemingly, an inkling of awareness that you might find it strange and oblivious to you already pulling away creepy. Not really harmful to anyone, just their own image to whomever they encounter (as when we commit ourselves to judging people, we tend to go all out and judge them absolutely).

I had always viewed the people you see on TV gathering to mourn celebrities like John Lennon or Kurt Cobain, sobbing and holding candles, showing more emotion for someone they did not know than I have for people in my own family as extreme, trying to make up for some emptiness: in the words of DFW “greedy for something you cannot ever have; disappointed in a way you can never admit”. But I read all the blogs that have been written since his death (not literal); the essays, the blurbs, comments under YouTube videos. As I swim through the almost ubiquitous praise, it is divided initially into rewarding confirmations of what I feel, but that ultimately recede to the space underneath each dull, self-stimulating click of the mouse.

I’m not going to say I have shed my point of view on celebrity worship because I caught a glimpse of that same extremity in myself and suddenly felt I could understand it better. It’s a little bit more complicated. The truth is, I’ve never been as cynical as it seems I’m now making myself out to be.

Another snippet from Consider the Lobster, DFW’s essay-turned moral treatise on a Maine lobster festival, keeps repeating in my head: “hostile to my fantasy of myself as a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all.”

If you’ll notice though, I haven’t said anything about suicide yet.


-sorry for what might seem like use of a grave subject in the manner of a cheap trick, but I really intended it to be much shorter. It’s already over 1,000 words and it’s very late at the moment of writing this. It will be continued in the one of the next two weeks.


This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on September 28, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , ,

-Helpful Disclaimer: certain passages below are in red font and struck out with a black line, which is a new attempt at a device meant to sidestep the narrative stalling asides that have up until now been encapsulated in basic parenthesis. The point is to, since I feel like they make the article all-in-all better being left in but realize they are not necessary and can be disruptive to the reader, make them as easy to pass over as possible for those who do not want to read them or find their disjointing to be unrectifiable. And since those who do want to read them will have to deal with the narrative flow problems anyway, they will not be missing out on anything. The  passages may, now, because of the red, stand out more than they deserve, but it was the best way to make it serve its purpose, which was to allow you to see the main text without interrupting the basic flow of your eye movement. DFW used IYI (If Your Interested) in his book Everything And More for basically the same purposes. Certain phrases are in the normal parenthesis because they are necessary asides or not too interrupting.

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

-6th installment

“The Possible Hormonal Component of Writing, in a Non-Seventh Grade Girl Diary Writing Way”

The role of reinforcers in constructing meaning is probably major, but I don’t believe it is talked about objectively in pop-psych or general media. I would imagine the closest would be in discussions about education, and education strategies, right under the surface, like at an itch you can’t quite scratch level of depth below. But it probably never focuses, in carved out terms, on the idea I mean: that there is probably some built-in, hormonal setup of rewards, positive and negative reinforcers, and even punishments, that operates under our nervous system and is an agent in creating the Rubik’s cube-like linkage of knowledge and experience that I guess would roughly (feel free to cut and replace it with your own less cursory/utilitarian configuration) constitute meaning. It’s likely that there is some-to-extensive scientific/academic coverage on this concept but I don’t possess the time or chops to research that correctly, so will let it stand with the unlikely promise to myself to look it up later, even if it ultimately harpoons this article.

Reducing the rest of my following assumptions and logic, and avoiding an annoying and probably fruitless explanation to one simple, functional, yet somewhat flat [collateral damage that sometimes comes with making choices] statement writing is a way of constructing meaning and it has its rewards, reinforcers, and pains(e.g. of annoying/fruitless-explanation- this is not a definitive statement, since it is also a way of expressing and communicating thought, as well as influencing and directing the opinions of others (etc.).

There’s an obvious literary solution to the problem of constructing meaning, or how to make sense of Wallace’s suicide without the older brother aid of Wallace here to interpret it for us (‘us’ meaning those of us who see any worth in understanding this) and that is to use his life’s work before he died to fill in the empty space he left for definition after he killed himself. And depending on where you place it, it can either be pointlessly sentimental, like in the end, like and it is in Wallace’s own words that we find, time after time, what we seek in looking for a voice to explain his tragic end- the emotion ultimately expressed in his last human act, his final passage… as a conclusion to the original thought rather than the resorption of it, and is actually, when you think about it, pretty immature and insulting without meaning to be, or functional and predictable, like beginning, middle, and up to the end, which doesn’t lend itself to being condensed into a blanket statement. Or there’s always the option to eschew this effort entirely, peg it as building some sort of makeshift meaning out of the deeply personal, base-level, unexpressed thoughts and proclivities, to which I have, at best, distant and incomplete access, to which even family and friends with which I have no contact can not have complete access, of someone whom I (despite how much I like his work) do not know in a fundamental way (the way in which the most important factor in knowing someone involves give and take) and turn inward and put my own weird thoughts and proclivities (and possibly creepy interest) under the magnifying glass and try to construct meaning around what makes me want to commit this type of serious thought to someone I don’t know, what makes me feel connected, and all the ways in which it is fatuous and hope that I’m just not the only one and that it has some broader, social application.

Part of the reinforcement thing I was getting at above had to do with the difficulty of writing a piece that strings together different and, at times, competing thoughts, that draw from a wide range of sources and fragmented input, that are at times, incomplete (or [even scarier] in a way that you cannot even see and cannot see that you cannot see), and that does so with a beginning, middle, and an end so to actually make something of it that can be useful to yourself or somebody else. And that it involves a lot of psychic pain and unpleasantness, and hard fought momentum (e.g. how many people do you know who report hating to write papers in college with like, an emphasis that informs its incluson in a higher class of distaste) so that just to get through it there have to be some rewards along the way. And, in that case, you also have to learn somewhere along the way, most likely at an unconscious level, how much distress you can work with and when and how to reward yourself.

Wallace’s own construct of meaning, you could tell, was influenced by neurology, evidenced simply by the frequency at which references like “how” things “feel on your nerve endings” appear in interviews with him.

So, what are the rewards of constructing meaning around things like art and suicide? And are they enough to counter the stress over whether or not it will be something built to last? Or whether or not you end up constructing the wrong meaning altogether and, like, become guilty of the social crime of glorifying bad things? The stress over whether you are completely wasting your time, going about the wrong subject or in totally the wrong way? Does a well developed system troubleshoot enough so that you can basically rely on it? Is the whole process disrupted by anxiety or depression? If so, how? And how, if at all, can it be corrected?

-these and many more questions will be tackled in future installments of Thoughts on David Foster Wallace


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


This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on September 14, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

-4th installment

An Explanation

It seems like Wallace could explain anything and that, eventually, he would explain everything. You have to give of yourself time and effort, and it will take a while. A long while sometimes. Many times. There are no guarantees he will adhere to societal mores about pithiness and brevity (that seem not to say ‘why use two words when you can use one’ so often as ‘if you can’t say it in 30 words, 30 seconds, or less, then you can’t say it effectively’…or even ‘you’ve got three seconds to wrap it up before I stop listening and move on to something else’), especially in his essays. If a thought, detail, point, theme, or what-have-you is calling for more space, he will make room. He will shift things around and take as much time as he needs, but he will fit it in.

“Up Simba!”, his essay on John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” campaign in the 2000 primary, is 79 pages long and discusses the paradox in the term ‘straight talk’ being made into a slogan as well as the potent appeal and honest-to-god-ness of McCain’s heroism in Vietnam. “Authority and American Usage” is 62 pages and begins by uncovering the ideological turf battles over dictionaries in the world of lexicography but spirals out into personal atonement for a disaster stemmed in the irreconcilable aspects of the argument (haven’t read this one in a long time, so please forgive me if the ‘irreconcilable aspects of the argument’ is off or shoddy. The point is the link from the esoteric and weird nature of the war over words between the eggheads and his personal failure). There’s Mister Squishy, 64 pages about a team of advertisers acting as a think tank analyzing all the little suggestions and idiosyncrasies of a cartoon advertisement for candy in an airy high rise office. And, of course, there’s Infinite Jest.

Reading Wallace after already having a significant amount of exposure to his writing under your belt, you may notice that it feels very much like a certain gimmick that frames each plot uniformly on a TV series where the main characters are presented at the beginning of each episode with a choice or an incitement, all of which together can be reduced to the same thematic dilemma (much to my embarrassment, the show that keeps coming to mind, snuffing out any other passable examples, happens to be Rugrats, which, so much for trying to convince any reader of the canonical weight of Wallace or of my seriousness in fashioning an intelligent discussion of him because I’ve just pretty much guaranteed the nullification of all that. But I am leaving all this in because the statement needs a reference to be effective and therefore [since we’re here now], in case you did not watch Rugrats until you were fourteen years old [guilty] and so still would not get the full jist of the statement, the dilemma would be this: a problem presents itself to the four characters that solving requires leaving their crib or play area and so the dilemma is between safety or success, with two main characters, Tommy, as the protagonist who is always arguing for success [and winning] and Chuckie, the antagonist [or negative protagonist maybe] arguing for safety…DFW is Tommy, btw) But to say he was protesting against this time restraint, or demand, on communication would be to define it in a haphazardly reductive way. You would also begin to realize (fairly quickly, I’d bet) after reading a good amount of Wallace that he did not eschew any art or written thing for being short or simple, or even cliché, apparently, considering his views on platitudes. I can take a lot of time constructing this argument, but can we agree to settle for one quote and take it on faith that it is not just an arbitrary selection?

“I tend, as a reader, to prize and admire clarity, precision, plainness, lucidity, and the sort of magical compression that enriches instead of vitiates. Someone’s ability to write this way, especially in non-fiction, fills me with envy and awe.”

 The dichotomy between Wallace the reader and Wallace the writer is stark. In Wallace’s writing, in the above quote, and in so many other instances, there is pain. Not so obvious at first. It is like the water that is all around us that he described in his address to the students at Kenyon College. And the fact is that, something I don’t recall ever being explicitly stated, reading Wallace, for all its rewards, can be very painful. The same word a person could use to totally dismiss it and express utter disdain, in the ease and convenience of just one word, is how one would have to describe it if he/she wants to begin to construct any kind of useful meaning out of it. 

It is partly living in pain. And partly like putting your soul through a car wash of massive catharsis.


-come back next week for the continuation in the 5th installment of Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

In the mean time, read through the last three.