kottke.org posts about David Foster Wallace

Quack This WaySep 26 2014

One of the last interviews David Foster Wallace gave was with Bryan Garner, a lawyer and lexicographer who became friendly with Wallace due to their mutual love of language. That hour-long interview is reproduced in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.

David Foster Wallace was at the center of late-20th-century American literature, Bryan A. Garner at that of legal scholarship and lexicography. It was language that drew them together. The wide-ranging interview reproduced here memorializes 67 minutes of their second and final evening together, in February 2006. It was DFW's last long interview, and the only one devoted exclusively to language and writing.

It was Wallace's piece featuring Garner in Harper's, Tense Present, that cemented him as a favorite writer of mine, even before I tackled Infinite Jest. Wallace later expanded the essay to 62 pages in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

DFW, on the cusp of literary stardomJul 01 2014

Just after Infinite Jest was published, David Foster Wallace came to Boston and did a radio interview with Chris Lydon. Radio Open Source recently unearthed that interview, probably unheard for the past 18 years, and published it on their site.

When I started the book the only idea I had is I wanted to do something about America that was sad but wasn't just making fun of America. Most of my friends are extremely bright, privileged, well-educated Americans who are sad on some level, and it has something, I think, to do with loneliness. I'm talking out of my ear a little bit, this is just my opinion, but I think somehow the culture has taught us or we've allowed the culture to teach us that the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience as much pleasure as you can, and that the implicit promise is that will make you happy. I know that's almost offensively simplistic, but the effects of it aren't simplistic at all.

Five word usage tips from David Foster WallaceApr 10 2014

Farnam Street is featuring a handout given by the late David Foster Wallace to his fiction writing class in 2002. It's titled YOUR LIBERAL-ARTS $ AT WORK and covers five common usages gotchas.

2. And is a conjunction; so is so. Except in dialogue between particular kinds of characters, you never need both conjunctions. "He needed to eat, and so he bought food" is incorrect. In 95% of cases like this, what you want to do is cut the and.

Jason Segel to play David Foster Wallace in a movieDec 12 2013

Jason Segel is set to play David Foster Wallace in a movie adaptation of David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

Story finds Lipsky accompanying Wallace across the country on a book tour promoting "Infinite Jest," just as Wallace starts to become famous. Along the way, jealousy and competition bubbles up between the two writers as they discuss women, depression and the pros and cons of fame.

Reaction from the DFW fan club abut Segel playing DFW has been tepid, to say the least.

Consider the LobsterAug 23 2013

Speaking of lobster, you could do much worse today than reading David Foster Wallace's classic piece for Gourmet about attending the Maine Lobster Festival. As you might imagine, Wallace quickly veers from the event at hand into something more interesting and unsettling for Gourmet's gourmet readers: do lobsters feel pain and do they suffer for your dinner?

Given this article's venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I'm curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who'll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don't want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn't being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one's food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet's extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?

Both Flesh and Not, a new book of David Foster Wallace essaysSep 25 2012

A selection of previously uncollected essays from David Foster Wallace is coming out in book form in November.

Both Flesh and Not gathers 15 essays never published in book form, including "Federer Both Flesh and Not," considered by many to be his nonfiction masterpiece; "The (As it Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2," which deftly dissects James Cameron's blockbuster; and "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," an examination of television's effect on a new generation of writers.

Wallace's previous collections often included expanded articles with extra material cut from previously published pieces (like the cruise ship one and the state fair one). It would be wonderful to read a longer version of his NY Times piece on Federer but for obvious reasons I'm not holding my breath. Even just the first paragraph makes me want to sit down and read the whole thing for like a fifth time:

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men's tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're O.K.

Infinite Atlas and Infinite MapSep 06 2012

In July, we mentioned Infinite Boston, a project from William Beutler to map and photo the Boston-related locations in Infinite Jest. Today Beutler announced Infinite Atlas, which expands nationally on this project, and Infinite Map, a limited edition print featuring 250 "of the most interesting locations" from Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest Map

Two old, black girls...still holding up AmericaSep 04 2012

As it received high marks from friends, I wanted to like John Jeremiah Sullivan's recent NY Times Magazine profile of Venus and Serena Williams more than I did, but I think Sullivan had so little access to the sisters that it turned into more of a sick Frank story than expected.

The story has been told so many times, of these early years, when Compton got used to the sight of the little girls who would always be playing tennis at the public park -- or riding around in their faded yellow VW bus with the middle seat taken out to accommodate the grocery cart full of balls -- but somehow the strangeness and drama of it retain a power to fascinate. The idea of this African-American family organizing itself, as a unit, in order to lay siege to perhaps the whitest sport in the world and pulling it off somehow. "I remember even talking to my sisters and brothers," Oracene said, recalling a time before anyone had ever heard of the Williams sisters, "and telling them: 'The girls are going to be professional. We're going to need a lawyer, and we're going to need an accountant.' "

Isha, the middle daughter -- sharply funny and practical, fiercely loyal to the family -- told me: "Life was get up, 6 o'clock in the morning, go to the tennis court, before school. After school, go to tennis. But it was consistency. I hate to put it [like this], but it's like training an animal. You can't just be sometimey with it." She still can't sleep past 6.

My favorite observation from the story was actually from a behind-the-story piece that ran on the magazine's blog.

One thing Venus talked about that was interesting was how easy it is for professional athletes to pick up other sports. So what they are good at is not the sport itself, but it's just a way of being in the world. It's a sense of their own bodies and an ability to manipulate their own bodies and have sort of a visual map in your head of what the different parts are doing. At one point she was talking about doing a benefit with Peyton and Eli Manning. They'd almost never played tennis before and they started out awful, and she said it was amazing to watch them. It was like watching a film. Every stroke they hit was noticeably better than the last. Every time they hit the ball. She said you could almost watch their brains working and by the end of it they were totally competent tennis players.

The Super Manning Bros anecdote hits because, as David Foster Wallace pointed out in his evisceration of tennis player Tracy Austin's biography, it can be difficult for gifted athletes to talk about why and how they are able to do what they do. But Venus obviously can and I wish there'd been more of that in the main essay.

David Foster Wallace biographyAug 21 2012

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, is out next week.

David Foster Wallace was the leading literary light of his era, a man who not only captivated readers with his prose but also mesmerized them with his brilliant mind. In this, the first biography of the writer, D. T. Max sets out to chart Wallace's tormented, anguished and often triumphant battle to succeed as a novelist as he fights off depression and addiction to emerge with his masterpiece, Infinite Jest.

Since his untimely death by suicide at the age of forty-six in 2008, Wallace has become more than the quintessential writer for his time -- he has become a symbol of sincerity and honesty in an inauthentic age. In the end, as Max shows us, what is most interesting about Wallace is not just what he wrote but how he taught us all to live. Written with the cooperation of Wallace's family and friends and with access to hundreds of his unpublished letters, manuscripts, and audio tapes, this portrait of an extraordinarily gifted writer is as fresh as news, as intimate as a love note, as painful as a goodbye.

The Daily Beast has an excerpt of the book. Max also wrote an article about Wallace in 2009 for the New Yorker. (via df)

Infinite Jest tour of BostonJul 16 2012

Infinite Boston is a photo tour of some of the Boston locations that inspired locations in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

In July of what might have been Year of Glad, one year ago this week, I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts with the express purpose of visiting as many of the landmarks and lesser known precincts that appear in, or provide inspiration for, the late David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest as I could manage on a Thursday-Sunday trip. My reasons for doing so will become apparent at a later date, but for now I am pleased to present what I am calling "Infinite Boston": a ruminative travelogue and photographic tour of some fifty or so of these locations, comprising one entry each non-holiday weekday, from now until sometime in early autumn.

Infinite Jest, the playJun 18 2012

A German experimental theater recently put on a production of Infinite Jest. They turned the 1079-page book into a 24-hour play that took place all over Berlin.

The play is Infinite Jest. Yes, the 1,079-page David Foster Wallace novel. Germany's leading experimental theater, Hebbel am Ufer, had the gall not only to stage the world theatrical premiere of an Infinite Jest adaptation, but to play it on the grandest stage possible: the city of Berlin itself. Over the course of 24 hours, the shell-shocked and increasingly substance-dependent audience is transported to eight of the city's iconic settings, which serve as analogs for the venues to which the discursive novel continually returns.

But so we're at this AA meeting in a Boston school cafeteria, which in this case is the cultural center of a city quarter that was drawn up from scratch in the 1960s in the far, far north of Berlin, like practically halfway to the Baltic, this sticks-of-the-sticks-type section of town. And the actor sharing his history of teen addiction to Quaaludes and Hefenreffer-brand beer is droning on far too long and starting to give me the howling fantods.

Every internet article about Wallace is required by law to include footnotes and this one is no exception. (thx, paul)

New David Foster Wallace book: Both Flesh and NotMar 20 2012

A book containing David Foster Wallace's previously uncollected nonfiction is due out in November.

Beloved for his epic agony, brilliantly discerning eye, and hilarious and constantly self-questioning tone, David Foster Wallace was heralded by both critics and fans as the voice of a generation. BOTH FLESH AND NOT gathers 15 essays never published in book form, including "Federer Both Flesh and Not," considered by many to be his nonfiction masterpiece; "The (As it Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2," which deftly dissects James Cameron's blockbuster; and "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," an examination of television's effect on a new generation of writers.

There are also several books about Wallace and his writings coming out over the next few months.

Plastic surgeon pushing iPhone FaceTime faceliftsFeb 27 2012

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote that videophone technology wasn't popular due in part to vanity.

And the videophonic stress was even worse if you were at all vain. I.e. if you worried at all about how you looked. As in to other people. Which all kidding aside who doesn't. Good old aural telephone calls could be fielded without makeup, toupee, surgical prostheses, etc. Even without clothes, if that sort of thing rattled your saber. But for the image-conscious, there was of course no answer-as-you-are informality about visual-video telephone calls, which consumers began to see were less like having the good old phone ring than having the doorbell ring and having to throw on clothes and attach prostheses and do hair-checks in the foyer mirror before answering the door.

Now DC-area plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Sigal is offering what he calls the "FaceTime Facelift".

"Patients come in with their iPhones and show me how they look on [Apple's video calling application] FaceTime," says Dr. Sigal. "The angle at which the phone is held, with the caller looking downward into the camera, really captures any heaviness, fullness and sagging of the face and neck. People say 'I never knew I looked like that! I need to do something!' I've started calling it the 'FaceTime Facelift' effect. And we've developed procedures to specifically address it."

(via @timbritton)

Where good fiction comes fromOct 19 2011

Using Jeffrey Eugenides's newest book, The Marriage Plot, as a jumping-off point, Evan Hughes explores how the personal relationships and jealousies amongst a cadre of writers that included Eugenides, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, and David Foster Wallace pushed each of them to produce their best work and plumb the lowest depths of their self-loathing.

It was another novel-in-manuscript that had propelled Franzen toward his new phase -- the thousand-plus pages of Infinite Jest. Almost all of what Franzen had read at the Limbo had been written in a kind of response to Wallace after getting an early look at his groundbreaking book. "I felt, Shit, this guy's really done it." As Franzen saw it, Wallace had managed to incorporate the kind of broad-canvas social critique that the great postmodernists did into a narrative "of deadly personal pertinence." The pages Franzen produced then, he says, "came out of trying to feel good about myself as a writer after what an achievement Infinite Jest was." His comments to Wallace weren't all sunshine, though; he also "pointed toward some plot problems." Wallace granted that the problems existed, Franzen told me, but said that he would thereafter deny ever having admitted it.

Nevertheless, Franzen knew it was "a giant book," an end point of sorts. "It was clear that it was not going to be appropriate of me to try to compete at the level of rhetoric and the level of formal invention that he had achieved." He turned instead to "a family story about a midwestern Christmas," the beginning of which he read at the Limbo. The result was The Corrections.

Blame it on David Foster WallaceAug 21 2011

In this week's NY Times Magazine, Maud Newton tells us why she doesn't like David Foster Wallace's writing and blames DFW for the voice of the internet being too familiar. Maybe she's not actually doing this, but the whole thing is really sort of annoying, too, because to me, it kind of seems like she kind of uses all of the DFW tropes she's railing against. Then again, who am I, anyway? (Those previous 2 sentences are an example of the internet writing Newton claims DFW inspired. I think I'm a master and I probably should have written the whole post in this style.) I think I missed the point, Ms. Newton, I'm a lesser thinker.

Of course, Wallace's slangy approachability was part of his appeal, and these quirks are more than compensated for by his roving intelligence and the tireless force of his writing. The trouble is that his style is also, as Dyer says, "catching, highly infectious." And if, even from Wallace, the aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I'm-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach grates, it is vastly more exasperating in the hands of lesser thinkers. In the Internet era, Wallace's moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.

(Via Gabe Delahaye)

Russell Brand on Amy WinehouseJul 25 2011

Russell Brand's post about Amy Winehouse is a lovely tribute and a sobering reminder.

When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call. There will be a phone call. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they've had enough, that they're ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it's too late, she's gone.

Frustratingly it's not a call you can ever make it must be received. It is impossible to intervene.

Could help but think of Wallace while reading this, particularly this bit:

All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they're not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but un-ignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his "speedboat" there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they're looking through you to somewhere else they'd rather be.

Infinite Jest, blindly judgedApr 11 2011

Someone at Yahoo Answers posted the first page of Infinite Jest with the title "First page of my book. what do you think?" The crowd was not impressed:

No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don't care what shoe you're wearing. If you take out all the unnecessary details, you'd be left with about seven words.

See also what happens when a photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson gets critiqued on Flickr.

so small

so blurry

to better show a sense of movement SOMETHING has to be in sharp focus

(thx, timothy)

David Foster Wallace's self-help libraryApr 06 2011

A portion of David Foster Wallace's personal library now resides at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Maria Bustillos visited the Center and discovered clues to Wallace's depression scribbled in the margins of several self-help books the writer owned and very carefully read.

One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace's library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.

Much of Wallace's work has to do with cutting himself back down to size, and in a larger sense, with the idea that cutting oneself back down to size is a good one, for anyone (q.v., the Kenyon College commencement speech, later published as This is Water). I left the Ransom Center wondering whether one of the most valuable parts of Wallace's legacy might not be in persuading us to put John Bradshaw on the same level with Wittgenstein. And why not; both authors are human beings who set out to be of some use to their fellows. It can be argued, in fact, that getting rid of the whole idea of special gifts, of the exceptional, and of genius, is the most powerful current running through all of Wallace's work.

Designing The Pale KingApr 06 2011

Marie Mundaca designed a few of David Foster Wallace's books, including The Pale King.

As it turned out, it was too distracting and sad for me to read while I was designing it. Wallace's tiny, pointy notes were all over the manuscript copy, mostly name changes and corrections and small additions. One character, Elise Prout, used to be a "G3," and a phrase that said "been squashed like a cartoon character" was changed to "worn the brown helmet." His notes reminded me of the post-it notes that would come back to me on galley pages of the essay "Host" from Consider the Lobster -- notes that said things like "Totally bitchingly great" -- and I remembered that I no longer lived in a world where David Foster Wallace was alive.

(thx, mike)

The Pale King now availableApr 04 2011

Little, Brown timed the release of David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, The Pale King, to coincide with tax day in the United States because the book revolves around activities at the IRS. But Amazon and other bookstores have already started selling the book...it's been on sale since March 22 actually. Amazon has copies of the book in stock (I ordered mine yesterday)...your local bookstore might as well.

But in a move that's either clever or stupid, the ebook version of the book isn't available for the Kindle or for iBooks until April 15. Is this a ploy to get people to buy more hardcover copies? Or just sort of a "we didn't really think about this" situation?

New Wallace fiction in the New YorkerMar 01 2011

The latest issue of the New Yorker has a new excerpt from David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.

Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. This one particular boy's goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.

His arms to the shoulders and most of his legs beneath the knee were child's play. After these areas of his body, however, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf. The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him. He was six.

Except that it's not really new...Wallace did a reading of it back in 2000; the audio is available here. A comparison of the transcript of that reading and the "finished" version published in the NYer can be found here. (thx, @mattbucher)

Infinite Jest infographicOct 08 2010

This infographic attempts to explain all the interpersonal connections in Infinite Jest. (via personal report)

The Pale King available for pre-orderOct 07 2010

David Foster Wallace's final novel, The Pale King, is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, IL, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.

THE PALE KING remained unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace's death, but it is a deeply intriguing and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook. It grapples directly with ultimate questions--questions of life's meaning and of the ultimate value of work and family--through characters imagined with the interior force and generosity that were Wallace's unique gifts. Along the way it suggests a new idea of heroism and commands infinite respect for a writer who dared to take on the most daunting subjects the human spirit can imagine.

Kindle users, don't forget to click on the "I'd like to read this book on Kindle" link just under the cover image. (thx, robert)

The Pale King gets a coverSep 15 2010

The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, has got a cover and a release date: April 15, 2011.

The Pale King Cover

Set at an IRS tax-return-processing center in Illinois in the mid-1980s, The Pale King is the story of a crew of entry-level processors and their attempts to do their job in the face of soul-crushing tedium. "The Pale King may be the first novel to make accountants and IRS agents into heroes," says Bonnie Nadell, Wallace's longtime agent and literary executor. Michael Pietsch, Little, Brown's publisher and The Pale King's editor, says, "Wallace takes agonizing daily events like standing in lines, traffic jams, and horrific bus rides -- things we all hate -- and turns them into moments of laughter and understanding. Although David did not finish the novel, it is a surprisingly whole and satisfying reading experience that showcases his extraordinary imaginative talents and his mixing of comedy and deep sadness in scenes from daily life."

The cover was designed by Karen Green, Wallace's widow.

Athletes are different from you and meAug 10 2010

In a letter to the editor in 1988, literary critic Eddie Dow tried to set the record straight:

In 1926 Fitzgerald published one of his finest stories, ''The Rich Boy,'' whose narrator begins it with the words ''Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.''

Ten years later, at lunch with his and Fitzgerald's editor, Max Perkins, and the critic Mary Colum, Hemingway said, ''I am getting to know the rich.'' To this Colum replied, ''The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.'' (A. Scott Berg reports this in ''Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.'') Hemingway, who knew a good put-down when he heard one and also the fictional uses to which it could be put, promptly recycled Colum's remark in one of his best stories, with a revealing alteration: he replaced himself with Fitzgerald as the one put down. The central character in ''The Snows of Kilimanjaro'' remembers ''poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of [ the rich ] and how he had started a story once that began, 'The very rich are different from you and me.' And how someone had said to Scott, yes, they have more money.''

World-class athletes, though, really do seem to be different from you and me, and not just because they have better physical skills and (some of them) more money. We act shocked when athletes we think we understand, like LeBron James or Tiger Woods, surprise us with their behavior, or when a great player like Isiah Thomas degenerates into a complete lunatic once he's off the court. (Sorry, Knicks fans.)

The strangeness (and unbelievable abilities) of top athletes is the theme of David Foster Wallace's 1995 essay "The String Theory," about the lower rungs of pro tennis:

Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it's more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We'll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we'll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.

But it's better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we'll invoke lush cliches about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one's mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way "up close and personal" profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life -- outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what's obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It's farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child's world, is very small.

This willful ignorance breaks down when 1) an athlete is sufficiently famous and dominant that we expect more from him, 2) an athlete suddenly fails to succeed, 3) an athlete allows those idiosyncrasies out more than is necessary, 4) an athlete's competing in a sport that we don't understand well or follow closely.

For instance, Michael Jordan is a great example of a top athlete who never broke character, whose talents never let us down (that stint with the Wizards being apocryphal, and best ignored), and won at the highest level in a widely followed sport. Yet by all accounts, he was a hypercompetitive, gambling-addicted sociopath. In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons offers my favorite take on Jordan:

Chuck Klosterman pointed this out on my podcast once: for whatever reason, we react to every after-the-fact story about Michael Jordan's legendary competitiveness like it's the coolest thing ever. He pistol-whipped Brad Sellers in the shower once? Awesome! He slipped a roofie into Barkley's martini before Game 5 of the '93 Finals? Cunning! But really, Jordan's competitiveness was pathological. He obsessed over winning to the point that it was creepy. He challenged teammates and antagonized them to the point that it became detrimental. Only during his last three Chicago years did he find an acceptable, Russell-like balance as a competitor, teammate, and person.

And still, nearly everyone agrees (and I do too) that this made Jordan the best basketball player, certainly better than Shaq and Wilt and (so far) LeBron, who just had different pathologies.

At Deadspin, Katie Baker takes this in a different direction, looking at ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary on BMX and X-games legend Mat Hoffman:

[A] leprechaun-faced, sparkle-eyed freestyling daredevil who did things on sketchily self-constructed ramps in his tweenage backyard ("he's this shady little kid from Oklahoma just blasting," recalls one former pro from that era) that no one else in the sport had even conceived of. Hoffman was so instant a splash that in his first sanctioned competition he took first in the amateur bracket, turned pro on the spot, and then went on to win first place in that class as well. By the next day he had 15 sponsors lined up.

But while the retrospective into Hoffman's game-changing theatrics appears on the surface a delish amuse-bouche for the X Games, it also may cause a few viewers to choke. He nails 900s, yes, but he also breaks over 300 bones. He flies high, but then he lays low. Like, in a coma-type low. As one friend of Hoffman says in the film, describing his jumps off an ever-heightening ramp: "It would go from this beautiful soaring thing to a violent crash so suddenly. We'd be like, 'is he dead?'...

It's easy to see films like these and lament the death-defying choices of men who have families and children, to judge them harshly for their inability to say no, but I wonder sometimes what the alternative is. Some people are simply hard-wired this way. (It's almost too perfect that Hoffman had a dear friendship with Evel Knievel.)

Tony Hawk understands, saying: "That's who we are! We love it too much to hang it up. I hate when people ask me that: 'When are you hanging it up?' Like, if I'm standing on my own two feet? I'm riding a skateboard."

You can't watch the footage of Hoffman as a young kid and not see that he's different, that he can't not do these things. "I just kick my feet," he tells one professional rider who asks how he pulls off an impossible move, sounding like some kind of Will Hunting savant. He talks about lying in bed dreaming about how to build higher ramps. "That's the fabric of who Mat is," says one friend. Who are we to tell him to change?

Add in the fact that Hoffman suffered his most life-threatening injuries trying to perform for TV audiences for ESPN and The Wide Word of Sports, and it's hard to see exactly what the difference is between him and football players or boxers suffering one concussion (or some other major injury) after another, sometimes dying on the field or in the ring, in far too many cases dying too young.

The one difference between Hoffman and the others is that he didn't make fans feel betrayed by a celebrity like LeBron, he wasn't easily ignored like Wallace's low-level tennis pros fighting it out in the qualies just to make a living, and he didn't entertain a gigantic audience for more than a decade like Michael Jordan or Muhammed Ali.

We are all witnesses.

Update: Reader Nick pointed out that the first version of this post implied that Hoffman's career was significantly shorter than Jordan's or Ali's; the contrast I was trying to draw was between the allowances most of us make for athletes in "major" sports versus those in "extreme" competition, especially when the former are just as dangerous and personality-specific as the latter, if not more so.

1996 audio of David Foster WallaceJul 13 2010

The Takeaway has several audio clips from David Lipsky's 1996 road trip with David Foster Wallace which eventually ended up in book form.

Novelist versus pro tennis playerJul 09 2010

Novelist Nic Brown plays his childhood friend Tripp Phillips (former ATP circuit pro) in tennis. The challenge? To win a single point.

What I can't do, no matter how hard I try, is win a single point. Not one. "You have no weapons," he tells me two days later, over a lunch of cheap tacos and cheese dip. He reviews the match in this specific analytical way I've experienced with other professional athletes. To them, match review is engineering, not personal nicety. The performance is fact, not opinion. "No matter what," he says, "I was going to have you off balance. And no matter what you did, I was going to be perfectly balanced. I knew where you were going to hit it before you hit it. It's the difference between me and you. But if I played Roger Federer right now, he'd do the exact same thing to me."

That bit reminds me of David Foster Wallace's article on tennis pro Michael Joyce (Esquire, July '96). Specifically, how much of a skill difference there was between Joyce (the 79th best player in the world), the players he competed against in qualifiers, and the then-#1 ranked Andre Agassi.

David Foster Wallace commencement address audioJun 11 2010

In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. After a transcript of the speech was posted online (the original was taken down...a copy is available here), it became something of a high-brow viral sensation and was eventually packaged into book form.

The original audio recording (i.e. as read by Wallace on the Kenyon podium) has just been released on Audible.com and is also available through iTunes and on Amazon (this is the cheapest option). Note: there is also an audiobook version of the speech read by Wallace's sister...but I think the original is the best bet. It's a fantastic speech. (via howling fantods)

David Foster Wallace on iPhone 4's FaceTimeJun 07 2010

The recently announced iPhone 4 includes a feature called FaceTime; it's wifi videophone functionality. In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote that within the reality of the book, videophones enjoyed enormous initial popularity but then after a few months, most people gave it up. Why the switch back to voice?

The answer, in a kind of trivalent nutshell, is: (1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, and (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech.

First, the stress:

Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation [...] let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet -- and this was the retrospectively marvelous part -- even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end's attention might be similarly divided.

[...] Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener's expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those caller who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking extra rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress.

And then vanity:

And the videophonic stress was even worse if you were at all vain. I.e. if you worried at all about how you looked. As in to other people. Which all kidding aside who doesn't. Good old aural telephone calls could be fielded without makeup, toupee, surgical prostheses, etc. Even without clothes, if that sort of thing rattled your saber. But for the image-conscious, there was of course no answer-as-you-are informality about visual-video telephone calls, which consumers began to see were less like having the good old phone ring than having the doorbell ring and having to throw on clothes and attach prostheses and do hair-checks in the foyer mirror before answering the door.

Those are only excerpts...you can read more on pp. 144-151 of Infinite Jest. Eventually, in the world of the book, people began wearing "form-fitting polybutylene masks" when talking on the videophone before even that became too much.

Roundtable about Lipsky's DFW bookMay 11 2010

Over at New York magazine, the Vulture Reading Room is reading/reviewing David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, an almost straight-up transcript of a 5-day Rolling Stone interview with David Foster Wallace in 1996. Participating are D.T. Max (author of a forthcoming DFW biography), Sam Anderson (New York mag book critic), Laura Miller (Salon book critic), Garth Risk Hallberg (from The Millions), and me (blogger, dad, slacker).

David Foster Wallace's interviews were always show-stoppers: erudite, casual, funny, passionate, and deeply self-aware -- like he wasn't just answering the questions at hand but also interviewing himself, and his interviewer, and the entire genre of interviews. Last month, David Lipsky published essentially the Platonic ideal of the form: the book-length Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself -- a sort of DFW version of a DFW interview.

Lost DFW profileMay 06 2010

A 1996 profile of David Foster Wallace from Details magazine. An early mainstream magazine interview with Wallace about Infinite Jest, it hasn't been seen since its initial publication. Craig Fehrman dug it up in the Yale Library.

Brought up an atheist, he has twice failed to pass throguh the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the first step toward becoming a Catholic. The last time, he made the mistake of referring to "the cult of personality surrounding Jesus." That didn't go over big with the priest, who correctly suspected Wallace might have a bit too much skepticism to make a fully obedient Catholic. "I'm a typical American," says Wallace. "Half of me is dying to give myself away, and the other half is continually rebelling."

In praise of shynessApr 06 2010

James Parker's call to the shys: be bold and embrace your shyness.

And let's not confuse shyness with modesty or humility. Charles Darwin, who was very interested in shyness, correctly diagnosed it as a form of "self-attention" -- a preoccupation with self. How do I fit in here? What do they think of me? It's not always virtuous to sit on one's personality and refuse to share it.

I don't have it in front of me right now, but I read David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself a few weeks ago (more on that in an upcoming post, I hope) and IIRC, during his sprawling conversation with David Foster Wallace, Wallace discussed the self-absorption of shyness: in unfamiliar or uncomfortable social situations, the introvert is always thinking of the me. (via fimoculous)

David Foster Wallace's archive acquiredMar 09 2010

The Ransom Center at the University of Texas has acquired the archives of David Foster Wallace, joining those of Don DeLillio and Norman Mailer.

The archive contains manuscript materials for Wallace's books, stories and essays; research materials; Wallace's college and graduate school writings; juvenilia, including poems, stories and letters; teaching materials and books.

Highlights include handwritten notes and drafts of his critically acclaimed "Infinite Jest," the earliest appearance of his signature "David Foster Wallace" on "Viking Poem," written when he was six or seven years old, a copy of his dictionary with words circled throughout and his heavily annotated books by Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and more than 40 other authors.

Materials for Wallace's posthumous novel "The Pale King" are included in the archive but will remain with Little, Brown and Company until the book's publication, scheduled for April 2011.

The web site currently contains some tantalizing examples of what the archive will eventually hold, including the first page of a handwritten draft of Infinite Jest, his annotated dictionary -- circled words included benthos, exergue, hypocorism, mendacious, rebus, and witenagemot -- and some heavily annotated books he owned, including his copy of Players by DeLillo.

David Foster Wallace's annotated DeLillo

This is really exciting and sad all at once. (thx, matt)

David Foster Wallace tributesJan 22 2010

The latest issue of Five Dials, a free PDF-only literary magazine published by Hamish Hamilton, features reprints of tributes to David Foster Wallace given by his family and friends shortly after his death in late 2008. Included are tributes by Zadie Smith, Amy Wallace-Havens (DFW's sister), George Saunders, and Don DeLillo. The introduction is from A Supposedly Fun Thing:

Finally, know that an unshot skeet's movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean's sky is sun-like -- i.e. orange and parabolic and right-to-left -- and that its disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad.

Note: if you enjoyed this issue of Five Dials, please sign up for their mailing list. (thx, david)

New fiction from David Foster WallaceDec 07 2009

In this week's issue, the New Yorker has a new piece of fiction by David Foster Wallace. It's another excerpt from The Pale King.

Once when I was a little boy I received as a gift a toy cement mixer. It was made of wood except for its wheels -- axles -- which, as I remember, were thin metal rods. I'm ninety per cent sure it was a Christmas gift. I liked it the same way a boy that age likes toy dump trucks, ambulances, tractor-trailers, and whatnot. There are little boys who like trains and little boys who like vehicles -- I liked the latter.

(thx, keenan)

David Foster Wallace grammar challengeDec 04 2009

From a nonfiction workshop taught by David Foster Wallace at Pomona College, a 10-question grammar worksheet that is titled:

IF NO ONE HAS YET TAUGHT YOU HOW TO AVOID OR REPAIR CLAUSES LIKE THE FOLLOWING, YOU SHOULD, IN MY OPINION, THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT SUING SOMEBODY, PERHAPS AS CO-PLAINTIFF WITH WHOEVER'S PAID YOUR TUITION

Here are the answers and explanations. I think I got 0/10 and am preparing my lawsuit.

David Foster Wallace, lowbrow heroSep 15 2009

David Foster Wallace may eventually become more well-known for his non-fiction, not the novels he struggled so mightily to perfect.

Because if this is the way it all shakes out, DFW, instead of having to ride the stock exchange of literary taste in dead white male novelists, will find himself in a distinguished little nook of odd artists who labored to produce highbrow work -- but who sort of ass-backwardsly won permanent and inarguable fame in lower-browed fields.

Some quick examples include C.S. Lewis ("Chronicles of Narnia"), A.A. Milne ("Winnie the Pooh"), and Roald Dahl ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), who considered themselves, respectively, a theologian, playwright, and fiction writer, but who ended up as brilliant children's fabulists. There's Theodore Geisel, who chose a silly pen name like "Dr. Seuss" because he wanted to reserve his given name for the Great American Novel he had in him. One Arthur Sullivan composed the music for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" among other bombasts, but is chiefly remembered nowadays, along with his impish partner Gilbert, for his musically innovative spoof operas.

The Pale King and that Kenyon commencement speechAug 17 2009

This little tidbit at the end of this look back at David Foster Wallace's career gives me hope for The Pale King, the forthcoming (and posthumous and unfinished) novel by Wallace.

Pressed for more details, Pietsch cites a commencement speech that Wallace gave at Kenyon University in 2005, which he says is "very much a distillation" of the novel's material. "The really important kind of freedom," said Wallace, "involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom... The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."

I loves me that commencement speech.

Mathematics in Infinite JestAug 11 2009

Those of you still plugging away at Infinite Summer may not want to read this (i.e. spoilers!), but Brian Barone finished early and found some interesting mathematical themes in the book.

Now, here's the part that really boggled me: the Consumption/Waste idea is a 1:1 correspondence (something in yields something out), what mathematicians call a linear function. The Parabola idea connects, pretty obviously, with parabolas -- now we're looking at x raised to the power of two. Annular Systems are modeled by circles which are given in analytic geometry by equations with both x^2 and y^2. Limits and Infinity, of course, become necessary in order to find the area of shapes under curves like parabolas and three-dimensional projections of circles.

Whoa. That is a tiny bit mind-blowing...do I really have time for a reread right now? (thx, nick)

How to read Infinite JestJul 15 2009

A few weeks ago, I wrote the foreword for Infinite Summer, a summer-long collective read of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace's big-ass novel and one of my favorite books. That piece was actually my second draft. My first attempt was a list of advice on reading the novel...the submission of which prompted InfSum's dungeon master, Matthew Baldwin, to write back with a frowny face and a pointer to this piece published -- unbeknownst to me (I have the Time Machine backups to prove it!) -- the day before I submitted my draft.

Anyway, here's that first draft on how to read Infinite Jest:

1. If you haven't already, buy the book, get it from your local library, or download to your Kindle. I got my copy in 2001 at a local San Francisco bookstore; I bought it used along with a used copy of Don DeLillo's Underworld (which I started but never finished). I was upset at something that day and purchased the books as a sort of Fuck You to whatever it was that was pissing me off. "Oh yeah? Well, I'm gonna read both of these huge books. Fuck You!" Best $10.80 I ever spent.

2. Warning! This book contains several footnotes. Hundreds, in fact. They run on, at a very small point size, for almost 100 pages at the conclusion of the main text. One of the footnotes, which contains the complete filmography of a fictional filmmaker, goes for more than 8 pages and itself has 6 footnotes. Every single oh-my-God-this-thing-is-a-doorstop review of IJ since 1996 has trumpeted this fact so you're probably already up to speed re: the footnotes but I didn't want you to be caught unawares or pants down.

3. You're going to want to but don't skip the footnotes. They are important. Yes, even the filmography one.

4. Physically, Infinite Jest is a large book: 2.2 inches thick and, according to Amazon.com, has a shipping weight of 3.2 pounds. Some readers have found it useful to rip the book in half for easier reading on the subway or on the beach. If you do this, you also need to tear the footnotes from the back half and tape them to front half. This technique has the side effect of giving you the appearance of A Very Serious Reader of Infinite Jest, which will either keep onlookers' questions to a minimum or maximum, depending on the onlooker.

5. If you opt not to destroy your copy of IJ, you should use the three bookmark method. One bookmark for where you are in the main text, another for your current footnote location, and a third for page 223, which lists the years covered by the novel in chonological order, from the Year of the Whopper (which corresponds to 2002) to the Year of Glad (2010). To say that IJ skips around quite a bit chronologically is an understatement, so keeping the timeline straight is important.

6. Along with the footnotes, another thing that most reviews mention w/r/t Wallace is his use of words that appear rarely outside of dictionaries. If you get stuck, keep a dictionary handy or consult one of the following online collections: the David Foster Wallace Dictionary, Words I Learned From Reading David Foster Wallace, and the Infinite Jest Vocabulary Glossary.

7. Get a copy of Greg Carlisle's Elegant Complexity, *the* reference book for Infinite Jest. Reading EC's notes for each IJ section after you finish will greatly increase your understanding and enjoyment of the book. Here's an informative review of the guide. As a bonus: "The book is 99% spoiler-free for first-time readers of Infinite Jest."

8. Finally, you may have heard or read that Wallace committed suicide last year. He was 46 and left a wife and dogs and at least one unpublished novel and a vast literary legacy. This will be difficult, but try not to think too much about the suicide and Wallace's life-long struggle with depression while reading Infinite Jest. The book is undoubtably autobiographical in some aspects -- tennis: check; addiction: check; depression: check; grammar: check -- but a strict reading of IJ as a window into Wallace's troubled soul is a disservice to its thematic richness.

The great thing about Infinite Jest is that it begins at the end, so even though you're only a few pages in at this point, you already know how the whole thing is going to end. So get to it, it'll be easier than you think. I wish you way more than luck.

Infinite Summer is a goJun 21 2009

Infinite Summer kicks off today and while I'm not the world's foremost Wallace scholar, I was happy to provide a foreword to get it rolling.

So sure, it's a lengthy book that's heavy to carry and impossible to read in bed, but Christ, how many hours of American Idol have you sat through on your uncomfortable POS couch? The entire run of The West Wing was 111 hours and 56 minutes; ER was twice as long, and in the later seasons, twice as painful. I guarantee you that getting through Infinite Jest with a good understanding of what happened will take you a lot less time and energy than you expended getting your Mage to level 60 in World of Warcraft.

Designing for the deceasedJun 05 2009

Marie Mundaca designed three of David Foster Wallace's books (the insides, not the covers). The second one was challenging but rewarding.

Wallace's idea was to have leaders and labels, like a diagram. He wanted something that looked like hypertext rollovers that were immediate and at hand. I thought this whole thing might be a bit much for me to design. It seemed like it might be a full-time job. I sent it off to one of my favorite designers, who shot me an email back saying something along the lines of "There is not enough money in the world to make me do this."

The third was just plain tough.

Infinite SummerMay 21 2009

Infinite Summer: on online book club which means to read Infinite Jest this summer.

You've been meaning to do it for over a decade. Now join endurance bibliophiles from around the web as we tackle and comment upon David Foster Wallace's masterwork, June 21st to September 22nd. A thousand pages ÷ 93 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.

DFW interviewMay 20 2009

Amherst Magazine interviewed David Foster Wallace in 1999.

I've hit on an effective way to handle all this schizogenic stuff, which is to keep the whole thing at a very simple level, roughly a level/vocabulary that an average U.S. fifth-grader can understand. I want my work to be good. I want to like it. This is the only part that has anything to do with me. I can't make it have an 'impact' on anybody else. This doesn't mean I can't hope it has one, but I can't do anything to guarantee it, or even to cause it. All I can do is make something as good as I can make it (this is the sort of fact that's both banal and profound), and promise myself that I'll never try to publish anything I myself don't think is good or finished. I used to have far more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking about 'impact,' but they always left me with my forehead against the wall.

(via howling fantods)

Incarnations of Burned ChildrenMay 14 2009

Another of David Foster Wallace's short stories finds its way online: Esquire reprints Incarnations of Burned Children, originally from Oblivion.

Big fat warning: this story is really disturbing (especially if you have small children) and likely a significant part of the reason why Salon said that Wallace "has perfected a particularly subtle form of horror story" in their review of Oblivion. (via unlikely words)

The Royal Tenenbaums and Infinite JestApr 14 2009

[Ed note: This is a piece by Matt Bucher, written a few years ago for the now-defunct andbutso.com. Reprinted with permission.]

The Royal Tenenbaums (RT) opens with a shot of a book, titled The Royal Tenenbaums, and immediately a narrator (Alec Baldwin) begins to read the opening paragraph of the book. Throughout the film, we are led to believe that this narrator is reading us the story of the book The Royal Tenenbaums. While that prose-form screenplay serves as the narration, I believe that another book, Infinite Jest (IJ), manages to influence the film in a number of general and specific parallels. In no way could I substantiate the claim that Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have read Infinite Jest or that they are in any way aware of the specific connections between their film and Wallace's book (or even that Anderson and Wilson are the exclusive authors of the RT screenplay). {However, Anderson and Wilson are natives of Austin, TX and DFW wrote in a postcard to Rachel Andre [2001] that he loves Austin -- "especially the bat caves at sunset".} Taken piece-by-piece, it seems clear that any correlation between IJ and RT is coincidental at best. However, considered as a whole, the resemblances between the two reach the heights of the uncanny.

Rather than provide a close reading of all 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest, I will look here only at those sections pertaining to the mirror-image of the Tenenbaum family, mostly the Incandenza family.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" is the story of a family, and, as the movie opens, we are introduced to its members. The children -- all prodigies in their own right -- are Margot, the adopted, but award-winning playwright; Richie, the tennis champion; and Chas, the real-estate and business tycoon. The patriarch of the family, Royal, and his wife, Etheline, separated immediately after the children were born and two decades of betrayal, deceit, and failure, erased the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums.

In IJ, the parallel family of the Tenenbaums is the Incandenzas. When we meet the Incandenza family we learn matriarch and patriarch are no longer married, but unlike Royal and Etheline, who split for obvious personality differences, James O. Incandenza (JOI) and Avril M. Incandenza (AMI) are no longer married because JOI is dead. Like the Tenenbaums, the Incandenzas produced three offspring: Orin, the womanizing tennis-prodigy turned football punter; Hal, eidetic tennis prodigy; and Mario, kind-hearted, bradykinetic, homodontic dwarf. There are qualities of each Incandenza that correspond to qualities and traits found in the Tenenbaums, but also the correspondence falls outside of the two families to the extended families of in-laws and friends (Eli Cash, Dudley, Raleigh St. Claire, Pagoda, etc.). Here is a quick run-down.

Marlon Bain is a regular fixture at the Incandenza residence as a child, just as Eli Cash, as a child, is a regular fixture at the Tenenbaum residence. Eli admits that he always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, but one gets the feeling that Marlon Bain got away from the Incandenzas as soon as possible. Eli sleeps with Margot (Richie's sister and object of Richie's affections), but in IJ, Orin sleeps with Bain's sister (without there being any apparent affection involved -- witnessed by Orin's classification of her as just another "Subject"). Eli is eccentric at the very least, but Bain suffered from "the kind of OCD you need treatment for" (similar to Avril's compulsions).

Margot Tenenbaum loses a finger to an axe, just as Trevor Axford loses a finger (or two) to a fireworks incident.

Margot Tenenbaum is a long-term smoker, who hides this from everyone, just as Hal Incandenza is a regular pot smoker who hides this fact from almost everyone.

Richie Tenenbaum is a tennis prodigy, just as Hal and Orin Incandenza were; and Richie's on-court breakdown could be compared to Hal's near loss to Stice or Pemulis's dosing of his opponent or pretty much any other breakdown in the book.

One child in each family produces a drama: Margot Tenenbaum and Mario Incandenza.

The suicide attempt of Richie Tenenbaum seems reminiscent of Joelle Van Dyne's, as both take place alone in a bathroom.

Both JOI and Royal Tenenbaum have rival suitors (Tavis, for one, and Mr. Henry for Etheline) and both patriarchs die in the course of the book / movie.

Eli Cash is a drug addict of the highest type, much like Gately, Hal, and the varied addicts of IJ. Eli is nonchalant about his drug use, but also feels the need to hide it from those closest to him.

The Incandenzas have a dog loved primarily by a family member (S. Johnson and Avril) as do the Tenenbaums (Buckley by Ari and Uzi). Both dogs die.

Chas subjects Ari and Uzi to Schtitt-like physical-education routines. The sight of Ari and Uzi in their jogging suits, doing endless calisthenics, brings to mind the ETA students pushed to their limits during star drills.

There is incest (Richie and Margot Tennenbaum; Avril and Tavis). Although Royal would be quick to point out that Richie and Margot are not technically blood related since Margot is adopted, Richie feels the incest taboo. Avril's taboo is more Gertrude than Margot, one gets the feeling that Avril would find Etheline Tenenbaum to be a kindred spirit. Avril's misdeeds with John NR Wayne (off-screen except one illicit interruption) seem similar to Margot's being caught with Eli Cash in her bedroom. Although Avril isn't Wayne's teacher, Anderson did address that subject in "Rushmore."

The first article to address the relationship between The Royal Tenenbaums and IJ is this one. While Sidney Moody plays up some of the basic similarities, I take issue with his/her assumption that Avril "fends off many suitors after Dr. Incandenza's death" (and there is little evidence that Royal Tenenbaum was a "once-brilliant litigator"). Moody also equates Eli Cash to Don Gately because they both have drug problems and Cash's friends try to force him into rehab, but I see a closer comparison to be Eli Cash and Marlon Bain, despite Bain not having as prominent of a role in IJ as Cash does in RT.

Editing David Foster WallaceApr 09 2009

The House Next Door is on a roll lately. Today they're featuring an interview with Glenn Kenny, a film writer who edited the three articles that David Foster Wallace wrote for Premiere magazine.

Dave would often be commissioned to do pieces at 5,000-7,500 words so he understood that at a certain point in the process it was quite possible this would happen, but in a way he was constitutionally incapable of keeping to a word length. It was a tacit agreement you had with him when you commissioned a piece that you were going to get something long. But if you can run a piece that long, he's one of the cheapest first rate literary writers out there-you pay him X amount of dollars per word, but you get five times the words.

Kenny also wrote a short piece on his blog shortly after Wallace died.

Infinite Jest for the KindleApr 06 2009

Infinite Jest is available for pre-order for the Kindle. However, several reviews have mentioned that the Kindle doesn't handle large, footnoted fractal-like texts very well, so buyer beware.

Otherwise, people really seem to love Amazon's little device: Steven Johnson, Gina Trapani, Matt Haughey. (thx, adam)

Companion guide to The UnfinishedApr 02 2009

Writing for The Rumpus, Elissa Bassist annotated D.T. Max's article about David Foster Wallace with links to mentioned books, articles, etc. (thx, matt)

DFW questions answeredMar 19 2009

DT Max answers readers' questions about his long article on David Foster Wallace in the New Yorker. (thx, ben)

Growing Sentences with David Foster WallaceMar 16 2009

A Primer for Kicking Ass
Being the Result of One Man's Fed-upped-ness With 'How to Write' Books Not Actually Showing You How to Write
By James Tanner. Reprinted with permission.

0. Begin with an idea, a string of ideas.

Ex: Mario had help with his movie. He did a lot of the work himself.

1. Use them in a compound sentence:

It's obvious someone helped with the script, But...Mario did the puppet work, And...It was his shoes on the pedal.

2. Add rhythm with a dependent clause:

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work, and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.

3. Elaborate using a complete sentence as interrupting modifier:

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.

4. Append an absolute construction or two:

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops moved out of frame.

5. Paralell-o-rize your structure (turn one noun into two):

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and the puppet work — his arms and fingers are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and buckets moved out of frame.

-
STOP HERE IF YOU ARE A MINIMALIST, WRITING COACH, OR JAMES WOOD
-

6. Adjectival phrases: lots of them. (Note: apprx. 50% will include the word 'little'):

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets moved out of frame.

7. Throw in an adverb or two (never more than one third the number of adjectives):

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out of frame.

8. Elaboration — mostly unnecessary. Here you'll turn nouns phrases into longer noun phrases; verbs phrases into longer verb phrases. This is largely a matter of synonyms and prepositions. Don't be afraid to be vague! Ideally, these elaborations will contribute to voice — for example, 'had a hand in' is longer than 'helped', but still kinda voice-y — but that's just gravy. The goal here is word count.

It's obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario's little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame's borders on either side of the little velvet stage.

-
STOP HERE IF YOU ARE NOT WRITING PARODY
-

9. Give it that Wallace shine. Replace common words with their oddly specific, scientific-y counterparts. (Ex: 'curved fingers' into 'falcate digits'). If you can turn a noun into a brand name, do it. (Ex: 'shoes' into 'Hush Puppies,' 'camera' into 'Bolex'). Finally, go crazy with the possessives. Who wants a tripod when they could have a 'tunnel's locked lab's tripod'? Ahem:

It's obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and falcate digits are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario's little square Hush Puppies on the H^4's operant foot-treadle, the Bolex itself mounted on one of the tunnel's locked lab's Husky-VI TL tripods across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame's borders on either side of the little velvet stage.

10. Practice. Take one sentence — any sentence — and Wallacize it. Turn ten boring words into a hundred good ones.

Ex: "John wanted to play ball, but he sat on the couch."

Or did John _________________________________ ?

[Ed note: I saw this on a mailing list a few weeks ago, really liked it, and asked permission to reprint it here. Thanks for sharing, James.]

The Pale King, David Foster WallaceMar 01 2009

Many of the readers of David Foster Wallace have been waiting for The New Yorker to cover the writer's life since his death last September, something more than the quick Talk of the Town piece by the fiction editor published shortly after his death, some of that "sprawling New Yorker shit" that possessed a certain kinship with Wallace's work. The March 9 issue follows through with two articles, one by Wallace and one on Wallace. The piece by Wallace is a chunk of the novel he left unfinished when he died. (More on that below.) The novel, entitled The Pale King, is about the transcendence that comes through boredom. I don't think Lane Dean is quite there yet:

Then he looked up, despite all best prior intentions. In four minutes, it would be another hour; a half hour after that was the ten-minute break. Lane Dean imagined himself running around on the break, waving his arms and shouting gibberish and holding ten cigarettes at once in his mouth, like a panpipe. Year after year, a face the same color as your desk. Lord Jesus. Coffee wasn't allowed because of spills on the files, but on the break he'd have a big cup of coffee in each hand while he pictured himself running around the outside grounds, shouting. He knew what he'd really do on the break was sit facing the wall clock in the lounge and, despite prayers and effort, count the seconds tick off until he had to come back and do this again. And again and again and again.

The Lane Dean character was featured once before in the New Yorker's pages, a second chunk of the novel published in 2007 as Good People.

The second piece, a profile of Wallace by D.T. Max that focuses on his writing, especially his struggles in pulling the fragments of The Pale King into something finished, is long and difficult to read at times. It's intimate; Max relies on interviews with Wallace's wife, family & editors, private correspondence between Wallace and his friends, and passages from this unfinished novel that, for a long time, Wallace didn't want anyone to read. It seems that anyone with $20 or a library card will get to read at least some of it after all.

From 1997 on, Wallace worked on a third novel, which he never finished -- the "Long Thing," as he referred to it with Michael Pietsch. His drafts, which his wife found in their garage after his death, amount to several hundred thousand words, and tell of a group of employees at an Internal Revenue Service center in Illinois, and how they deal with the tediousness of their work. The partial manuscript -- which Little, Brown plans to publish next year -- expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration. Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment, the book suggests.

The magazine also has an online feature that includes two scanned pages from The Pale King manuscript and some artwork from Karen Green, Wallace's wife, which is obviously biographical in nature. Hard to Fill, indeed.

Commencement speech collectionFeb 18 2009

The Humanity Initiative is collecting great commencement speeches from the past century, including those from Barack Obama, The Dalai Lama, Dr. Seuss, and John F. Kennedy. Obviously missing from the list is my favorite address, David Foster Wallace's 2005 address to the graduates of Kenyon College. (via lone gunman)

Working on how to be a human beingFeb 11 2009

Howling Fantods has published an old interview of David Foster Wallace from 1993. The interview was conducted by Hugh Kennedy and Geoffrey Polk and ran in The Whiskey Island Magazine. A generous excerpt appears below:

Wallace: [...] The writers I know, there's a certain self-consciousness about them, and a critical awareness of themselves and other people that helps their work. But that sort of sensibility makes it very hard to be with people, and not sort of be hovering near the ceiling, watching what's going on. One of the things you two will discover, in the years after you get out of school, is that managing to really be an alive human being, and also do good work and be as obsessive as you have to be, is really tricky. It's not an accident when you see writers either become obsessed with the whole pop stardom thing or get into drugs or alcohol, or have terrible marriages. Or they simply disappear from the whole scene in their thirties or forties. It's very tricky.

Geoffrey Polk: I think you have to sacrifice a lot.

Wallace: I don't know if it's that voluntary or a conscious decision. In most of the writers I know, there's a self-centeredness, not in terms of preening in front of the mirror, but a tendency not only toward introspection but toward a terrible self-consciousness. Writing, you're having to worry about your effect on an audience all the time. Are you being too subtle or not subtle enough? You're always trying to communicate in a unique way, and so it makes it very hard, at least for me, to communicate in a way that I see ordinary, apple-cheeked Clevelanders communicating with each other on street corners.

My answer for myself would be no; it's not a sacrifice; it's simply the way that I am, and I don't think I'd be happy doing anything else. I think people who congenitally drawn to this sort of profession are savants in certain ways and sort of retarded in certain other ways. Go to a writers' conference sometime and you'll see. People go to meet people who on paper are just gorgeous, and they're absolute geeks in person. They have no idea what to say or do. Everything they say is edited and undercut by some sort of editor in themselves. That's been true of my experience. I've spent a lot more of my energy teaching the last two years, really sort of working on how to be a human being.

Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk shares a kinship with what Wallace is getting at here.

A Student of the GameFeb 06 2009

In lieu of a book review, a writer shares her feelings about Infinite Jest.

Reading IJ is like forging a spiritual connection with a man who expresses my feelings better than I do. As someone who writes, I've often felt that language is so poor an instrument for communication or expression. I find it unyieldingly difficult to write an honest sentence. DFW exhibits otherwise. George Saunders, in his remarks at David Foster Wallace's memorial service, called Wallace "a wake-up artist." Yes. DFW's words, beyond creating solid smart sentences and solid smart stories, reach this part of you that you thought no one could reach, saying everything you've been wanting to say and hear, everything you've been thinking on your own but haven't been able to share with anyone else.

(thx, julie)

The words of David Foster WallaceJan 28 2009

The David Foster Wallace Dictionary, Words I Learned From Reading David Foster Wallace, and the Infinite Jest Vocabulary Glossary.

Brief Interviews clipJan 19 2009

Here's a clip from John Krasinski's new film, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. (thx, bill)

Documentaries about advertising and Vogue at SundanceJan 16 2009

I pulled out a couple of interesting-sounding documentaries from this preview of this year's Sundance Film Festival. The first is Art & Copy, a documentary about advertising that seems well-timed on the heels of Mad Men.

Come to think of it, it's amazing that nobody's made a major documentary about the advertising business before. Are some phenomena just so powerful and ubiquitous we stop thinking about them? Now acclaimed doc-maker Doug Pray goes inside the ever-revolutionary world of post-'60s advertising, profiling such legendary figures as [Dan] Wieden ("Just do it"), Hal Riney ("It's morning in America") and Cliff Freeman ("Where's the beef?") and inquiring where the boundaries lie between art, salesmanship and brainwashing.

Somewhat related to that is The September Issue, which follows the creation of Vogue magazine's September issue. You know, the one packed with hundreds of pages of advertising.

You-are-there documentarian R.J. Cutler ("The War Room," etc.) takes us inside the creation of Vogue's annual and enormous September issue, which possesses quasi-biblical status in the fashion world. Granted full access to editorial meetings, photo shoots and Fashion Week events by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Cutler spent nine months at Vogue, documenting a monumental process that more closely resembles a political campaign or a sports team's season than the publication of a single magazine.

And while not a documentary, there's excitement and trepidation surrounding John Krasinski's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a adaptation of a book by the same name by David Foster Wallace.

Infinite Jest Tour of BostonJan 09 2009

A photo tour of the Boston-area locations mentioned in Infinite Jest. From the photographer:

Perhaps most interestingly, although "Enfield" is not a real town, it seems to substitute for Chestnut Hill. We found a school at the top of one of the larger hills in Chestnut Hill, which we believe is the location for ETA.

Perhaps someday there will be IJ walking tours of Boston that same way there are Ulysses -based tours of Dublin or Sex and the City tours of NYC.

Still Considering the LobsterDec 30 2008

In a letter to the editor from Janice Blake of Milton, Massachusetts printed in the December 2008 issue of Gourmet magazine, a belated appreciation of David Foster Wallace's 2004 piece, Consider the Lobster.

I began subscribing to Gourmet in 1973, but I have to admit that over the years, I haven't been able to read each issue from cover to cover. I'm just now getting around to reading August 2004's issue. "Consider the Lobster," by David Foster Wallace, was a delight -- it went well beyond informative and entertaining; it was challenging and thought-provoking. I vividly remember the spate of letters that followed its publication. In fact, I was so impressed with his article that I recently decided to write to say thank you both to the author and to you. What a shock it was to find out that he had tragically passed away. Thank you, Gourmet, for being so willing to change and grow over the years, and for challenging all of us faitful readers to do the same.

David Foster Wallace, philosopherDec 15 2008

A short piece on David Foster Wallace's college philosophy thesis.

Even after he began writing fiction in college -- he simultaneously completed a second undergraduate thesis, in English, that ultimately became his 1987 novel, "The Broom of the System" -- it was still philosophy that defined him academically. "I knew him as a philosopher with a fiction hobby," Jay Garfield, an adviser on Wallace's thesis and now a professor at Smith College, told me recently. "I didn't realize he was one of the great fiction writers of his generation with a philosophy hobby."

New fiction from David Foster WallaceDec 02 2008

Before his health deteriorated in the months before he died, David Foster Wallace was working on a larger work of fiction presumed by some to be a new novel, his first since the 1996 publication of Infinite Jest. Word comes from Chaffey College that "An Untitled Chunk" of that larger work will be published in the school's literary review magazine.

Before his death, Wallace agreed to donate a portion of a larger work ("An Untitled Chunk") along with first publishing rights, to the students of Chaffey College, allowing us to print it in the first edition of our literary magazine. The magazine is being published this January and is the only available printing of this piece. Our contract with Wallace's family and agent dictates that we cannot publish any portion of the piece online, nor in any other publication, so this is truly a unique opportunity.

The Chaffey Review web site does not contain any ordering information...I hope they'll anticipate the demand for this issue with a larger print run and online sales.

Update: Ordering information is here. (thx, jennifer)

DFW profileNov 11 2008

A profile of David Foster Wallace from 1987, reprinted by McSweeney's.

"When you write fiction," he explains as part of his critique of a story about a young girl, her uncle, and the evil eye, "you are telling a lie. It's a game, but you must get the facts straight. The reader doesn't want to be reminded that it's a lie. It must be convincing, or the story will never take off in the reader's mind."

One of his two senior college theses was on philosophy (the other became The Broom of the System):

His senior philosophy thesis, he claims, had nothing to do with writing. "It offered a solution in how to deal with semantics and physical modalities concerning Aristotle's sea battle. If it is now true that there will be a sea battle tomorrow, is a sea battle necessary tomorrow? If it is now false, is a sea battle impossible tomorrow? It's a way to deal with propositions in the future tense in modal logic, since what is physically possible at a certain time is weird because one has to distinguish the time of the possibility of the event from the possibility of the time of the event."

The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster WallaceOct 30 2008

Rolling Stone has put the entire piece about David Foster Wallace up on their web site. Previously.

As close to a biography of David Foster Wallace as you'll getOct 22 2008

In 1996, an editor from Rolling Stone named David Lipsky spent a lot of time with David Foster Wallace and wrote a biographical piece that was eventually not published in the magazine. When Wallace died last month, RS sent Lipsky to interview his family and friends. The resulting piece, The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace, is a unique combination of a look at a writer at the top of his game and a man at the end of his life. It was very difficult for me to read, for reasons which I may never really understand. Wallace meant a lot to me, full stop.

Here are some bits from the article that resonated with me. On the about-face that happened with his professors a University of Arizona after The Broom of the System1 was published:

Viking won the auction for the novel, "with something like a handful of trading stamps." Word spread; professors turned nice. "I went from borderline ready-to-get-kicked-out to all these tight-smiled guys being, 'Glad to see you, we're proud of you, you'll have to come over for dinner.' It was so delicious: I felt kind of embarrassed for them, they didn't even have integrity about their hatred."

On expectations:

The five-year clock was ticking again. He'd played football for five years. He'd played high-level tennis for five years. Now he'd been writing for five years. "What I saw was, 'Jesus, it's the same thing all over again.' I'd started late, showed tremendous promise -- and the minute I felt the implications of that promise, it caved in. Because see, by this time, my ego's all invested in the writing. It's the only thing I've gotten food pellets from the universe for. So I feel trapped: 'Uh-oh, my five years is up, I've gotta move on.' But I didn't want to move on."

On self-consciousness:

"I remember this being a frequent topic of conversation," Franzen says, "his notion of not having an authentic self. Of being just quikc enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever he was talking to. I see now he wasn't just being funny -- there was something genuinely compromised in David. At the time I thought, 'Wow, he's even more self-conscious than I am.'"

On fame:

At the end of his book tour, I spent a week with David. He talked about the "greasy thrill of fame" and what it might mean to his writing. "When I was 25, I would've given a couple of digits off my non-use hand for this," he said. "I feel good, because I want to be doing this for 40 more years, you know? So I've got to find some way to enjoy this that doesn't involve getting eaten by it."

On shyness:

He talked about a kind of shyness that turned social life impossibly complicated. "I think being shy basically means self-absorbed to the point that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I'm hanging out with you, I can't even tell whether I like you or not because I'm too worried about whether you like me."

And I don't even know what this is all about:

"I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I'm not one of the good ones. But then I countenance the fact that at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don't notice or worry about it; so then I feel better about myself. It's all very confusing. I think I'm very honest and candid, but I'm also proud of how honest and candid I am -- so where does that put me?"

You have to get the magazine to read the whole thing; it's worth it. Rolling Stone also has an interview with Lipsky about the article.

[1] Oh to have been wrong about the prediction I made here.

Remembering David Foster WallaceSep 18 2008

This post is more for me than usual. I've got all these tabs open in my browser and need to close them to get some work done so I'm going to put this stuff here for now to revisit later. Any emphasis is mine.

Editors and authors remember at Slate:

You didn't really edit David. Instead you played tennis with him using language as the ball. At Harper's, we did three lengthy pieces together -- on attending the Illinois State Fair, on sailing on a luxury cruise, and on the usage of the English language -- and with each one I increasingly came to see how competitive David was. Not with me, his magazine editor, nor particularly with other writers, but with the great maw of horridness, to choose a word he might use. He was competing against the culture itself, and his pieces arrived on my desk way too long, letter-perfect, and appended with a one-line note that said something like "Here, maybe you'll like this."

A note from a former teacher of his at Amherst:

So here's a true fact to embellish his reputation (not that it needs much embellishment): He wrote two senior theses at Amherst. A creative thesis in English that was his first novel, "The Broom of the System," and a philosophy thesis on fatalism. Both were judged to be Summa Cum Laude theses. The opinion of those who looked at the philosophy thesis was that it, too, with just a few tweaks to flesh out the scholarly apparatus, was a publishable piece of creative philosophy investigating the interplay between time and modality in original ways.

That much is probably common knowledge. Here's what is not so widely known: Though theses normally take a whole school year to write, DFW had complete drafts of his theses by Christmas, and they were finished by spring break. He spent the last quarter of his senior year reading, commenting on, and generally improving the theses of all his friends and acquaintances. It was a great year for theses at Amherst.

NASCAR Cancels Remainder Of Season Following David Foster Wallace's Death, The Onion:

"Racing and literature are both huge parts of American life, and I don't think David Foster Wallace would want me to make too much of that, or to pretend that it's any sort of equitable balance," Helton added. "That would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever cultural deity, entity, energy, or random social flux produced stock car racing also produced the works of David Foster Wallace. And just look them. Look at that."

Harper's has made freely available online everything that Wallace had published in the magazine.

The davidfosterwallace tag on kottke.org.

Interview with Wallace in The Believer from Nov 2003. I don't think I've ever read this one.

Wallace talks on NPR in 1997 about, among other things, relaxed concentration.

He loved The Wire:

He was, in fact, extremely fond of The Wire -- he stopped me in the hall one day last year and said, look, I really want to sit down and pick your brain about this, because I'm really developing the conviction that the best writing being done in America today is being done for The Wire. Am I crazy to think that?

A letter from an alumni of Granada House, a Boston-area treatment center, is assumed by many to have been written by Wallace:

In 1989, I already had a BA and one graduate degree and was in Boston to get another. And I was, at age 27, a late-stage alcoholic and drug addict. I had been in detoxes and rehabs; I had been in locked wards in psych facilities; I had had at least one serious suicide attempt, a course of ECT, and so on. The diagnosis of my family, friends, and teachers was that I was bright and talented but had "emotional problems." I alone knew how deeply these problems were connected to alcohol and drugs, which I'd been using heavily since age fifteen.

A previously unpublished work from 1984 by Wallace which Ryan Niman collected from the shelves of Amherst. It's called The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing (PDF).

Wallace filed a report on John McCain for This American Life in 2000.

Wallace wrote about the 1996 US Open for Tennis magazine.

Personal remembrances from Pomona College faculty and students. He had taught at Pomona since 2002.

Dave Eggers at McSweeney's:

A few months later, Dave was the first person we asked to contribute to McSweeney's, thinking we could not start the journal without him. Thankfully, he sent a piece immediately, and then we knew we could begin. We honestly needed his endorsement, his go-ahead, because we were seeking, at the start at least, to focus on experimental fiction, and he was so far ahead of everyone else in that arena that without him the enterprise would seem ridiculous.

Along with his first piece, he also sent a check, for $250. That was the craziest thing: he sent a donation with his contribution. Thus he was the first donor to the journal, though he insisted that his donation remain anonymous in that first issue. I had such a problem cashing that check; I wanted to keep it, frame it, stare at it.

A 1999 interview with Wallace for Amherst magazine.

Ok, tabs are clear. Back to work, somehow.

Only say true thingsSep 16 2008

At McSweeney's, Zadie Smith on the organizing principle of David Foster Wallace's writing:

If we must say something, let's at least only say true things.

Lots to say about that and him, but the words, they aren't here yet. I don't have heroes but made an exception for Wallace. Still stunned.

David Foster Wallace dead at 46Sep 13 2008

David Foster Wallace, the novelist, essayist and humorist best known for his 1996 tome "Infinite Jest," was found dead last night at his home in Claremont, according to the Claremont Police Department. He was 46.

Jesus. No no no no. So fucking sad and unfair. I am in here and upset.

Interview: David Foster WallaceJun 03 2008

On the occasion of the release of his 2000 Rolling Stone essay on John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign in unabridged and expanded book form, David Foster Wallace gives a short interview to the WSJ.

McCain himself has obviously changed [since the 2000 campaign]; his flipperoos and weaselings on Roe v. Wade, campaign finance, the toxicity of lobbyists, Iraq timetables, etc. are just some of what make him a less interesting, more depressing political figure now -- for me, at least. It's all understandable, of course -- he's the GOP nominee now, not an insurgent maverick. Understandable, but depressing. As part of the essay talks about, there's an enormous difference between running an insurgent Hail-Mary-type longshot campaign and being a viable candidate (it was right around New Hampshire in 2000 that McCain began to change from the former to the latter), and there are some deep, really rather troubling questions about whether serious honor and candor and principle remain possible for someone who wants to really maybe win.

(thx, bill)

The Novelists Guild of America strike isMar 17 2008

The Novelists Guild of America strike is having no discernible impact on the nation.

"We must, as a people, achieve a resolution to this strike soon," novelist David Foster Wallace said at a rally Monday at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, where he is a professor. "The thought of this country being deprived of its only source of book-length fiction is enough to give one the howling fantods."

"I thank you both for coming," he added.

Infinite JestDec 10 2007

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest once again proved finite, although it's taken me since August to get through it. This book was such a revelation the first time through that I was afraid of a reread letdown but I enjoyed it even more this time around...and got much more out of the experience too.

Right as I was finishing the book, I read a transcription of an interview with Wallace in which interviewer Michael Silverblatt asked him about the fractal-like structure of the novel:

MICHAEL SILVERBLATT: I don't know how, exactly, to talk about this book, so I'm going to be reliant upon you to kind of guide me. But something came into my head that may be entirely imaginary, which seemed to be that the book was written in fractals.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: Expand on that.

MS: It occurred to me that the way in which the material is presented allows for a subject to be announced in a small form, then there seems to be a fan of subject matter, other subjects, and then it comes back in a second form containing the other subjects in small, and then comes back again as if what were being described were -- and I don't know this kind of science, but it just -- I said to myself this must be fractals.

DFW: It's -- I've heard you were an acute reader. That's one of the things, structurally, that's going on. It's actually structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal, although what was structured as a Sierpinski Gasket was the first- was the draft that I delivered to Michael in '94, and it went through some I think 'mercy cuts', so it's probably kind of a lopsided Sierpinski Gasket now. But it's interesting, that's one of the structural ways that it's supposed to kind of come together.

MS: "Michael" is Michael Pietsche, the editor at Little, Brown. What is a Sierpinski Gasket?

DFW: It would be almost im- ... I would almost have to show you. It's kind of a design that a man named Sierpinski I believe developed -- it was quite a bit before the introduction of fractals and before any of the kind of technologies that fractals are a really useful metaphor for. But it looks basically like a pyramid on acid --

To answer Silverblatt's question, a Sierpinski Gasket is constructed by taking a triangle, removing a triangle-shaped piece out of the middle, then doing the same for the remaining pieces, and so on and so forth, like so:

Sierpinski Gasket

The result is an object of infinite boundary and zero area -- almost literally everything and nothing at the same time. A Sierpinski Gasket is also self-similar...any smaller triangular portion is an exact replica of the whole gasket. You can see why Wallace would have wanted to structure his novel in this fashion.

As David Foster Wallace argued in ConsiderNov 09 2007

As David Foster Wallace argued in Consider the Lobster, a recent study indicates that lobsters feel pain, an unpleasant finding for an animal that's often boiled alive. But as Wallace says:

Is it possible that future generations will regard our present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way as we now view Nero's entertainments or Mengele's experiments? My own initial reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme -- and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I haven't succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

Atlantic Monthly recently asked a collection of "Nov 07 2007

Atlantic Monthly recently asked a collection of "scholars, politicians, artists, and others" about the future of the American idea. Here's what David Foster Wallace had to say:

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

(thx, matt)

The Best American Essays 2007Oct 02 2007

The Best American Essays 2007

I've had this damn thing up in a browser tab for literally months1 and finally got around to reading it, "this damn thing" being editor David Foster Wallace's introduction to The Best American Essays 2007. In it, Wallace describes his role in compiling the essays collection as that of The Decider. As in, he Deciders what goes into the book according to his subjective view and not necessarily because the essays are "Best", "American", or even "Essays".

Which, yes, all right, entitles you to ask what 'value' means here and whether it's any kind of improvement, in specificity and traction, over the cover's 'Best.' I'm not sure that it's finally better or less slippery than 'Best,' but I do know it's different. 'Value' sidesteps some of the metaphysics that makes pure aesthetics such a headache, for one thing. It's also more openly, candidly subjective: since things have value only to people, the idea of some limited, subjective human doing the valuing is sort of built right into the term. That all seems tidy and uncontroversial so far -- although there's still the question of just what this limited human actually means by 'value' as a criterion.

One thing I'm sure it means is that this year's BAE does not necessarily comprise the twenty-two very best-written or most beautiful essays published in 2006. Some of the book's essays are quite beautiful indeed, and most are extremely well written and/or show a masterly awareness of craft (whatever exactly that is). But others aren't, don't, especially - but they have other virtues that make them valuable. And I know that many of these virtues have to do with the ways in which the pieces handle and respond to the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective that constitutes Total Noise. This claim might itself look slippery, because of course any published essay is a burst of information and context that is by definition part of 2007's overall roar of info and context. But it is possible for something to be both a quantum of information and a vector of meaning. Think, for instance, of the two distinct but related senses of 'informative.' Several of this year's most valuable essays are informative in both senses; they are at once informational and instructive. That is, they serve as models and guides for how large or complex sets of facts can be sifted, culled, and arranged in meaningful ways - ways that yield and illuminate truth instead of just adding more noise to the overall roar.

Although there are some differences between what Wallace and I consider valuable, the Decidering process detailed in his essay is a dead-on description of what I do on kottke.org every day. I guess you could say that it resonated with me as valuable, so much so that were I editing an end-of-the-year book comprised of the most interesting links from 2007, I would likely include it, right up front.

Oh, and I got a kick out of the third footnote, combined here with the associated main text sentences:

I am acting as an evaluative filter, winnowing a very large field of possibilities down to a manageable, absorbable Best for your delectation. Thinking about this kind of Decidering is interesting in all kinds of different ways. For example, from the perspective of Information Theory, the bulk of the Decider's labor actually consists of excluding nominees from the final prize collection, which puts the Decider in exactly the position of Maxwell's Demon or any other kind of entropy-reducing info processor, since the really expensive, energy-intensive part of such processing is always deleting/discarding/resetting.

My talk at Ars Electronica 2006 on the topic of simplicity touched on similar themes and the main point was that the more stuff I can sift through (and throw away), the better the end result can be.

From this it follows that the more effective the aggregator is at effectively determining what the group thinks, the better the end result will be. But somewhat paradoxically, the quality of the end result can also improve as the complexity of the group increases. In constructing kottke.org, something that I hope is a simple, coherent aggregation of the world rushing past me, this complexity is my closest ally. Keeping up with so many diverse, independent, decentralized sources makes my job as an aggregator difficult -- reading 300 sites a day (plus all the other stuff) is no picnic -- but it makes kottke.org much better than it would be if I only read Newsweek and watched Hitchcock movies. As artists, designers, and corporations race to embrace simplicity, they might do well to widen their purview and, in doing so, embrace the related complexity as well.

Welcome the chaos because there's lots of good stuff to be found therein. I also attempted to tie the abundance of information (what Wallace refers to as "Total Noise") and the simplification process of editing/aggregating/blogging into Claude Shannon's definition of information and information theory but failed due to time contraints and a lack of imagination. It sounded good in my head though.

Anyway, if you're wondering what I do all day, the answer is: throwing stuff out. kottke.org is not so much what's on the site as what is not chosen for inclusion.

[1] In actual fact, I closed that browser tab weeks ago and pasted the URL into a "must-read items" text file I maintain. But it's been open in a browser tab in my mind for months, literally. That and I couldn't resist putting a footnote in this entry, because, you know, DFW.

Some Infinite Jest fashion notes: an EnfieldSep 06 2007

Some Infinite Jest fashion notes: an Enfield Tennis Academy tshirt from Neighborhoodies and...

Was the designer of Infinite Jest's book cover influenced by the color palette of the Nikes that Andre Agassi wore in 1991? Compelling visual evidence is available at lonelysandwich.

A list of resources for my recentAug 22 2007

A list of resources for my recent dive into the deep end of an infinite pool. Wikipedia page. Search inside @ Amazon. A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest. Reviews, Articles, & Miscellany. The Howling Fantods! A scene-by-scene guide. Hamlet. Act 5, Scene 1. Infinite Jest online index. Wiki from Walter Payton College Prep (incl. timelines, chars, acronym list, places, etc.). Chronological list of the years in Subsidized Time. Notes on What It All Means. Character profiles by Matt Bucher. Character guide. Vocabulary glossary. Various college theses on IJ. Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (sadly not out until Nov). Not entirely unrelated: map of the overworld for The Legend of Zelda, which I've started playing again on the Wii. Suggestions welcome, especially looking for a brief chronological timeline of the whole shebang, something like the chronologically sorted version of this but covering more than just when the scenes themselves take place.

Update: Just to be clear, this is my second time through the book. (Last time was, what, 4 years ago?) Trying to make more of a study of it this time.

Update: Suggestion from Ian: "Get 3 bookmarks. 1 for where you are reading, 1 for the footnotes, 1 to mark the page that lists the subsidized years in order." I'm currently using two bookmarks...will get a third for the sub. years list.

Thoughtful review of the Criterion version ofMar 28 2007

Thoughtful review of the Criterion version of Rushmore. "Anderson also serves as a convenient target for people who don't like people who like movies by Wes Anderson. [...] When you get past the extraneous bullshit surrounding Anderson's films, the crux of disagreements about him reminds me of disagreements over David Foster Wallace (or Dave Eggers, or Thomas Pynchon, or even Vladimir Nabokov). It comes down to this: Are Anderson's stylistic tricks and distracting plot elements smoke and mirrors, or do they bring something unique to the stories he's telling? In the case of Rushmore, I think the answer has to be the latter." I get the feeling you could learn a lot about film by reading Matthew's reviews of the Criterion Collection.

Good People, new fiction by David FosterJan 29 2007

Good People, new fiction by David Foster Wallace in the New Yorker.

Singer Ben Gibbard, from The Postal ServiceJan 17 2007

Singer Ben Gibbard, from The Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie, is playing a part in the film adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, to be directed by John Krasinski, who plays a character on the US version of The Office, which is based on the original UK version by Ricky Gervais. To sum up: indie rock book nerd tv junkie explosion!

The NY Times Book Review's 100 notable booksNov 25 2006

The NY Times Book Review's 100 notable books of 2006. Making the list are several kottke.org notable books: The Ghost Map, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Consider the Lobster, and The Blind Side.

I mentioned earlier the new paperback versionNov 16 2006

I mentioned earlier the new paperback version of Infinite Jest; here's Dave Egger's introduction to the new edition. "[Wallace] was already known as a very smart and challenging and funny and preternaturally gifted writer when Infinite Jest was released in 1996, and thereafter his reputation included all the adjectives mentioned just now, and also this one: Holy shit." (thx, nick)

A new paperback version of David FosterNov 14 2006

A new paperback version of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is out. You get 1104 pages of Wallacian goodness for $10 (it's only $8 on Amazon) and I've heard it's physically a lot thinner than the previous paperback.

Zadie Smith active and passive readingNov 10 2006

Zadie Smith on the distinction between reading like you passively watch TV and reading like you actively interprete a musical piece at the piano. "When you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it."

Bill Simmons, who writes at ESPN andSep 12 2006

Bill Simmons, who writes at ESPN and is one of my favorite sports writers, recently penned a rave review of The Wire (scroll all the way down at the bottom). "Omar might be my favorite HBO villain since Adebici. And that's saying something." He also sings the praises of David Foster Wallace's article on Roger Federer.

Oh happy day, a new nonfiction articleAug 20 2006

Oh happy day, a new nonfiction article by David Foster Wallace! This one's on Roger Federer. "Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war." The footnotes appear on a separate page and almost comprise an article of their own. I love reading his writing about tennis. (thx, stephen)

Update: Here's a short clip of Wallace on NPR talking about Federer. When asked about the similarities between great athletes and great novelists, Wallace suggested that great athletes possess the ability to "empathize without sympathy" with their opponent, something that is useful in fiction writing when putting yourself in the shoes of a character.

Update: This YouTube video shows the Federer/Agassi volley that Wallace describes in the epically long sentence in the second paragraph...look for it starting at 8:10. (thx, marco)

The CSM reviewed a book called SpecialAug 15 2006

The CSM reviewed a book called Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl last week, saying if you like Eggers and footnotes (a la Clarke's Strange & Norrell or, presumably DFW), you might like this one. Anyone read this? Worth a shot?

Who else writes the kind of essaysJul 31 2006

Who else writes the kind of essays that David Foster Wallace writes? (thx, ryan)

Inspired by the hypertextish sidenotes in DavidMay 30 2006

Inspired by the hypertextish sidenotes in David Foster Wallace's Host, a piece from the Atlantic Monthly about radio host John Ziegler (screenshot of the article), arc90 whipped up a way to add sidenotes to any web page. Here they are in action.

Amazon updates their online book reading interface...May 20 2006

Amazon updates their online book reading interface...here's David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Matt has a screenshot and a bit about it. Coolest new feature: you can read some books online immediately after purchase (before the paper copy arrives) and use the reader interface to add notes and bookmarks to your online copy.

The Broom of the SystemMay 03 2006

The Broom of the System

Following a long tradition on this site, I'm going to make a prediction based on very little evidence: David Foster Wallace will never write another novel. My feeling after reading The Broom of the System is that it's basically a rough draft of the novelized "version" of his "life" that eventually became the lovingly polished Infinite Jest. (That's right, two is a trend!) Or if he does, it'll be 20 years from now, when enough time has passed for him to reflect on his experiences in long-format fiction as a writer, husband, teacher, famous personage, and (if he ever has kids) father.

As for Broom itself, I haven't read enough philosophy for a proper review. The best I can do is compare it to Infinite Jest. If you want to read IJ but just can't handle its 1000+ pages and 300+ footnotes, read Broom first. If you hate it, no big deal...it's only 480 pages. But if you like it, you can safely devour IJ.

1996 NY Times review of David Foster Wallace'sMar 14 2006

1996 NY Times review of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and a profile of Wallace from that same month by current Times food critic Frank Bruni.

Short interview with David Foster Wallace inMar 02 2006

Short interview with David Foster Wallace in the San Antonio Current.

Representation of the London Tube map ifFeb 21 2006

Representation of the London Tube map if the stations were sponsored by products or companies. I love the Pizza Hutney, Upministry of Sound, and iPoddington stops. Rather DFWesque. (via bb)

How do audiobook producers deal with thingsJan 20 2006

How do audiobook producers deal with things like footnotes, photos, interesting punctuation, and the like? "The voice manipulation, for which audiobook producer John Runnette used a 'phone filter' -- a voice-through-the-receiver effect used in radio dramas -- was an attempt to aurally convey Mr. Wallace's discursive, densely footnoted prose." Includes sample audio with examples. (thx, bill)

Joe Woodward profiles David Foster Wallace forJan 05 2006

Joe Woodward profiles David Foster Wallace for Poets & Writers magazine.

Review of David Foster Wallace's Consider theDec 13 2005

Review of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster compares him to Mark Twain, which I'd never heard before but seems apt.

Consider the LobsterDec 09 2005

Consider the Lobster

If I remember correctly, Tense Present (published in the April 2001 issue of Harper's) was the first bit of writing I ever read by David Foster Wallace. I didn't fall for him immediately. I liked the article fine, but as I thought more about it in the following weeks -- particularly in light of other nonfiction I was reading in magazines and newspapers -- the more I liked it. A quick search on the Web revealed that not only had this Wallace written more nonfiction for magazines, he'd written entire books and was considered by some to be the best young author writing in America. A few months later I read Infinite Jest and it was love.

Tense Present is one of the essays included in Consider the Lobster, a collection of nonfiction by Wallace due out on December 13th. It's included under a new name (Authority and American Usage) and is, like many of the other pieces in the book, the "director's cut" of the original, but re-reading it brought back good memories about, well, how good it was to discover Wallace's writing.

Several of essays in CtL I'd read before, including the title essay from the Aug 2004 issue of Gourmet (which according to Gourmet EIC Ruth Reichl almost didn't make it into the magazine at all). I read The View From Mrs. Thompson's in Rolling Stone shortly after 9/11 and remember thinking that it was the best reaction to 9/11 that I'd seen, but reading it again 4 years later, the impact wasn't quite the same...until the last 2-3 paragraphs when you remember that he spends the whole essay setting the table so he can hit you with the whole meal in one mouthful and you then spend several hours attempting to digest what you've just read.

The View... and Up, Simba, a piece on John McCain's 2000 bid for President that also ran in Rolling Stone (at half the length under the title The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub), were my favorites, but they're all so good (if you enjoy reading nonfiction in Wallace's signature style, which I very much do). A common complaint of Wallace's writing is that it's not very straightforward, even though clarity seems to be his purpose. I don't mind the challenge the writing provides; I read Wallace for a similar reason Paul is reading surrealist poetry, to make my brain work a little bit for its reward. In The End of Print, David Carson outlined his design philosophy in relation to its ultimate goal, communication. Carson used design to make people work to decipher the message with the idea that by doing that work, they would be more likely to remember the message. I'd like to think that Wallace approaches his writing similarly.

David Foster Wallace's Kenyon College Commencement AddressJun 28 2005

As much as I enjoyed reading the transcript of Steve Jobs' commencement address to the graduates at Stanford (here's an audio version), I preferred the similar** sentiments of David Foster Wallace in his Kenyon College commencement address:

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

As in his writing, Wallace has a knack for depicting the world as a pretty messy place that one must navigate with a certain amount of uncertainty in order to really experience anything, which, for me, holds a little more truth than Jobs' "grab the tiger by the tail and live, dammit" thoughts.

See also some other graduation speeches:

Conan O'Brien's Harvard Class Day 2000 speech
Will Ferrell's Harvard Class Day 2003 speech
Jon Stewart's William and Mary 2004 commencement address

** Yeah, I know, all commencement addresses are pretty much the same.

New collection of nonfiction by David FosterMay 31 2005

New collection of nonfiction by David Foster Wallace due out in December.

OblivionSep 18 2004

Oblivion

Salon nails the gist of Oblivion:

With his new story collection, David Foster Wallace has perfected a particularly subtle form of horror story -- so subtle, in fact, that to judge from the book's reviews, few of his readers even realize that's what these stories are.

Exactly right. It's Stephen King for the literary crowd. In many of the stories, there's always something lurking off frame...the oblivion, as it were. Wallace knows, as does Scott McCloud, that what happens between the frames makes the narrative. Wallace never shows us the monster...the reader just gets glimpses of its shadow and is left with a feeling of unease. As opposed to the horror movies of today with their gore and choreographed multimedia frights, the seeming normalcy of Wallace's stories set the reader up for a later sense of discomfort.

LobstergateAug 05 2004

Lobstergate: David Foster Wallace and his Gourmet article about the Maine Lobster Festival. Wallace's article is fantastic.

Everything and MoreNov 30 2003

Everything and More

DFW is a favorite of mine, but I was disappointed in Everything and More. Perhaps I wasn't part of the intended audience, but with an interest in all things Wallace, a college degree in physics, a general interest in mathematics, and avid reader of popular science books, if not me, then for whom was this book written?

Mostly I was bothered by Wallace's signature writing style, which usually challenges the reader in delightful ways. In E&M, he ratcheted his style up to such a degree that it became as obfuscating as the math he was trying to explain. Not that he should have used only words of four letters or less, but a greater degree of clarity and simplicity would have been appreciated to let the parodoxical beauty and the beautiful paradox of transfinite math show (which Jim Holt did more successfully than Wallace in his New Yorker review of the book).

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