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kottke.org posts about David Foster Wallace

Designing The Pale King

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 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 available

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 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 Yorker

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 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 infographic

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2010

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

The Pale King available for pre-order

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 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 cover

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 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 me

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 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 Wallace

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 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 player

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 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 audio

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 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 FaceTime

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 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 book

posted by Jason Kottke   May 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 profile

posted by Jason Kottke   May 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 shyness

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 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 acquired

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 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 tributes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 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 Wallace

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 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 challenge

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 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 hero

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 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 speech

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 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 Jest

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 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 Jest

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 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 go

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 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 deceased

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 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 Summer

posted by Jason Kottke   May 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 interview

posted by Jason Kottke   May 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 Children

posted by Jason Kottke   May 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 Jest

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 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 Wallace

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 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 Kindle

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 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)