Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace : R.I.P.O. (Rest In Peaceful Oblivion)

Crushingly sad news in the world of literature, politics and social
commentary. Author, cultural theorist and educator, David Foster
Wallace was found dead in his Los Angeles home on the night of Friday
September 12th. Best known for his socio-political sci-fi(?) tome
(all 1100 pages of it!) of a novel "Infinite Jest", which has been given
the library categorical listing of "Hysterical Realism, Satire, Tragicomedy
& Science Fiction" (but "singularly incomparable" maybe being more
appropriate) and was named by Time Magazine one of the 100 best
novels of the 20th Century (strangely along with other unexpected
choices like Alan Moore's "Watchmen") a novel that garnered massive
praise and debate since its release in 1996. This novel and his many
essays written for such quality publications as Harpers, The New Yorker,
The Atlantic and more recently Mc Sweeney's non-fiction monthly,
The Believer, have contributed in no small way in forming many of
the most recent directions of postmodern writing (both fiction and
non) as a whole. Todays significant articles on this sad news:

Major themes in Wallace's writings are regular concerns directly
addressing detachment and disassociation through the subjects of
addiction, media distraction/obsession and alienation of the individual.
Often depicted through transcending (or not) the daily struggle against
the mundane and anti-enrichment in the era of a culture that is largely
preoccupied with the enthronement of sensation, distraction and
vapidity. These concepts were explored in narratives set to the
backdrop of sensorially immersive media-environs as the vehicle
for commercially manufactured social values and societal priorities.
Ie: "Infinite Jest's" 'Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment'.

For those who have read his essay collection "A Supposedly Fun Thing
...I'll Never Try Again" all I need quote is: "You'll be pampered like
you've never been before" - and you have a clue as to the charisma
and wit with which he expressed his written voice. Its maybe that very
sense of humor that has allowed Wallace's writing to transcend the
kind of trappings of over-verbose intellectual postmodern exhibitionist
lit to which he was sometimes accused of belonging. Part of this is
that Wallace would not hesitate to express his fascination with, or
even sincere enthusiasm for pop culture, (County Fairs anyone? Cruise
Ships? Professional Sports?) and its random manifestations of flashy
beauty, thrilling, sometimes 'accidental' genius and the effectiveness
of its mind-boggling self referential internal logic .

In addressing these kinds of conflicting elements in daily western life
and their effect, he explored his insights through the repeat-themes of
the hindering of authentic communication, confounded experience and
the growing abstraction of meaning in the world around us. (Yep, what
used to be known as 'existentialism' in lit). These themes investigated
through the contextual vehicles of literary culture, political speculation,
everyday american consumer life and most significantly; fictional inter-
personal relationships. The objective often to address questions of the
greater (unconscious?) need for us all to find a sense of real connection
and comprehension of the kind that is lacking in many lives (as a product
of said themes).

From his wiki entry: His essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction"
, originally published in the small-circulation Review of Contemporary
Fiction in 1993, proposes that television has an ironic influence on
fiction writing, and urges literary authors to avoid irony. Wallace
himself used many different forms of irony in his work, but he also
more explicitly focused on individuals' continued longing for earnest,
unselfconscious experience and communication in a media-saturated

What he had to say to Salon mags Laura Miller on the subject of
writing, at the time then in the late 1990's:

"If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too
stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde
pitfall, where you have the idea that you're writing for other
writers, so you don't worry about making yourself accessible or
relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically
cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate
intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about
whether you're communicating with a reader who cares something about
that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end
of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are
done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that
manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a
childishly riveting way.

What's weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and
really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for
the reader, an idea that literature's current marginalization is the
reader's fault. The project that's worth trying is to do stuff that
has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual
difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader
confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way
that it's also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is
talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.

Part of it has to do with living in an era when there's so much
entertainment available, genuine entertainment, and figuring out how
fiction is going to stake out its territory in that sort of era. You
can try to confront what it is that makes fiction magical in a way
that other kinds of art and entertainment aren't. And to figure out
how fiction can engage a reader, much of whose sensibility has been
formed by pop culture, without simply becoming more shit in the pop
culture machine. It's unbelievably difficult and confusing and scary,
but it's neat. There's so much mass commercial entertainment that's
so good and so slick, this is something that I don't think any other
generation has confronted. That's what it's like to be a writer now.
I think it's the best time to be alive ever and it's probably the
best time to be a writer. I'm not sure it's the easiest time."

From an interview with Dave Eggers in The Believer on current
domestic politics:

Here, on the subject of John McCain, is an excerpt from an interview
he did with Dave Eggers for the Believer in 2003. His complaints were
and are hardly unique and perhaps nothing he says here wasn't and
isn't readily obvious to anyone paying even a modicum of attention.
But given how little's changed in the five years since—and, for that
matter, how much worse off we are in some regards—these remain things
that need to be said. All the better, when they're expressed by
someone of this skill and genuine indignation:

"The reason why doing political writing is so hard right now is
probably also the reason why more young (am I included in the range
of this predicate anymore?) fiction writers ought to be doing it.
As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95 percent of
political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by
the very politics it's supposed to be about. Meaning it's become
totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain
political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all
reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and
loyalties. Everybody's pissed off and exasperated and impervious
to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just
incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil…

"… How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen,
deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country's macroeconomic
policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy's outlines
should be, or how to minimize the chances of North Korea nuking the
DMZ and pulling us into a ghastly foreign war, or how to balance
domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these
are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not
sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply
abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and
Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant
delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you're in
conflict with is an asshole—but it's childish, and totally unconducive
to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of
grown-ups to function as any kind of community."

An excellent radio commentary from one of his usual homes,
The Atlantic:

Worth the investment to search through whole of these archives of
articles for subjects of personal interest, as his writing spans
many and much:


The New Yorker:

The Atlantic:

For me, what's most difficult about comprehending his departure from
the living, is that the ongoing relationship with his commentary on, and
insight into, the world around us is no longer going to be a source of
perspective in my life and shared consideration among friends. Something
I realize I've taken for granted over the years (and anticipated to be present
and lifelong) and am now made more keenly aware of its one-of-a-kind
nature. I simply expected him to be around as an incisive, thrilling, funny,
thought provoking progressive ingredient in our collective cultural reality.

Sadly, sadly, sadly now, I know its not the case.