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Robinson Crusoe Island

Has it happened to you yet? Have the plethora of responses to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, worn your interest thin? If yes, then this isn’t for you.

I am not yet finished observing and partaking of the phenom that is DFW, of the increasingly long shadow that has been building since his death by suicide two years ago. Watching the reach of his influence is like watching waves that impact waves that coalesce and become new systems with new patterns to discern. I can’t think of an analogous literary chaos theory quite this complex.

(Note: Not all of the reporting has been paeans to our dead hero. No less than Geoff Dyer has written My Literary Allergy in Prospect magazine, saying “the work of David Foster Wallace brings me out in hives.”)

Jonathan Franzen’s piece in the New Yorker’s Journey issue, “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude” is a paean of sorts. It features his escape-from-life journey to the island purported to have been the actual location of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe off the coast of Chile. But of course, being Franzen, it is oh so much more than a travelogue and birder’s journal. His commentary covers the history of the novel, its role in our cultural development and yes, some thoughtful comments about his friend David Foster Wallace. Before departing on this remote getaway, Franzen is given some of DFW’s ashes by his widow to distribute in that remote spot.

The piece is worth a complete read for its many fine qualities. One of those fine qualities is its willingness to fling open the doors of the perils entailed in the creative life. There are certain writers who, from time to time, will take their readers on a factory tour of their rag and bone shop. For some it is a need to elucidate their battle with their demons, be they depression, addiction, isolation. procrastination, prevarication. William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Les Murray’s Killing the Black Dog are elegantly written descriptions of each writer’s horrific battle with crippling depression. For Franzen it is a struggle with many of the same issues that DFW had in extremis and that, in the end, he could no longer battle.

In addition, there is that salient eye for the larger arc concerns that makes Franzen’s fiction so compelling. Here’s a sample of the Franzenesque vision that sees crossovers and implications in everything around us, physically and conceptually:

As the novel has transformed the cultural environment, species of humanity have given way to a universal crowd of individuals whose most salient characteristic is their being identically entertained. this was the monocultural spectre that David had envisioned and set out to resists in his epic “Infinite Jest.” And the mode of his resistance to that novel—annotation, digression, nonlinearity, hyperlinkage—anticipated the even more virulent and even more radically individualistic invader that is now displacing the novel and its offspring. The blackberry [an invasive species] on Robinson Crusoe Island was like the conquering novel, yes, but it seemed to me no less like the Internet, that BlackBerry-borne invasive, which, instead of mapping the self onto the narrative, maps the self onto the world. instead of the news, my news. Instead of a single football game, the splintering of fifteen different games into personalized fantasy-league statistics. Instead of “The Godfather,” “My Cat’s Funny Trick.” The individual run amok, everyman a Charlie Sheen. With “Robinson Crusoe,” the self had become an island; and now, it seemed, the island was becoming the world.

Leave it at that.

The publishing of David Foster Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, unfinished at the time of his death, has brought on yet another torrent of writing about DFW. I can’t think of another writer whose legacy is shaped quite like his. His writing is brilliant and penetrating, and the cadence of his style is infectious and easily imitated. Many writers of his generation (who in my experience are mostly male, but that is a topic for another time) have an echo of DFWness in their work.

One admirer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, has written compellingly about DFW in a GQ piece, Too Much Information. Sullivan describes DFW this way:

When they say that he was a generational writer, that he “spoke for a generation,” there’s a sense in which it’s almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there’s some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it’s possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it’s not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The “it” being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.

The article is substantial and smart, well worth the full read. But what really struck me when reading this was the way Sullivan described DFW’s ability to pay attention in an extraordinarily attuned way, to people around him. In DFW’s world, everyone’s complexities and experiences are seen and accounted for, from the story’s protagonist to the guy behind the counter at Circle K.

After quoting an extremely insightful passage from the new novel, Sullivan puts that quality of deep attention into context:

Wallace paid a price for traveling so deep into himself, for keeping his eye unaverted as long as it takes to write passages like the one just quoted, for finding other people interesting enough to pay attention to them long enough to write scenes like that. It’s the reason most of us can’t write great or even good fiction. You have to let a lot of other consciousnesses into your own.

The gift of deep attention has parallels in other métiers as well. Mark Morris’ ability to listen to music and then find its perfect movement in the body comes to mind. Or my friend, a non-representational painter, whose gorgeous paintings are a direct result of her unwavering observation of the landscape around her remote studio. Her ability to move a deep experiential understanding of the earth into a non narrative form is rare and extraordinary.

Some of us do work that does not emerge from the direct observations of finely calibrated human interactions or the multi-layered cycles of the earth. There are some of us for whom deep attention is needed in the domain of the imaginal, the numinous. What that is, where it exists and how it plays into the making of visual art is elusive and a bit wily. It is something I think about a lot and yet still don’t feel that I have a bead on its dimensional sense.

This idea reminds of a quote by Lyotard about Barnett Newman’s search for the sublime:

He breaks with the eloquence of romantic art but does not reject its fundamental task, that bearing pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible. The inexpressible does not reside in an over there, in another world, or another time, but in this: in that something happens. In the determination of pictorial art, the indeterminate, the ‘it happens’ is the paint, the picture. The paint, the picture as occurrence or event, is not expressible, and it is to this that it has to witness.

“The inexpressible does not reside in an over there, in another world, or another time.” Oh yes.

Inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s Players (Photo: Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin)

Thank you Sue Halpern for a great article on the New York Review of Books blog. Book markers, unite!!

When I saw David Foster Wallace’s annotations at the top of the blog page, it was like seeing a meal of comfort food waiting on the table, warm and familiar. I passionately love to mark up books. I have been doing it for most of my life and am now at the point where I can’t really sink deep into a book unless I have a writing device in my hand at the same time. It’s like the mind, eye and hand have to all be engaged for the magic to begin.

I’ve asked myself why this behavior appeals to me so deeply. I think of my markings as a form of map making, applying my own personal navigational sense to a text the way a previously uncharted landscape could be notated. These annotations are a kind of personal guidance system, a breadcrumb trail laid down for my future self when she needs to make her way through that part of the forest again. Going back into a book I’ve marked up years later feels like the front door was left open with instructions to just walk in.

Book marking is also a sly way of creating parity with an author, of softening the advantage he or she has of having already laid down their arguments so carefully in advance. My markings feel conversational, interactive and contributory.

Halpern’s article, What the iPad Can’t Do, actually deals with the difficulty of marking up a text when using e-books. Halpern has included a very detailed description of what one would have to do if one were to attempt to create markings on a Kindle or an iPad. Reading her ingenious but convoluted instructions of mismatched apps and gerrymandered platforms is actually kind of hilarious. And as much as I love that iPad I bought my partner Dave, I love marking up books just as much.


Outside a Hindu shrine in Maharashtra, India

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

–David Foster Wallace

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world, and a desire to enjoy the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.

— E.B. White

Two excellent quotes to begin a day, any day. Thanks to Meehan Rasch for both of these.

Desert landscape near Alice Springs, Australia

I’ve gone through creative dry spells. Everybody does, but when it is happening to you, it is hard to not take it personally and forget that the condition is common. It is easier to talk about it when the episode is over. It’s a little like childbirth: Give me a while before I tell you about how it was to deliver an 11 pound child.

Reading through the rich responses to Jerry Saltz’s recent posting on the reality of being an artist (here) started me thinking (again) about the highly interior and intensely private nature of the struggle for flow. So many artists owned up to and spoke about their experience with such candor, and I was deeply touched by many of their words.

One writer included a link to Susan K. Perry, a psychologist and writing consultant, who is also the author of Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity. Over the years Perry has collected a list of the most common fears that lead to creativity blocks:

The worry that the work isn’t good enough
The fear that I have no talent.
The fear that, if anyone notices my work in the first place, they won’t like it.
The fear of appearing foolish.
The fear of not being able to finish a long project, or of dying before it’s done.
The fear that I’ve wasted my time.
The fear of offending somebody.
A terror of leaping into the abyss of the imagination.
Feeling I’m in over my head, that I won’t be able to do this without appearing stupid.
The fear that I’ll run out of ideas and never be able to produce anything again.

Does anyone ever conquer all of these demons? Probably not. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing without blushing—shivering and wishing to take cover?”

Perry points to another writer’s insights:

The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace, who, like Woolf, committed suicide, was interviewed in 1997 on NPR’s Fresh Air. Asked by Terry Gross whether, when he was a teen tennis player, his self-consciousness interfered on the court, he said, yes, of course. He went on to wonder whether perhaps those listening have “this part in their brain” that allows them to turn off thoughts of “what if I double fault on this point, or what if I miss this free throw, or what if I don’t get this strike with the entire bowling team hanging around.”

Wallace at first figured “this stuff” doesn’t occur to professionals, then added, “but when I hung out with pro players for the tennis essay, it occurred to me that they have some kind of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off.” Such self-consciousness, he said, is “literally paralyzing. You can end up like a bunny in the headlights.” Wallace couldn’t turn it off and gave up tennis.

One of Perry’s suggestions for dealing with the feeling of being frozen by a fear: Trivialize the task.

I adopted it as one of my mantras because it really works. For a writer, for example, what this means is accepting that a creative career or a creative life is a long evolving process, not a single product—and certainly not an unpolished draft of a product.

It helps to think of yourself as playing at whatever you’re doing. If it feels like work and nothing but work, maybe you’re doing it wrong. Because you can’t fail. You just try again, or you try something else, or you try in a different way.

In a different post Perry compares creativity to making love. That’s extra credit reading.

The essay on the last page of the Sunday Times Book Review by Jennifer Schuessler this week is provocative. Her topic: Boredom. Ah, that dreaded word. Full of moral implications. Antithetical to everything I learned (and probably inherited through epigenetics) from my pioneer heritage. You never left yourself get bored, and you never admit if for some reason you do. NEVER.

As Schuessler points out, “As a general state of mind, boredom is morally suspect, threatening to shine its dull light back on the person who invokes it. ‘The only horrible thing in the world is ­ennui,’ Oscar Wilde once wrote, suggesting that boredom doesn’t feel much better in French. ‘That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness.'”

In fact, says Schuessler, boredom has some benefits. Brain research suggests that when we are awake but not doing anything in particular, our central processors are churning along, particularly in those parts responsible for memory, empathy with others and imagining hypothetical events—in other words, many of the skills needed for a successful literary experience. Hmmm. Something to consider.

Schuessler makes the discussion lively:

It’s common to decry our collective thaasophobia, or fear of boredom, manifested in our addiction to iPhone apps, the cable news crawl and ever mutating varieties of multitasking. One cellphone company has even promoted the idea of ­“microboredom,” which refers to those moments of inactivity that occur when we’re, say, stuck waiting in line for a latte without our BlackBerry. But novelists, for all their own fears of being dismissed as boring, continue to offer some bold resistance to the broader culture’s zero-tolerance boredom eradication program.

Bringing the discussion around to books, Schuessler highlight the posthumous publication of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished manuscript, The Pale King:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro…For all the mundanity of its subject matter, the excerpt presents boredom as something more strenuous and exalted than the friendly helper depicted by the neuroscientists, keeping our minds revved up even when we think we’re idling. Boredom isn’t just good for your brain. It’s good for your soul. “Bliss — a second-by-­second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom,” Wallace wrote in a note left with the manuscript. “Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

Boredom and bliss. Who knew?


I’ve given it a week to settle or to slink off. But it just won’t. The profile of David Foster Wallace in last week’s The New Yorker has taken a front row seat, kind of like a big and slightly smelly guy, and will not move to the back. Hats off to D. T. Max, to the deft hand with which David Foster Wallace’s story was laid out. It was respectful but clear-eyed about the tragedy of his suicide. It portrayed an exceptional talent who still had to deal with the same every day issues all the rest of us have to deal with too.

But more than anything I am haunted by one word: Relentlessness. I can still taste that bitter edge of the essential tension DFW lived with, having been given an effulgent gift to write but a mental/physical vessel too vulnerable to sustain it. I may be overidentifying with his struggles right now given my own creative deadline woes and difficulties. But it isn’t often that an article sticks in the caw as fiercely as this one has.

I’m still not a DFW literary fan. His agility I get but it’s the decibel level of his voicing that makes it hard for me to stay with it too long (if it’s too loud, you’re too old…ouch.) But the story about him, the maker. That’s one I won’t forget anytime soon.

Thank you also to Janet Ellingson for posting a link to DFW’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College in a comment on this blog. The transcript of that speech is posted on Go Ahead. See If I Care. It’s worth the read. Here are a few excerpts from that speech:

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

And this:

The so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…

The really important kind of freedom 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. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

It keeps happening. I keep finding parallels in visual art with the way poets and writers talk about their process. While most art makers have their own “narrative” of what is going on and how their work comes into being that could be questioned as a kind of handy fiction all its own, I still find sparks of recognition when I read or hear those “behind the curtain” confessions.

Here are two cases in point just from today’s reading. First, a 3 minute video of Sharon Olds discussing the fact that she is often referred to as an autobiographical poet. Here is a quick discussion of similes, metaphors and her claim that she does not have an imagination, but an “image-ination”:

Sharon Olds


Second is from an article about David Foster Wallace in the latest issue of The New Yorker. While I am not particularly drawn to DFW’s work (his prose feels like walking into a pub that’s too noisy to carry on a conversation and one guy with a booming voice has completely taken over) but D. T. Max highlights some memorable comments made by Wallace about his work:

The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool. In the interview with McCaffery, he said, “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet.” He also said, “All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.”