“What the Hell is Water?” – abstract of paper to be presented at “Work in Process” Conference

About two months ago, I submitted this abstract for consideration for the “Work in Process” Conference to be hosted by the University of Antwerp in September.  Much to my surprise and delight it was accepted, and in less than three months I will be presenting the paper at the conference.

This opportunity is the thrill of a lifetime, and I wanted to begin sharing it with you all by posting the abstract of my presentation.  More news and details to come as a prepare for the conference.

David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being,” an axiom that can easily be extended to his works of nonfiction as well. Perhaps the greatest distillation of his ideas of what it means to be a human being can be found in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, “This is Water,” and it is through the lens of this work that all his other writings must be viewed. As he says in the speech, “There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.” However, there is a cure for this “boredom, routine, and petty frustration” prescribed in Wallace’s speech and illustrated in both his fiction and nonfiction: being consciously aware of our surroundings and choosing how we interpret our circumstances. It is in conscientiously exercising this ability to choose that we find meaning in our lives and experience true freedom. This is no easy task, and it is this internal conflict that is at the core of many of Wallace’s short stories, novels, and literary essays.

Remaining conscious during the “day in, day out” of adult life and choosing to find meaning in any given moment is a recurring theme throughout most of David Foster Wallace’s writings. He expresses both the advantages of exercising this freedom of choice, as well as the detriments experienced by those who are not able to break free from their “default settings.”

Wallace begins his exploration of this theme in his early works of fiction, such as “Everything is Green” and, to some extent, in “Little Expressionless Animals.” He continues it throughout his middle works, as seen in a number of stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, such as in “Forever Overhead” and “Brief Interview #46.” Wallace then makes this idea one of the thematic centerpieces in his last work, the unpublished novel, The Pale King. Wallace further develops this idea of one’s need for freedom from the prison of his own head in his works of narrative nonfiction, most notably in his essays “Big Red Son” and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” from Consider the Lobster.

“What the Hell is Water?” will explore this theme of conscientiously choosing to find meaning in even the most mundane of experiences as found in the fiction and narrative nonfiction of David Foster Wallace, and will argue that his explicit explication of this theme in “This isWater” provides his readers with a fuller understanding of this fundamental truth about the human experience.




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