Wish I could’ve been there

I missed the opportunity to see DT Max at Skylight Books in Los Angeles (my daughter had a dance performance), but he made a later stop at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. My brother-in-law, a Googler, was gracious enough to go to Max’s presentation and to get my copy of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story signed.

 

Here is the link to the video of Max’s presentation:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPIAiX3zQVQ

Enjoy.

 

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Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Letter 1

Dear Dave,

After reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,[1] I thought I would go back and blog my way through each chapter. But it was the quote from ‘Good Old Neon’ before the start of chapter 1 that caught my attention, begging me to respond. It reads:

“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

I’ve studied and taught language and literature for quite awhile now, and the more I do so, the more I am convinced that – as this quote alludes to – language simply fails to take us into the deepest depths of the human experience. The inner turmoil, the hurt feelings, the confusion. But also the joy, the elation, the rapture. So much of what we experience – whether physically or mentally or emotionally – goes beyond our ability to articulate those experiences. Our vocabulary can only take us so far; can only scratch the surface at best.

In the introduction to his Holocaust memoir, Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel recounts how language failed him in writing the horrors and atrocities of his story. He explains:

“I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle… All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless” (Night, ix).

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that language can be a powerful tool for expression. Like paint on a canvas or notes from an instrument, words can evoke strong feelings and passions.[2] No matter the form – narrative, poetry, whatever – there are incredible examples of what language is capable of. There are poets and novelists who can weave a wonderful tapestry to words that when we hear or read them, we proclaim, “I know exactly what that feels like.” There are those who can give words to thoughts and feelings when words escape us regular folk. They help us better understand “what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

But their words can only take us so far, “barely sketch[ing] the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given moment.” They bring us closer to understanding ourselves, but so much still remains an unknown mystery.


[1] It was a very fast and frantic read. DT Max agreed to do an interview here on Letters to DFW, and I needed to finish the book before we spoke. I’m working on writing up the interview and hope to post it soon.

By the way, we had a wonderful conversation. Max was extremely gracious and a pleasure to talk to. I only wish I had more time to ask him more questions.

[2] It wasn’t until after I started reading Wallace that I truly understood the meaning of the term “language arts.” In the introduction to a reading that he did at the Hammer Museum, he was called, “America’s most radical language artist,” and it just clicked.

Today

I reached the last page of DT Max’s biography of Wallace today, and a number of friends posted favorite pictures or quotes in memory of his passing four years ago today. I’ve posted an elegiac piece each of the last three years, but I feel like I’ve run out of things to say.

So instead I decided to post a picture that I think best captures my feelings on this 12th of September: my daughter’s ninth birthday and the anniversary of the death of a friend I’ve never actually met.

An Occasion in which I Give Away My Extra Copy of “Conversations with David Foster Wallace”

Blogger Here. So due to a shipping error, I ended up with two copies of both “Conversations with David Foster Wallace” and “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.” I gave the extra copy of the biography to a coworker – my first “convert” to Wallace’s writing. Since my bookshelf only allows for one copy of each of Wallace’s books, I thought I would have my first ever give away here on Letters to DFW.

So if you would like a free copy of “Conversations with David Foster Wallace,” a collection of interviews with Wallace edited by Dr. Stephen Burn, here’s what you need to do:

1. Click on the “Subscribe” button on the home page. This will sign you up to receive email notifications whenever I post a new Letter (it will also give me your email address so that I can contact you if you are the winner). Don’t worry, I won’t spam you with Viagra ads and I wouldn’t know how to give your contact info to a third party if I wanted to.

2. In a Comment below, write your favorite DFW quote. It could be a line from your favorite book; it could be from one of his interviews; it could be something recorded in the biography. But his two most famous quotes, “This is Water” and “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being” are not allowed. The more obscure the better.

3. Next Monday (September 17) I will choose a winner. I will announce it here on Letters, and contact the winner via email to make arrangements for shipping the book to you.

No cost to you, other than your permission to send you email updates when I post each new Letter.

I look forward to reading lots of great quotes, so bring it on.

Just Dave

I first heard about DT Max’s biography of Wallace about two years ago. There was an open call on The Howling Fantods for all things Wallace: letters, notes, stories, etc. Max was asking for fans and friends to send anything that might help him in writing what would become “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.”

This sparked quite a discussion on Wallace-l, one filled with what could best be described as a cross between Chuck Norris jokes and Dos Equis commercials. “Dallas-Forth Worth Airport was named after Our Man,” and “David Foster Wallace knows an English word that rhymes with ‘orange.'”

Fast forward about eighteen months when a release date for “Every Love Story” was announced. I used an Amazon gift card to preorder the book. And the wait began.

Over the past several weeks and months, the internet has been a-buzzin’ with reviews and responses to reviews and discussions of responses to reviews.

Another discussion on Wallace-l arose in the last few weeks. Someone posed the question of “what do you hope for the biography?” Responses varied, but many wanted the “warts-and-all” story that we haven’t heard yet. Not that people wanted juicy, gossipy details; but rather they expressed a desire to see Our Man as just a regular guy. To knock him off his pedestal a bit.

I never chimed in, but it got me thinking. What do I hope for as I read Max’s book? I read Max’s piece in the “New Yorker” and Lipsky’s piece in “Rolling Stone,” so I know most of his story.  And with all the prerelease material that’s been circulating, I doubt there will be many surprises when I read it. But I guess, like others, I want to get to know Dave. The man. Not just the writer or public figure or the persona he created. Just Dave.

And now the release date has arrived. I received an email this afternoon that my book has finally shipped. It should be here on Saturday.

But I got this other email. A rep from Penguin Books asked me to post a promotional video commemorating the long-anticipated release.

My response: I’d be happy to.

So here you are. Penguin Books’ promotional video.

Enjoy.

An interesting article that poses lots of questions

This article was posted today on Wallace-l and really struck a chord with me. This topic of Wallace and religion has been simmering for me for quite awhile. Faith and religion, particularly Christianity, are important themes in much of Wallace’s work; although he seems to ask a lot more questions than he attempts to answer. As I continue to read my way through his canon, and as I anxiously await Max’s biography, it is a topic that I think is an important one and I hope to continue to explore it.

What are your thoughts? What role do you see faith, religion, and Christianity playing in Wallace’s writing? What do we know about the role of faith in his own life?

Follow this link, read the article, then share your thoughts.

Guest Post: W/R/T DFW

Blogger Here. Andrew Harrell shares his first encounter with David Foster Wallace, reading David Lipsky’s piece in Rolling Stone Magazine, “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace.”

Mr. Wallace,

I don’t know how the magazine made the trip, but Greg and I got from the Piedmont to the mountains in his brother’s tiny black Honda two-door. The drive was almost perfect.

Out of the eight or so times we thought we were lost, only once had we actually gone the wrong way, ending up in a cramped town with narrow, wavering streets and a terrible pervading smell coming from the paper mill. For half an hour we drove in circles, looking for someone to ask for directions, only to find the town deserted. Eventually we were attracted by bright lights in the distance, and found the entire town leaving a high school football game. At another point in the journey, while searching for a grocery store to purchase s’mores supplies, an Ingles Market seemed to materialize in front of us out of nothing.

We drove in shifts of about two hours. The little thing handled like a dream. Or, at least, it handled like a dream compared to my car, which has inches of dead space to push through if you want to apply the brakes.

As a driver, Greg scared the shit out of me. His mind is never fully on the road, and he always leans on the gas too much, to the tune of, like, 20 mph too much. So I turned the tables while I could, ignoring the decreasing visibility and increasingly winding roads, taking turns too fast and throwing Greg against the passenger side door.

It was October or November and I was a sophomore in college. Greg was a freshman and for fall break we were headed to a family friend’s cabin, where my girlfriend and half a dozen or so others were already playing beer pong and flip cup. Greg and I listened to the new Keane album off of my iPod and edited a speech he had to give for some student organization or another when he returned. When it came to language and writing, this was an insanely exciting and formative time in both our lives. We’d both heard from teachers and peers that we were good with words. But now we were realizing that we wanted to be better. We were realizing that there is power behind words, that they are something you can be passionate about. The speech probably suffered from severe over-editing.

Unmarked from the road, the secluded cabin was nestled at the bottom of a steep hill and accessible only through a subtle gap in the guardrail. Even with all our cars, the front lawn was huge—acceptable ultimate Frisbee space, if that gives you any sense. A trail led to a nearby stream.

The drive there turned out to be the best part of the trip.

I was not much of a partier. At this point in my life I was able to count on my fingers the times I’d been drunk or high. I normally had trouble interacting with others, let alone when one or both of us in an altered state of mind. So when the weed and the booze came out, I was a little uncomfortable. The feeling was compounded over the next few days by cramped living quarters and too little food. I had a fight with my girlfriend, and she went off to get high with some of the others. I was left alone—at least, I felt alone, there might have been others half asleep in armchairs nearby—in the cabin.

A magazine was on the wooden coffee table.

Soon-to-be-president Barack Obama was on the cover, his tie the same red as the Rolling Stone logo. The headline level with Obama’s smiling eyes read: “DEATH OF A GENIUS: The Tragic Last Days Of David Foster Wallace.” I was in the mood for death and tragedy.

Not to mention my curiosity was piqued; what made you such a genius? I’d never heard of you. I expected an article dominated by technical explanations of the work done by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Maybe some small, amateur pictures of guys with pocket protectors in their garage laboratory.

The first picture took up an entire page. You didn’t look like a physicist. You looked like a college slacker. Bangs in your eyes. And is that a Basquiat shirt?[1]

The opposite page called you “the greatest writer of his generation—and also its most tormented.” I was in the mood for torment.

Being in the mood for death, tragedy and torment does not always leave one in the mood for close reading, however. I only skimmed the article, reading enough to glean that you were a great writer, that you liked tennis and you loved dogs, that you committed suicide and that I had never heard of you or your work. The pictures, though, I examined closely.
There was something endearing about your rugged figure that reached out of those glossy pages. The long hair, the stubble with a lopsided shot of gray, the silly bandanna, the kind eyes. Glasses. Full lips like mine. How different you looked from picture to picture, which makes sense now but didn’t right then—it seemed like I was looking at different men, and maybe in a small way I was. You didn’t look like a fiction writer; you looked like a fiction character. It was the fall of 2008, so maybe in a not so small way you already were.

What I did read start to finish was a sidebar about a movie adaptation of one of your books. The blurb caught my eye because it said the actor John Krasinski was directing and producing the film.[2]  I was intrigued, and eventually I bought a paperback copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It wasn’t until summer 2009 that I read the book of short stories at the beach.[3]  It was difficult, funny and strange. And, for the most part, way over my head. I enjoyed the style and I recognized the writing as brilliant. But sometimes I didn’t really know what was going on. And I definitely struggled with the fact that I didn’t know what it meant. Krasinski’s adaptation turned out to be a great thing for me, because it spelled things out with Hollywood simplicity—or, at least, spelled out one interpretation of the stories.

Overall, though, your collection left me impressed but uninspired. The paperback made it onto my shelf of favorite books, partly out of respect and partly because of that cool cover,[4] but, largely, you were put out of my mind. I probably went and reread Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the fourth time.

Months later, I was in the bookstore with a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. At the time I had no author or book I was itching to read. I was just browsing. A beautiful cover caught my eye, which is enough to make me want a book, even if I know I won’t like it. It was white and textured, with an illustration of a yellow cockatiel reflected upside down in an ornate hand mirror. The name David Foster Wallace was on the cover. I remembered my mixed reaction to reading you the last time, but it was a beautiful book, and the name recognition justified the purchase.

I began reading The Broom of the System as soon as I got home, and even though I knew nothing about Wittgenstein or postmodernism, it made perfect sense. Words had never felt so real to me. I realized you might not be as dead as Rolling Stone claimed.

In some sick way, did your leaving bring you closer to more people than ever before? I guess so.

Did your private struggle turn you into a public figure you didn’t want to be? I don’t know. Would I even be aware of you if you hadn’t ended things on your own terms? I don’t know.

What I do know, Mr. Wallace, is that you wrote and read at least in part to be a little less lonely. Evidently, for you the battle against loneliness didn’t only play out between covers.

The important thing to me isn’t if you won or lost that battle with loneliness. What’s important to me is that you were the only one who figured out what we’re fighting against.

Thanks for letting us know. Thanks for the company.

 

Andrew Harrell is from North Carolina and has written for sites such as Thought Catalog, Knews Corp and The Daily Heel. He is building a wiki to serve as a reference guide for The Broom of the System.


[1] Do they even make Basquiat shirts? Is it some kind statement on or counter piece to Keith Haring’s commercial stuff?[back]

[2] I had recently watched the entire first four seasons of The Office—which stars Krasinski—in the span of a week. My grades suffered appropriately.[back]

[3] At the beach, in a house looking out onto the sound, not literally on the beach. The combination of suntan lotion and folding chairs and David Foster Wallace is a little absurd.[back]

[4] To me, those black and burgundy horizontal stripes look damn good on a bookshelf.[back]