“Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – part III

“Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

The panelists – DT Max, Jonathan Letham, and Laura Miller – went on to describe how unique and different Wallace was from his contemporaries.  His novels and short stories were not the self-indulgent metafiction that dominated the literary fiction of the 1980’s.  And while other writers and much of academia focused on the international literary scene, Wallace’s fiction had a distinctly American feel to it.  He wrestled with what it meant to be an American in the late Twentieth Century, in all its glory and all its vices.  In his consummate nonfiction piece, “E Unibus Pluram,” he explains and describes many of the problems that exist in Twentieth Century American life, and these themes are then illustrated throughout his fiction as well.

Not only was Wallace unique in his style and subject matter, the panelists went on to say, but also in his purpose and approach to literature.  I believe it was Laura who first brought it up, and the others echoed the point, that Wallace was a very moral and even didactic writer.[1]  He wrote about very real – and very difficult – aspects of our humanity.  In the midst of this discussion, Daniel quoted what is perhaps Wallace’s most famous line,[2] that “fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”  It is through the reading and writing of fiction that we wrestle with our own humanity, that we try to make sense of the absurd and nonsensical.  Daniel went on to say that, in his estimation, there has not been such a moral writer since Dostoyevsky.

Part of this moral didacticism was Wallace’s tackling of two of the biggest – and most intertwined – problems in American society: entertainment and addiction, the two primary themes in his magnum opus Infinite Jest.  Daniel explained that the original title for the book was A Failed Entertainment[3] and that the book itself functions similarly to other addictive substances.  By beginning the book at or near the end of the story, the reader is left feeling unsatisfied and must go back and begin reading it again to satisfy those unfulfilled feelings.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace explores the role of faith and 12-Step programs in the recovery process of addiction.  As the panelists explained, these AA-type programs depend on clichés and platitudes to be successful.  Despite their banality, these clichés are real and effective and meaningful, and recovering addicts must put their faith in the truth of these statements in order to break free from their addictions.[4]  It is a humbling experience to put one’s faith in something that seems so simple, to realize that one is not too smart for words that are so trite and banal, to know that one cannot simply outsmart his addiction.

In addition to being a very morally didactic writer, Wallace was also a very personal one.  One of the panelists[5] pointed out that most of his characters are trying to break free from their own solipsism and believe that other characters in their world exist; they are trying to see inside the other.  They want to know they are not alone.  In the same way, Wallace used his writing to bridge the gap between selfs and connect on a very personal level with his readers.[6]  It is this personalness that draws such a loyal following of readers, and it is this sense of connection between writer and reader that drew a packed house to the Pomona College campus that Saturday evening in February.


[1] I don’t use these descriptors – nor did the panelists use them – in the “Aesop’s Fables” sense of the words.  But rather, he dealt with very moral issues and asked very moral questions, but unlike the fables of old he never answered the questions or concluded with a “slow and steady wins the race” sort of thing.  He just threw the idea out there to let us – the readers – wallow in it for awhile and try to figure it out on our own.[back]

[2] It was inevitable.  Someone had to repeat the quote.*  If none of the panelists did, I would have felt obliged to take the microphone during the Q & A just so that the line would be spoken.

*I began my paper for the Antwerp conference with the line, and I believe at least three other presenters quoted it in their papers as well.[back]

[3] I believe this is also brought up in Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.[back]

[4] Although it wasn’t specifically mentioned during the discussion, this is the central message of Wallace’s Kenyon College speech: the life and death importance of the totally ordinary and banal.[back]

[5] At this point, nearly a month after the event as I look at my notes, I don’t recall which one.  This is what I get for waiting so long* to write about the conference.

*It hasn’t been out of laziness or procrastination that I have waited this long.  Moving into second semester and now just a few months before AP exams, my grading load has increased exponentially over the last few weeks.  Plus I have other writing projects I am working on.

I have plenty of excuses, but very few of them are good ones.[back]

[6] My friend Maria Bustillos wrote a wonderful piece last year about her trip to the Wallace archives, during which she was particularly drawn to his own collection of self-help books.  In that piece, she describes in much better detail than I do here Wallace’s desire to connect with others through his writing.[back]


“Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – part I

“Both destiny’s kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person’s basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life: i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it.” – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

January 8 was one of the most frustrating days of my nearly two-and-a-half-year-long journey through the writings of David Foster Wallace.  As I went through my normal morning routine of checking my email and Facebook I stumbled upon the announcement of the DFW Symposium to be held in April at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.  Guests would include Michael Pietsch, Bonnie Nadell, DT Max, to name a few.  People I am dying to meet.

The rest of the day was a roller coaster of emotions as I contemplated ways to pay for the trip and – more importantly – talk my wife into letting me go.[1]  But like Cinderella after receiving the invitation to the royal ball, I slowly came to the sad realization that a trip to the Symposium was just simply out of the question.[2]  I tried to distract myself, but my mind kept going back to the fact that there was going to be this bitchen event in a couple months and I was not going to be there.

They say that time heals all wounds, and in two or three weeks I had come to terms with the fact that I would have to wait awhile longer before making my pilgrimage to the Ransom Center.  Every now and again something would trigger a thought about the Symposium and I would endure a few moments of sadness, but I had the consolation that the event would be webcasted.  Watching the proceedings on my 19” LCD computer monitor would sort of feel like being there.

Then roughly a month after the announcement of the Symposium came word of the “Consider David Foster Wallace” conference on February 18 hosted by the Student Union at Pomona College.  A Wallace event.  A free Wallace event.  75 miles from my house.  It would cost me roughly ten dollars in gas, and about the same for dinner on the way home.  How could I miss this?  I could not miss this.  I was not going to miss this.  I cleared my calendar, RSVP’d on the Facebook event page,[3] and began counting the days until the event.

The afternoon of Saturday, February 18 finally arrived.  I was dressed for the occasion, had my notebook and plenty of pens packed, and was waiting for my wife to get home so we could trade off kid duty so I could go to the conference.[4]  She came home at just the right time, we said we would catch up how our days went later that evening, and I was out the door.

As I ran into traffic on Interstate 5, and then realized that the online directions I wrote down had me getting off at the wrong exit,[5] and then hit every red light on the five-mile stretch of Foothill Blvd that my wrong directions had me driving down, and then missed the opportunity to stop and eat dinner because the 5:00 start time was rapidly approaching, I began to feel like some cosmic force was trying to prevent me from getting to the Edmunds Ballroom.[6]  My frustration grew and grew as the Fates through every obstacle they could in my way until I finally arrived at the Pomona College campus at approximately three minutes before 5pm.

With the help of a young man in a Pomona College athletic sweatshirt, I found my way to the already very packed Edmunds Ballroom.  There was a table of hors d’ouevres outside the main entrance, but there was also a long line waiting to eat them, and getting a good seat was more important, so I passed on the food line and went in to find an open chair.[7]  I chose an aisle chair to the right of the stage about six rows from the front.  Not ideal, but it would do.

I settled into my chair and attempted to mooch free wifi service for my first generation iPod Touch.  I had thoughts of attempting to live-Tweet the proceedings of the conference, but my hand-me-down iPod couldn’t connect to any of the several unlocked wifi connections.[8]  I gave up on that idea and opened to an empty page in my notebook and pulled my Universitiet Antwerpen pen from my backpack, meanwhile taking deep, cleansing breaths to calm myself from the stress of my less than pleasant drive to Pomona.

The hosts seemed to be running a little behind schedule for reasons unknown, but as I awaited the start of the conference I surveyed my surroundings and sized-up the other 200+ people in the room.  The audience appeared to be primarily undergrad students and their professors.[9]  Over the din of dozens of conversations I could hear those seated behind me discussing their favorite of Wallace’s books and stories and essays.  The professor among them[10] was telling the students about his first encounters with Wallace’s writings and which of Wallace’s stories were his favorites.  The students next to him were sharing how this prof used this one of Wallace’s books in this class, and that prof used that essay in that class.  As I listened, the teaching side of my brain perked up as I began to think of how I could work this book or that essay into my own classes.[11]

Although I earned my undergrad degree twelve years ago and was probably fifteen years older than seventy-five percent of the room, I quickly felt very much at home in that room full of strangers.  My kind of people, as my wife said when I first found the Wallace-l community.  I didn’t engage any of those around me in conversation – although I’m sure I could have jumped right in with the mention of some scene from The Pale King or an especially memorable footnote from “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” – but instead just sat and absorbed what was happening around me.  A room full of some 200 people all talking about the man who had summoned us here.

Here are links to the YouTube recordings of the conference:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

[1] To be honest, coming up with the $500 to $1000 it might take to get to Austin and back for the two-day Symposium (including ground transportation, hotel, food, and incidentals) was probably going to be an easier feat than it would be to convince my wife to let me go (and we live on a very tight budget).  After spending a week in Antwerp while she was left home with the kids back in September, there was no way in heaven or on earth that I was going to convince her that I should go on this second trip within six months of the first one.[back]

[2] As expected, my wife said no, but not just because I had been gone for a week a few months ago.  There was no way we could afford it, especially since I am still paying off that trip to Belgium.  Now if I could just figure out how to get one of those Fairy Godmothers, I’d be set.[back]

[3] Unless it’s a friend’s birthday party, does this really matter?  Probably not.  But it made it feel more official.  I was going to the conference and I couldn’t wait.[back]

[4] She was out with her parents for the day, but according to the text message she sent at about noon, things weren’t going according to plan.  She promised to be home in time for me to leave – which she was – but I was getting a little worried there for a bit.[back]

[5] For the last several years, I have relied on Google Maps to get me from Point A to Point B, but the Facebook event page had a link to Bing Maps.  I figured, how different could they be?  Oh you’d be surprised.  Alls I can say is I’m sticking to Google Maps from here on out.[back]

[6] It was probably because I had recently finished Stephen King’s 11-22-63 in which the protagonist, Jake Epping / George Amberson, goes back in time to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination.  But time does not want to be tampered with, especially concerning something of this magnitude.  All kinds of obstacles are thrown in his way as he tries to stop Oswald from pulling the trigger.

Great book, by the way.[back]

[7] As I was stuck at red light after red light on my way to the event, and as I realized I was not going to have time to stop for dinner, I surveyed the eateries along Foothill Blvd in search of somewhere to stop for dinner.  Several small Mexican restaurants looked promising.[back]

[8] Probably for the best.  Once the panel discussion started and I began frenetically taking notes, I quickly concluded that attempting to produce a steady stream of Tweets would have been an exercise in futility.  I’m a pretty crappy typist on a full-size keyboard and just outright suck on that tiny touch screen keypad on my iPod.[back]

[9] Pomona College does not have a graduate program, which – as the panelists pointed out later in their conversation – was one of the things that drew Wallace to the school.[back]

[10] I am simply assuming he was a professor there at Pomona College, or perhaps at one of the other nearby schools that, as a cluster, form what are known as the Claremont Colleges.  He looked to be at least in his mid-forties and was dressed in a very “professorly” manner – horn-rimmed glasses, striped sweater, khaki pants.[back]

[11] Teaching primarily AP classes – both English Language and Literature – I have a good deal of freedom in what I can teach in my classes, and I have been doing my best to work in as many of Wallace’s stories and essays as I can.  So far I have used “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” the opening section of “A Supposedly Fun Thing…,” “Good People,” “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR,” and “Brief Interview #46.”  I’d say not to bad for being only three weeks into the second semester.  I’m sure I can squeeze a few more in before the end of the term.  Any suggestions?[back]

“Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – February 18

A little over a month ago I came across a posting on The Howling Fantods about the DFW Symposium at the Harry Ransom Center in April.  It is scheduled for the start of my Spring Break, so it wouldn’t really require me to take (much) time off work.  But a quick search on Orbitz.com confirmed what I already suspected: there is no way in hell I can afford a trip to Austin, TX, especially when I am still paying off my trip to Antwerp last September.  I thought and thought for several days; surely there must be a way to make it work.  But alas, the cold, hard truth settled in that I won’t be able to attend and that I will have to wait awhile before I’m able to make the pilgrimage to the Archives, the Mecca for Wallace fans and scholars.

I had passed through the stages of grief and arrived at a place of acceptance when a friend of mine posted an announcement for the “Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference on February 18 hosted by Pomona College.  I very quickly cleared my schedule and then clicked the “attend” button on the Facebook event page.

It’s not the Symposium I hoped to attend, and it doesn’t feature all of the same speakers that will be in Austin.  But it’s only a 90-minute drive from home.

And it will be an opportunity to fellowship with other fans and readers and scholars, a chance to discuss the man and his writing that we know and love so much.

And I can’t wait for Saturday to get here.

I plan to take copious notes while I’m there so that I can report back here on the evening’s festivities.  If there is unblocked access to a wifi hot spot, I may even try a little live blogging on Twitter (we’ll see how that goes; I’m a pretty bad typist as it is and even worse on my iPod keyboard).

I’m really, really looking forward to attending, and I can’t wait to share the experience with you all.

A Really Fun Thing I’d Love to Do Again – Day 3, Part 2

Thursday, September 22, 2011

After the coffee break, I felt a great sense of relief.  My presentation was done.  The months of hard work and agonizing over getting my paper just right had all been worth it.  It had all been worth it.  I could now sit back and truly enjoy the rest of the conference and give my full attention to the rest of the presentations.

The final session of the afternoon began with Charles Nixon’s presentation which focused on the importance of awareness and concentration in the novel, paying special attention to sections 5 and 6.  Charles had spent several weeks earlier in the year at the Harry Ransom Center viewing the Wallace archives doing research for his doctoral thesis.  That alone made him the envy of the rest of us and the go-to guy for all things Wallace-Archive related.[1]

Charles was followed by Clare Hayes-Brady.  Her presentation centered on the enigmatic title of the novel and the potential connection to the John Keats poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”  She pointed to a number of connections between the characters in the novel and the figures in the poem, making a strong case for this poem being the source of the title.  Additionally, her analysis of the text in light of the poem made some conjecture as to who this mysterious “Pale King” might be in the novel.

During the Q & A, Matt Balliro inquired about the possible ties – in light of the poem – between the politics of the novel and the politics of the British Romantic era.  Clare acknowledged the possibility of some correlations, but admitted she hadn’t taken her research down that path yet.[2]  Matt’s question got me thinking, and I followed his question with a wondering-aloud comment about whether Wallace may have not only been alluding to the similarities in political landscape between the British Romantic period and 1980’s America in which the novel is set, but also making a spiritual or religious connection as well.  Clare and others in the room concurred that this could be a strong possibility given the frequent supernatural occurrences in TPK and other of Wallace’s works.

The Panel Chair thanked the presenters as they returned to their seats to gather there things.  Toon made some closing remarks to end the first day of the conference as my mind continued swirling with ideas for further research and reading:  Was there more to this connection between Wallace and Lewis?  What were Wallace’s views on religion and faith, and Christianity in particular?  Was there more to this than Wallace’s writing about members of his church in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” and the comment at the end of the Lipsky book about his heading off to a church social event?  And what about the very authentic – almost raw – portrayal of Lane Dean Jr.’s struggles of faith?  I’ve never read a more honest and sincere depiction of the Christian faith, not even in the Christian fiction that I’ve read.  There must be something there worth uncovering; and even if there isn’t, the journey to the dead end would be a helluva ride.

At this point in the day – it was around 5:30pm – I was utterly exhausted.  I was going on maybe six hours sleep in the past two days and had had very little to eat throughout the day.  Plus my nerves were spent from my earlier presentation.  But our day was far from over.  The plan was to meet up again in the courtyard outside in roughly 90 minutes to walk to the restaurant for dinner.  We had a 7:30 reservation.  There was a small part of me considering calling it an evening, finding somewhere cheap and close by for dinner, and getting to bed nice and early.  But I didn’t want to be the only one not attending.  Many left to go back to their hotels to change and freshen up, but that option seemed out of the question for me.  My hotel was farthest from the University campus, so it would take almost the entire 90 minutes just to walk there and back – especially considering my state of exhaustion – so it seemed hardly worthwhile.

Toon invited me to join him and some of the others who were headed to a nearby café for drinks.  While certainly too tired to enjoy one of the many delectable Belgian beers I had heard so much about, the conversation sounded promising.  So I followed the pack to the café a few blocks down the road.

Everyone else ordered local specialties, except for me with my glass of tepid tap water.  I spent much of the time talking with Jan – a soon-to-be grad student who recently moved to town to study at the University of Antwerp – and Toon and his girlfriend / co-organizer, Leis.  We talked some Wallace,[3] but mostly listened to a brief Belgian social studies lesson from Toon.  Apparently Belgium was on its way to breaking the world record for the longest span – some 500+ days – without a functioning government,[4] a feat he almost seemed somewhat proud of.  I did note some of the interesting parallels – as well as stark differences – between Belgian history and politics and the American history and politics I had grown up with.  I a way, I was almost jealous of the long, rich history of his country.[5]

Soon enough it was time to rejoin the others back at the University for our dinner.  After everyone had arrived, we walked to the restaurant, whose brightly painted walls and gaudy décor was best described by someone in the group as “kitschy.”  We sat at two long tables in the back room;[6] I sat with and talked mostly with Tom, Clare, Mark, and Charles.  Conversation came easily among us as a personal anecdote often led into a discussion of a scene from one of Wallace’s novels or short stories, which then led into talking about another of our favorite scenes.  It was a wonderful time of getting to know each other as we shared insights into the life and writing of the man who had brought us all together for these two days.[7]

The food was incredible; I had the pesto chicken and pasta while most of those around me had the bloody rare steak.  The fries that came with their cuts of beef soon became communal.  They were quite tasty.  Though the wine was flowing freely, I once again abstained.  I didn’t want to pass out during the walk back to my hotel.

The evening went very quickly as we talked and laughed and ate and drank.  At about 10pm, I thought it would be best to head back to my hotel.  While the food had given me a short energy boost, my body was crying out for sleep.  I was one of the first to leave the party; the others were making plans to move the frivolity to a nearby café to continue fun.[8]  When I arrived at my hotel and climbed into bed – not wanting a repeat of the previous night and suffering from the nasal and ocular symptoms of prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke – I took a Benadryl before going to bed.

Should have set an alarm as well.

[1] We all loved hearing the stories he had about what he found while reading old drafts and notes in the archives.  We must have looked like kids on the playground listening to a friend recounting the plot of a movie none of us were allowed to watch.  Each of us had the dream of one day visiting the HRC – the Mecca for Wallace fans and scholars – and Charles had lived the dream and was allowing us to live it vicariously through his stories.

[2] Clare had just finished and submitted her doctoral thesis* on Wallace – although this presentation was not part of that paper – a few weeks before the conference, so her nonanswer was certainly understandable.

*which I received word this past week that she was successful in her thesis defense and had officially been “indoctrinated.”  Congrats, Clare.

[3] How could you not after the day’s presentations?

[4] My cynical side was ready with all kinds of jokes and wisecracks about the “functionality” of our American government back home, but I was way too tired to attempt to put more than about three words together into a coherent sentence.  So I mostly just sat and listened.

[5] I mean there were probably ashtrays on the café tables outside with more history than anything I was accustomed to back home.

[6] Not only did the large size of the group warrant the large back room, but the conversation quickly became very lively and enthusiastic, giving another reason why management would likely assign us the back room.

[7] Someone would later mention that it felt very much like the reception after the memorial service when everyone starts sharing their favorite stories about their very good friend.  I couldn’t have agreed more with the analogy.

[8] I would hear the next morning that most didn’t leave the café – quite a dive, apparently – until after 2am, so I am glad I called it an early night.