“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]

Little Expressionless Animals – Revisited and Revised

“Little Expressionless Animals” has maintained a solid standing as one of my all-time favorite DFW short stories.  I first wrote about it here over a year ago, then several months ago went back to that post and gave it a once-over.  So here are my revisited and revised musings on this wonderful short story:

Dear Dave,

Over the last eleven years, I’ve accumulated a variety of lesson plans that I reserve for “those” days.[1]  Most of these involve some sort of creative writing assignment that takes up the better part of the class period, keeps the students engaged and entertained, but requires little or no effort on my part.  One such lesson has a handout with four boxes, each of which contains a list of essential ingredients for a short story.  One box has a list of ten character types, another has different settings, and so on.  The students pick a number between one and ten, find that numbered item in each box, then write a story containing those four items.  The students have fun with it, and it gives me a break from the dog-and-pony show.[2]

Reading “Little Expressionless Animals” reminded me of this assignment.  It had to be either the random chance of an exercise like this one or pure creative genius that came up with such an menagerie of characters and situations.[3]  How else do you explain two children abandoned along the side of a country road, a lesbian couple struggling with their true feelings and intentions toward each other, game-show host, Alex Trebek, free associating on his therapist’s couch, and a “Jeopardy!” champion dethroned after a three-year reign on the show by her severely autistic brother – all in the same thirty-page story?

And yet, in the midst of all of these characters and situations, the one that truly captured my attention was the barely mentioned autistic brother of the protagonist Julie.  Through years of intensive in-patient therapy he breaks free – or is “yanked out,” as Trebek puts it – from the prison of his condition and is able to function in the real world around him, even if it is only for half an hour to appear on a highly one-sided episode of the popular game show, “Jeopardy!”  His cohorts – including his own sister Julie and her lesbian lover Faye, Alex Trebek and his game-show-host cronies at Merv Griffin Enterprises, and the various producers and studio lackeys who populate the story – are not so lucky.  They all find themselves in self-imposed prisons from which there seem to be no breaking free or “yanking out.”  They put up walls that keep everybody else at arm’s length, preventing anybody from getting too close or personally involved in their lives.

There is Julie and Faye, the lesbian lovers who share everything but their true selves with each other.  They expose themselves and are intimate physically, but not emotionally.  It is not until the end of the story, when either Julie is in disguise[4] or when they are sitting with gobs of makeup and under the bright lamps of the makeup room that Julie is able to even remotely begin to open up to Faye.  But even when she does share real stories from her very troubled past, they are masked as mere hypothetical stories she suggests Faye tell her family to explain her coming out as a lesbian.

Alex Trebek and his fellow game show hosts have been friends and co-workers for years, yet their conversations go no deeper than the slight discoloration of one of Burt Convey’s tooth.[5]  They can’t even do the whole male-bonding-by-watching-sports-together thing right; they spend their free time bickering over a recorded baseball game they’ve watched a dozen times.  They pull childish pranks on each other, but are never real or vulnerable, always staying safely behind the walls of their own making.

There are a few glimmers of hope for Trebek, but those are quickly dashed.  On several occasions, he finds himself on his therapist’s couch, but even then he cannot bring himself to be open and honest.  He engages in free association about meaningless topics and absurd dreams.  He briefly mentions a crush on Julie, but never pursues that train of thought.  Not even with someone he pays to listen to him without judgment can he be open or vulnerable.

There seems to be no hope of freedom for the occupants of this story.  They don’t even seem to want it.  They are content in their fortresses of solitude, keeping all others in the periphery.[6]  The only one able to break free is Julie’s severely autistic brother.  But the thing is, with Julie’s brother at least there is a diagnosable name for the walls that imprison him.  And through years of intensive in-patient therapy at one of the best facilities in the nation, he is able to achieve a level of functionality that allows him to make a half-hour appearance on a game show.  He isn’t cured, but at least he is on the road to normalcy.

But what about the rest of these characters?  And by logical extension what about the rest of us?  There is no clinical label for our condition, this tendency we have to erect walls and build barriers around ourselves, our true selves.  We keep each other at arm’s length, we tell lies and half truths, and we wade through the waters of superficiality.  We put on masks or hide the truth within hypothetical stories.  We can’t get beyond trivial things like our appearance or sporting events we’ve seen a dozen times, even with those we have known for years.  We seek professional help, but can’t move beyond psychobabble nonsense.  The doors to our self-imposed prisons lock from within, yet we never reach for the key.  How can we be released from our self-imposed solitude and loneliess? When will we learn to make authentic connections with others?  Who will – in Trebek’s words – “yank us out”?

[1] “Those” days being the Friday before Christmas or Easter Vacation; or a day after the end of the unit, but with only a day or two before the end of the quarter so there isn’t time to begin a whole new unit; or a day that I am not feeling well or I just don’t feel like teaching.

[2] And a chance to update my Facebook status.

[3] My money is on the pure creative genius.

[4] Due to her success as the three-year reigning “Jeopardy!” champion, Julie must don a disguise (usually a wig and sometimes even a fake moustache) when out in public.

[5] Alex Trebek’s and Pat Sajak’s feigned concern is actually thinly veiled fear that they too might one day face the same potentially career-ending horror.

[6] Julie does seem to reach out to Faye toward the end.  She does lower her guard ever so slightly, sharing real stories from her past, but masks them as hypotheticals.  Perhaps the walls are so high and so thick that that is all she can do.

Letter 35: Brief Interviews – Interview #20

Dear Dave,

I began to question whether this day would actually arrive, but I am writing my last Letter for Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  It has been one of the most difficult books to read, but also one of the most rewarding.  I’m still not sure I fully “get” all the stories in the collection; I’m still mentally working through some of the Interviews, a task that I’m sure will continue for weeks and months to come.

Interview #20 was probably my favorite, but also the most challenging, of the book.  As a friend put it, “[the Interview] could be the subject of a three-volume book of essays: it’s fabulously deep and wondrous and richly rewarding.  Lots of narrative levels at once, lots of moral probing going on, lots of lexical mastery on display.”  It took much discussion, both face-to-face with friends and online with friends and fellow fans of your work, to find the right words to articulate my thoughts and response to this particular story.

It seems the focus of our attention ought to be on the Interviewee himself.[1] He seems to assert himself as the focus of the story; he recalls the “Granola Cruncher’s” story not for its horrific significance to the story’s teller, but for how it impacted him.  He manages to turn the retelling of a terrifying encounter with a serial rapist into a story of a life-changing epiphany for him.[2]

I want to focus instead on the Granola Cruncher herself.[3] The possible conclusions reached through exploring her character and story are far more intriguing than those of Interviewee #20.

First, whether it is from her heavily apostrophe-laden religion or her ability to achieve a superhuman level of consciousness or her having learned from previous experience, she appears to have an innate ability to draw the truth out of others.  In her story of her encounter with the serial rapist, she says she knew the moment the car door closed that she was in trouble.  Using her powers of mental and spiritual focus, she extracts a confession of his true intentions shortly after she gets into the car.  It’s not explicitly stated – after all, the story is retold by #20 – but it’s possible that she uses those same powers of focus to get #20 to confess all he is after is a one-night fling with an attractive woman.  No one can successfully lie to her.

Second, she is able to take control of potentially dangerous, or in the least compromising, situations.  In the case of the encounter with rapist, she once again uses her powers of mental and spiritual focus to gain the upper hand on her assailant and save her life.  She maintains eye contact throughout the encounter, and through seemingly loving physical touch, she is able to save her own life.  Hardly saying a word, she reaches into the inner parts of the rapist’s psyche and convinces him to spare her life.

With #20 she uses a very different, yet equally effective, means to gain control of the situation.  #20 is upfront with her about the fact that all he wants is one night with her.  She turns the table on him and takes control of the situation with her post-coital story about her night with rapist.[4] By the end of her story, she has him weeping like a baby and eating out of her hand.

Once she has control of the situation, she uses her control to get exactly what she wants.  In the case of the experience with the rapist, all she wants is to live another day.  She uses her powers of focus to show him the love seemingly absent from his life so that he will spare her life.

In the case of the rapist, defining what she wants is very simple.  Not so much in the case of #20.  In this instance, what is it that she wants, exactly? I see several possibilities:

It could be another instance of simply wanting to survive.  If her story of being assaulted is true, I’d imagine she would be rather wary of guys trying to pick her up at concerts in the park.  Just as she feigned love to survive the rape, she might be telling this story to make a quick escape from #20’s apartment.  She will let him have what he wants – just as she did with the rapist – but will go no further.[5]

Or perhaps it is to teach #20 a lesson.  When he first spots her from across the park, all he sees is a sexy body he wants to hook up with.  She isn’t a person with heart and soul; she is merely one night of pleasure.  But through her story, he has this epiphany.  He sees the emptiness of his own soul and experiences what he thinks is real love for the first time.  If that is her intent, then mission accomplished.

Or I wonder if it was her way of getting back at him, and all the other pigs he might represent to her.  He tells her upfront that all she is to him is a one-time fling.  All he wants is her body.  He has no intent of seeing her again, and he hopes she doesn’t linger to long in his apartment because he finds her rather annoying.  He has it all planned out; if he is so impressive in bed that she asks for his number, he has a fake number to give her to dodge her calls without a guilty conscience.

Maybe she is turning the table on him to one-up him at his own game.  She isn’t going to be the one left wanting more.  She isn’t going to be the one wondering why he never returns her calls.  She isn’t going to be the one heartbroken over being just another notch in some guy’s bedpost.  Insert her gut-wrenching story of being raped and almost killed by a serial killer.  She coldly and calculatedly evokes every conceivable emotion out of #20.  Once she sees him in tears, she knows he is putty in her hand.  He has taken the bait hook, line, and sinker.  He is the one left wanting more.  He is the one thinking he is in love with a woman he has only known for a few hours.  He is the one who will be wondering if he will ever know love like this again.

In the end, she makes the same move he intended to make; just the details are different.  Instead of a fake number, she leaves behind her worn-out sandals.  A constant reminder of what he missed out on.  The sad thing is he doesn’t even get it.  He doesn’t know he’s been played.  He’s left love-struck and in tears.  She leaves with the satisfaction of having – perhaps once again – gotten the upper hand on yet another chauvinist pig.

Well played, Granola Cruncher.  Well played.

[1] Although at the end of the film adaptation of the book, it is this interview that begins the research project that is the unifying thread of the film’s narrative.  John Krasinski does a superb job adapting the book and playing the character of Interviewee #20.  The context of this interview being the confession of an unfaithful boyfriend is a fascinating twist, as well as a great premise upon which to build the story for the rest of the interviews to take place.

[2] Whenever I tell friends who have not heard of it about this book, I basically sum it up by saying the title is pretty self-explanatory.

[3] I not only find her character extremely fascinating, but my mind is still swimming on what to make of Interviewee #20.  I’m still working my way through the narrative levels and probing the moral implications of his story.

[4] Which, I have my doubts about the veracity of her story.  There is the stoicism with which she tells her story.  No emotion, not a single tear.  This non-emotional response to her own story might be a defense mechanism; if she can objectively remove herself from the experience, perhaps it is easier to deal with.  But I can’t really see anyone being that coldly removed from what was surely a terrifying experience.

There is also the fact that she so willingly goes home with a stranger she just met with only one thing on his mind.  Why would a rational person open herself up to another potentially dangerous situation?

I’m wondering if it was all made up; her way of getting into the head of #20 – and who knows how many other one-night stands – to gain control of the situation and exact her own plans for the evening.

[5] If, through her heavily apostrophe-laden, she has reached a higher plane of consciousness, then perhaps the sacrifice of her body in order to save her soul is a worthwhile exchange.