Five Years and Counting

A couple of months ago, I downloaded the Time Hop app, which provides a daily trip down memory lane. I get to relive so many good days, as well as some bad ones. It’s so interesting to see where life has taken me through the past five years.

Perhaps some of my fondest memories are of this blog and the many incredible opportunities it has opened up for me. Since first being introduced to the writings of David Foster Wallace and beginning this blog, I have experienced the following:

I have published over 100 posts in response to DFW’s stories and essays.

This blog has been visited over 47,000 times.

I was introduced to the Wallace-l community, finding friends and collaborators within the group.

I travelled over 7000 miles to present a paper at the Work in Process conference hosted by the University of Antwerp.

I got my first tattoo while on that trip to Belgium.

I published a collection of footnote-laden essays inspired the creative nonfiction of DFW.

I presented two works at the first annual DFW Conference at Illinois State University.

One of those works, “Reimagining Wallace” was selected as a Featured Presentation.

Both of those works will be featured in an anthology of presentations to be published by ISU.

After my “Reimagining Wallace” presentation, I started my “Infinite Legos” project, creating scenes from IJ in Lego.

I am in awe of all that has taken place over these five years, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store.

Thanks, Dave, for opening my eyes and for opening up so many doors. I owe you one.

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Five-Word Weekend: a reflection on the ISU DFW Conference

The morning radio show I listen to on the way to work has a segment every Monday morning called “Three-Word Weekend.” Callers describe their weekend using only three words, and the radio hosts try to guess the details based on the terse, often monosyllabic descriptors the receive. Example: A caller might say, “Rain. Cupcakes. Flat tire.” And the hosts might concoct a story like, “You were driving in the rain to deliver cupcakes to a party when you got a flat tire on the highway. Not only did you have to change the tire in the pouring rain, but you had to eat all the cupcakes for fear of them spoiling because of the delay in your trip.” A bit trite and cheesy, sure, but it is an amusing way to fill the gaps between songs.

Well, I thought I would take a similar approach to describing my experience at the First Annual David Foster Wallace Conference hosted by Illinois State University at Normal. But I don’t know that only three words will do justice to the experience, so I will give it to you in five[1]:

Connections. Creativity. Questions. Confirmation. and Coffee.

Connections. Thursday and Friday felt very much like a college reunion of sorts, except that we had all taken online college classes together and had never actually met in person. I knew many of the presenters by name and by their Facebook profile picture, but had never been in the same room with them. I’d never heard their voice or shook their hand. While I tend to be pretty introverted and socially awkward when meeting new people,[2] I didn’t experience that at all. No sweaty palms or nervous heart palpitations. Just a smile and a handshake and a “it’s so good to finally meet you.”

Casual conversations with Matt Bucher, Jenni Baker, Mike Miley, Bill Lattanzi, even Daniel Max were great, but not nearly long enough. I would have loved an extra day in Normal to just sit around, drink coffee (or perhaps stronger libations), and talk about Wallace,[3] literature, writing, sports, politics… whatever. Doesn’t matter. Just would have loved more time with my friends.

Perhaps the greatest connection I made was in sharing a room with JT Jackson: a mathematical genius, former Marine, poet, friend of Dave, and now a friend of mine. He shared stories and poems and clues to questions we all have about Wallace. Being the generous man that he is, he gave me a signed copy of “Marbles” for my girls and a photocopy of his manuscript of the text with Wallace’s remarks and annotations. I have a feeling I’ve got a new lifelong friend.

Creativity. Unlike previous academic conferences I’ve attended, this one was open to creative submissions as well. Good call, ISU. Good call. I personally appreciated the opportunity to share my creative connections to Dave: his inspiration for my own writing; and the marriage of two of my greatest passions, Wallace’s writing and Legos.[4] But it also allowed me to hear some wonderful presentations by others. Jenni Baker’s “Erasing Infinite” project. Bill Lattanzi’s Infinite Jest tour of Boston. Mike Miley’s personal quest at the HRC, the home of the world’s largest air conditioner. All incredibly moving. It was so great to see others interacting with Dave not just on an intellectual or theoretical level, but also on a very personal one.

Questions. As with previous conferences I have attended, I think I walked away with more questions than I got answers. A few of those questions[5] are:

  • I know it’s been brought up a gazillion times, but who’s next? Wallace was one of the great trailblazers of his generation, who will take up the mantle?
  • During one panel, the analogy came to me: Is Wallace the Moses leading Western literature out of the Egypt of Postmodernism? If so (along the same lines as the previous question), who will be the Joshua to lead us into the Promised Land? What is the Promised Land?
  • Another analogy came to me during the day: I see a bit of a connection between Wallace’s response to Postmodern literature and U2’s response to 1990’s decadence. Both seemed to immerse themselves into their respective… whatevers only to expose their flaws and shortcomings. Thoughts?
  • After the one of the panels focusing on Dave’s nonfiction, I was left wondering what sort of impact he has had on nonfiction writing, particularly on literary journalism?
  • And finally the question that has stuck with me for several years now: where did Dave stand on issues of faith and religion? I have received more and more clues over those years, but I feel there are still more clues to be unearthed.
  • After hearing Matt Bucher’s presentation, I’m still not entirely clear: what exactly is a “turdnagel”?[6]

Confirmation. About two presentations into the “Work in Process” conference two years ago, I felt like a minor leaguer in his first major league game. I hadn’t read the entirety of Wallace’s canon.[7] I only had a master’s degree.[8] And I really only understood about half of what was said in that conference room. I think I presented a pretty damn good paper, but I busted my ass to write it. I honestly think I put more time and effort into that paper than I did my master’s thesis. I certainly consider myself an academic, but I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a scholar.

Since Antwerp, I’ve done a lot of writing. A lot of writing. I finished Supposedly Fun Things and am working on a number of other projects. The point is that I’m a writer, not a scholar. So to have my writing and other creative work validated and appreciated at the ISU conference was a simple, but profound confirmation that I am doing the right thing. I’ll save the theory for the scholars, and I’ll stick to the creative writing.

Coffee.[9] One final note: for mass-produced hotel-conference-room coffee, it was actually quite tasty. I went back for a second cup, not because I needed that extra jolt of 3% caffeine, but because I liked how it tasted.[10]

 

[1] And don’t worry; I won’t make you try to come up with some cockamamie story based on my words. See, it’s a narrative technique that I am using to make my account more relatable and to draw you in as a reader (I hope it worked).

[2] A common symptom of anxiety disorders; I “came out” as an anxiety disorder sufferer during one of my presentations at the conference. I am expecting calls from all the major late-night talk shows anytime now.

[3] After this conference and many conversations with those who knew him well, I am beginning to feel comfortable calling him, “just Dave.”

[4] I was overwhelmed by the positive response to the pictures of my Lego sculptures. I was nervous to share; worried others might see them as silly or juvenile, having no place at a conference like this. But to have such a large crowd to see the presentation and to see people snapping pictures of the slides and to get so many gracious compliments washed my fears away and made me so glad I made the ballsy move of sending in a seemingly ridiculous presentation proposal.

[5] If you have answers, insights, or “clues” (to use JT’s word), please feel free to share in the comments below.

[6] According to the email records that Matt showed, “turdnagel” was one of Dave’s email handles.

[7] Truth be told, I still haven’t made it all the way through.

[8] From an online (but regionally accredited) program.

[9] I wasn’t going to mention it at first, but I needed a fifth item for my list. A four-word description of the conference just didn’t seem complete.

[10] It tasted good enough to write 64 words about it, plus this 15-word footnote.

Interpolation: Why Writers Need to be Good Readers

This post is sponsored by Grammarly. I tried Grammarly’s grammar check free of charge because every time someone splits an infinitive, an angel in heaven sheds a tear.

As a professional educator, there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting around a table with my colleagues analyzing assessment data.  What often happens after about an hour of pouring over numbers and charts and graphs is that I begin to question everything I do as a teacher.  I feel this sense of guilt and failure that, even though I set the school record a few years back for the number of students to pass a single AP exam, a large number of my students still don’t know how to attach a subordinate clause properly to an independent clause.

The Many Hats of an English Teacher

A while back, I once again found myself in the annual ritual of sitting at a table with my fellow English teachers, staring at the latest testing data, which – on the one hand – was very encouraging: we are doing a lot of things really well to prepare our students for college.  But looking at the areas for growth brought up a lot of questions about what we teach and how we teach it.

See, part of the problem is that the job of a high school English teacher is really about eight jobs in one.  We are commissioned to teach critical reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, literary analysis, public speaking, critical thinking, and rhetoric; so it is a constant juggling act.  How do you focus more time and energy on grammar without cutting out poetry?  Or how do you build students’ vocabulary without sacrificing a classic novel?

It boils down to the never-ending tug-of-war between teaching the art and science of the English language.  Most of us English teachers became English teachers because we love literature and want to inspire that same passion in our students.  But the reality is that we have to equip them with the reading and writing skills they will need to be successful in college and beyond.  Pragmatism would say have them read Huck Finn and Hamlet and a few Emily Dickinson poems, and spend the rest of the time on syllogisms and comma splices.

More than just Pragmatism

But we need to read good literature and we need to teach the next generation to do the same.  Yes, I know that the vast majority of my non-English-teaching colleagues and most of my students won’t ever need to know the symbolism of the great Mississippi River in Huck Finn.  Nor are they likely to engage in an intelligent debate about whether Hamlet actually goes crazy or whether it’s all an act.  And they will probably never be tested on why Miss Dickinson capitalizes seemingly random words throughout her poems.  Outside of an appearance on Jeopardy!, most of this knowledge will have little consequence in their “real world” lives.

Why We Need Good Fiction

But we need to read good literature, for a reason far more important than its “real world” application.  David Foster Wallace, author of the postmodern epic novel Infinite Jest and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”  See, it is through storytelling that we make sense of the human experience.  Ideas like love or heroism or betrayal are too vague and abstract by themselves; they seem just out of reach of our comprehension.  But illustrated through a story, these intangible concepts suddenly become much easier to grab ahold of.

This is nothing new; all throughout history, people of every tribe and nation have told stories to try to understand who we are and why we are here, to give meaning to our otherwise hollow existence.  Ancient civilizations told stories to explain the natural phenomena they witnessed on a daily, seasonally, or yearly basis.  Most all of the world’s major religions use narratives to describe the creation of our world, man’s relationship to his god, and – for many faiths – how it all will one day end.  Even today, we continue to rely on the writing and telling and reading of stories to help us make sense of this thing we call life.

Good Writers Must Be Good Readers

So while reading and discussing the great works of literature may have little bearing on test scores and may not help a young person succeed in college and may have little to do with their careers as adults, these great works of literature are essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us.  They help to provide us with meaning and purpose; they give us a unique lens through which to see ourselves.  They are an indispensable piece of the human experience, one we cannot live without.

Is this the end?

Several months ago, I decided to take a hiatus from this blog to focus on several other projects: I had a book to finish writing. I had to wrap up the school year and prepare my students for their AP exams. I had a brand new online creative writing class to maintain. And I had to look for a new full-time job. The last seven months have been incredibly busy, so I simply have not had the time to devote to this blog.

Well, that was January and now it is August. I finished my book and will be publishing it very soon. The school year is over, AP scores are in, and I have enjoyed a wonderful summer vacation with my family. The creative writing class finished well and I am looking forward to teaching it again in the fall. And I am very excited about starting my new teaching job in a little over a week.

So, in the midst of taking care of these time-consuming yet very fruitful endeavors, I have had the time to reflect on things. I have thought about what to do with this blog. I began this blog three years ago to give me some much-needed discipline in my writing and to try to find my voice. And to read and learn from one of the most incredible writers I have ever encountered, Mr. David Foster Wallace.

Over these years, I have grown so much as a writer. I have learned the discipline of setting goals and working toward those goals even when it isn’t fun or exciting or sexy. I have found my voice and learned the glorious art of footnotes. And I have enjoyed reading some of the most wonderfully beautiful and difficult literature I’ve ever read.

So, I guess you could say that even though I have not completed the task of reading and blogging my way through DFW’s entire canon, I have gained so much from this experience. It has opened up worlds to me that I never knew existed. It has introduced me to amazing people that I would have never met otherwise. Hell, it got me all the way to Antwerp and back. In-freakin’-credible.

But I also feel it is time to move on to other things. I will finish reading the rest of Wallace’s books and uncollected works. I will continue to participate in the discussion on Wallace-l and in other places. I will keep teaching Wallace’s works in my classes. But I think I need to do other things with my writing. I have ideas for three or four books simmering, one of them being the “Gospel according to DFW” that I have wanted to write ever since returning from Antwerp. So for the foreseeable future I will be devoting my time to those projects and put this one on hold indefinitely.

So thanks, Dave, for all that you’ve taught me and for all the opportunities your writing has given me. It’s been great.

Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing Fiction

Blogger Here. I recently began teaching an online creative writing class. In the first unit I share my philosophy of fiction with my students. Below is that “lecture” I posted to the class website:

Why do we tell stories?

Storytelling has been a part of the human experience for as long as men and women have walked this planet. From the earliest of civilizations to today, we have related to each other by telling each other stories. But why?

American author David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

Writer and Professor Thomas C Foster said, “I suppose what the one story, the ur-story, is about is ourselves, about what it means to be human.  I mean, what else is there?”

Tom Clancy said this: “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”

Author and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

And Francis Bacon once said, “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Fiction helps us make sense of the human experience.

As these writers have articulated so well, storytelling helps us better understand the world around us. It always has. Ancient societies used stories to explain natural phenomena that they witnessed on a daily or even yearly basis. They saw a large, bright light come up in the east every morning and go down in the west each evening. To explain this, they attributed what they observed to some god or divine being. If their crops failed one year, they concocted a story about how they had upset one of their gods. All these stories they told themselves, over time, were codified as myths and legends that are now only told in ancient history or classical literature courses.

Additionally, storytelling is an essential component to our religious experiences. Every major religion’s holy texts are based around stories of how men on earth relate to their gods in heaven. These narratives explain how we got here, how we are to live our lives, and how the world will one day end.

Stories make the abstract concrete.

Just as stories help us make sense of that which we can’t comprehend – like unexplainable natural phenomena or religious principles – they also help us better grasp the abstract and theoretical aspects of life. Love. Betrayal. Jealousy. Grief. How do you explain these feelings to those who have never experienced them? Through a story. A well-told story gives flesh and blood – so to speak – to these otherwise intangible concepts.

Fiction gives us a safe, vicarious experience of feelings that are foreign to us. We can fall in love, be a hero, or grieve a loss without actually risking anything, without running the risk of actually getting hurt. Fiction provides us a safe, sterile laboratory for probing the depths of the human experience.

Stories help us relate to others.

British scholar and author CS Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

David Foster Wallace once said, “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a ‘generalization’ of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also then more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

There is no way we can truly understand or experience the feelings of another person. And the opposite is true: no one else will ever truly understand what we feel. We can imagine another’s feelings, or assume their feelings are similar to our own, but as Wallace says, “true empathy’s impossible.”

But in the words of a story, we can see a character’s emotions, his suffering and pain or joy and elation. We experience what he experiences. And if we can understand the experiences of this character – even though he is the figment of a writer’s imagination – we can imagine that someone somewhere understands our emotions and experiences as well.

What will your verse be?

The great American poet, Walt Whitman, in a poem that asks the daunting question of what is the purpose and meaning of our existence, wrote, “The powerful play [this life] goes on and you will contribute a verse.”

As readers, we attempt to better understand ourselves and those around us by reading and experiencing the fictional lives of those who inhabit the pages of our favorite books. We read the verses they contribute to the powerful human drama.

As writers, we contribute to the great human story, in the words of Thomas C Foster, the “ur-story.” Through the writing process, we gain insight into the human condition and then share that with our readers, allowing them another glimpse into “what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

So what will you contribute? What will your verse be?

It’s not you, it’s me.

Dear Dave,

I think I need a break. I’ve spent the past three years reading your stuff almost exclusively. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved it. Your writing has opened up new worlds to me and allowed me to see things in an entirely new light. I’ll never be the same because of it.

But I need to take a break. Not a long one. Maybe just a month or two or three. I’ve got a huge stack of books people have told me I need to read. And I am pretty backlogged in my own writing.

So I’m going to take a break from my blog. I may post something now or then if the spirit moves me. Or I might open it up to guest posts again (that went really well last time).

This isn’t goodbye; it’s just see you later. It’s not you, it’s me.

I’ll be back… in a little while.

 

What the Hell is Water?

Blogger here. I received an email today telling me that my essay, “What the Hell is Water?” was not accepted for journal publication. I’m a bit disappointed, but not too surprised given the caliber of the other papers presented at the “Work in Process” conference last September. It was an incredible honor to have been selected to present my paper at the conference, and travelling to Belgium to do so was an experience that I’ll never forget. Seeing the beautiful city and meeting some wonderful scholars made the trip a truly once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

And so, I present for your consideration:

What the Hell is Water?

Priming, Epiphany, and David Foster Wallace’s Roadmap to Freedom from the Default Setting

 Since their publication in 1993, David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram”, and his subsequent interview with Larry McCaffery have served as the interpretive lenses through which to read the rest of Wallace’s body of work.  These pieces provide the artistic, aesthetic, and theoretical framework for fully understanding and engaging Wallace’s writing.  In them, Wallace explains how he views his relationship with his readers, the influence television had on postmodern writers, and the current state of postmodern fiction.  These topics, among the many others he writes about and discusses, give us a better understanding of what Wallace attempted to do as a writer.  It was in the McCaffery Interview that Wallace proclaimed, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being”,[1] which has been viewed as Wallace’s “mission statement” as a writer.  He desired to capture in writing all of the virtues and vices, realities and absurdities of our humanity; he wanted to show us what our humanity looks like, what it means.

But missing from these two consummate pieces is a real tangible expression of what, according to Wallace, that “f***ing human”-ness looks like, exactly.  He wrote two collections of short stories, two collections of essays, myriad uncollected works, and a 1000-page novel that illustrate and describe our humanity, but nothing that clearly and concretely articulates or explicates what our humanity means.  That is, until a dry morning in May of 2005 when Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon College.  This speech, later published under the title This is Water, completes our understanding of Wallace’s writing and deserves a place alongside his “E Unibus Pluram” essay and the McCaffery Interview as a third interpretive lens through which to read the rest of his works.  This is Water provides a roadmap for better understanding “what [according to Wallace] it means to be a f***ing human being”, as well as understanding one of the greatest conflicts in the human experience: the battle for freedom from our “natural, hard-wired default setting”.[2]  It also provides a roadmap to guide us – his readers – to freedom from our own “default setting”. But most importantly, this speech also gives us an interpretive roadmap for better understanding a conflict that is central to much of Wallace’s narrative writing and that culminates at the thematic core of his posthumously published unfinished novel, The Pale King.

This essay will argue that This is Water provides “the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction”,[3] and thereby deserves equal standing with “E Unibus Pluram” and the McCaffery Interview as one of his most important nonfiction works.  To make that argument, I will outline the characteristics of imprisonment by the default setting and ways in which people try to escape it; and then outline the roadmap to freedom from the default setting that Wallace describes in the Kenyon College speech, a freedom that comes from following a defined process of “priming”, epiphany, and the “day-in, day-out” choosing to find meaning in even the most mundane of circumstances.  I will then demonstrate that this conflict is a recurring theme throughout Wallace’s narrative works and is central to The Pale King.  Additionally, I will consider the role that religious faith and spirituality play in this process toward freedom from the default setting. And finally, I will explore some of the paradoxes that arise both in reading Wallace’s stories and narrative essays through the lens of This is Water, and in following this thematic thread in his writing in light in of Wallace’s own tragic suicide.

Wallace makes clear in the commencement address that one of the greatest antagonists in the human story is – in his own words – the “default setting”, which he characterizes as a “blind certainty, a closed-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he is locked up”.[4]  What makes the default setting such a formidable adversary is that so few of us are even aware of its existence.  It is unconsciousness, going through the daily grind without truly paying attention to what is going on around us.  The default setting keeps us locked up in prison of solipsism where the things that happen to us or around us only matter for how they affect our sense of well-being or homeostasis, causing us to respond to most circumstances in a simple, knee-jerk way that often results in annoyance and petty frustration.  Although often miserable and unhappy, most people living at the mercy of their default settings are content to continue under its power because breaking free would require too much effort.

According to Wallace, the three jailors of our self-imposed prisons are narcissism, over-analysis of petty things, and mind-numbing boredom.  Wallace describes this jailor of narcissism as a “deep belief that [a person is] the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence”.[5]  Similarly Marshall Boswell, in Understanding David Foster Wallace, describes it as a “cage [of] one’s own thinking, that is, one’s own self-reflexive, and therefore falsifying, belief in enlightened self-interest”.[6]  This egocentrism is hardwired into our psyche; it is our natural way of viewing the world.  And the more inward a person’s thinking turns, the more he becomes ensnared in this prison and at the same time the less aware he is of his further imprisonment.

At a later point in the Kenyon speech, Wallace says, “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”.[7]  Likewise, one of the gentlemen in the civics discussion in §19 of The Pale King explains how advertisers exploit this self-centeredness by “seduc[ing] the individual by flattering all the little psychic delusions with which we deflect the horror of personal smallness and transience, enabling the delusion that the individual is the center of the universe, the most important thing”.[8]  Nothing internal or external to us discourages us from living in this completely self-absorbed manner.  In fact, most elements of society – not just the advertising and business worlds – feed our narcissism and lock us further into the prisons of our default settings.

This theme of narcissistic self-imprisonment is a common thread in many of Wallace’s earlier works.  Many of Wallace’s characters – particularly Hal Incandenza and Don Gately from Infinite Jest – struggle with some form of drug addiction, which proves to be merely a thin veil for their self-constructed cages and prisons.  Boswell explains:

Drugs and entertainment – in and of themselves innocent objects of desire in the Jamesian sense – offer a release from that insistently craving interior, a release from the cage of self-consciousness that often results, paradoxically, in the construction of an even more confining cage, such that ‘what looks like the cage’s exit is actually bars of the cage’ (Infinite Jest 222).  As Joelle asks of the film Infinite Jest, ‘Was the fatally entertaining and scopophiliac thing… a cage or really a door?’ (230). The answer, unfortunately, is that it is a door to another cage.[9]

As characters turn inward in search of escape, and turn to addictive substances to aid in their escape, they find themselves locked further and further into the prison of the “default setting”.  As Boswell explains, what may appear to be an obvious way out ends up being only a doorway into an even deeper, darker cell.

Wallace explores this idea of self-centeredness further in the short piece “Datum Centurio” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  In this faux futuristic dictionary entry for the word “date,” we read the historical (late 20th Century) definition of a “date” as an “intergender ‘social engagement’ [that] could connote… mutual exploration of possibilities for long-term neurogenetic compatibility”.[10]  Compare that with the 2096 “vulgar” definition of “the creation and/or use of a Virtual Female Sensory Array… for the purposes of Simulated Genital Interface”.[11]  Wallace predicts a future where social dating involves no real social interaction, but instead involves a device that merely simulates the physical sensations of sexual intercourse.  Even earlier than this, Wallace envisioned a world in which virtual reality pornography is a very real possibility in the not so distant future.[12] In his prescience, Wallace foresees sexual intercourse, which is intended to reinforce emotional and even spiritual intimacy between lovers, as becoming nothing more than an act of self-gratification that one day will require no actual human interaction.  In these examples and elsewhere, he illustrates over how our narcissism keeps us locked away in a very lonely, unfulfilling place.

Locked inside our tiny little prisons, we – like Wallace himself – have a “tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in the abstract argument inside [our own] head”.[13]  Boswell explains it as “the ‘disease that makes its command headquarters in the head’ [Infinite Jest 272] is not just addiction to substances but also hyper-self-consciousness in general”.[14]  Self-awareness and self-consciousness are part of the eventual freedom from the default setting, however this particular form of introspection described by Wallace and elaborated upon by Boswell is illusory at best and detrimental at worst.  This “hyper-self-consciousness” prevents us from breaking free from our solipsistic prison of the self by turning us inward and therefore further into the default setting, rather than outward where the real hope of escape lies.

Claude Sylvanshine, one of the first IRS wigglers introduced in The Pale King, embodies this “hyper-self-consciousness” in that “studying any one thing [for the upcoming CPA exam] would set off a storm in his head of all other things he hadn’t studied and felt he was still weak on, making it impossible to concentrate, causing him to fall ever further behind”.[15]  By the end of Chapter 2, this burdensome self-awareness coupled with his nervous anxiety and self-doubt render him virtually catatonic on the Peoria airport tarmac as he worries about his next move after disembarking the plane.[16]  Another IRS wiggler, David Cusk, suffers from uncontrollable sweating attacks brought on by the tiniest environmental stress or social anxiety.  This creates a hyperawareness of himself and his surroundings; he is forever afraid of what might trigger his next attack, and that fear of an impending attack is often enough to trigger the attack he is trying to avoid.[17]  If an individual thinker is unable or unwilling to exercise any control over his own thoughts, this tendency to “over-intellectualize stuff” can be – as illustrated by these two wigglers – detrimental to one’s mental, emotional, and even physical well-being.

Lastly, the boredom that imprisons us is the result of the “dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines” of our “day-in, day-out” existence.[18]  The waiting in line, being stuck in traffic, or staring at a computer screen; all are dull and boring moments that we must endure and that writers avoid in their writing for fear of driving away readers.  Wallace, however, was not only unafraid to raise the issue of boredom in his fiction, but he made it the central focus of the novel he was writing at the time of his death.  In §22 of The Pale King, ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle describes how he meandered from one “unbelievably boring and meaningless” job to another during his college days, living life as a “wastoid”.[19]  Fogle later says of his father, “Like many men of his generation, he may well have been one of those people who can just proceed on autopilot”;[20] in other words, in the default setting.  His father did what needed doing to support his family with little regard for any personal fulfillment.  Additionally, §25 – all three pages of it – illustrates for us the absolute mind-numbing boredom and tedium of the daily work performed by IRS wigglers.  The terse, repetitive sentences that make up this short chapter are a microcosm of the endless, repetitive duties of the examiners.  We readers experience perhaps fifteen minutes of this routine; we are thereby invited to imagine forty hours of it per week, fifty weeks per year.

Prolonged imprisonment by the default setting leads to serious consequences, including loneliness and self-destruction.  In This is Water, Wallace speaks of “going through… life being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out”.[21]  The great American Poet described in “Death is not the End” wastes away his later years with Newsweek articles and tall glasses of iced tea,[22] but more important is his total isolation from the outside world without even the sound of a distant lawn mower or a jet overhead to disturb him.[23]  The Poet is able to enjoy his much-deserved retirement years, but has completely shut himself off from every other human being.

Wallace’s exploration of loneliness and isolation goes back even further with his short story, “Little Expressionless Animals” in Girl with Curious Hair. This story features an ensemble cast who all live in a less tangible, but still very real state of loneliness.  Faye and Julie are physically intimate with each other, but never move past the superficial relational phase of “exchanging anecdotes and inclinations”.[24]  Alex Trebek and his game-show-host buddies never discuss anything more personal than Bert Convey’s discolored tooth or a video tape of last year’s World Series games.[25]  Even with his psychiatrist, a person he pays to listen to his innermost thoughts and feelings, Trebek engages in nothing more than nonsensical free association exercises.[26] All these characters keep each other at a proverbial arm’s distance, afraid to be real or vulnerable, and each one winds up all alone in the end.

In the second half of This is Water, Wallace explains the self-destructiveness that comes as a consequence of the default setting’s desire for money, possessions, power, intellect, and one’s own body and beauty. The default setting longs after these fleeting things, elevating them to the place of a deity or idol. But these things will never truly satisfy and will leave us only wanting more of the same.  The worship of these ethereal things will, in Wallace’s words, “eat you alive”,[27] leaving behind a hollow shell of the self.  Wallace illustrates this in his journalistic essay, “Big Red Son”.  He opens the narrative of his experience at the 1998 Annual Adult Video News Awards with the alarming statistic of how many men end up in the ER each year after attempting self-castration.[28]  These men’s attempts to feed their insatiable sexual appetites with pornography leave them empty and desperate.  Like those spoken of in This is Water who desperately try to escape from their prisons of self-destruction by taking their own lives by shooting the “terrible master”,[29] these men take drastic action to free themselves from another terrible master.

While some may take extreme measures to free themselves from their self-imposed prisons, others seek the illusion of freedom through distraction.  They attempt to occupy themselves with things that may amuse or entertain for a few moments, but do not actually bring true freedom. David Wallace, the narrative “author” of The Pale King, gives some insight into why many seek distraction as an escape from the default setting when he says:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our fuller attention.[30]

Similarly, the authors of All Things Shining, in writing about David Foster Wallace, pinpoint this “deeper type of pain” to be a “sadness and lostness [that is] a mood – an American mood – that results from the inability of our culture… to confront the deepest questions about who we are”.[31]  They argue that our inability to find meaning – one of the symptoms of imprisonment by the default setting – is a cultural ailment stemming back to Nietzschean nihilism.  They then go on to cite Infinite Jest as “society’s increasing devotion to the perfection of distraction”.[32]  These writers emphasize the point already made by Wallace and give us a slightly different understanding of the cause of that “deeper type of pain” and how we desperately seek freedom through distraction.

Wallace’s exploration into our innate desire to seek relief through distraction is clearly evident in The Pale King.  ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle explains that for his father, “books and intellectual issues were one of his escapes from boredom”.[33]  What he lost in his divorce and could not find in his relationship with Chris, he sought in the pages of a book.  He tried to fill that emptiness with intellectual distraction.  Lane Dean, Jr. seeks distraction from his incredibly boring job of processing tax returns by fixating on the cyst on his coworker’s wrist, unable to think of anything else.[34]  He also “imagines [himself] running out into the field in an enormous circle, flapping his arms like Roddy McDowall”;[35] anything to get his mind off the “unbelievable tedium of the exam job”.[36]  Later, Dean encounters one of the “phantoms” that haunt the exam rooms.  He entertains the hallucination for what seems to him like a long time, “only to look up and [see] that no time [has] passed at all, again”.[37]  No distraction – not a benign cyst, a flight of fancy, or a full-blown hallucination – can provide the real freedom that Lane Dean, Jr. desperately needs.  While these diversions may provide a short reprieve from the mind-numbing boredom of the default setting, they are no cure.  Any sense of freedom is merely temporary because the real problem is not dealt with; the default setting is still in control.

Although the default setting is a fearsome foe, Wallace provides for us the roadmap to freedom – a means of escaping its control – in his Kenyon College speech.  This roadmap involves a process of “priming”, epiphany, and the hard work of maintaining one’s freedom.  There is no instant cure; no wave of a magic wand will win the battle.  It is not an easy process and very few succeed in breaking free from the default setting’s grip.  Additionally, following the roadmap outlined in his speech gives us greater insight into the conflict with the default setting faced by the characters in his stories, particularly those in The Pale King.

The first step in the process – in ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle’s words – is to be “primed” for the experience of freedom; that is, a person must first come to the right place mentally and emotionally.  This “priming” experience is a realization of the truth about one’s current condition; in Fogle’s case, that he is a nihilist, a wastoid, a prisoner of the default setting.  This knowledge prepares him for the life-changing epiphany he is about to receive shortly thereafter.  However, it is usually not until after the true epiphany that a person is able to recognize that they were being “primed” for this transformation.

For the 2005 Kenyon grads, their priming occurred on a warm May morning.  Some years later, reporter Kevin Hartnett tracked down and interviewed some of those in the audience that day to hear their responses to Wallace’s speech.  One graduate commented, “[Wallace] was clear, driving, and inwardly focused.  He also didn’t say anything dismissively… he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance”.[38]  Another said, “He also seemed like someone who had something to say that was worth hearing… He seemed earnest, like he really wanted to say something to us. Hoped he could say something meaningful or useful to us”.[39]  Many later recognized this to be a “priming” moment for them,[40] a moment that hopefully led to their own freedom from the default setting.

In most of his narrative works, Wallace seems to counter each instance of boredom and captivity to the default setting with an example of this “priming.”  This is most prominent in his final work, The Pale King.  For example, Chris Fogle describes how his life of drugs and laziness “primed” him for his experience of happening upon the wrong classroom on the DePaul University campus.  Describing his experimentation with the drug Obetrol, he says:

The truth is that I think the Obetrol and doubling… had something to do with paying attention and the ability to choose what I paid attention to, and to be aware of that choice, the fact that it was a choice… That there were depths to me that were not bullsh*t or childish but profound, and were not abstract but actually much realer than my clothes or self-image, and that blazed in an almost sacred way… and that these realest, most profound parts of me involved not drives or appetites but simple attention, awareness, if only I could stay awake off speed.[41]

The Obetrol gives Fogle a sort of hyper-metacognition.  He not only feels things much more deeply, but is much more deeply aware of those feelings.  But he realizes that this “doubling” is not the true consciousness that he is missing in life.  In fact this heightened awareness becomes burdensome to him, as he describes:

This was consciousness without choice, meaning the loss of ability to focus in and concentrate on just one thing… I have to admit that I know that once or twice I got so lost in the halls or stacked layers of awareness of awareness that I went to the bathroom right there on the sofa.[42]

The drug can only provide a shadow of the true freedom of consciousness that he longs for.  If anything, the illusion of freedom and the hyper-awareness that he experiences bind the shackles of captivity even tighter around his wrists.

Fogle experiences a second “priming” moment while watching a daytime soap opera.  Even though he had heard it a thousand times before, this one particular time when the CBS announcer says, “You’re watching As the World Turns,” he understands the “obvious double entendre” of the “almost terrifying pun about the passive waste of time… while [the] real things in the world were going on and people with direction and initiative were taking care of business in a brisk, no-nonsense way”.[43]  He says later, “I knew, sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose”.[44]  Fogle finally realizes that his posing as a nihilist is actually a cover for his true, deep-seated nihilism. That he is a “wastoid” in the truest sense of the word.  The television announcer’s words awaken him so that he is ready to receive the truly life-changing message awaiting him in the advanced accounting class he would stumble into a few days later.

Lane Dean, Jr. has his “priming” experience just as he is about to confront his feelings for Sheri Fisher and they are to decide what to do about their unborn child.  For the past week he has been agonizing over what they have done, and over the guilt and shame of their sin, and over what she might say to him as they sit together on the picnic table in the park.  Then in a “moment of grace,” he sees that “he was not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men… blind but groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature”.[45]  Like Fogle, he realizes the truth of his condition and that there is something positive that can be done about it.  He finally sees Sheri and himself accurately and is ready for the life-changing moment that awaits him after this epiphany, even though we readers are left to guess what his next step will be.

Wallace illustrates these “priming” moments elsewhere in his canon.  For example, the “Granola Cruncher” from “Brief Interview #20” endures a horrific sexual assault, but is able to turn this incredible violation into a moment of intense spiritual awakening.  She attributes not only her survival, but her newfound understanding, to her devotion to her “apostrophe-heavy near-Eastern religion”.[46]  She says later that she felt “her whole life had indeed led inexorably to that moment when the car stopped and she got in, that it was indeed a kind of death, but not at all in the way she had feared as they entered the secluded area”.[47]  The Granola Cruncher’s priming was not just one moment or one experience like those from The Pale King mentioned above, but rather took place through years of devotion to her faith.  Nonetheless, it had all prepared her for that moment of truth when not only her faith would be tested, but her very life would be on the line.

After the “priming” experience, the next step toward freedom is the eye-opening, life-changing epiphany; a moment that awakens a person’s ability to choose to find meaning in his or her circumstances.  These moments of epiphany can take place in a variety of forms, as exemplified throughout Wallace’s writing and specifically in The Pale King.  Most often these are rapturous events, bringing the individual a moment of great joy, as if a void in the soul were suddenly filled.  For Lane Dean, Jr., after the moment of understanding his “broken and split off” condition,[48] Sheri places her “two small strong soft hands on his” and all that inner turmoil is gone.[49]  It is with clarity that he can now face the difficult questions he needs to ask himself, like “why is he so sure he doesn’t love her?  Why is one kind of love any different?  What if he has no earthly idea what love is?  What would even Jesus do?”.[50] He is free from the anxiety and self-doubt that have plagued him for the very long previous week, and he can now face his own feelings and make the tough choice with Sheri regarding their unborn child that needs to be made.

‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle inadvertently enters the wrong classroom in the wrong building on the DePaul campus and encounters the Jesuit father who changes his life.  This substitute accounting professor, in the last lecture of the semester, speaks of the heroism and nobility of a life in the Internal Revenue Service.  Despite the mind-numbing boredom that awaits the future wigglers, he says, “True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space.  True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer”.[51]  Likewise, in This is Water Wallace speaks of the importance of doing the hard work of finding meaning and purpose in even the most mundane and trivial activities.  In §22 of The Pale King, the Jesuit father extends this thought even further to say that it is not only important but even heroic to find purpose in the ordinary and banal.  Inspired by the professor’s words, Fogle accepts his new calling as an accountant.  He gets his life in order to finish college and soon thereafter begins his work for the IRS.  He is no longer lost; his life now has purpose and he is living it intentionally.

While these two central figures in The Pale King have inspiring, joyous moments of freedom, not all in Wallace’s universe are so lucky.  For a few, freedom comes at a great price.  The above mentioned “Granola Cruncher” from Brief Interviews says that she “learned more about love that day with the sex offender than at any other stage in her spiritual journey”.[52]  In the midst of this incredible fear and violation she is able to transcend the experience to reach a higher spiritual plane.  Additionally, Interviewee #46 experiences an existential awakening as a result of a violent gang-rape by four drunken strangers.  Through this horror he sees that “it’s not impossible there are cases where [circumstance like this] can enlarge you.  Make you more than you were before.  More of a complete human being”.[53]  Later he says, “If you want you can choose to be more… you can choose to be a human being and have it mean something”.[54]  For him, learning to exercise this freedom of choosing to find meaning is not just a matter of enlightenment or personal fulfillment, it is a matter of life and death.

Several apparent paradoxes exist at this crucial step on the road to freedom.  According to Wallace’s speech, true freedom comes when we exercise our ability to choose, but it would seem that the catalyst for this new understanding and freedom is often outside of our control.  Chris Fogle is lost in thought and accidentally stumbles into an accounting class in the wrong building, and the Granola Cruncher and Interviewee #46 are victims of unprovoked acts of violence.  But, as Wallace writes in Infinite Jest, “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”.[55]  While in some fictional worlds, these types of details get wrapped up with a pretty little bow, it typically doesn’t work that way in the real world.  We live in a world of difficult complexities and contradictions; one that Wallace seeks to portray as is, rather than simply explain away or give easy answers to.

Additionally, this freedom is not always a permanent state; the default setting can seemingly regain control if one is not careful.  For instance, even though Lane Dean, Jr. has his moment of epiphany in the park with Sheri and appears at that moment to be on his way to a better place, he is later imprisoned by the chains of boredom when working at the IRS, so imprisoned that he even contemplates escape through suicide.[56]  Wallace himself acknowledges how difficult it is to maintain our freedom; it takes constant attention and work.  Everything inside of us and outside of us resists this freedom.

The final step to achieving and maintaining one’s freedom is the “day-in, day-out” work of filtering and focusing and choosing to find meaning in the boring, mundane events that fill our daily routines.  While the initial experience may be inspiring and exhilarating, living in that freedom is difficult work.  Wallace explains that “it’s hard.  It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to”.[57]  Don Gately’s experience in detox provides an epitomic example.  During his time in rehab, “he had to build a wall around each second just to take it… An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat.  And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive.  Living in the Present between pulses”.[58]  Even though it is hard work, Wallace says that “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” (120).[59]  Though difficult and “unsexy” work, the payoff of living a life of true freedom makes it infinitely worthwhile.

An essential component that cannot be ignored in this process toward reaching and living in freedom from the default setting is the acknowledgement of – and even a dependence upon – a higher power or greater truth.  Wallace does not prescribe one particular faith or religion, but advocates the need for faith in something – anything – bigger than and outside of ourselves.  He makes this point very strongly in the Kenyon speech and illustrates it all throughout his body of work, particularly in The Pale King.

The importance of this element, however, is not agreed upon by all, as evidenced in Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s book, All Things Shining.   In their chapter on Wallace, they rightly contend that he attempted portray in his writing that victory over boredom and distraction (the default setting) comes through conscious choice and through an act of effort and will.[60]  They say that this struggle against boredom “was Wallace’s own struggle with writing, and it was the struggle he saw at the center of human existence as well”, and then later that “the central challenge of the contemporary world, Wallace seems to think, is not just that we don’t know how to live meaningful lives; it’s that we don’t even seem to be able to focus for very long on the question”.[61]  They recognize in Wallace’s writing his advocacy for our ability – and even the necessity – to find and create meaning in the ordinary, the boring, and the banal; and that we must choose to find meaning, and that finding meaning is difficult work.

However, they also assert that there is no place for transcendence in Wallace’s writing, a point I wish to dispute.  In Dreyfus and Kelly’s estimation, Wallace recognizes that the only way to defeat boredom (the default setting) and to find anything sacred and meaningful in life is through pure human effort; it is an act of the will.[62]  That being the case, they argue that this goal was not only out of Wallace’s own personal reach, but perhaps outside the grasp of anyone.  They say, “Wallace thought that he had discovered the capacities of spirit necessary [to find meaning] in the real world… But unfortunately, he realized once and for all that he did not have these capacities himself”.  They go on to say:

Perhaps the saddest part of Wallace’s story is that the human qualities he aspired to, the capacities of spirit that he revered and coveted, are a mirage.  Indeed the entire mode of existence that he castigated himself for not being strong enough to achieve… is in fact a human impossibility.  Wallace’s inability to achieve is not a weakness, but the deep and abiding humanness in his spirit.[63]

These authors assert that the prevailing darkness and even hopelessness in Wallace’s writing are due to his unattainable attempt to do what is essentially humanly impossible: create a sense of the sacred and meaningful out of the ordinary and banal through an act of pure willpower.  We cannot do this on our own; and this realization cast a dark shadow over Wallace the writer, and in the estimation of these writers, contributed, at least in part, to his tragic suicide.[64]

While Dreyfus and Kelly rightly identify the importance of human choice and effort in this pre-eminent struggle in Wallace’s fiction, they neglect to consider the importance of transcendence beyond human effort.  This is Water speaks directly to the need for faith in a higher power in order to achieve victory over the default setting.  Wallace explains that “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”.[65]  He then contrasts the previously mentioned destructiveness of the worship of self and fleeting material things with the freedom found in worshipping things outside ourselves, things greater than ourselves.  He says, “an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spirit-type thing to worship… is that pretty much everything else you worship will eat you alive”.[66]  Similarly, Boswell, in quoting Wallace Stevens’s Adagia, explains, “It is the belief and not the god that counts… the final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.  The exquisite truth is to know it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly”.[67]  The actual god or object of worship or faith, in Wallace’s estimation, doesn’t really matter; what matters is the individual’s faith in something bigger than himself.  The individual is weak and easily overcome by the default setting; but belief in something transcendent brings the individual an external source of strength to help in the battle.

The importance of faith – whether it is in a specific deity or in a generic higher power – in defeating the default setting and living in freedom is exemplified all throughout Wallace’s canon.  Don Gately must put his faith in the trite platitudes of the AA program and in a Higher Power of his own making in order to be successful in his addiction recovery.[68]  The previously mentioned “Granola Cruncher” trusts in her “apostrophe-heavy near-Eastern religion” to move her beyond the horrifying circumstances of the sexual assault to a truer sense of herself and her faith.[69]  While seen in both Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews, the importance of faith is most clearly illustrated in Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King.  Lane Dean Jr.’s faith in the Christian God helps him see himself more clearly as he anticipates Sheri’s response to the unexpected pregnancy.  But ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle’s “conversion” story provides perhaps the most interesting example of this principle.  Ironically it is a Jesuit priest who “proselytizes” Fogle to a life in the Service, but there is nothing else religious about the experience.  Rather it is the heroism described by the substitute professor and the sense of belonging to something bigger and more important than himself that attracts Fogle to accounting and changes his life forever, furthering Wallace’s point that it need not even be a set of religious principles that a person believe in; it is merely the having the faith in something and acting upon it that is essential.

The freedom from the default setting that Wallace prescribes has many internal and external benefits, one of them being an increased awareness of the world around us.  We see more clearly, understand more fully the world we inhabit.  Wallace writes of a deeper sense of the “irony of the banal” after spending time with David Lynch,[70] and demonstrates this increased awareness of life’s ironies and absurdities in several of his journalistic pieces.  In the title essay of Consider the Lobster, he turns our attention from the fun and festivities of the Maine Lobster Festival to the philosophical and ethical implications of boiling alive “giant sea insects” in the name of cultural flavor and fine dining.[71]  As he recounts watching the “Horror” of the 9/11 attacks unfold with his fellow church members in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”, he begins to recognize the stark contrast between the naiveté of the older women in the house and the cynicism of his own, younger generation.  As he says, “whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and F—‘s, and poor old loathsome Duane’s than it is these ladies’”.[72]  The ironies of life are sometimes absurd and humorous and at other times painfully tragic, but this heightened awareness opens our eyes to them all.

This freedom not only opens one’s eyes to life’s ironies, but also to its beauties.  In the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Wallace observes the incredible natural beauty of his surroundings contrasted against the artificial beauty of the cruise ship.  He recalls “sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue” and “sunsets that looked computer-enhanced”.[73]  In spite of the distractions of the manufactured fun and pampering, he is able to see natural wonders that are beyond description.  Wallace – a man who always had just the right words to describe anything – seems almost at a loss for words in attempting to describe these moments for his “really big experiential postcard”.[74]  He has no trouble describing the veneer and façade of the cruise ship, but sort of fumbles his way through descriptions of the natural seascape, giving us phrases like “a tropical moon that looked more like a sort of obscenely large and dangling lemon than like the good old stony U.S. moon I‘m used to” or “I have learned that there are actual intensities of blue beyond very, very bright blue”.[75]

Along with this heightened awareness of the beauties and ironies around us come new meaning and purpose in our daily activities.  A job can become a calling, as the Jesuit father tells Chris Fogle and the other students.[76]  One of the best examples of this in Wallace’s canon is the bathroom attendant described in “Interview #42.”  Subject #42 tells of the humiliation his father faced as he attended to those using the men’s room of the “top-rated historic hotel in the state”.[77]  Although his son cannot understand or appreciate it, the attendant is up at six every morning for twenty-seven years to work this demeaning job to take care of his family.[78]  He is willing to endure the sights and smells and sounds of the men’s room in order to see that his family’s needs are met.  He lives and works with a more important purpose than his own professional career or personal fulfillment in mind.

But perhaps the greatest benefit to the freedom Wallace describes is a deeper connection with those around us.  After his going-to-the-supermarket-during-the-end-of-the-day-rush illustration toward the end of This is Water he says, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down”.[79]  These seemingly frustrating circumstances can instead become moments of intimate fellowship with our fellow man.  We see this as wigglers and co-workers Meredith Rand and Shane Drinion connect on a nearly spiritual level while she tells the story of meeting her husband as they have drinks during happy hour.  “The only way [Meredith] is able to describe it to [her friend] Beth Rath is that it was as if a sort of insulated container had formed around their table and sometimes hardly anything else had penetrated through it”.[80]  This “tete-a-tete” becomes so deep and personal and intense that it borders on the supernatural.  The text says that “Drinion is actually levitating slightly, which is what happens when he is completely immersed”.[81]  While connections between souls may not result in such supernatural expressions outside of fictional worlds, this “mystical oneness” is certainly within our grasp.  This freedom that Wallace commends to us allows us to break free from the solipsistic sphere of self and forge deep, intimate bonds with those around us, whether they are our coworkers with whom we enjoy a happy hour drink, or those waiting in the checkout line with us.

This essay has argued that Wallace’s Kenyon College speech provides a third primary interpretive lens – alongside “E Unibus Pluram” and his interview with Larry McCaffery – through which to read the rest of his writing because it directly addresses the conflict with the default setting and the thematic thread that is central to his narrative writing; additionally The Pale King provides the fictional culmination of these same thematic threads.  Together, This is Water and The Pale King gives us the clearest insight into Wallace’s understanding of “what it means to be a f***ing human being”.

Additionally, these two works serve as an invitation to his readers to experience a life of freedom from the default setting and to create a deeper connection with those around them.  The Pale King’s opening and closing chapters both use second-person narratives to bring the reader into the story itself and remind us that the characters we will get to know are not merely creations of one man’s imagination but are actually an extension of ourselves, of our commonality as human beings.  § 1 ends with two simple words: “Read these”.[82]  Take in the surroundings; observe the environment and those who fill it.  Interact and connect and commune with them.  These works provide not only an invitation to interact with the text itself, but to forge a connection between the real-life humans involved in that interchange: author and reader.  Writer Maria Bustillos describes Wallace’s desire to connect with his readers when she writes, “He offered a lot of himself to his readers, in all his writing; this generosity seemed like his whole project, in a way”.[83]  Wallace invites us to join him in his exploration of all that our “f***ing human”-ness means.

While this all may be true, we cannot avoid the question of whether this freedom Wallace offers to us is truly attainable in light of the tragedy of Wallace’s death.  Interestingly, just as the real David Foster Wallace left us far too early, so the fictional narrative “author”, David Wallace, also disappears part way through The Pale King.  We, the readers, are invited onto this journey toward freedom through both the speech and the novel, but then find ourselves suddenly alone in much the same way that the hero of the quest narrative is left to fight the final battle on his own.  It invites the questions of whether Wallace simply lost this battle, or whether perhaps the default setting is too impressive a foe.  As grand and inspiring as his words are, is final victory over the default setting even possible?  Is the battle winnable?  And is it even worth the fight?  If the “wise old fish” seemingly lost the battle, then where does that leave us?

Where it leaves us is knowing that while it is a difficult battle, and there will be casualties, it is still a fight worth fighting.  There is too much at stake for us to give up fighting.  We must continue fighting “day-in and day-out” because of the beauty in our surroundings that we will find when we open our eyes to see it and because of the “mystical oneness” we share with our fellow man.  After all, as Wallace reminds us, “We are all of us brothers” (3).[84]

Notes

[1] David Foster Wallace, interviewed by Larry McCaffery, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993.

[2] Wallace, This is Water, 44.

[3] Kevin Hartnett, ‘He was Water’, The Millions, May 9, 2011.

[4] Wallace, This is Water, 32.

[5] Ibid., 36.

[6] Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace, 136.

[7] Wallace, This is Water, 115.

[8] Wallace, The Pale King, 144.

[9] Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace, 137.

[10] Wallace, ‘Datum Centurio’, Brief Interviews, 127.

[11] Ibid., 126.

[12] David Foster Wallace, interviewed by Judith Strasser, ‘Unwholesome Entertainment’, YouTube, 1996.

[13] Wallace, This is Water, 48.

[14] Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace, 137.

[15] Wallace, The Pale King, 9.

[16] Ibid., 24.

[17] Ibid., 92.

[18] Wallace, This is Water, 74.

[19] Wallace, The Pale King, 155.

[20] Ibid., 191.

[21] Wallace, This is Water, 60.

[22] Wallace, ‘Death is not the End’, Brief Interviews, 2.

[23] Ibid., 3-4.

[24] Wallace, ‘Little Expressionless Animals’, Girl with Curious Hair, 10.

[25] Ibid., 14.

[26] Ibid., 19.

[27] Wallace, This is Water, 102.

[28] Wallace, ‘Big Red Son’, Consider the Lobster, 3.

[29] Wallace, This is Water, 56.

[30] Wallace, The Pale King, 85.

[31] Dreyfus, Hubert and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining, 25.

[32] Ibid., 30.

[33] Ibid., 168.

[34] Ibid., 122.

[35] Ibid., 125.

[36] Ibid., 123.

[37] Ibid., 385.

[38] Kevin Hartnett, ‘He was Water’, The Millions, May 9, 2011.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41]Wallace, The Pale King, 187.

[42] Ibid., 188.

[43] Ibid., 222.

[44] Ibid., 223.

[45] Ibid., 42.

[46] Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #20’, Brief Interviews, 292.

[47] Ibid., 317.

[48] Wallace, The Pale King, 42.

[49] Ibid., 43.

[50] Ibid., 43.

[51] Ibid., 230.

[52] Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #20’, Brief Interviews, 316.

[53] Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #46’, Brief Interviews, 117.

[54] Ibid., 123.

[55] Wallace, Infinite Jest, 291,

[56] Wallace, The Pale King, 378.

[57] Wallace, This is Water, 88.

[58] Wallace, Infinite Jest, 860.

[59] Wallace, This is Water, 120.

[60] Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, 40.

[61] Ibid., 29-30.

[62] Ibid., 40.

[63] Ibid., 42.

[64] Ibid., 50.

[65] Wallace, This is Water, 98-101.

[66] Ibid., 102.

[67] Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace, 147.

[68] Ibid., 146.

[69] Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #20’, Brief Interviews, 292.

[70] Wallace, ‘David Lynch Keeps His Head’, A Supposedly Fun Thing, 162.

[71] Wallace, ‘Consider the Lobster’, Consider the Lobster, 237.

[72] Wallace, ‘The View from Mrs. Thompson’s’, Consider the Lobster, 140.

[73] Wallace, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing’, A Supposedly Fun Thing, 256.

[74] Ibid., 257.

[75] Ibid., 256-257.

[76] Wallace, The Pale King, 233.

[77] Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #42’, Brief Interviews, 86.

[78] Ibid., 90.

[79] Wallace, The Pale King, 473.

[80] Ibid., 473.

[81] Ibid., 485.

[82] Wallace, The Pale King, 4.

[83] Maria Bustillos, ‘Inside Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library’, The Awl, April 5, 2011.

[84] Wallace, The Pale King, 3.

Bibliography

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Bustillos, Maria. ‘Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library’. The Awl. http://www.theawl.com/2011/04/inside-david-foster-wallaces-private-self-help-library>.

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