Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, and Author Necromancy

Sorry this is late, ye millions of people. I am [still!] traveling through places barren of the internet, but I’m returning to the land of milk and honey soon (or whatever) and will have wireless all the time again.

source: electricliterature.com

I came across this blog on The Outlet that “revisits letters from prominent writers and other artists to revive the dying art of letter writing.” They posted a postcard from David Foster Wallace to Don Delillo (a famous person I haven’t read who seems to have won many awards for books called White Noise and Underworld and Mao II, among others).

First, the phrase “revive the dying art of letter writing” caught my attention. References to “reviving the dying art of [blank]” always have about them a sort of nobility – like when someone tells you that they work for the Peace Corps or rescue puppies for a living. But how does a note from a brilliant man help revive the dying art of letter-writing? The text is a clever note – another person defending the “art of letter[-]writing” might not even recognize it as anything more than an e-mail text.

And then I want to know why we publish and discuss the letters of famous people. David Foster Wallace was particularly brilliant, it’s true, but the post-mortem ransacking of his library was unsettling to hear about. Maybe a year ago I’d think differently, but now reading writers’ letters and diaries (like Virginia Woolf’s) seems me to me a rude, fetishistic, and sort of useless thing to do.

Virginia Woolf's diary, published post-mortem

And yes, the writing is going to be good – but many people can write witty and clever letters. Writers’ letters might be constructed, but they’re only constructed for one person and in that context. Books and published works are written in an entirely different context, for public consumption and enjoyment. Looking for writers’ letters seems to me the equivalent of wanting to hear Beyonce humming while she pees.

In David Foster Wallace‘s letter to DeLillo, he talks about a large palm tree, a book they exchanged, and how Wallace recently got his license in California. The writing is quite witty to read, because Wallace was good at words. But it is saying nothing and communicates nothing but what Wallace wanted to say to DeLillo on the 1st of September of some indiscriminate year. Why do we like reading this? How would this contribute to maintaining the art of letter writing?

Looking for every word on every grocery list scratched out by an author sounds painfully like something that I would have done a few years ago, which might be why I react so strongly against it now.

Knoebel (the blogger) calls the postcard “a prose index of cultural references,” which is pretty characteristic, I think, of the annoying self-effacement with which writers’ personal and accidental writings are usually treated: something must have been so special about these holy people that it is more worth our time to read their private, unrelated writings than it would be to develop our own. And that, I think, is my main problem with this practice – if we really want to appreciate prose, or to revive the art of letter writing, we should probably start working on writing some letters ourselves.

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Decemberists, Infinite Jest, and Michael Schur Unite (and there was much rejoicing)

The Decemberist’s latest music video (for Calamity Song, from their most recent album The King is Dead) portrayed a scene from David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel Infinite Jest, and the probability that somewhere within 100 yards of you a humanities major is freaking out increased by about 600%.

And this is awesome not only because 1) The Decemberists are awesome and 2) Infinite Jest is awesome, both of which reasons would be plenty justification for awesomeness, but it’s awesome because Infinite Jest is so huge and complicated and a-linear and full of bizarre details that it seems only slightly short of a miracle than anyone would even be able to succesfully portray in film just one scene from the novel, and yet Michael Schur (known for writing for SNL, The Office, and Parks and Recreation) managed to have the scene play out almost exactly as I imagined it – which I understand is a hideously biased judgement but I really only have my own imagination to go by, and perhaps the fact that film adaptations of writing almost never do that for me bolster the impressiveness of my statement.

The scene fromt the book, by the way, was brilliantly and kind of impressively chosen too – it shows the students at a tennis academy playing Eschaton, which is a ludicrously complicated game involving a mentally-projected map of the world on a tennis court, socks and tshirts representing different strategic targets, tennis balls (lobbed by each country) representing nuclear bombs, and insane algorithms (that David Foster Wallace all but teaches you in the book) to determine the damage and population loss of each hit. Colin Meloy sitting in the place of Michael Pemulis, one of the main characters of the book, with his characteristic sailor’s hat, is weirdly perfect. Schur’s attention to details from the novel made the video, I think, bringing yelps of excitement from readers of the book seeing a scene from possibly the most bizarre and un-movie-able piece of fiction they’ve read portrayed (almost) perfectly on film, but also allowing people who haven’t read the book to still understand what’s going on.

So, in summary, props to The Decemberists for being awesome, postmortem props to David Foster Wallace for being brilliant, and mad props to Michael Schur for creating a visual reality out of a piece of something as abstract and wonderful as Infinite Jest.