Karen Green: "Bough Down"

BOMB offers an extraordinary excerpt from Bough Down, a volume by artist Karen Green, who is also David Foster Wallace’s widow:

September again and

I take your parents to the lighthouse, I do. There is nothing but September fog to cover our shame, and your father laughs just like you, at the opacity. I want to eat the laugh, I want to rub it on my chest like camphor, I want to make a sound tattoo. I also want to bash these two small people together and see if a collision of DNA will give me my life back. Last night we had a lightning storm, unprecedented. It scared me to think about who might be conducting it.

After they leave I take your last blue pill, but dream about someone being put to death as punishment for putting themselves to death.

Ostap Karmodi w/ David Foster Wallace

From “A Frightening Time in America,” an interview Karmodi conducted with DFW in September 2006 and published in English today on the blog of The New York Review of Books:

OK: A popular modern Russian writer, Viktor Pelevin, has said that the main character of much of modern cinema and pop-literature—all of pop-culture—is a black briefcase full of money. We mostly follow its fate, and the fates of the other characters depend on it.

DFW: I’ve heard about Viktor Pelevin, and everything I’ve heard about him is that he’s very smart and very astute. I think one reason his image is so funny is that it’s somewhat accurate. At least here in America, we’re in a time that’s very, very cynical. So that when you have a piece of pop-culture that has a very virtuous person or a hero, people see those qualities much more as presentations by someone who’s trying to get something, whether money or approval, than true human virtue or true qualities. One consequence of what American scholars call a post-modern era is that everyone has seen so many performances, that American viewers and American readers, we simply assume now that everything is a performance and it’s strategic and it’s tactical. It’s a very sad situation and I think the chances are that nations go through periods of great idealism and great cynicism, and that America and Europe, at least Western Europe right now, are in periods of great cynicism.

Two Terrific New Pieces on DFW

An inspired, informed review of The Pale King from Kyle Beachy (one of the writers I was proud to bring into the St. Louis Magazine contributors’ fold during my time there), and a perceptive, probing essay by Leland de la Durantaye that explores both DFW’s “Fate, Time, and Language” philosophy thesis and his Kenyon commencement address. Both are worth reading in full.

How Wallace Made Me Smile (GWCH)

Continuing from last night’s post, here are a few lines from Girl with Curious Hair:

From Frontmatter
ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF SUPPORT TO: The Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Fund for Aimless Children

From “Little Expressionless Animals”
“Faye’s thongs squeak and slap.
‘Your shoes sound like sex,’ Julie says.”

From “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”
“D.L. was severely thin, thin in a way that suggested not delicacy but a kind of stinginess about how much of herself she’d extend to the space around her. Thin the way mean nuns are thin. She walked funny, with the pelvis-led posture of a man at a urinal; she carried her arms either wrapped around her chest or out and down at a scarecrow’s jangly right angles; she was slatternly and exuded pheromones apparently attractive only to bacteria; she had a fatal taste for: (1) polyester; (2) pantsuits; (3) lime green.”

“Eberhardt’s stories tended 'not to work for him’ because of what he called a certain 'Look-Mom-no-hands quality’ that ran through her work. You don’t want her facial reaction described.”

“And but gratitude? This job is a plum, clown-wise — veteran clowns would have given left nuts for even a giggled audition.”

“DeHaven — who, like anybody who smokes dope under his parents’ roof, is quick on his feet when it comes to explaining wild kitchen incongruities — delineates a deep concern for the impression toe odor of the Steelritter drain could have made …”

“And but it turns out it’s only the sign in the window itself that’s for sale, at the Criticism Store.”

“Source of panic: the car’s jouncing, and the almost prosthetically firm push of Magda’s right breast — they’re that close together — have given the sort of erection that laughs at the restraining capacity of gabardine the way a hangover laughs at aspirin.”

“Magda’s yellow silence is that horrified public kind of one whose seatmate has farted at the ballet.”

How Wallace Made Me Smile (ASFTINDA)

I planned on spending the evening going through all of David Foster Wallace’s books and pulling out some passages that have made me laugh or just smile, year after year and rereading after rereading. He moved the hell out of me as a reader, but he also made me laugh out loud and/or smile-while-shaking-my-head in a way no other writer ever has. Turns out making it through just the volume nearest to me on the table, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays & Arguments," took the entire evening. I may try to continue this in the coming weeks, moving from book to book, though I may also decide it’s better for me not to. 

From "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”
“For Metafiction, in its ascendant and most important phases, was really nothing more than a single-order expansion of its own great theoretical nemesis, Realism: if Realism called it like it saw it, Metafiction simply called it as it saw itself seeing itself see it.”

“i do have a thesis” (section heading, many pages in)

“Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a Soviet-satellite newscast of the Berlin Wall’s fall — i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar — it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious Realist fiction is going about trying to make the familiar strange.”

“When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV become all the more attractive, a cycle which is obviously great for TV. But it’s less great for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not to be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identify with.”

From “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All”
“In line before me are newshounds from Today’s Agriculture, the Decatur Herald & Review, Illinois Crafts Newsletter, 4H News, and Livestock Weekly.”

“There’s a compelling frictionlessness about the local TV reporters, all of whom have short blond hair and vaguely orange makeup. A vividness. I keep feeling a queer urge to vote for them for something.”

“The number of calls Mrs. Edgar says the line’s fielded just this year is both de- and impressive.”

“He smokes Marlboro 100’s but wears a cap that says WINSTON.”

“The operator says without looking at me that the matter of tickets this early on Opening Day ‘Ain’t no sweat off my balls.’”

“And he asks after my tire-treaded foot, very politely, before peeling out toward the chicken din.”

“One big girl with tattoos and a heavy-diapered infant wears a T-shirt that says "WARNING: I GO FROM 0 TO HORNEY IN 2.5 BEERS." 

"Overhead, on the mezzanine, the THIGHMASTER lady’s still at it, on her side, head on her arm, smiling cross-eyed into space." 

"The best description of the carnies’ tan is that they’re somehowsinisterly tan.”

From “David Lynch Keeps His Head”
“[FN] 11 (And as an aside, but a true aside, I’ll add that I have had since 1986 a personal rule w/r/t dating, which is that any date where I go to a female’s residence to pick her up and have any kind of conversation with parents or roommates that’s an even remotely Lynchian conversation is automatically the only date I ever have with that female, regardless of her appeal in other areas. And that this rule, developed after seeing Blue Velvet, has served me remarkably well and kept me out of all kinds of hair-raising entanglements and jams, and that friends to whom I’ve promulgated the rule but who have willfully ignored it and have continued dating females with clear elements of Lynchianism in their characters or associations have done so to their own regret." 

From "Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry As a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”
“[FN] 6 Most of the girlfriends have something indefinable about them that suggests extremely wealthy parents whom the girls are trying to piss off by hooking up with an obscure professional tennis player.”

“[FN] 26 I don’t know whether you know this, but Connors had one of the most eccentric games in the history of tennis — he was an aggressive 'power’ player who rarely came to net, had the serve of an ectomorphic girl, and hit everything totally spinless and flat (which is inadvisable on groundstrokes because the absence of spin makes the ball so hard to control). His game was all the stranger because the racquet he generated all his firepower from the baseline with was a Wilson T2000, a weird steel thing that’s one of the single shittiest tennis racquets ever made and is regarded by most serious players as useful for home defense or prying large rocks out of your backyard or something." 

”[FN] 52 This is Canada’s version of the U.S.T.A., and its logo — which obtrudes into your visual field as often as is possible here at the du Maurier Omnium — consists of the good old Canadian maple leaf with a tennis racquet for a stem. It’s stuff like Tennis Canada’s logo you want to point to when Canadians protest that they don’t understand why Americans make fun of them.“

"Czech former top-tener Petr Korda is another clastic-looking mismatch: at 6'3” and 160, he has the body of an upright greyhound and the face of — eerily, uncannily — a fresh-hatched chicken (plus the soulless eyes that reflect no light and seem to 'see’ only in the way that fish’s and birds’ eyes 'see’).“

From 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”
“Men after a certain age should not wear shorts, I’ve decided; their legs are hairless in a way that’s creepy; the skin seems denuded and practically crying out for hair, particularly on the calves.”

“Each deck’s got walkways outside, with railings made of some kind of really good wood.”

“[FN] 27 The single best vocab word from this week: spume (second-best was scheisser, which one German retiree called another German retiree who kept beating him at darts).”

“A lithe Canadian couple does a tango complete w/ pointy black shoes and an interdental rose." 

Rest in Peace, David Foster Wallace

One of my very favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, has reportedly killed himself. (LA Times’ obituary is here.) My thoughts go out to his wife and family and friends. All I can say now is that he was incredibly rich, funny, moving, challenging company for all the years I read him. I just pulled down Oblivion from my shelf and found myself unable to stop reading this close to his short story “Good Old Neon,” which is narrated by someone who committed suicide. 

The reality is that dying isn’t bad, but it takes forever. And that forever is no time at all. I know that sounds like a contradiction, or maybe just wordplay. What it really is, it turns out, is a matter of perspective. The big picture, as they say, in which the fact is that this whole seemingly endless back-and-forth between us has come and gone and come again in the very same instant that Fern stirs a boiling pot for dinner, and your stepfather packs some pipe tobacco down with his thumb, and Angela Mead uses an ingenious little catalogue tool to roll cat hair off her blouse, and Melissa Betts inhales to respond to something she thinks her husband just said, and David Wallace blinks in the midst of idly scanning class photos from his 1980 Aurora West H.S. yearbook and seeing my photo and trying, through the tiny little keyhole of himself, to imagine what all must have happened to lead up to my death in the fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991, like what sorts of pain or problems might have driven the guy to get in his electric-blue Corvette and try to drive with all that O.T.C. medication in his bloodstream ‚Äî David Wallace happening to have a huge and totally unorganizable set of inner thoughts, feelings, memories and impressions of this little photo’s guy a year ahead of him in school with the seemingly almost neon aura around him all the time of scholastic and athletic excellence and popularity and success with the ladies, as well as of every last cutting remark or even tiny disgusted gesture or expression on this guy’s part whenever David Wallace struck out looking in Legion ball or said something lame at a party, and of how impressive and authentically at ease in the world the guy always seemed, like an actual living person instead of the dithering, pathetically self-conscious outline or ghost of a person David Wallace knew himself back then to be. Verily a fair-haried, fast-track guy, whom in the very best human tradition David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all of his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate an even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. male, all this stuff clanging around in David Wallace ‘81’s head every second and moving so fast that he never got a chance to catch hold and try to fight or argue against it or even really feel it except as a knot in his stomach as he stood in his real parents’ kitchen ironing his uniform and thinking of all the ways he could screw up and strike out looking or drop balls out in right and reveal his true pathetic essence in front of this .418 hitter and his witchily pretty sister and everyone else in the audience in lawn chairs in the grass along the sides of the Legion field (all of whom already probably saw through the sham from the outset anyway, he was pretty sure) ‚Äî in other words David Wallace trying, if only in the second his lids are down, to somehow reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven him to kill himself in such a dramatic and doubtlessly painful way ‚Äî with David Wallace also fully aware that the clich√© that you can’t ever truly know what’s going on inside somebody else is hoary and insipid and yet at the same time trying very conciously to prohibit that awareness from mocking the attempt or sending the whole line of thought into the sort of inbent spiral that keeps you from ever getting anywhere (considerable time having passed since 1981, of course, and David Wallace having emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself with quite a bit more firepower than he’d had at Aurora West), the realer, more enduring and sentimental part of him commanding that other part to be silent as if looking it levelly in the eye and saying, almost aloud, 'Not another word.’

Zadie on Wallace, Readers as Amateur Musicians

Zadie Smith, author of my favorite novel of 2005, just appeared on Bookworm. Early on in the conversation, Smith said that she’s been thinking a lot about “what good reading involves,” a subject she’ll be lecturing about soon.

Smith: I think of reading as a skill and an art. And if you read badly – I always think a good example – I’ve been trying to write this essay on [David] Foster Wallace and when you first read Foster Wallace, or when critics read him, they give him back the thing that they think they see, which is some smart aleck with smart language, but [they have] no idea of what this –

Silverblatt: Yes, that he’s trying to determine what truth is. What can be said truly.

Smith: Exactly. An incredible ethicist and serious moral writer. But there’s a kind of superficial layer of him, which if you can’t be bothered to think any deeper, it just seems, ‘Here’s some wise guy, with his wiseass stories.’ And that’s not true. But the problem with readers, the idea we’ve been given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principal is, 'I should sit here and be entertained.’ And the more classical model is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and the artist gives you. That’s an incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.

Wallace on Federer

David Foster Wallace was on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday this morning, talking about Roger Federer. Wallace fans will know that the author’s long been interested in tennis: half of his brilliant novel Infinite Jest takes place at a junior tennis academy; there are two tennis-related pieces in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; he even once wrote a very entertaining aerial-view piece about the U.S. Open (I think for Tennis magazine), that I don’t think has been republished since it ran several years ago.

Wallace was on this morning’s show in part to publicize his article about Federer in The New York Times’ sports magazine, PLAY. NPR’s Scott Simon said the article would appear in September, but it’s already online, and the ‘Published on’ date is tomorrow. The piece is “Federer as Religious Experience,” and it begins:

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.

As with most Wallace pieces, I could sit here all day and pull quote after juicy quote. Just go read it.

You Jest

NYT.com has made available a feature that will appear in the 5/21 Book Review.

Early this year, the Book Review’s editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.”

The winner: Beloved. It’s terrific to see Blood Meridian among the runners-up. It’s a joke not to see Infinite Jest among the nominations. No Gass, no Pynchon. I’m surprised not to see Middlesex. The list of judges is a who’s who of literati. A.O. Scott offers a companion essay, from which this is pulled:

They are - the top five, in any case, in ascending order - “American Pastoral,” with 7 votes; Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” and Updike’s four-in-one “Rabbit Angstrom,” tied with 8 votes each; “Don DeLillo’s "Underworld,” with 11; and, solidly ahead of the rest, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” with 15. (If these numbers seem small, keep in mind that they are drawn from only 125 votes, and from a pool of potential candidates equal to the number of books of fiction by American writers published in 25 years. Sometimes cultural significance can be counted on the fingers of one hand.)

Children, Burned & Frozen

I’m currently reading Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. It’s tremendous, as the Pulitzer committee and many of you already know. Chapter 10 opens this way:

On January 18, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont, a little boy named John Dewey fell into a pail of scalding water. His parents applied oil to his burns and wrapped him in cotton batting, but there was another accident and the batting caught fire. The next day the child died. He was two and a half. It is a sad and terrible story, but the parents found a means of consolation, and nine months later almost to the day, on October 20, 1859, they had another baby. He was named after his dead brother.

David Foster Wallace readers will join me in thinking immediately of one of his most stunning stories, the very brief “Incarnations of Burned Children,” first published in Esquire and later collected in Oblivion: Stories. Picking up a few lines in:

and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen. Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose […]

Last month I finally got around to William H. Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, which opens with the extraordinarily absorbing novella “The Pedersen Kid.” (Annie Proulx has said that “Pedersen” was a breakthrough for her understanding of what powers fiction could have.) The opening pages set a scene converse to that of Dewey and Wallace. On the first snowstormed page, Big Hans is carrying “something from the crib.”

    It was the Pedersen kid. Hans had put the lid on the kitchen table like you would a ham and started the kettle. He wasn’t saying anything. I guess he figured one yell from the crib was enough noise. Ma was fumbling with the kid’s clothes which were stiff with ice. She made a sound like whew from every breath. The kettle filled and Hans said,
    Get some snow and call your pa.
    Get some snow. […]

    Ma had rolled out some dough on the table where Hans had dropped the Pedersen kid like a filling. Most of the kid’s clothes were on the floor where they were going to make a puddle. Hans began rubbing snow on the kid’s face. Ma stopped trying to pull his things off and simply stood by the table with her hands held away from her as if they were wet, staring first at Big Hans and then at the kid. […]

    Looks like a sick shoat.
    Shut up and get your pa.
    He’s asleep.
    He don’t like to get waked.
    I know that. Don’t I know that as good as you? Get him.
    What good’ll he be?
    We’re going to need his whiskey.
    He can fix that need all right. He’s good for fixing the crack in his face. If it ain’t all gone.
    The kettle was whistling. […]

    Get the hell out.
    Pa pulled at the covers. He was tasting his mouth.
    The kid’s froze like a pump. Hans is rubbing him with snow. He’s got him in the kitchen. […]

    Hans had laid steaming towels over the kid’s chest and stomach. He was rubbing snow on the kid’s legs and feet. Water from the snow and water from the towels had run off the kid to the table where the dough was, and the dough was turning pasty, sticking to the kid’s back and behind. […]

Listen to me, Jorge, I’ve had enough of your sassing. This kid’s froze bad. If I don’t get some whiskey down him he might die. You want the kid to die? Do you? Well, get your pa and get that whiskey.
    Pa don’t care about the kid. […]

    Hans poured some in a tumbler.
    You going to put more towels on him?
    Why not? That’s what he needs, something warm to his skin, don’t he?
    Not where he’s froze good. Heat’s bad for frostbite. That’s why I only put towels on his chest and belly. He’s got to thaw slow. You ought to know that.
    Colors on the towels had run.
    Ma poked her toe in the kid’s clothes.
    What are we going to do with these?

Thanksgiving w/ the Incandenzas

From David Foster Wallace’s magnificent novel Infinite Jest:

At Joelle’s first interface with the whole sad family unit – Thanksgiving, Headmaster’s House, E.T.A., straight up Comm. Ave in Enfield – Orin’s Moms Mrs. Incandenza (‘Please do call me Avril, Joelle’) had been gracious and warm and attentive without obtruding, and worked unobtrusively hard to put everyone at ease and to facilitate communication, and to make Joelle feel like a welcomed and esteemed part of the family gathering – and something about the woman made every follicle on Joelle’s body pucker and distend. It wasn’t that Avril Incandenza was one of the tallest women Joelle had ever seen, and definitely the tallest pretty older woman with immaculate posture (Dr. Incandenza slumped something awful) she’d ever met. It wasn’t that her syntax was so artless and fluid and imposing. Nor the near-sterile cleanliness of the home’s downstairs (the bathroom’s toilet seemed not only scrubbed but waxed to a high shine). And it wasn’t that Avril’s graciousness was in any conventional way fake. It took a long time for Joelle even to start to put a finger on what gave her the howling fantods about Orin’s mother. The dinner itself – no turkey; some politico-familial in-joke about no turkey on Thanksgiving – was delicious without being grandiose. They didn’t even sit down to eat until 2300h. Avril drank champagne out of a little fluted glass whose level somehow never went down. Dr. Incandenza (no invitation to call him Jim, she noticed) drank at a tri-faceted tumbler of something that made the air above it shimmer slightly. Avril put everyone at ease. Orin did credible impressions of famous figures. He and little Hal made dry fun of Avril’s Canadian pronunciation of certain diphthongs. Avril and Dr. Incandenza took turns cutting up Mario’s salmon. Joelle had a weird half-vision of Avril hiking her knife up hilt-first and plunging it into Joelle’s breast. Hal Incandenza and two other lopsidedly muscular boys from the tennis school ate like refugees and were regarded with gentle amusement. Avril dabbed her mouth in a patrician way after every bite. …

Just before desert – which was on fire – Orin’s Moms had asked whether they could perhaps all join hands secularly for a moment and simply be grateful for all being together. She made a special point of asking Joelle to include her hands in the hand-holding. Joelle held Orin’s hand and Hal’s smaller friend’s hand, which was so callused up it felt like some sort of rind. Dessert was Cherries Jubilee with gourmet New Brunswick ice cream. Dr. Incandenza’s absence form the table went unmentioned, almost unnoticed, it seemed. Both Hal and his nonstimulating friend pleaded for Kahlua, and Mario flapped pathetically at the tabletop in imitation. Avril made a show of gazing at Orin in mock-horror as he produced a cigar and clipper. There was also a blancmange. The coffee was decaf with chickory. When Joelle looked over again, Orin had put his cigar away without lighting it.

And on. Turn to page 744 of your copy to read along.

'To Life After College'

Top Ten Least Inspiring Things Said by David Foster Wallace in his Commencement Address at Kenyon College on May 21, 2005:

10. “I am not the wise old fish.”

9. “Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.”

8. “I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound.”

7. “And I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

6. “One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.”

5. “Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.”

4. “Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”

3. “Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true.”

2. “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

1. “The freedom to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”