Thursday, September 26, 2013

Way to Break My Balls, David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace hanged himself in 2008.

There is really no awesome way to talk about this.

I was not shocked or upset, and here's why: despite my enrollment in the creative writing program at the University of Washington, I wasn't at the time aware that DFW existed at all.

My Introduction to DFW

In 2010 I heard about this book called Infinite Jest which I was told I would enjoy.  Early in 2012, I was told about it again.

I did enjoy that book.  How I was able to enjoy it and why seemed obvious- it's pretty great.  I mean, if you have the patience to sit through whole essays squirreled away in footnotes that you must flip to the back of your book to read, and are okay with open endings, it's an extremely rewarding book.

Infinite Jest (published 1996) predicts a pretty-much 2012 that is stunning in it's accuracy re: the status of entertainment in America.  It's also a pretty run down version of America, one that failed to re-invent itself but find redemption through humble veins, such as AA or junior tennis.

A main character in that book also kills himself (not a spoiler, this fact is pretty clear from the beginning), and one characterizing question w/r/t this character is how he was able to turn on a microwave with his head inside it.

This character also creates a movie, called "The Entertainment" by secret government organizations and terrorist groups, that removes a person's will to do anything else but watch the movie.

I'm oversimplifying the book here, big time.  I'm not trying to give it a critical review here.  My goal is more along the lines of bringing DFW back from the dead.  Not in this essay though.  Not a chance there.  More like this essay is my proposed set of guidelines for doing so.

I want to bring DFW back from the dead for a few reasons:
  • His contributions to the thought and shape of today's literature are incomplete
  • I want to ask him "why you gotta break my balls?"
  • I have a big literary crush on the man.  He is the Sean Connery of writers.

Some Ideas DFW Seems to Be Getting at:

  • Irony Is Annoying
Or has at least outworn it's usefulness.  While irony has been used in the past to point out injustice or as a survival tactic, television has subverted irony for it's own ends: viewership ratings, advertisement dollars.  You can read DFW's full essay on this just by google-ing "E Unibus Pluram" (I'm not going to do all the work for you), but a large part of the gist of the essay is summed up in this statement of the problem that today's writers face:
How to snap readers awake to the fact that our televisual culture has become cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon, when television regularly celebrates just those features in itself and its features?
  • Why should an author care enough to want to snap readers awake?
Hmm, well, I'm not finding a terribly persuasive argument within DFW's essay.  He personally wanted to, I think(hearsay, I know).  "E Unibus Pluram"(published 1993) seems to be just the kind of manifesto an author might reference while writing Infinite Jest, that's for sure.  Here's a relevant perspective from a recent article in The Stranger's A&P quarterly:
I want to read books I need to read. I want to read books that feed me, that go in my mouth and throat and down in my guts and nourish me or mess me up but feed me that way too.
-"Shut Up: A Manifesto Against Irony" Rebecca Brown

Rebecca seems on board with this "New Sincerity" thing, though she also claims that language can save your life, which is clearly, in some cases, untrue.
  • Entertainment has/is/will changed/changing/change
The worst thing about being a writer these days is probably that nobody really seems to enjoy reading anymore.  Seriously, if you've made it this far in the essay, leave a comment or something so I know you exist.  Also, marry me(family members are excused from this, but may still leave comments).  

Rather than cry about it, DFW simply continued to produce literature and essays that really get right down to the meat of how we (Americans, mostly) entertain ourselves, how that effects how we think of ourselves, and how all of that bends and shapes the forms of entertainment we prefer.  If you're this far in the essay and haven't yet googled "E Unibus Pluram", well, for fuck's sake.
  • Ditto for communication
For being the prescient/excellent writer that he is, DFW comes off as a bit of a Luddite, explaining that he doesn't really get eBooks in his preface to "Up Simba", always portraying himself as scribbling in notebooks rather than clacking at keys.  All those freaking footnotes, which is a style well suited to HTML, but, as I mentioned above, requires a lot of patience in the reader when abused in DFW's trademark style and on paper.

The fact that some of the juiciest stuff appears in those footnotes is reason enough for readers/editors/printers alike to ask in unison, "Why you gotta break my balls, DFW?"

See for example, the kick-ass essay (excerpted near the bottom of this linked page) disguised as a footnote in Infinite Jest regarding the evolution of the video-phone.

By the way, the first iPhone was released in June 2007.  Skype's been around since 2003, though Wikipedia is pretty useless at reminding me when the ability to use video was released.

Before I try to jam these ideas together to describe the kind of change I'd like DFW around to help out with, let's take a look at some things that have changed since DFW's death.

Some Things That Have Changed Since DFW's Death

  • Late 2010: Skype releases video calling client for iPhone (thanks, Wikipedia!)
  • Okay, well it looks like Netflix introduced online streaming in 2007, so let's call this one "online streaming becomes popular".  Theoretically, DFW could have had a Netflix account.
  • Hulu came out in March of 2008.  Damn.  Okay, how about this one: Disney purchases 27% stake in Hulu - 2009.
  • Man, okay, I'm striking out here.  Facebook has been around since 2004(ish)  Facebook claims a positive cash flow for the first time in 2009.
  • Rockstar Games releases Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 (In April, but shut up).  Critics are like "whoa, there's some serious writing behind this game"
  • With the release of Red Dead Redemption in 2010, Rockstar Games proves that video games are capable of dealing with themes, philosophy, and good damn stories well, not to mention in a way that only Choose Your Own Adventure brand books could approach and never surpass.
  • One of my all time favorite poets, Bill Knott, who is mentioned a few times in "E Unibus Pluram" leaves a comment on my blog in response to basically a very callous comment from me regarding his personality, which I know nothing about. November 2011. Considering that the Knott poems DFW refers to are from 1975, i.e. before my birth, this is a surreal moment for me.
This list has turned out pretty pathetic.  For that I apologize.  Strange that all these modes of communication and entertainment that I have found fascinating and perverse and revolutionary in the last decade all got on the path to where they are today before DFW's death, but really kicked into gear only afterwards.
Picture if you will DFW as a lone centurion, the last of an ancient order of illuminati, fiercely defending the earth against the aliens that have taken over the bodies of Alec Baldwin and Seth MacFarlane.  The warrior falls, and the earth will never be the same.
-Elevator pitch for what'll turn out to be a really bad movie.

So here's some bad logic for you:
  • The markets for entertainment and communication influence what we choose to consume.
  • What we choose to consume influences entertainment and communication technology and content.
  • In benefits E & C tech to promote it's own use.  Like the way rabbits benefit from getting it on.
  • For some reason, E & C tech has become incredibly personal.  Probably because you can sell more units and because we like our privacy.
  • Small, discrete E & C tech is popular with manufacturers and consumers.  See iPhone, see Tablet, see Laptop, see Google Glass, which is turning out to be less popular with consumers than manufacturers thought, but it's probably just a matter of time.
  • These E & C techs enable anti-social behavior i.e. more time spent with the tech/product/content.
  • E & C content enables anti-social behavior i.e. more time spent with the tech/product/content.
  • Technological advances in entertainment and communication tend to promote further extremes of anti-social behavior in their users to remain competitive.
That's basically my way of re-phrasing the interesting bits (to me) of "E Unibus Pluram", except expanded to include the last five years of my experience as an entertainment consumer. It is the same set of ideas that once again inspires the question, "David Foster Wallace, why are you breaking my balls?"

Essays like these are not exempt for this tendency, obviously, for example I'm writing this in my living room while my roommate plays his Xbox360.  He shouts at the game, I mutter to my notes.

Dear reader, you aren't reading this out loud, I suspect, but to yourself.  I'm not in the room with you.  I'm not reading this to you.  If I'm being really honest with myself, I have to realize that the only folks who read this will have followed the link from my Facebook post, or bless 'em, have followed my blog and/or are family. Hi Mom!

For another example, let's turn to another smart/sad guy, Louis C.K:

and this video has been shared by so many people on Facebook, which is cool because the content certainly seems less like the "cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon" that DFW describes, but becomes annoying when you think about the fact that whether we saw this when it aired on TV or saw it on YouTube from a Facebook link, that's what we were doing.  Facebooking.

So maybe my problem is that I'm still thinking about this, that I'm still trying to escape all this damn irony all over everything.

There are ways to do it, I think.  One is to stop thinking about it and talk to more people.  Another is to get my thoughts straight about it so I can talk to more people without the distraction of this ball breaking confusion.

Some Examples of Social Entertainment

  • Live Music
  • Roller-Derby
  • Watching Movies with a Lively Crowd
  • Fishing
  • Live Comedy
  • Getting Out Of The House

Some Examples of Anti-Social Entertainment

  • Watching Movies Alone
  • Reading David Foster Wallace
  • Pretty Much the Whole Internet
  • Fishing
  • Hanging Out while Picking Your Nose
I hope I'm not just hanging out picking my own nose here.  I don't think it's inherently bad to be anti-social, but damn is it really easy.

And while this essay might be a bit navel gaze-y, you dear reader can redeem it by taking advantage of the comment section to lend your own perspective on these ideas, anecdotes, rebuttals, or just some good ideas w/r/t getting out of the house.

Thank you.


  1. I'm sorry Seth, but DFW will never, ever sleep with you, so you might as well give it up.

    In all seriousness, thanks for the read. Maybe we should make a book club. Seems like a nice blend between anti- and pro-social behavior.

    1. It's not that kind of crush, Bobs.

      Thanks for reading though. Had to get this stuff off my chest somehow. Just hanging out and talking about it seems like a good deal too. You got any further reading recommends?

    2. I've had a big Margaret Atwood crush lately. I think you might enjoy Oryx and Crake or The Blind Assassin. I think you'd like both; Oryx and Crake is more fun, but The Blink Assassin is sexier and a better book. I can loan you the latter (my mom has the former) in exchange for Consider the Lobster. :)

    3. You got a deal! I've been jonesing for some Margaret Atwood lately. And speaking of: october 4th, 5$.

  2. Pleased to see "fishing" on both lists.

    1. Something about the attitude/intent one has towards their entertainment does seem to change what category it's in.

      Of course, that's up to the consumer, so all an author/producer/curator can do is maybe just be straightforward about their own intentions. Or not. Huh.

      Thanks for reading, brother!

  3. You've read his one on the "Conspicuously Young," right? Think Facebook. The dude was literally Nostradamus.

    1. Looks like that essay was published in "Both Flesh And Not".

      Time to put another book on hold at the library!

  4. Louis C. K. had many wise things to say there.

    I have nothing better to say than what I said on Facebook, so here 'tis on artsy fartsy blog: I see no future either in the TV culture of passionate ignorance or in the 'hip' reaction of worldly-wise ironic detachment. The one proposes meaning without facts, and the other proposes facts without meaning: two complementary halves of nihilism, each gnawing vigorously on its own tail while the world spins to a stop beneath them.

    1. Thanks, brother of mine. While I found your comments on FB profound and kinda funny, I didn't want them to simply wash away in the river of facebookery. Now I've got something for real future reference.

      Also, I'm on the same page with not seeing much future in these things. I'm trying to get a pulse on what futures might there be that I haven't seen, can't see, etc... Any ideas?