starlady: A typewriter.  (tool of the trade)
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David Foster Wallace took his own life a little more than a year ago, in November 2008. Quite aside from the private tragedy of every suicide, Wallace's death was a great blow to American letters (NB: I'm using this phrase more or less self-consciously, meaning "literary fiction, its adherents, acolytes and apologists," amongst whose numbers I sometimes count myself), as reading one his books of collected essays, Consider the Lobster, makes heart-breakingly clear. Though probably the best-known fact about Wallace's magnum opus Infinite Jest is that it's more than 1500 pages long, the pretension of which elicited a certain amount of derisory mocking after hours in my high school English classroom, Consider the Lobster reveals on nearly every page that Wallace was in fact the exact opposite of pretentious--he was a deeply ethical, deeply engaged humanist in the fullest sense of the term, whose desire for an American letters that is unafraid to wrestle with the big questions of life is made clear in several pieces, and which stands out in incandescent contrast to the lazy, small-minded self-absorption of supposedly 'great writers' like John Updike (whose Toward the End of Time Wallace skewers mercilessly and accurately in this book).

Given Wallace's eventual fate, it's admittedly slightly chilling to come across, in some of the essays, interpolative passages on suicide: the propensity of suicides to happen in hotels in "Up, Simba," the propensity of porn stars to suicide in "Big Red Son." I'm sure these were cut for publication (just as the paragraph talking about suicide was cut from the book form of the commencement speech Wallace delivered in spring 2008), but hindsight is perfect, and perfectly sad. Ave atque vale, DFW.

It's hard to pick a favorite among these pieces, but I think "Up, Simba," written for Rolling Stone during John McCain's 2000 nomination dogfight with the Shrub (as Bush II is usually referred to in the essay), is a standout. Like most of the earlier pieces, it offers a weird window back onto the ephemera of daily life in our near-past that only an eyeblink later have disappeared (computers with diskettes! cell phones with antennas! no one has crackBerries!), but it's also wrenching because of later events, only bruited about on the Trail, that later came to pass in real life, both during the Bush presidency and the McCain presidential campaign (random example: it's striking that Wallace uses forms of "brittle" to describe Cindy McCain multiple times when that word cropped up repeatedly w/r/t to her in coverage eight years later). But what really makes it worthwhile is that it's a strikingly candid look into the mechanics of a modern political campaign, as well as a strikingly candid discussion of campaign strategy. Wallace's cold-eyed cynicism, combined with his deciding to hang around with the network news techs rather than with his fellow reporters, produces exactly the sort of honest report that a regular journalist would never produce. (In some ways it's also just bizarre. Monica Lewinsky!? I lived through it, and it's still incomprehensible. In retrospect all the scandals of the 90s seem like chump change compared to what came later in the Naughts.) Anyway, here follows quotation of an excellent point Wallace makes:

       "If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don't bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don't bullshit yourself that you're not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote."

The next one I'm going to quote in full just because I reread it three times for the sheer virtuoso joy of it:

       "That's what these pros call it, the Trail, the same way musicians talk about the Road. The schedule is fascist: wake-up call and backup alarm at 0600h, express check-out, Baggage Call at 0700 to throw bags and techs' gear under the bus, haul ass to McCain's first THM at 0800, then another, then another; maybe an hour off to F&F someplace if ODTs permit, then usually two big evening events, plus hours of dead highway DT between functions, finally getting into that night's Marriott or Hampton Inn at like 2300 just when room service closes so that you're begging rides from FoxNews to find a restaurant still open, then an hour at the hotel bar to try to shut your head off so you can hit the rack at 0130 and get up at 0600 and do it all again. Usually it's four to six days for the average pencil and then you go off home on a gurney and your editor rotates in fresh meat. The network techs, who are old hands at the Trail, stay on for months at a time. The McCain2000 staff have all been doing this full-time since Labor Day, and even the young ones look like the walking dead. Only McCain seems to thrive. He's 63 and practically Rockette-kicks onto the Express every morning. It's either inspirational or frightening."

The title piece felt strangely apropos to me, since I had just been listening to a discussion of The Foie Gras Wars on Radio Times: Wallace, on assignment from Gourmet magazine, attended the Maine Lobster Festival and, confronted with spectacles such as the World's Largest Lobster Cooker, took his article for a complete left-turn into the question of whether or not lobsters feel pain (A: difficult to say, but they do scramble like mad to escape when they're being boiled alive, which would seem to indicate something significant) and whether it's ethical to eat them and any animals, as well as whether, even if eating lobsters is ethical, boiling them while still alive is ethical. I never thought I'd feel sorry for a lobster, but DFW made me feel sorry for the lobsters. Poor giant sea insects. In DFW's words:

       "Still, after all the abstract intellection, there remains the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience. To my lay mind, the lobster's behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering."

And finally, from Wallace's review of Joseph Frank's multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, on what's wrong with American literature and the American intelligentsia:

       "It's actually not true that our literary culture is nihilistic, at least not in the radical sense of Turgenev's Bazarov. For there are certain tendencies we believe are bad, qualities we hate and fear. Among these are sentimentality, naivete, archaism, fanaticism. It would probably be better to call our own art's culture now one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia distrust strong belief, open conviction. Material passion is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us on some deep level. We believe that ideology is now the province of the rival SIGs and PACs all trying to get their slice of the big green pie...and, looking around us, we see that indeed it is so. But Frank's Dostoevsky would point out (or more like hop up and down and shake his fist and fly at us and shout) that if this is so, it's at least partly because we have abandoned the field. That we've abandoned it to fundamentalists whose pitiless rigidity and eagerness to judge show that they're clueless about the 'Christian values' they would impose on others. To rightist militias and conspiracy theorists whose paranoia about the government supposes the government to be just way more organized and efficient than it really is. And, in academia and the arts, to the increasingly absurd and dogmatic Political Correctness movement, whose obsession with the mere forms of utterance and discourse show too well how effete and aestheticized our best liberal instincts have become, how removed from what's really important--motive, feeling, belief."

I think Wallace nails what's wrong with literature and the left pretty well in this (though Cory Doctorow' book Little Brother certainly shows that it's not just the right wing who are prone to delusions of efficacy w/r/t the government), and I wonder what it will take to dig both out of the hole into which they've fallen. At this point it almost seems like a cliche to cite Obama, but cliche or no I can't help but feel that if anyone can incite people--especially and most importantly, younger people--to reinvent the democratic spirit, by which I mean the spirit of a functioning Republic, as well as to reinvigorate liberalism, it's Barack Obama. I think the situation in literature is more complex--I think that there are some younger novelists not afraid to wrestle with the important questions, and I also think that literary fiction needs to de-ghettoize itself. I'm wary of coming out and saying "sff fiction is where the progressive movement has gone" because a) people like John C. Wright are an incarnate contradiction to that idea and b) it's the same sort of "media fandom isn't racist!" fallacy that media fans were saying during RaceFail (and continue to say, in some cases) and it just isn't true. But I do think a good number of sff authors and their fans are progressive and at least potentially politically committed, and I think that literary fiction could do a lot worse than to take a few pages out of sff's books, particularly in terms of idealism and conviction. Sff, meanwhile, could learn a few things about style, in many cases, from literary fiction.

Postscript: Dear Little, Brown & Company: Philadelphia's 180-year old major news daily is the Philadelphia Inquirer, not the Philadelphia Enquirer. Fire your copy editor.
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