RE­LENT­LESS TRAN­SCRIBER OF THE COS­MIC and the QUO­TID­IAN

Con­sid­er­ing David Fos­ter Wal­lace

Pasatiempo - - Mixed Media - Kevin Can­field

This month the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion cel­e­brates the work of David Fos­ter Wal­lace. Bor­row­ing its name from the late nov­el­ist’s book about num­bers and the na­ture of in­fin­ity, the pro­gram is ti­tled Ev­ery­thing

and More. It’s a short, el­e­gant phrase that per­fectly en­cap­su­lates Wal­lace’s tal­ents and range.

“He had an in­ter­est in ev­ery­thing and more, and I think that his life was spent try­ing to find out ex­actly what he could do,” Michael Sil­verblatt, the mod­er­a­tor of the Lan­nan event, said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “He was quite a polymath, but more than that he was a gen­er­ous and, I would say, ten­der per­son.” Trag­i­cally, Wal­lace lived for just 46 years, but for his de­voted read­ers, he left be­hind an end­lessly stim­u­lat­ing stock­pile of writ­ing.

On Wed­nes­day, March 16, at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, Sil­verblatt, a friend of Wal­lace’s and the host of the pop­u­lar pub­lic-ra­dio show Book­worm, is joined at the Lan­nan by nov­el­ists Rick Moody and Joanna Scott and jour­nal­ist David Lip­sky, the au­thor of Al­though of Course You End Up Be­com­ing Your­self: A Road Trip With David Fos­ter Wal­lace.

Wal­lace, of course, is best known for his sec­ond

novel, In­fi­nite Jest, a wild, hi­lar­i­ous, and pre­scient epic pub­lished in 1996. It is nearly 1,100 heav­ily-foot­noted pages, and from the mo­ment it was pub­lished, no one doubted the artis­tic merit of Wal­lace’s “dif­fi­cult gifts,” as fel­low nov­el­ist Zadie Smith once put it.

But to try to pin Wal­lace down, to fig­ure him out, on the ba­sis of one novel, even one this vast, is both silly and im­pos­si­ble. Take In­fi­nite Jest. It’s a book about ad­ver­tis­ing, drugs, ten­nis, the mod­ern press, weather, so­cial mores, fam­ily life, and dozens of other top­ics. Though he mas­tered these sub­jects, Wal­lace did so less as an ex­pert than he did as a sort of deeply en­gaged stu­dent.

As it hap­pened, his chief aca­demic pur­suits were more ab­struse. “I was a phi­los­o­phy ma­jor in col­lege,” Wal­lace told Char­lie Rose in a 1997 in­ter­view, “but my ar­eas of in­ter­est were math­e­mat­i­cal logic and se­man­tics.” These sub­jects were cov­ered at length in the hon­ors the­sis Wal­lace wrote while en­rolled as a phi­los­o­phy stu­dent at Amherst Col­lege. The re­cent pub­li­ca­tion, in a hand­some pa­per­back, of this the­sis — ti­tled “Fate, Time, and Lan­guage: An Es­say on Free Will” — stands as a pretty fair tes­ta­ment to the fact that many read­ers are ob­sessed with ev­ery word Wal­lace put to pa­per. (Sam­ple sen­tence from this ex­tremely dif­fi­cult piece of writ­ing: “Tense-op­er­a­tors serve to re­move tense from the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the main propo­si­tion to be eval­u­ated and ‘pack the tense into the pre­fix.’ ”)

More ev­i­dence of the long shadow Wal­lace casts over con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture ar­rived in Fe­bru­ary, when the BBC aired a ra­dio doc­u­men­tary about his life and writ­ing. It’s a won­der­ful ef­fort, well worth seek­ing out on­line, with ap­pre­ci­a­tions from lit­er­ary gi­ants and in­ti­mate re­flec­tions from his agent, edi­tor, and sis­ter.

“There’s some­thing mag­i­cal for me about lit­er­a­ture and fic­tion,” Wal­lace says in the doc­u­men­tary, “and I think it can do things not only that pop cul­ture can’t do, but that are ur­gent now. One is that by cre­at­ing a char­ac­ter in a piece of fic­tion you can al­low a reader to leap over the wall of self, and to imag­ine him­self be­ing not just some­where else but some­one else, in a way that ... no other form can do.” Wal­lace wrote two story col­lec­tions af­ter In­fi­nite Jest — Brief In­ter­views With Hideous Men and

Obliv­ion — and his third novel, The Pale King, will be pub­lished in April. He was work­ing on the book, a tale that cen­ters on fed­eral gov­ern­ment jobs and bore­dom, when he com­mit­ted sui­cide in Septem­ber 2008.

Wal­lace’s ar­ti­cles and es­says he wrote for mag­a­zines in­clud­ing Harper’s, Pre­miere, The At­lantic, and Gourmet are ev­ery bit as ac­com­plished as his fic­tion. With verve, eru­di­tion, and great care, he wrote richly re­ported pieces about sub­jects as dif­fer­ent as the ethics of seafood prepa­ra­tion and the porno­graphic film in­dus­try’s an­swer to the Os­cars. Many of these pieces were col­lected in A Sup­pos­edly Fun Thing I’ll Never

Do Again and Con­sider the Lob­ster, and an ar­gu­ment can be made that these two books are among the most in­sight­ful, wide-rang­ing, and read­able nonfiction ti­tles of the last 15 years.

For ex­am­ple, here’s Wal­lace just get­ting warmed up in an es­say about dic­tio­nar­ies, gram­mar, and “the seamy un­der­belly of U.S. lex­i­cog­ra­phy”: “Did you know that some mod­ern dic­tio­nar­ies are no­to­ri­ously lib­eral and oth­ers no­to­ri­ously con­ser­va­tive, and that cer­tain con­ser­va­tive dic­tio­nar­ies were ac­tu­ally con­ceived and de­signed as cor­rec­tive re­sponses to the ‘corruption’ and ‘per­mis­sive­ness’ of cer­tain lib­eral dic­tio­nar­ies?”

Wal­lace’s skills of anal­y­sis were never more ap­par­ent than in “Up, Simba,” his mod­ern clas­sic of pres­i­den­tial cam­paign-trail re­portage, which he wrote while trav­el­ing with John McCain in 2000. The piece, which ap­peared in Rolling Stone and was later ex­panded and sold as an e-book, deals art­fully with the gap be­tween the can­di­date’s ap­peal to left-of-cen­ter vot­ers (like Wal­lace, for one) and his con­ser­va­tive bona fides.

The McCain piece is also a re­fresh­ingly earnest call for civic en­gage­ment. “Sales­man or leader or nei­ther or both, the fi­nal para­dox …” Wal­lace con­cludes, “is that whether [McCain is] truly ‘for real’ now de­pends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours. Try to stay awake.”

Says Sil­verblatt, “David was a hopeful fa­tal­ist, and as such, he was what we all are.” Wal­lace, he added, had “a colos­sal in­tel­li­gence that didn’t fool it­self into think­ing that the path was to write Fin­negan’s Wake af­ter he’d writ­ten his Ulysses. He re­ally, re­ally wanted to fig­ure out how to make a book that would both be what he called ‘ a hard book’ — he loved to say this: ‘a hard book’ — but also be ac­ces­si­ble to read­ers.”

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