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Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

David Foster Wallace Dead

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/13/08 at 07:55 PM

(This isn’t how I imagined returning to the fold.  I’ll hold the official stuff until Monday.)

Of an apparent suicide, according to Ed ChampionLos Angeles Times confirms

CR’s reaction nails mine.  Wallace was a brilliant, unpredictable author whose next book always could’ve been---what I mean to say, if Philip Roth dies, I’ll be upset, but it wouldn’t tie my stomach in knots.  Roth’s entered the late-James stage of his career---his works refine and distill and what readers expect from them.  With Wallace, there was still potential---his next book could’ve been another Infinite Jest, his next story could’ve been utterly unlike Oblivion, his next article could’ve done to McCain what Wallace’d done to lobsters.  In short, his unwritten work could’ve been differently brilliant.

Thoughts on suicide from a man who’s already committed it, in Oblivion’s “Good Old Neon”:

I simply said, without going into anything like the level of detail I’ve given you (because my purpose in the letter was of course very different), that I was killing myself because I was an essentially fraudulent person who seemed to lack either the character or the firepower to find a way to stop even after I’d realized my fraudulence and the terrible toll it exacted . . . I also inserted that there was also a good possibility that, when all was said and done, I was nothing but another fact-track yuppie who couldn’t love, and that I found the banality of this unendurable, largely because I was evidently so hollow and insecure that I had a pathological need to see myself as somehow exceptional or outstanding at all times. Without going into much explanation or argument, I also told Fern that if her initial reaction to these reasons for my killing myself was to think I was being much, much too hard on myself, then she should know that I was already aware that that was the most likely reaction my note would produce in her, and had probably deliberately constructed the note to at least in part prompt just that reaction, just the way my whole life I’d often said and done things designed to prompt certain people to believe that I was a genuinely outstanding person whose personal standards were so high that he was far too hard on himself, which in turn made me appear attractively modest and unsmug, and was a big reason for my popularity with so many people in all different avenues of my life . . .” (173)

Of this story, Dan Green wrote:

At its core, “Good Old Neon” is indeed a story about a story, although we don’t know that until its conclusion. We do then discover, however, that “Good Old Neon” has been an impersonation by “David Wallace” of one of the latter’s high school classmates who died in a “fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991,” an attempt by the fictionalized author of Oblivion to “imagine what all must have happened to lead up to” that crash, why someone “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 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” would drive into a bridge abutment.

It is a wholly convincing impersonation, and emotionally charged in a way we perhaps don’t expect from David Foster Wallace. And it is precisely in the act of “baring the device”—the story self-reflexively disclosing that it is indeed a story—that “Good Old Neon” produces its greatest emotional effect. For in addition to the genuine human feeling for the distress of its imagined protagonist the story encourages in us, even more compelling is the revelation that it was some such feeling on its author’s part that led “David Wallace” to write the story in the first place.


Comments

The pace of his writing seemed to have slowed significantly since Infinite Jest. I can’t help but wonder if that was a factor. Terrible news, now confirmed by the LA Times.

By G C on 09/13/08 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

About Dan Green’s comment: My copy of Oblivion is in my office, but, as I recall, Wallace introduces some machinery in “Good Old Neon” that suggests the life was inhabited or re-experienced technologically, a serial number or something at the end. “[-> NMN.40.818]” (p. 181, viewable at Amazon).

Or the record of a sitting, perhaps.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/14/08 at 12:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(Oddly, p. 181 isn’t viewable to me on Amazon, but my wife’s computer can view it.  This’s just so as not to disappoint someone who seeks that out.)

Absolutely, Jonathan.  There’s what increasingly seemed to be a nod to irony--"I’m familiar with Krapp’s Last Tape and so are you"--tacked onto the story, but what separated Wallace from, say, disciples of Barthelme, is the almost embarrassing sentimentalism of his work.  The tension between the two--and the awareness that he could tip either way--is ultimately what made him brilliant.  Was he too clever by half?  Certainly.  But he was even more cleverer--so much so he could tug your heartstrings while yanking your chain.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/14/08 at 12:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Still stunned since hearing the news last night. I put up a MetaFilter post that’s had over 300 stunned-into-silence comments that I think is worth reading, as well as (just now) a longer and more retrospective obituary post at my own site.

By G C on 09/14/08 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

a serial number or something at the end.

It’s “[->NMN.80.418]”, and it’s the story’s dedication: NMN the initials of Neal, the dead narrator, Wallace’s former schoolmate, class of ‘80, .418 hitter.  Not a serial number, or yanking our chain.

Terrible news.

By Praxis on 09/15/08 at 07:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I did mis-copy the text, and those correspondences are difficult to dispute. At the same time, however, a batting average from an American Legion is a tellingly arbitrary way to identify someone. The bracketed text seems to function in the same way that the numbers in BIHM did, to indicate that this is one of a series of imaginative reconstructions. (The gravity of the narrator’s consciousness distorts the account in several ways. It seems implausible that this character would have had the same reaction to a course on mathematical logic that our narrator imagines, for example.)

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/15/08 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just started to read a 2003 interview with Wallace from The Believer (linked to by The Howling Fantods, a long-lived Wallace completist site), and it occurred to me that The Believer probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for David Foster Wallace.  n+1 probably would not, either.  McSweeney’s might not have developed the energy it did.  Benjamin Kunkel’s and Dave Egger’s first books would likely have looked somewhat different.  He was a huge influence—“inspiration” would probably not be a poor choice of words—on younger writers whose own work is not so intellectual or so experimental.

I always thought Wallace struggled to incorporate the truths he knew from his study of philosophy, somehow, into his fiction.  Laura Miller’s tribute in Salon suggests this struggle extended to his having tried to apply the intense conceptual scrutiny of analytic philosophy to the way he thought about and lived his own life.

By on 09/16/08 at 05:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

bianca, I thought about that the other night, but chalked it up my own narcissism.  Not that I’m calling you narcissistic, but you saying that provides some outside validation to the notion that I wasn’t being narcissistic.  I say this because Infinite Jest came out my freshman year at LSU, and every time I saw someone lugging it around, I’d approach them, so that by the time I was about half-way done, an informal reading group had created itself.  (This is, I think, one of the reason his death has had the effect it’s had—so many of his readers transferred some bit of the intimacy they felt, based on the investment required to read IJ, to other readers.) This loose association of people who read Wallace, Pynchon, and Gaddis were the same people who’d be reading McSweeney’s, The Believer and n+1.  Because Wallace brought us together, I thought it was narcissistic of me to think that he’s responsible for the birth of a generation with “single-entendre values”:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.

I stole that quotation from Wallace via Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s tribute to the man she shared a hallway with for six years.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/16/08 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hm.  I’m a bit (ten or twelve years?) older than you, and I didn’t major in literature in college.  Probably one or both of those things would make my take on Wallace’s writing different from yours.  Of course our collective general memory of Wallace’s work (whatever that means) comprises the thoughts of many people, from working novelists, to psychoanalysts, to Internet trolls, to high school students.  The fact that his writing touched so many different kinds of people in so many different kinds of ways is a tribute in itself.

I’m not sure I meant to imply that he somehow engendered that younger generation.  More like “gave permission to,” in a very public way, because he was so successful himself, and so willing to speak his mind.  Probably there were others already working around the same time, whose interests were very similar.  Eggers has done a lot to develop the attitude, as well.  But I do think that for many writers, Wallace’s fiction seemed so deep and its style, so perfectly crafted for its purpose, that he seemed to breathe new life into things.

I hope this addresses your point.

By on 09/16/08 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sure, points in time and place are important signifiers of who we are...age,attendant cultural effluvia ,schools, homes past and present;and so DFW tried hard to break them all down, to reduce their meanings and effects so that we could find out what was left. This I loved about his work. 
Having children helps filter out what is extraneous.  It helps reduce all of it to love for those around us, which is what DFW spoke about as a commencement speaker one time.

By on 09/25/08 at 08:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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