September 15, 2008

Dave Wallace in Illinois: In Memoriam David Foster Wallace

I’m a writer, and I grew up in Decatur, Illinois, 45 minutes from David Foster Wallace’s stomping grounds, so the news of Wallace's suicide has really hit me hard. I know in my bones the “true religious-type wind” that, he writes, “informed and deformed” life in the Midwest, and I whispered “Amen” when, based on this anecdotal evidence, Wallace questioned Chicago’s right to the name “Windy City.” My Midwestern upbringing doesn’t necessarily give me the ethos to hold forth on why, now that he has left this world, Wallace matters (confession: I’ve never been able to finish Infinite Jest) and has mattered for nearly twenty years, but it’s really all I have to go on.

To the best of my knowledge, he is the only writer from central Illinois—“Downstate,” Chicagolanders sniff—that has achieved such literary success. But it’s not so much his success that impressed me years ago when I first started reading his work; it’s that he consistently articulated phenomenological truths about growing up in the Midwest that I was incapable of (“[I feel] best physically enwebbed in sharp angles, acute bisections, shaved corners”) and because his work retained the ethic and aesthetic native to the region: a fundamental decency, roughened by a self-deprecating and ironic sense of humor reminiscent of central Indiana native David Letterman, who Wallace simultaneously lionizes and lampoons in his hilarious short story “My Appearance.”

Despite his highly allusive, referential, reflexive, digressive, meta-ness, Wallace was (much like Letterman) charming in a nerdy, didactic way. And he was, contrary to exasperated remarks about his use of footnotes, endnotes, sidebars and marginalia (Wallace notes on the copyright acknowledgment page at the beginning of his first book of stories, Girl With Curious Hair, that parts of his long story “Westward the Course of Empire Makes its Way” (another one I’ve always had a hell of a time finishing) were written in the margins of Barthes’ “Lost in the Funhouse and a book of stories by Cynthia Ozick) eager to make himself clear. “There’s a way, it seems to me,” said Wallace in a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, “that reality is fractured—at least the reality I live in.” The “footnote thing”—Rose’s phrase, not Wallace’s—“is a way to speak to this essential fractured-ness without creating a text that is unreadably fractured in and of itself.”

After reading a lot of DFW (as his cultish fans refer to him, although I do not refer to him this way because I’ve never been able to finish IJ ), you come to understand that this fractured prose style, characterized by segmented super-structures, labyrinthine sentences and protracted digressions, by turns entertaining and maddening, was not just surfacey glimmer belying great depth, but an actual concern with being precise. It’s revealing that Wallace briefly pursued a PhD in philosophy at Harvard before dropping out to devote himself to being a writer.

Internet posters who are now pointing out the hypocrisy of Wallace’s apparent suicide because his work so often plumbed the icky depths of selfishness and vanity (his New York Observer article “Great Male Narcissists” takes on the likes of Updike and Roth), clearly have not read him—or perhaps any literature for that matter—closely. Wallace’s whole ouvre reveals a deep-seated concern for human frailty, especially his own.

To my mind, Wallace’s articles and essays are among some of the best examples of nonfiction’s capability and flexibility as a literary genre that can bring the personal and the global to sensible speaking terms. He avoids the shrill ad hominem attacks of most cultural commentators by taking the empathetic high road with the likes of porn directors, right wing talk radio hosts and John McCain. Oh, how I wish he were still alive so he could bring a sane perspective to the Sarah Palin hysteria.

In his much anthologized essay, “Ticket to the Fair,” (retitled “Getting Away from Pretty Much Being Away from it All” for his collection of essays Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) he does not rub elbows with the unwashed masses at the Illinois State Fair to simply make fun of the antiquated ways and facile beliefs of middle Americans, so de rigeur in this election year, nor did he do it in order to gain the populist cred that so many artists have a difficult time genuinely earning. No, it seems to me his project was more transcendental: he was interested in understanding how humans have the capacity to contain both hideousness and goodness—beauty is conspicuously absent at the fair. Wallace avoided sentimentality. I liked to think that he shared a bit of Flannery O’Connor’s view that sentimentality is the premature, unearned, naive claim to innocence, which tends by some strange alchemy to become its opposite.

His first book of short stories Girl with Curious Hair changed my life. In grad school I was under the dual influence of Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever, two of the undisputed masters of the post-war short story. I would sit in my apartment and read and re-read their stories trying to understand how they worked. The result was stories with Cheever’s lofty exposition, decorous prose and interest in domestic rifts over money and O’Connor’s penchant for characters with allegorical-sounding names and some sort of deformity eventually knocked down several pegs by an act of violence. Writing those stories felt like watch repair rather than an ecstatic rendezvous with the muse. And then one day I spotted Girl with Curious Hair in a bookstore and opened it to the title story.

“Gimlet dreamed that if she did not see a concert last night she would become a type of liquid, therefore my friends Mr. Wonderful, Big, Gimlet and I went to see Keith Jarrett play a piano concert at the Irvine Concert Hall in Irvine last night.”

My jaw was on the floor. I laughed and looked around to see if anyone noticed. I wish I could tell you that in that instant I realized what I was doing wrong—nothing so grand happened—but at that moment I knew that I had no voice of my own. Later, after reading all the stories (with the exception of “Westward the Course of Empire Makes its Way”), it would further dawn on me that stories did not have to open and close with a sharp, neat click, like so many of O’Connor’s and Cheever’s where the endings are dramatically satisfying and pitch-perfect, some so perfect that I nearly quit writing all together. Wallace’s stories are messy and dispense with the old trope of everyday life being interrupted by crisis in favor of stories that begin, for example, in the twi-lit hyperreality of a sociopathic man with a malformed hand he calls “the asset” because he uses it to get laid, or in a recent New Yorker story, eavesdropping on a young, evangelically-Christian-oriented boyfriend and girlfriend discussing plans to abort their love child. Many writers have fecund enough imaginations to dream up such characters and circumstances, but Wallace was one of the rare few able to make them uncannily familiar to us—to see in these troubled characters aspects of ourselves.
Perhaps this is David Lynch’s influence. Wallace’s admits his indebtedness to Lynch in the essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head” about hanging around the set of Lynch’s Lost Highway: “For me, Lynch's movies' deconstruction of this weird irony of the banal has affected the way I see and organize the world..” Wallace defined Lynch’s brand of irony as the “kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." Examples of such irony abound in Wallace’s work. In “Girl with Curious Hair” the narrator is a bigoted, card-carrying, English Leather cologne wearing Young Republican who hangs out with acid-tripping punk rockers who burn one another with cigarette lighters while performing fellatio.

The David Lynch article is a wonderful, fragmented homage, but, more than that, an ars poetica displaying Wallace’s intellectual and aesthetic foundations and formation—what reviews used to be. Wallace, prone to stuttering in public interviews, points out that even Lynch’s manner of speaking is postmodern:

“like Jimmy Stewart on acid . . . This is a genius auteur whose vocabulary in person consists of things like okey-doke and marvy and terrif and gee. When a production assistant appears with the tuna-fish sandwich he's asked for, he stops in the middle of his huddle with the Steadicam operator and tells her "Thanks a million." David Letterman says this kind of stuff too, but Letterman always says it in a way that lets you know he's making fun of about 400 things at the same time.”

Wallace had this capacity, too, but instead of allowing those 400 things to hang suspended there, implied, he enumerated them.

It wasn’t that he was trying to be, as many critics and readers estimate, humorous in a po-mo ironic way, and it’s not just that he’s worried that he has not made himself clear, but that he goes beyond the point of mere worry to chronic, paralyzing self-consciousness. He does admit that if there is a “schtick” in his essays its origins are in his self-consciousness about being sent by magazines to cover events as a journalist would, press pass and notebook in hand, when he does not consider himself a journalist. And it’s not just that he doesn’t consider himself a journalist but that he knows that he in fact is not one: he has not the training or the skills. This, it seems, is the genius of Wallace’s work—and not genius in that rarified way often bandied about, meaning innate, unteachable, near-magical, but in the way that genius may be said to be something native to all humans but rarely realized; personal genius; to do much with what one has been given. In short, his genius is in his awareness of what he doesn’t know, or is not very good at, and owning up to it in such a way that paradoxically restores our confidence in the importance of searching for knowledge through personal experience.

In his essay on tennis he writes of the “unlyrical problem” of trying to accurately strike a ball within the rectilinear lines of a tennis court on windy day in central Illinois: “the best-planned, best-hit ball often [blows] out of bounds.” Wallace’s writes that his tactic was to not overcompensate for the wind but to simply hit the ball as true as he could back up the middle of the court and allow the wind to distort its trajectory. His opponents, much bigger and stronger and better-coached, were sent into racket-throwing tantrums at the unfairness of being screwed over by something as unpredictable and uncontrollable.
In the years that follow, the task of trying to estimate David Foster Wallace’s greatness will prove to be similarly unfair and maddening.

August 11, 2008

Sweet Briar College 2008-2009 International Writers Series

Today Sweet Briar College announced the line-up for its 2008-09 International Writers Series. Readers will include Azar Nafisi, Zakes Mda, Yiyun Li, Zhang Er, Luis Goytisolo, Manil Suri and Bernardo Atxaga. All lectures and readings are free and open to the public.

As many of you know, I now teach at Sweet Briar. This is going to be an amazing year. John Gregory Brown, director of Creative Writing, has put together a stellar slate of writers. If you are in the area please stop in.

For more information, please visit the official Website at

August 10, 2008

Just When I think I Can get Away from Writing About Torture...

Do yourself a favor and read the NY Times article on about the art installation on the boardwalk at Coney Island, NY. It depicts an interrogator in executioner's hood waterboarding a detainee in an orange jumpsuit.

The story is not straight news, nor is it strict editorial; I guess it's more of a feature. In terms of contemporary journalistic practice, this is both nothing new (articles of this sort are written every day) and very important because in the absence of an actual serious review of the art she allows the multiple layers of cloying irony surrounding the art and its exhibition to overrun the the article.

The first level of irony is that Steve Powers, the artist, is totally not what you would expect. Kaminer focuses, in keeping with narrative journalistic convention, on his manner of dress: he is wearing pink seersucker shorts when the author interviews him and is pushing his 15 month old in a stroller. I know, spooky. Then there's the irony that the installation is at Coney Island, home to the ghost of freak shows past, right across from where, according to Kaminer, the World's Tiniest Woman used to chill. Then there's the irony of the disparate responses to the installation. Some actually feel that waterboarding is a fine way to get terrorists to talk! Some even think it's funny!! Then there's the voice (and style) of the article, full of asides and editorializing, which totally provides a house for this irony orgy to go down--come on over to my house; I'm totally down--*wink*. Stylistically speaking, there's no accounting for taste, but the result I'm more concerned with as a reader is that Kaminer isn't a credible reviewer of the work; in fact, she doesn't review the work at all--she's in bed with artist, so to speak. Steve Powers' art, on the strength of his politics and depth of his empathy, is given a free pass.

Now, Kaminer and Powers are, no doubt, talented people (Kaminer has recently been named editor of the Art and Leisure section at the NY Times and Powers is, according to the article well-represented and financially supported by a community arts organization, Creative Time), but my point is this: If we're gonna call something art--in this case an animatronic interrogator waterboarding an animatronic detainee that writhes for 15 seconds after being doused--then there needs to be some accounting for whether it's successful or not. Kaminer doesn't explicitly go there. She is caught between her journalistic duty to remain objective and, it seems, her cynicism that such art will change hearts and minds. Fair enough, but it also feels to me that in dodging any sort of judgement she is saying that she is either too cool to actually say anything earnest about art and its capacity to change our minds about anything--let alone torture--or that she feels incapable of it. There is also the possibility that the tone and style of Kaminer's article are actually calculated to subvert Steve Powers' work. She does seem to have a problem with the fact that he doesn't particularly have a agenda other than to get people thinking about the issue. But I think that this kind of looking-down-the-nose treatment is even more distasteful (and, frankly, typical of the Times). I mean, look, I'm totally against waterboarding, but do me a solid and tell me whether the art is good or not. That's why I read the Times. I'm looking for an informed view not coyness.

I'm not calling for a hatchet job; I'm just looking for a voice of reason. Let's cut through the b.s. and tell it like it is. It's clear to me that Kaminer, as editor, could do this if she wanted, but instead she sticks with the dominant cosmopolitan brand of narrative journalism in which on the surface the author appears objective, but underneath there is a holier-than-thou current.

I would recommend Dave Hickey's book of art criticism/essays, Air Guitar and some of Virginia Woolf's book reviews.

I did have a thing here about how much I love David Lynch because he doesn't mess around with low levels of irony. He goes right for the uncanny, the unsettling, the unheimlich. But I took that out. I'm sure you are all sick of hearing me crow about how brilliant Lynch is.

I wonder if the NY Times would publish this as a letter to the ed?

Artist of Month and Review of Standard Operating Procedure

Sorry for the long radio silence. I was away for the last six weeks in Erie, PA teaching fiction writing at the PA Governor's School for the Arts. This was my eight summer up there. Hard to believe. It was glorious. The kids blow me away every year. Anyway, back to my excuse: My schedule up there is crazy (M-F 8 :00 am-6:30 pm, with a break for lunch and dinner, as well as a morning class of Saturday), so needless to say when it comes to the end of the week I do not feel like writing.

The other reason why I haven't been keeping up with the blog is because I'm beginning a new book project. And with a new book project--the working title is Any Poorer Than Dead--comes a new blog, which you can find over on Wordpress at It's really just a notebook, a place to throw words around, but you can check it out if you like.

All that aside, I felt compelled to write a post here because a couple Abu Ghraib/A Good War is Hard to Find related things have happened in the last week.

1.) The literary journal Image has named me Artist-of-the-Month. Check that out here. Image is a beautiful journal. Great production value. Great writing. Great people running it.

2.) My review of Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure is up at If you read it, please bear in mind that my crankiness is the result of the fact that I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours reading articles and interviews about Abu Ghraib for my own book, and so I set the bar very high for a book whose publisher basically claims it is THE book to end all books on the subject. More than that, Penguin claims that it should be considered in the same league as Dante's Inferno, Heart of Darkness and "The Grand Inquisitor" of Brothers K fame. I'm a liberal arts educated kid, so I've read all of those books, and I'm here to say, it ain't in the same ballpark. Not that it's a bad book--quite the contrary. It's just not life-changing if you've kept up with coverage of the scandal the way I have. Although I have to say I'm concerned that this means I won't be publishing in the Paris Review EVER (aside: Gourevitch is the editor).

I'll continue to post here when relevant to Good War, but I'll be spending most of my energy over at the other blog, Any Poorer Than Dead.



April 27, 2008

John Wideman Has Won the Pulitzer

John Wideman's new book, Fanon, reviewed today in the New York Times Book Review should win the Pulitzer Prize if it's as good as advertised. I'm calling it right now. I just ordered it and can't wait for it to arrive. I haven't been this excited about a book in a long time. Check out the review here:

April 10, 2008

Depravities of War at 2nd Street Gallery

I wanted to put up some pictures from the panel discussion I was a part of at the end of March. The work on the wall behind me is Sandow Birk's, the man sitting to my right, and is part of his new exhibition, Depravities of War. It is a truly stunning body of work. Check it out if it comes your way.

March 14, 2008

"Funny Games"

You have to check out A.O. Scott's review of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's
new film, Funny Games.

Here's a taste of it:

It is likely that Mr. Haneke would take the last two adjectives as praise — it’s fine with me if they show up in advertisements — or at least as the acknowledgment of fulfilled intentions. His is an especially pure and perverse kind of cinematic sadism, the kind that seeks to stop us from taking pleasure in our own masochism. We will endure the pain he inflicts for our own good, and feel bad about it in the bargain.

“Funny Games,” Mr. Haneke’s first English-language film — and a compulsively faithful replica of his notorious 1997 German-language feature of the same title — subjects its viewers to a long spectacle of wanton and gratuitous brutality. So, of course, do countless other movies, though few of them can claim this one’s artistic pedigree or aesthetic prestige. And indeed, the conceit of “Funny Games” is that it offers a harsh, exacting critique of vulgar, violent amusements, a kind of homeopathic treatment for a public numbed and besotted by the casual consumption of images of suffering. That the new version takes place in America is part of the point, since Americans — to a European intellectual this almost goes without saying — are especially deserving of the kind of moral correction Mr. Haneke takes it upon himself to mete out.

Bravo. But what's strange is that Scott was not so tough on Tarantino's Grindhouse. That film--gory, campy and masturbatory as the day is long--won Scott over, it seems, because he saw it as a hearkening back to the good old days of midnight showings of tasteless B movie:

“Grindhouse,” soaked in bloody nostalgia for the cheesy, disreputable pleasures of an older form of movie entertainment, can also be seen as a passionate protest against the present state of the entertainment industry.

It seems to me that Haneke's film hits a bit too close to home for Scott's likening. Throughout his review he passive aggressively attacks Haneke's implication that Americans are intellectually shallow, have coarse (or at best) unrefined tastes, and are driven and derided by blood-lust.

Here is Scott ranting about the film's self-awareness--the killers in the film look into the camera and address the audience:

At these moments, using techniques that might have seemed audacious to an undergraduate literary theory class in 1985 or so, the film calls attention to its own artificial status. It actually knows it’s a movie! What a clever, tricky game! What fun! What a fraud.

So why does Scott see metaphor and meaning in Tarantino, but film school pretension with Euro-trash B.O. in Haneke? It's tricky to parse, but I'll give it a shot. First, Scott is right on the money with his assertion that Haneke's film engages in the "kind of cinematic sadism . . .that seeks to stop us from taking pleasure in our own masochism." He is also dead-on with his sense that a tied-up Naomi Watts hopping around in her underwear is, as academes say, problematic. Scott wonders aloud at the possibility of audiences finding this titillating.

And to give Scott further credit, he is careful to say that Haneke is trying to evoke such problems and effect, not that he has successfully done so. Only a handful of film masterpieces like Lynch's Blue Velvet and Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour have, I think, successfully entered and dabbled in such dark territory. In Blue Velvet we become voyeurs and detectives along with Jeffrey and learn how the two are, to say the least, in conflict. In Mon Amour we are told that we (Westerners) have actually seen nothing and know nothing of Hiroshima--don't even try.

However, ultimately (ostensibly), Scott is reviewing the film, not Haneke, right? Well, Scott is subtle about it, or maybe even unaware, but his reaction to Haneke's film seems tinged by a cultural clash. American film is big-budget, slick, sexy, garish--the term embarrassment of riches springs to mind--violence is lovingly and spectacularly (sublimely!) rendered. Haneke's film and filmmaking--an English language remake of his own 1997 film with Hollywood actors (though the leads are not American)--is "immaculate," "manipulative, "clammy" and "repellant." According to Scott, the camera remains still, steady, gazing on the violence. Something anathema in Hollywood film. And while I'm sure Scott can name many films, foreign and indie, that share these same anti-Hollywood, anti-American qualities, I can't escape the feeling that calling Haneke a fraud is an easy way out. If he is a fraud, then he has no strength of conviction. His ouvre is not driven by vision but by pure intellect. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing I hate more than art that comes with a prerequisite reading list in order to understand it, but Scott sounds here in his appreciation of Tarantino and scorn for Haneke, like one who still refers to french fries as Freedom Fries.

March 08, 2008

Depravity, Upheaval and the 'Good War'

If you're anywhere near Charlottesville, Virginia in late March have to check out Second Street Gallery and their exhibition of LA-based painter/illustrator Sandow Birk's work on the Iraq War, straightforwardly titled "The Depravities of War."

And if you happen to by passing through at the end of the month you can check out a panel discussion at Second Street Gallery featuring Sandow Birk, myself and composer Judith Shatin, moderated by Bill Cleveland, author of the forthcoming Art and Upheaval. The panel is titled "Depravity, Upheaval and the 'Good War'" and is a part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, which is a big to-do replete with high teas, luncheons and banquets feting famous writers.

Should be a great evening. Hope to see you there.