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Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace’

6: “A Craving for Silence”

April 27, 2015 | by

From “Kang” through “Music,” pp. 116–140


This is the sixth entry in our Mating Book Club. (Sorry for the wait!) Read along.

This latest portion might be dubbed “The Critique of Pure Boredom, especially given that our narrator name-drops Kant in the midst of it. Early on, she declares, “One attractive thing about me is that I’m never bored, because during any caesura my personal automatic pastime of questioning my own motives is there for me.”

Lest we doubt her, she goes on to wonder whether the journey she intends to undertake to Tsau is the byproduct of certain deep unconscious maternal longings, or something else. She dismisses any neo-Darwinian and Freudian interpretation of her behavior, wrangles with the question of that behavior in relation to Denoon’s childlessness (interesting, she notes), and the overpopulation problem, plus her sympathy for abandoned children globally. And she winds up wanting her decisions in the realm of relationships to be not only deliberate, but “deliberative,” which is where Kant enters into it. Slow and steady.

Yet in the world outside her head, she’s on a flatbed truck that’s flying at hair-raising speeds for 250 miles, with cornmeal, mail, and a “fiendish shavenheaded adolescent at the wheel.” Read More »


The Critique of Pure Idiocy, and Other News

March 20, 2015 | by


Kant’s home, vandalized.

  • Outside Kaliningrad, Immanuel Kant’s home still stands, and now it’s adorned with a loving note in his memory: “Kant is a moron.” Russian police have made it their categorical imperative to find the vandals. “With Arthur Schopenhauer dead for 155 years, however, authorities start off with few strong leads.”
  • The Pittsburgh Tax Review—subscribe now—features a new paper by Arthur Cockfield called “David Foster Wallace on Tax Policy, How to Be an Adult, and Other Mysteries of the Universe,” presumably focusing on The Pale King. “The drudgery of taxes is what attracted Wallace to the subject, Cockfield argues. And, he says, Wallace has helpful advice for those of us bogged down by tax season.”
  • “I hate literature,” Varlam Shalamov wrote in a 1965 letter. Nonetheless, he did well by it. “Between 1954 and 1973, Shalamov wrote 147 stories about Russian prisons, transit camps, the mines of Kolyma, life in the camp hospitals, and the troubled experience of returning home … the more you read, the less documentary-like the experience becomes … particular images and phrases repeat; objects exhibit a strong symbolic power; meanings double, as accounts of daily camp life take on aesthetic and philosophical dimensions.”
  • “The flower’s leaves … serve as bridal beds which the creator has so gloriously arranged … and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much greater solemnity.” Scientists remember Carl Linnaeus today for his binomial system, but his writing on botany was, for the time, frankly sexual. The Encyclopedia Britannica referred to his work as “disgusting strokes of obscenity.”
  • “When the people shall have nothing to eat, they will eat the rich,” Rousseau wrote. But what if intraclass cannibals beat them to it? In Britain, the landed gentry have started hunting themselves for sport.

This Week on the Daily

January 11, 2015 | by


Honoré Daumier, Advice to Subscribers, 1840.

Michel Houellebecq defends his controversial new novel, Soumission.


How did the future look from the past? Jason Z. Resnikoff sees the sixties and seventies through 2001 and Alien.


In the early nineties, Paul Thomas Anderson found an inspirational teacherDavid Foster Wallace.


Dan Piepenbring on the demise of R&B groups and the promise of D’Angelo’s new album, Black Messiah.


“Being interesting, at a very basic level, is sort of the point of telling a story in the first place.” Thomas Pierce talks to James Yeh.


Michael Thomson on The Evil Within, a horror video game that breaks all the rules.


Five new paintings by Mamma Andersson.


Ben Mauk visits Berlin‘s art book fair.


Plus, Sadie Stein on the history of okay; and a poem by the late Stanislaw Baranczak.


When David Foster Wallace Taught Paul Thomas Anderson

January 6, 2015 | by

Paul Thomas Anderson and Dainel Day-Lewis

Anderson in 2007. Photo: Jürgen Fauth, via Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1990, years before he published Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace came on as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, in Boston. As D. T. Max writes in his biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, this wasn’t such a hot time for Wallace. He was mentally unstable in those years, and actively ashamed of his latest collection of stories, Girl with Curious Hair; when the Emerson English department posted an advertisement for it, he tore it down. And teaching offered no reprieve from the problems he had with his writing and the culture at large. In a letter to Jonathan Franzen, he called his students “infants”: “you almost have to cradle their heads to help their necks support the skull’s weight.” Were the youth simply too enamored of TV’s easy charms? Max writes,

The students he was teaching made him feel the problem was worse than he had known. They were the Letterman generation he had imagined in [his short story] “My Appearance,” proud of their knowingness. “They’re all ‘television’ majors, whatever that means,” he complained to [David] Markson, adding that he’d had his wrist slapped by his department for “ ‘frustrating’ the students” with a DeLillo novel (he does not say which) by which he meant to wake them up … Wallace knew he did not want to stay at Emerson long.

Still, because he was fluent in TV, Wallace found himself popular with the students. And at least one of them came away emboldened by that “frustrating” experience with DeLillo: Paul Thomas Anderson, whose latest film, Inherent Vice, is in wide release this week. Read More »


What Scares The Paris Review?

October 31, 2014 | by


From a 1939 Dutch workplace safety poster by Gé Hurkmans.

The book I find myself most often recommending—Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps—is perfect reading for tonight, or for any chilly evening, when the fallen leaves outside have begun to mold and decay in wet piles. I may originally have read it in the summer, but so thoroughgoing is its tone of paranoia, cold, rot, and subsumed violence that you can’t easily separate yourself from the refracted narrative of the book’s protagonist, an ESP-endowed teenage girl running with a group of “vampire hobo junkies” in the Pacific Northwest. She’s searching for her foster sister, Kim, along the “highway That Eats People,” and the novel reads like an Orphic descent into a bad dream within a bad dream, with the physical landscape—loamy, waterlogged, and dank—doubling as the psychic landscape: “The land was not to be trusted. Its climate had the potential to make those teetering on the edges of decency spill over into murderville … Psychos tried to plug up cracks with bodies, cloth, whatever’s at hand.” —Nicole Rudick

Scary things I remember: a hand coming out of a box on The Electric Company, the dying boar on the cover of my parents’ Four Seasons LP (made them skip the Autumn movement), “Ode to Billy Joe,” reading The Dead Zone by flashlight under the blanket at camp, The Shining (movie), The Exorcist (book), the prophecies of Nostradamus (had to hide the book), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death on TV on a Sunday afternoon (Sunday afternoon movie), the Twilight Zone movie (had to leave theater), Eraserhead late at night alone in my parents’ bedroom (“You are sick!”), the diner scene in Mulholland Drive (the compressed audio), the distortion of Laura Dern’s face in Inland Empire, “Don't Crash” by Front 242, in the listening room at the school library (do these still exist?), Don’t Look Now, Francis Bacon, Fleetwood Mac, The White Ribbon, the dream sequence in Amour, and the scary-doll movie Sadie made me see last month. The other things I’ve managed to forget. —Lorin Stein

Taylor Swift’s “Track 3” recently made it to number one on Canadian iTunes. The track was a glitch, eight seconds of white noise. I’m open-minded, so I gave it a try, and by lunchtime I realized, rather suddenly, that “Track 3” was stuck in my head; Swift seemed to follow me into the void, filling it with something familiar yet indefinable. In “Track 3” she’s mastered the Freudian uncanny, something that’s frighteningly unknown but brings us back to something familiar. Freud once quoted Ernst Jentsch: “One of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the [listener] in uncertainty whether or not a particular figure … is a human being or an automaton.” I maintain that Swift released “Track 3” in all its uncanniness to confess that she is, in fact, an automaton. If you think your costume is good, stew on that: Swift’s has been better, every day, since 1989. —Alex Celia

Alex jests, but I do not: I really adore Taylor Swift. And that’s scary. She’s just released the best pop record of 2014: the most exhilarating, the most addictive, and also the most inscrutable, the most frustrating. Carl Wilson, the best pop critic writing today, understands—his review of 1989 uses Swift’s famously undisclosed bellybutton as a metaphor through which to apprehend the entire Swiftian zeitgeist. He gazes into her navel “as umbilical nub,” “as median point and sore spot,” “as Jell-O shot dispenser,” “as contemplative locus,” “as camera aperture,” “as teen-pop erogenous zone,” “as pretty hate machine,” “as the whitest thing on Earth,” and “as the omphalos of capital,” among others. No one has better identified the qualities that make her such a vital force in pop, so lucid and so obscure. “You could tug forever at the ends of Swift’s elusive, invisible abdominal bundle of avarice and sentiment, art, ego, envy, love and hate, drought and flood, truth and fiction, savior and monster,” Wilson writes, “and it would never come undone.” If that’s not horrifying … —Dan Piepenbring

There once was a time when the scariest thing imaginable was what one never saw: creaks in the floorboard, the rustling of branches against the window, whispers floating in the wind. It used to be that the monsters in horror films were never seen, which got under your skin: think of the spiral staircase of the original The Haunting, the eerie sobs of an unseen woman in The Uninvited, the psychological violence in later films like The Entity. Then slasher flicks and the “video nasties” of the early 1980s came, and we evolved into the terror porn of the Hostel series to laughable films like The Human Centipede. These films are indeed horrific, but are they scary? It’s pretty unlikely that I’ll stumble upon some sadistic German surgeon, but I turn the lights off every night. So it totally makes sense that The Blair Witch Project made millions of dollars—that last image in the basement is still ingrained in my head because—besides being absolutely terrifying—you never know who was behind the terror. (I still can’t go camping without thinking of the film.) One recent film that stands out, and one that gets better with repeated viewings, is The Orphanage (2007). There’s nothing innovative in the storytelling—haunted house, missing child—but it expertly builds the atmosphere of the remote orphanage and the characters who inhabit it. There aren’t as many thrills as something like The Descent—a great example of what is still possible within creature features–but when the scares come they are genuine. The rest is waiting, anticipating, dreading; there’s nothing scarier than what haunts one’s imagination. —Justin Alvarez Read More »


Under the Volcano

July 21, 2014 | by


John Gardner in 1979. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living.

That’s John Gardner, from his Art of Fiction interview, which The Paris Review published in 1979—three years before Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. As far as lines in the literary sand go, this one seems defensible enough: make salutary art, wall off the volcano, protect the crania of your babies, et cetera. But here Gardner has given us the distillate of what had been, a few years earlier, a very controversial opinion; he’s paraphrasing his thesis from On Moral Fiction, a polemical book of criticism in which he took to task nearly every prominent American writer, pissing off a good number of them in the process. As Dwight Garner wrote a few years ago, “It wasn’t Gardner’s thesis, exactly, that made him enemies. It was the way he indiscriminately fired buckshot in the direction of many of American literature’s biggest names.”

Pynchon? Too inclined to “winking, mugging despair.”

Updike? “He brings out books that don’t say what he means them to say. And you can’t tell his women apart.”

Barthelme? Merely a disciple of “newfangledness.”

And the whole New Yorker crowd? Too into “that cold, ironic stuff … I think it’s just wrapping for their Steuben glass.”

If you’re thinking that picking fights is a pretty poor way of seeding one’s literary philosophy, you’re completely correct. As Per Winther, the author of The Art of John Gardner, has written, “One cannot help but think that Gardner’s cause would have benefited from less stridency of tone … What Gardner risked in couching his arguments in such bellicose terms was a hasty dismissal of his book and all its views.” Read More »