Infinite Jest is clearly and without any doubt David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. More than that: it is the book—fiction, nonfiction, or otherwise—that will be looked back to when future generations want to understand millennial America. Like all books that reach this stature, it has gotten here through a mixture of skill and luck. Quite certainly Wallace captured the contradictions that were most fundamental to the America that he came of age in.
A complex editor at a certain swanky standard-bearing New York magazine had this to exclaim when she heard I was writing some sort of long-view esteem piece on the enigma known familiarly as Dave, in the mid-tiers as DFW, and to those in the nosebleed sections as David Foster Wallace.
Herewith, in its entirety, I will reproduce for you her comment:
“Dave? I mean does anyone still read him who’s not under 40?”
David Foster Wallace’s writing has often and rightfully been lauded for its absolutely precise prose, its devices, and its footnotes and forms and aggressions. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the first collection of stories to follow the massive and career-defining Infinite Jest, he uses all just these skills to tackle selfishness the way Infinite Jest tackled addiction. Wallace is, in all of his work, at least tangentially commenting on contemporary Americans’ incessant egomania, but BIWHM, in true Wallace fashion, investigates this theme from seemingly every fathomable angle. Wallace was never a subtle writer, preferring motive to leitmotif, and action to metaphor, and Brief Interviews is no exception. It is exhaustive.
In a YouTube interview, a lawyer and author of several books about English usage asks David Foster Wallace what he thinks of genteelisms—those multisyllablic, latinate, important-sounding words like “prior to” and “subsequent to” that substitute for shorter, often Anglo-Saxon, down-to-earth-sounding ones like “before.” Revealingly, the guy who majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College, whose father was a philosophy professor, doesn’t answer at first. Instead, he reflexively makes a sour face. Only then does he suggest “genteelism” is an “overly charitable way to characterize” such “puff words,” and concludes: “This is the downside of starting to pay attention. You start noticing all the people who say ‘at this time’ instead of ‘now.’
Part of me believes that it is his nonfiction that will be predominantly read in the years ahead. Oh, everyone will talk a big game about Infinite Jest, but the primary means though which readers will actually encounter Wallace’s actual language will be through his nonfiction. In part, this is just because IJ is still a gigantic undertaking to read, but also it’s because his nonfiction is just so much more welcoming than much of his fiction, especially his post-IJ work, which is constricted and self-conscious and often constipated, where the noticing seems to embalm and overwhelm the stories.
The Pale King follows a recent spate of Wallace-related publications, but if it has a purpose beyond the writer’s continued Tupacification, it must be to help us appreciate the impulses that drove him to write in the first place—and perhaps in doing so, we’ll let him off the cross.
I was informed of David Foster Wallace’s death by text message. If I’m tempted to say that this detail would have horrified or amused or depressed Wallace, it’s only because it’s gratifying to think that the things that horrify or amuse or depress me are the same things that would have horrified or amused or depressed him. The truth is I have no idea what he would have thought about the news of his death being disseminated on millions of tiny screens on devices people carry around in their pockets.
Rilke once said that fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name. Grace Paley, a much beloved short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist, died in August of 2007. Since then, as the year of memorials ended, tributes began proliferating throughout the country. But many falsehoods, sentimentalizations, idealizations, and distortions have also accrued in the four years since Paley’s death. Why—with the abundant availability and accessibility of biographical information, has there been a need to develop a political and social icon that has outweighed the literary value of her writing?
Iceland will be the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honor this fall. E.J. Van Lanen talks with Icelandic authors Bragi Ólafsson and Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson about thirsty protagonists, longing to be elsewhere, and found-poems in gutted fish.
“You’re not taking my leg.”
“Mother . . . “
“Out of the question. I’m sixty-three years old and I’ve had this leg all my life. Nothing changes that.”
“This is a matter of life and death.”
“Well, then I’ll just die!”
Los Muertos is what one might call post-Sebaldian catastrophe literature: how can we talk about horror, war, violence, camps today? If one thing is clear, it’s that Carrión doesn’t want to do it à la 19th-century realism, which sets him apart from many Spanish writers (Antonio Muñoz Molina comes to mind) and makes him close, in spirit at least, to Juan Goytisolo, W.G. Sebald, and Ricardo Piglia, authors to which he dedicated lengthy critical studies. That Los Muertos talks about such loaded themes in what seems to be an entirely fictitious framework is probably its strongest achievement. This debut novel is the first volume of a trilogy that might very well become one of the high points of Spanish fiction thus far this century.
In Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s world, no one is happy, except in the passing moment when sadists (and there are many of them in his books) exploit others in an all too obvious way, completely devoid of irony. The mixed up way that people disconnect from one another is a running thread in his novel, The Goodbye Angel, and the author presents a highly dysfunctional society where men exploit (and murder) women, where crime bosses exploit workers, and where journalists themselves are part of the game of exploitation and deception. Plus, everyone lives in fear.
Arthur Rimbaud wrote the poems that were eventually published under the title Illuminations between the ages of seventeen and twenty. John Ashbery, whose has just translated the forty-two poems (plus one fragment) traditionally grouped under that title, is eighty-three. Rimbaud, when he wrote the poems, was at a peak of creativity, moving from formal poetic composition to his long prose confession A Season in Hell (1873), and into the form—the prose poem—with which he is most often associated. His continue to be some of the most provocative performances in that genre. Ashbery, who has, of course, published many remarkable prose poems himself, including his landmark book Three Poems (1972), clearly feels it is time, late in his own career, to repay the debt. Rimbaud’s Illuminations has left an indelible mark on literature, and its translation by a poet of Ashbery’s stature should mean that the poems will exert their influence anew on readers of English.
Possibly the only thing as remotely inspiring and awe-inspiring as an Emily Dickinson poem is a commentary on a Dickinson poem by Helen Vendler. Vendler, one of a handful of elite poetry critics in the United States, has written more than thirty books, including commentaries on all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, three hundred pages about the seven odes of John Keats, and two books and parts of two others on Wallace Stevens. Now she has produced a book dedicated to Dickinson, perhaps this country’s most enigmatic writer, which presents 150 poems accompanied by commentaries.
Recently reissued by the press Dorothy, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is Comyns’ third novel (more or less; she had previously started a fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, but would not finish it until a few years after) and her first instance of actively engaging narrative traditions. Her first novel, Sisters by a River, is an unfathomably strange set of autobiographical scenes from her childhood, alternately pastoral and horrific, yet with little change in narrative tone between the two moods. The second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is an autobiographical chronicle of her pained first marriage. The material is far more normal, but the voice, half-detached from the world, a bit maladapted, and yet absolutely certain of itself, is clearly the same.
The sinister novel is structured as a fictional diary that culminates in a horrific final act of violence, but the tension builds slowly as the diarist occupies himself with elements of the everyday: watch repair, socks and gloves, apothecaries, brothels, the tales of a local coachman. The book belongs to a long line of narrated confessions that includes Poe’s short stories and Camus’s The Stranger. But Lascano Tegui’s memoir of murder is more grotesque and feverish than it is neurotic.
Does the parable of the mosquitoes say something about order or randomness, logic or fate? These dynamics—not truly opposites; perhaps different modes of storytelling—contrast throughout the novel, just as the intricate, self-contradictory logic of its sentences contrasts with the underlying order of the gridded streets, the city layout through which the characters move. The narrator continually questions the stories that Leto, and so the reader, are being breathlessly presented. Thus Saer offers the pleasures and necessities both of a good old-fashioned story and a postmodern puzzle.
It would have been easy for Sheila Heti to go awry with this book. With a title like How Should a Person Be?, a less confident writer might have been tempted to drag in the big guns: Heidegger, Sartre, maybe Levinas. A writer who felt she had more to prove might have tried to organize each chapter under the heading of a philosophical question, or theme, as indeed Heti does toward the end of the book. But by the time Heti begins to title her chapters “What is Empathy,” “What is Freedom,” “What is Betrayal,” these questions have been thoroughly earned: there is no pontificating or showing off in sight, and they are surrounded by less loftily-titled chapters like “Sheila wanders in the copy shop” and “In front of the bikini store.” This heterogeneous approach to fiction and philosophy is one of Heti’s most endearing qualities, and it is at the heart of this novel’s success.
Romanian author Bogdan Suceavă’s novel Coming From an Off-Key Time takes up the narrative thread of Romania as it lurches out of its lengthy romance with Nicolae Ceauşescu. The story begins immediately after the “off-key” time when the newly dictator-less nation was without a constitution and unsure where to place its feet as the future beckoned. These were not the halcyon days of peace and prosperity perhaps expected by the Romanian people; instead, it was a time when the nation as a whole was forced to turn inward to rediscover itself, to reevaluate what it meant to be Romanian.
The Love Poems feel as contemporary as the Metamorphoses feel ancient. If the Metamorphoses seem like a time capsule that allows us to breathe the air of the ancient world, the Love Poems exude a more familiar fug: the brain-fogged morning-after reek of cigarettes and regret and things that should perhaps have been left unsaid. Like the Metamorphoses, they’re poems of desire, but unlike the gods of the former, the male speakers of the latter are all too human, without the gods’ power (and, fortunately, the casual brutality) to simply take whatever they want. Spitted by love, or at least lust, they roast in its fires, begging the shapely hand that turns the crank to give them relief.
On the cover of this sharply designed book, Mobilio’s name in a modern sans serif typeface stands in stark contrast to the cover art, a piece of wood seemingly ink-stamped in place, overlaying marks etched into the paint of the canvas. The book wholeheartedly engages such binaries and implicitly reinforces the old saw (pardon the pun) that good poetry is a poetry of tension—here, between signal and noise, mainstream and avant-garde, intimacy and distance.
To edit an anthology like this, one of only three major anthologies of twentieth-century Latin American poetry, the newest, and one published and promoted by a major publisher of literature, is without even a slight doubt to actively work toward establishing a canon. I imagine for a scholar like Stavans that this posed all sorts of ethical and academic problems that he had to resolve, or come to terms with as best he could. Especially because the twentieth-century Latin American poets have already drawn substantial attention from English-language translators, and the canon of Latin American poets of the twentieth century is in large part already formed.
The nations of the former Soviet Union have swung between extremes over the last two decades, from the destabilization of perestroika to the corrupt, unrestrained capitalism of the 90s to the recentralized, oppressive control that Putin and Medvedev exert today. The suffering and tyranny of this period and of so much of Russia’s past is Sorokin’s primary subject, and he has spoken out loudly against Putin’s regime.
As a work of fiction, The Use of Speech is remarkable for exploring the seemingly contradictory idea that if language is the primary form of communication between human beings, it is also their primary form of persecution. This analysis is especially evident within the novel’s drawn-out meditations on the similarities between the structure of language and the structure of societies, and it is primarily through this concept that Sarraute explores a strand of conscious thought always present in human culture, but nearly invisible to each person experiencing it: namely, the extent to which our perceptions both determine and, perhaps more importantly, are determined by linguistic acts.
Much of Zagajewski’s charm, his characteristic sense of pathos spared from self-pity by wit, curiosity and generosity of spirit, is distilled inside the parenthesis: “(there’s the real mystery: the life of others).” His man on the bench in the Luxembourg Gardens observes the tourists, and considers the residents of nearby apartment houses, and the eminent dead who once strolled here—Mickiewicz and Strindberg—and wryly revels in his “cold pleasure.”
It should have been a great book—three interlocking novella-length fictions, an overlapping of incident and character, an exotic (at least to me) setting, a post-9/11 glaze on international affairs, and the ironic re-deployment of that stunningly strange phrase, one of the key bits of vocab-shrapnel left with us nearly ten years after the World Trade Center attack. Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Irwin contains all of these things, but is not, alas, a wholly successful work of fiction. These potent ingredients mix together interestingly but the result is a book that feels conceptually overbaked.
I sense in Veselka’s writing a concern about just this question, a concern that periodically surfaces in Della’s flashes of awareness about her neo-hippified situation. The novel sticks within the physical and/or psychological confines where bohemianism meets D.I.Y. craftiness meets complaining about The Man; the rest of society—the hated mainstream, presumably—comes through only in the vaguest of impressions. Even when Della enters the belly o the beast itself—a stampede-like sale at a Wal-Mart—she mostly just stares at another hippie.
That she takes on not one or two registers but ten is a tribute to Iijima’s fearlessness to engage injustice in her work. She asks the fathomless questions with mysterious and uncivilized bents. She acknowledges that the answers are not easy and often incomprehensible, but still must be insisted upon. Her poetry inhabits a kind of animal mentality that is both intelligent and subtle, and is cyclical rather than linear.
Don Mee Choi’s first book of poetry, The Morning News Is Exciting, is a seriously inventive manipulation of language, line, and sentence, grappling with divisions created by war and imperial conquest. Choi delves deeply into questions of translation, violence, and the potential for beauty in a gruesome world. Her book is divided into thirteen sections: some are single poems, some serial poems, and some appear to be small, chapbook-like collections. Throughout, Choi plays with a constantly unstable “I,” a self whose responses are never singular or pre-set, whose reactions are always multiplying, fragmented, and varying.
As I’ve written elsewhere, translation flourishes when there is a national inferiority complex or national embarrassment, and in the sense of the latter the Bush years saw a boom in translation. (Though shockingly not a boom in political poetry—another topic.) Intellectuals finally became sick of their American selves, and started wondering what other people were thinking. And some younger poets are once again starting to get out in the world—though most remain in the sensory deprivation tanks of the writing schools. This, of course, should be extremely healthy for poetry—what its effects will be remain to be seen.
I dreamt for years of writing a novel that captured in a relatively short tale (perhaps about 200 pages) the whole local flavor of Bucharest, the colorful world that operates with inconsistent logic and vacuous rules, an eclectic atmosphere where the bohemian youth mixed with old apparatchiks, where fake scholars confuse concepts and ideas, where politicians and religious figures are despicable, and all of them together generate a bizarre political diorama. I can write other stories, but Coming from an Off-Key Time is the novel where I aimed to capture the logic of the world I grew up in.
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