Tag Archives: books

A Decidedly Wonderful Thing That Will Never Happen Again

As you probably know, David Foster Wallace was found dead on Friday, having hung himself in his home. He was only in his 40s. And he’s left a whole league of deep, deep fans completely bereft, myself included.

A lot of people have never heard of Wallace, or if they have, they know him as the author of Infinite Jest, a 1,000-plus page postmodern tome that was published in 1996. The book is primarily famous for being impossible to read (it’s not) and for having a lot of footnotes (it does, but many of them are awesome), so it’s not really surprising to me that Wallace never caught on with a lot of people. Once you read Wallace’s work, though, it was hard not to become a fan. And because he wrote so beautifully and vividly about depression, a lot of his fans (again, myself included) are sufferers.

This is hard for me– hard for us, if you don’t mind my speaking for a large group of people I don’t actually know, but with whom I share a distinct kinship. (Every time I’ve met a fellow Wallace reader, that person has usually turned out to be interesting in general and important to me in particular.) Wallace was an incredible advocate for the power of life, for the ability to go on despite the ever-encroaching personal and political despair that is living in America today. He defused so much of the modern noise and its pain by trying to find the humanity hiding underneath everyone and everything, from a game-show contestant to a sexual fetishist who enjoys burning women with his lighter to Lyndon B. Johnson. (And those are just examples from his first book.) And he was an unceasing advocate of this principle in life, too. An excerpt from his stunning Kenyon commencement speech, given in 2005:

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and display. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

These appeals to the inner humanity are the things you’ll hear about Wallace in most of his obituaries; he was apparently also a great teacher and a really nice guy, though I didn’t know him in either of those capacities.

What everyone seems tentative about celebrating was how amazingly, explosively creative and funny he was as a creator of ideas. In her lukewarm summary, Michiko Kakutani even threw in a few potshots at him for it. Critics like Kakutani may claim that even the best fabulist needs a grounding in emotions for his work to make an impact, but even barring the fact that Wallace’s work comes packed with those emotions, his hyperactive brain is worth celebrating. Just a few of Wallace’s memorable set-ups: a group of freaks on LSD go to see a Keith Jarrett concert and attack a little girl whose hair fascinates them; a group gains control of a movie so amazing that those who watch it die of pleasure; a man whose voiceover-artist wife has just left him bursts into tears when he hears her announce the prices over the register at the grocery store.

In a literary world heavy on staid, sad domestic tales, not enough is said about how wonderful it is that imaginations like Wallace’s were able to continue flitting across the page. Was Wallace influenced by Pynchon and Gaddis and Barthelme? Absolutely. Did he still have soaring, funny, frighteningly sharp inventions of his own? Undoubtedly. Those inventions are no less worthwhile for being influenced by others. And when he decided (as he often did) to take on the things that were hard and serious and painful, his ability to reorder and reinterpret them was so wonderful to see and so comforting to behold. Combined with his capacity for language and his love for people, it was unstoppable.

The fact that he couldn’t find a more funny and reasonable escape from his own pain is something that will be hard for me to swallow for a long, long time.

Rest in peace, Mr. Wallace. It’s going to be hard without you.

Te occidere possunt sed te edere non possunt nefas est.
(They can kill you, but the legalities of eating you are quite a bit dicier.)
Infinite Jest, footnote 32

When You Are Engulfed in Fame

As time goes by, the thinness of David Sedaris books becomes more palpable. Like the modern memoir movement he helped to launch, he’s become more prolific and has less and less to say. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, his latest book, is his thinnest yet. Padded with everything from his commencement speech at Princeton to an Esquire article that’s at least five years old, the book has enjoyable moments, but mostly feels hollow.

I think the key to why Sedaris’ early work was not just enjoyable, but relatable, was that he worked so assiduously to disguise the fact that he was, for all intents and purposes, a capital-W Writer. In his first book, Barrel Fever, this was obviously pretty easy to do, but by Me Talk Pretty One Day, the “I’m just like you” vibe had become quite carefully maintained. You’ll notice in Me Talk Pretty that Sedaris never describes himself as having money, as having any kind of career in the present day, as possessing any kind of fame. To his credit, this works pretty well. The constant self-deprecation allows you to forget that the guy has three homes (now four), is broadcast on the radio and published in national magazines, tours the country speaking to packed audiences. He’s just an average guy who can’t learn French, had trouble coming out, has a crazy family.

Sedaris bravely decided to break that wall with the story “Repeat After Me,” which appears in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. The story is about how his fame (and the minor liberties he’s taken with the facts) has affected his family, framed in the context of Me Talk Pretty being turned into a movie. It’s a painful story, difficult to read, and while it’s couched in the excellent little observations that have made Sedaris famous, it marks a real turning point in his work. Everything he’s written since is decidedly crowned by the label of “By David Sedaris, Famous Person.” And while I’m sure he enjoys the attention and piles of money, I don’t envy Sedaris in this respect. He’s become his writing’s own worst enemy.

To his credit, When You Are Engulfed in Flames drops most of the remnants of his “David Sedaris, Average Guy” act. He unabashedly writes that his decision to quit smoking (the story of which comprises the book’s lengthy coda) was based, in part, on an inability to secure smoking rooms in the swanky hotels to which he travels on his tours. He discusses buying an expensive painting that he no longer particularly likes. He is unafraid to admit that his quit-smoking trip to Japan cost $30,000.

Some of these gambits pay off; two of the book’s funniest stories involve thwarted social interactions on airplanes, clearly the final frontier when it comes to the imperturbability of American manners. The author makes it clear that he’s on these planes for his lecture circuit, but the behavior that follows is pure Sedaris: part misanthrope, part fussbudget, part social anthropologist, he seems to have a magical gift for attracting bizarre people and subsequently pushing them to their limits.

Still, it would be hard to say that When You Are Engulfed in Flames tops any of Sedaris’ earlier books. There’s a lot of navelgazing and half-baked attempts at mapping narratives onto events that don’t seem to want them. One story is about how Sedaris named every spider in his country house, then took one away to Paris and got annoyed with having to feed her. It’s not exactly riveting. Like every other person on this earth, Sedaris only has so many good stories, and it seems he’s used most of them at this point. I wonder if he’d consider what could be, if mismanaged, creative and financial suicide: a return to fiction. He executed fiction quite well in the short-story portion of Barrel Fever, but hasn’t published any since. Backing away from the real world may not be easy for him to do, nor particularly pleasing to the fans who want to hear every detail of a life strangely lived, but the results could be incredibly interesting. For writers who don’t have half as many good true stories as Sedaris has shared in the past decade, it’s been the best approximation we can come up with. Maybe it’s finally time for him to become a member of the club.

The Name Game

My copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake has sat on my desk for much of the past two weeks, waiting to be read in lunch breaks and lulls. Like anything left on a desk, this apparently means it’s an open invitation for co-workers to comment.

“Do you know there’s a movie of that?” one said on Monday.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard.”

“I don’t want to see it, though,” she adds. “I hated that book.”

“Do you know there’s a movie of that?” another co-worker says the next day.

“So they tell me.”

“I should see it. I love that book. It’s one of my favorites!”

After taking in these two diametrically opposed comments on the same issue, I have to admit I’m puzzled. Did they read the same book that I did? The Namesake could probably inspire a number of feelings for different people, but virulent hatred or unconditional love probably aren’t two of them. Lahiri’s book is quiet and sad, an even more distilled version of the latent misery that penetrated her Interpreter of Maladies.

The conflicts in The Namesake aren’t terribly unique, or even very overwrought; they feel shocking and inevitable at the same time, like a series of tiny deaths. It’s probably the book’s greatest accomplishment: it so eloquently captures the resignation that comes with life’s tragedies that reading it sometimes begins to feel like an act of extended mourning.

The Namesake is about the small joys and tragedies of being an immigrant, the broadening that goes hand-in-hand with the loss, and the incontrovertible fact of the second generation’s rejection, and subsequent embrace, of what sets them apart.

Ever the blogger-journalist, I noted after the fact that both of the commentators on the book, positive and negative, were children of immigrants. (Pro: Nigerian; con: Chinese.) Perhaps their feelings on these subjects were so tense because they themselves had a stake in the argument. Every child finds themselves reaching certain moments of accord or dischord with their parents as they age, but with immigrant children, the difference is sometimes incredibly stark. I know some who respect their parents to the point of worship. I know others who think it would be great if they never saw their parents again. And opinions on this subject tend to change as people get older.

If Gogol Ganguli, Lahiri’s protagonist, had read The Namesake in the first half of his “life” (assuming that the book was about some other American-born Indian boy, and not a creepy Stranger Than Fiction-type situation), he probably would hate it. It’s about acceptance and resignation and all of the adult buzzwords that disgruntled youth swear will never enter their existence. It’s also about forgiveness, a notoriously poor skill among teenagers.

So perhaps the virulence of the reactions to The Namesake is as much about the reader’s own attitude, his or her own place on the acceptance continuum, as it is about anything objectionable in the book itself. If you can’t come to terms, why would you want to see someone else in your shoes do exactly that? And if you have come to terms, what could be better than a book that sanctifies your decision?