Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Consider the Wallace

The American author and college English professor, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide in 2008 after long battles with depression. After finishing my first Wallace book, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, this fact makes me very sad indeed. What American literature lost was a hilariously brilliant and articulate social critic with the ability to immerse himself in any number of disciplines and vocations, and observe, listen, and absorb, before finally letting it all back out in his various works of fiction and nonfiction, novels and essays appearing in a diverse array of magazines. I miss him already, and with every intention to read more of his work, I'm anticipating that sense only growing deeper. So read on after the break for a bit more reflection on this great book from an even greater author...

My first encounter with Wallace came in March of this year while I was officiating the wedding of a close friend, who is himself a college English professor. My friend and his then-fiance picked out three readings for the wedding ceremony, and one was excerpted from a speech Wallace gave in 2005, and starts out like so:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
And with that, I was it were. Once I finished up my spring classes last week, I grabbed this book and Infinite Jest from the university library and set to work on the physically lesser of the two, Lobster (IJ is a behemoth of a novel which at 1,000+ pages bears more of a resemblance to a textbook; and its literary content is about as dense but much, much more entertaining). Lobster is a collection of nonfiction essays published mostly in magazines, which Wallace produced between the years of 1994 and 2005. The subject matter ranges widely, from the eponymous essay about the Maine Lobster Festival appearing in a culinary publication to a long Rolling Stone article from 2000 wherein Wallace chronicles his two weeks on the press junket w/ the McCain campaign. The latter was the most substantial essay/chapter in the book, and given that we're now in the post-McCain-Palin/2008 world, it was fascinating to compare/contrast these two campaigns, which I would argue were quite different.

The audience for this book of Wallace essays would benefit having a rather broadly intellectual capacity and curiosity. I'm almost ready to say this guy was a genius, and he was at least brilliant, given his depth and range of writing. But that means that the people reading him will have to try hard to cover that range with him, and that's no simple feat. For the reader that hangs with him, though, and keeps a dictionary-thesaurus nearby, a lot of laughs and a lot of learning will follow.

So, many thanks to my friend, Mark, for turning me on to this amazing author and thinker, whose life was far too short. It had been a while since I read anything an English prof. would recommend/assign, and since my theological project here seeks to be cross-disciplinary (and my BA is in English), Wallace's work came along at a great time.

Further reading about Wallace:
Also, here's a fantastic 1996 interview with Charlie Rose. (All four parts on YouTube: 1, 2, 3, 4). Part 3 has a very good answer to the question "What is postmodernism?" which has been asked a million times, and his answer seems to be the most lucid and understandable. I love this guy's suspicion of abstract over-intellectualizing, despite the fact that he was clearly a genius. It's this kind of intelligent-yet-practical approach that I strive to pull off (while recognizing that I'm clearly not a genius).

[6/17 updates: Third article, YouTube videos, and last paragraph.]

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