I had a flash of inspiration for a story where a character’s consciousness changes to that of a bug’s consciousness, without the accident of evolution that led to higher-level thinking, awareness of temporality, the knowledge that one day he or she is going without any doubt at all to die. But so the story has no words.
People are sincerely asking about the Confederate flag and other symbols, statues of leaders from the South during slavery, being taken down. A lot of this can be explained by correcting the common misconception that there is such a thing as a private language. Language is by its very nature public. You can take a very enjoyable trip down the rabbit-hole on this by reading an essay by David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage,” which is an essay about usage dictionaries that is gobs more fun to read than you just imagined when you read “an essay about usage dictionaries.”
Symbols, like the Confederate flag, work the same way. What the public thinks of at the sight of an image matters over private opinion. This will make more sense when we look at an even more extreme symbol, the swastika. The swastika was a symbol of peace the Nazis stole because they thought it looked cool. No one would get away with wearing a swastika on his or her shirt with a message underneath saying, If you find this shirt offensive, you don’t know your history (because it started as a symbol of peace.) But probably just about everyone has seen someone wearing a shirt with a Confederate flag on it, accusing us of not knowing our history if we’re offended. Whether or not people who wear those shirts truly feel they’re celebrating their heritage or not is irrelevant, because symbols, like language, are not private.
Then people are saying, Who’s next? If we take down the Robert E. Lee statues, what about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, they were slave owners? Personally, I’m not a huge fan of either one of them. John Adams is my favorite founding father; he was an abolitionist, when being an abolitionist was rare and unpopular. Some of the things I’ve read about Washington and Jefferson leave me feeling they are over-glorified, but that is irrelevant because it’s private. The public thinking of Washington and Jefferson are of the ideals of America, that’s what they represent in the public view. That matters.
If this all sounds too arbitrary, I’ll invite you down a second rabbit-hole and answer the Who’s next question. As a childhood fan of Cleveland’s baseball team, I’ve had a challenging relationship with that team’s name and especially its mascot. I stopped wearing the hat, but it was only after I spent a few hours reading studies that I finally committed to Change the name, change the mascot. In brief, scientific study shows that the image of a caricature of a minority groups decreases a person’s sensitivity to all minority groups. How do they know? They have questions that reveal that sensitivity level and ask them to two groups, one that receives a primer of a Chief Wahoo image and one that receives a neutral image. They’ve studied this backwards and forwards. They’ve had to because the results get mostly ignored. And when Native Americans see the image, they score lower on levels of self-esteem. This is a group of people with much higher suicide rates. They even went so far as to select Native Americans who claim to not be bothered by the Chief Wahoo image being used for Cleveland’s baseball team and those people still scored lower on self-esteem after being primed by the image.
I’ve never gone down the rabbit-hole on the effect of seeing the Confederate flag. It would surprise me if the findings weren’t similar to the numerous studies corroborating this effect from seeing the Chief Wahoo image. I brought it up to illustrate the point that the argument that people finding something offensive is their problem because to the person wearing that shirt or flying that flag or putting that statue on a pedestal the image means something else is null and void. Symbols don’t work like that.
I tell people to check out David Foster Wallace but always qualify it with “but be careful where you start,” which isn’t very specific, so I’m listing his books in a recommended reverse order.
9. Infinite Jest
I posted a review of I.J. I’ll link below but just for fun I dug through and found a line that I often think of and giggle. The dad of two of the characters moves a bed and is complaining about how dirty the floor is and says, “Under what presidential administration was this room last deep-cleaned, I’m standing here prompted to fucking muse out loud.” There was probably a lot of context that made that stand out as so funny. Here’s the review: https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/
8. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity
D.F.W. studied math, as in super high level math theory, and wrote about infinity. I read every word of this book and understood hardly any of it. But the opening was interesting. He talked about how a word, like “chair,” can be repeated until it stops denoting, which is that weird feeling you can give yourself by picking a word you’ve known since you were three and wonder why it’s called that. Why do we call chairs chairs?
7. Brief Interview with Hideous Men
This was the first book of his I read, and I actually listened to it. The second story was “Forever Overhead,” which remains my favorite short story. If this collection hadn’t included that story, I might have stopped here. I don’t recall liking very many of the others, though I intend to try them again at some point.
6.The Broom of the System
I enjoyed this book. It doesn’t seem like his other stuff, though. He hadn’t hit, yet, on the unique style that makes him him. It’s definitely worth reading, I just wouldn’t say you’re getting the best sense of him from it. The best parts were these supposedly terrible short stories students had written and the teacher of this class describes the stories to his girlfriend and the stories are actually bizarre but kind of awesome, as summarized by the character.
5. Girl with Curious Hair
This is a story collection. Little Expressionless Animals was fantastic. Here and There I also really liked. Some were, like Infinite Jest, great in parts but tedious at times, overall. The last story, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, felt like a precursor to the approach he would take to Infinite Jest. That’s probably the only thing he wrote that is close to like I.J.
4. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
This is a collection of six essays on a variety of subjects, a report on a tennis player trying to make the pro tour, a piece on the movie Lost Highway being made by David Lynch, where he discusses Lynch’s earlier movie, in depth, Blue Velvet.
The probably most relatable essay is his report on taking a cruise, which is the essay the collection is titled after. This includes the line, “Temperatures were uterine.” He describes the cruise as being sad and inducing despair: “It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”
As I mention in my review of Infinite Jest, his writing is dotted with insights, either through characters or through his author persona, that feel like they must have been drawn from his mental illness, a combination of anxiety and depression, that led to his suicide in 2008, but I’ve never read anyone that’s made me laugh out loud more while reading.
3. Consider the Lobster
Another essay collection. The title comes from an essay he wrote about lobster, which poses ethical questions about how we treat the animals we eat with such thoughtful consideration to both sides, and he did eat meat, I would recommend anyone who’s thought about this issue, which is most of us, give it a read. And what’s even cooler is he wrote it while covering a lobster fest for a food magazine. It’s available online. A few others stood out, in these politically polarized times as thoughtful and careful looks at both sides, one on the politics of usage dictionaries, which was surprisingly entertaining, another covering John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and another piece on a right-wing radio talk show host.
The reason I always tell people to be careful where they start is because David Foster Wallace is so dense in his writing style, if you hit on something not to your interest you’re likely to be overwhelmed. The stories in Oblivion, more so than the ones in Girl with Curious Hair and much more so than the ones in Brief Interviews, were all enjoyable. Mr. Squishy was a story about the marketing strategy for a snack food, which presents the idea that the market will push healthy foods but then turn and then use the exhausting pressure they are responsible for to push unhealthy foods as a break from the pressure.
Antitrend Shadows they’re called. “…the rather brilliantly managed stress that everyone was made to feel about staying fit and looking good and living long and squeezing the absolute maximum productivity and health and self-actuation out of every last vanishing second…”
(skipping some stuff. This leads to the turn for the snack foods push even though they’re unhealthy)
“(the snack foods) said or sought to say to a consumer bludgeoned by herd-pressures to achieve, forbear, trim the fat, cut down, discipline, prioritize, be sensible, self-parent, that hey, you deserve it, reward yourself, brands that in essence said what’s the use of living longer and healthier if there aren’t those few precious moments in every day when you took a few moments of hard-earned pleasure just for you?”
(then skipping some more really good stuff, there is a description of) “ads that featured people in workout clothes running into each other in dim closets where they’d gone to eat (these snacks) in secret, with all the ingenious and piquant taglines that played against the moment the characters’ mutual embarrassment turned to laughter and a convolved espirit de corps.”
Then there is Good Old Neon, which is narrated by a character who has committed suicide because he felt like a fraud, which is obviously tempting to take as very autobiographical, which maybe is unfair, but either way is a fantastic story of a human being under extreme duress from dealing with issues we can all relate to, to some degree, that everything he presents to the outside world hides who he really is deep inside, of course also aware how cliché and banal he is for fixating on this when everyone does. A hero on the internet read the entire story and posted it on youtube if anyone would rather listen.
1. The Pale King
Initially I swore I would never read this. It’s an unfinished novel, at about 500 pages, and while no one could guess how long it might have been, it sounds like from the notes left behind it would have been a second Infinite Jest type of length. Most of the chapters introduce characters who will work together at an IRS facility. Chapter two is a guy on a plane studying for the CPA exam and getting constantly distracted by everything around him. Boredom as a form of anxiety is one of the big things he was exploring. He was taking classes on taxes as research. Another chapter was a character who broke out into sweats if he started to think about sweating, or if he started to think about thinking about sweating, which left him in a pretty much constant pickle. D.F.W. broke out into panic sweats in high school, according to his parents, so again there was likely an autobiographical element to that character. He’s also in the book, in an author foreword that starts on page 68, where he claims the book is actually nonfiction. He apparently was hired at an IRS company but his name David Wallace was common enough that he got mistaken for a different one. To keep that from happening again he started using his middle name and somewhere he writes, I have to paraphrase because I couldn’t find it, “once you pick a nom de plume you’re kind of stuck with it, no matter how pretentious it sounds.”
There were also odd chapters, like one about a kid who devotes his life to doing stretching exercises with the goal of being able to kiss himself on every part of his body. (He’s going to worry about the back of his head later.) And another one about a guy who decides to record a month of TV on twelve channels and then watch it over a year. And as they’re discussing endlessly the logistics of accomplishing this, there is one character who keeps breaking in and asking, “Why, though?”
If you can take it for what it is, the last writings of honestly one of the greatest writers to have ever lived, which sounds ridiculous but is accurate, and not focus on what it isn’t, The Pale King is just a super fun read. I bought it for my sister as her introduction to David Foster Wallace. She hasn’t read it, yet.
It should go without saying but I’ll say it, this is all just one reader’s opinion on his books. And it’s worth noting that this reverse order is closer to the order I actually read them in. I went from Brief Interviews to Infinite Jest and worked my way down this list reading Pale King second to last and Oblivion last. Which could also mean I largely learned to read him as I read him. It will be interesting to reread Brief Interviews and see if I enjoy it more the second time.
We have a lot of compassion for people feeling suicidal but often too little for those who have taken their own lives. With good intentions, we use phrases like “giving up” or “throwing your life away.” The goal is to remind the living that their lives have value, but the result is a pressure on those struggling to persevere as they suffer emotional turmoil. They feel guilty for not appreciating life, the way others do but really the way emotionally healthy people enjoy life, which exacerbates their anguish.
David Foster Wallace voluntarily left this world, also leaving a novel-in-progress. They found close to six-hundred pages of completed, publishable chapters and notebooks of ideas and free write chapters all bundled under the title The Pale King. I think of the passion and dedication and perseverance required to do all that work and I don’t think of someone for whom “giving up” or “throwing his life away” fit. This was someone who recognized the value of his life but was driven by inner turmoil to the escape suicide seemed to offer during a moment of crushing despair. The Pale King isn’t proof of his value but works as a metaphor. The Pale King isn’t evidence his life had value, each of our lives has that. We don’t need accomplishments—not books or children or jobs we enjoy, not even relationships with other people—to have lives we value; we just need to each find our unique way to make our mysterious presence resonate.
From what I’ve read, David Foster Wallace didn’t discuss his mental health much, publicly, but according to an interview his parents gave, after his death, he suffered from panic sweats in high school. The Pale King includes a character who agonizes over starting to sweat and how starting to think about starting to sweat will make him sweat but trying not to think about starting to sweat is too much like thinking about starting to sweat and so he starts to sweat—we’re talking visibly dripping sweating sitting in a lecture kind of sweating. Often his characters experience occasional bouts of mental anguish, which doesn’t make those characters him but it seems likely he was drawing on his own experience. In Infinite Jest there was a line that people don’t jump out of buildings to die, they jump out of buildings because the building they are in is on fire and then they die.
The existence of The Pale King, what we have, makes me think of the many times David Foster Wallace must have rescued himself from his severe anxiety and depression and from the brink of suicide rather than the final time he didn’t. We’re indoctrinated to the idea that life is a gift, which translates to an obligation when our troubles feel insurmountable and unending. Life isn’t a gift or an obligation. Life is an opportunity for discovering our reason for choosing to be here. This is the beauty of a human life, is that we know we’ll die but we don’t let that marginalize our time here. We celebrate it. This is easier for some than others. The message to those feeling despair and tempted by suicide shouldn’t be “Don’t do it,” the message should be “Delay. Seek help.” This is why suicide guards on bridges are proven effective because delaying suicide increases the likelihood that the person will seek help. (That bridges often don’t have them despite how cheap they are to install reflects the stigma of suicide. The Golden Gate Bridge, a suicide destination for some twenty people annually, still doesn’t have one.–See link below for an older blog about The Bridge, if interested–People don’t understand the point of them because they can’t believe someone wouldn’t simply find another way, but suicide is an impulsive act. Even when suicide follows a period of despair, within that period suicide was resisted, delayed, and then committed impulsively. Sometimes a delay of twenty minutes can result in a change of perspective that might prevent suicide.)
I understand the temptation of the flip side. He was in the middle of a great book. How could he not finish it? Even on the selfish level of me wanting to read it, I can feel angry. On the less selfish level of America needing his voice now more than ever, I can feel angry. I can imagine his friends and family, who loved him, experiencing grief and think, Why? But I just don’t go there. Not because I think having empathy for him is the right response, this isn’t the equivalent of “being politically correct,” but because I do have empathy for him. I’ve glimpsed what maybe he was feeling because his immense talent as a writer showed me characters experiencing anguish utterly unknown to me as an emotionally healthy person. So anger just isn’t my response. It would be wasted anger, anyway, except worse than wasted because it would feel directed to people living who are experiencing those levels of anguish and would be internalized as a threat: Don’t do it because we’ll think less of you afterwards, which would add to their struggle.
These are just my opinions and I’m not an expert. Thinking about suicide isn’t a sign of a problem. Typically people will think fleetingly about suicide, this is actually life affirming. We’re reminding ourselves we’re choosing to be here. Contemplating suicide could be a sign of a problem. Seek help, now, and acquire coping skills so that if an impulsive moment comes delaying will be easier. Avoid keeping a gun in the home. Call this number, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
I’ve touched on this subject in both my review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and in my review of The Bridge. I’ll link both below.
Links below from wordpress. Thank you for reading.
My mom doesn’t get all this bathroom law stuff. I don’t either. Her question to me was “Where were these people who identified as women or men going to the bathroom before?” My assumption is they were going into the bathroom that suited the gender they identified with, which was probably also the gender they felt they were presenting to society and, in most cases, that matched the one society perceived them as.
There’s a lot of privacy within a bathroom, anyway. Outside of a bar or two where men line up and pee collectively into a latrine, you have your own urinal and usually a divider between yours and the man next to you. Women’s restrooms, I’m guessing, offer even more privacy. So what’s the fuss? I don’t know but I’ll guess.
Where do laws come from? Laws are formed out of a social consensus. We forget that, but even murder must have started, somewhere in ancient history, as a thing someone did and got a lot of flak from the rest of the community for doing (probably after it was done to someone with some clout or to someone related to someone with some clout), so much that it was decided a punishment ought to be imposed. Eventually imposing punishments for murders became habit. Then law.
The consensus has long been that people use the restroom for the gender they identify with, which is also the gender they feel they’re presenting to society and that matches the one society perceives them as, so the fuss is simply shifting consensus into law. Why should we? Because people deserve to feel safe. The consensus we’ve been operating under for some time is not disruptive. What would be disruptive is if people who identified as a certain gender, the one they felt they were presenting to society and the one that matched the one society perceived them as being, did an about-face and headed into the “wrong” but “legally right” restroom. That would cause an actual disruption. The consensus we’ve been operating under hasn’t been causing disruptions and it will continue not to.
I recently posted a favorite line from David Foster Wallace’s short story, “Forever Overhead”
The rule says one on the ladder at a time but the guard never shouts about it. The guard makes the real rules by shouting or not shouting.
Here the rule is you go to the bathroom that is the gender you are born into under some outdated idea about how binary gender is but the guard has long ago stopped shouting about it because consensus has adjusted to gender being more flexible. But men who might be legally defined as women and women who might be legally defined as men, but all of whom identify with the opposite gender as that and feel they’re presenting that opposite gender to society and are perceived by society as that gender are operating under the consensus we’ve reached and don’t want to be yelled at by the guard, and they deserve not to be.
This feels strikingly similar to a recent law we’ve outgrown, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It’s already mind boggling that this was an actual law on the books, from 1993-2011, according to Wikipedia. Gay people have been serving in militaries for as long as there have been militaries. What changes is the influence of homophobia on society, i.e. whether or not the guard has been shouting. That ridiculous and embarrassing law existed to placate homophobia. Until 2011, we were too uncomfortable to face the obvious reality that gay people served in the military so we told them not to tell us and we wouldn’t ask and we made that a law. The gender bathroom laws certain states are trying to implement are a similar knee jerk reaction not to any change in how people are going to the bathroom but to a frustration in an official change to the status quo. The consensus is just trying to get officially on the books, as I said, for the understandable reason that people operating under the consensus but officially against a law that’s not really a law anymore don’t want to suddenly get yelled at by some guard who uses the law as an excuse to be a bigot. And yelled at, in this case, actually means being brought up on legal charges for going to the expected, by consensus, bathroom. That’s what we’re changing by putting this officially on the books. Not the consensus we’ve been operating under for some time now but the real legal charges our fellow men and women could potentially face for doing exactly what we expect.
Changing the status quo is always hard. That’s cognitive dissonance at work. Our brains have been trained to the simplistic, binary definitions of gender we’ve been taught since birth. We’re easily threatened by official changes to that long-standing rule, even after that rule has stopped making intuitive sense, even after the guard has long since stopped yelling. It’s the one on a ladder at a time sign coming down well after it’s been established that more than one can be on the ladder at a time. Please join us in making this positive change. If it hurts, that it hurts is an illusion.
In college, I worked at a day care center in a toddler room. One spring day, after a late winter run of windy cold, we took the kids outside on a day completely still and perfectly warm. This little girl, two-and-a-half, climbed on top of a slide, stopped at the top and looked around, and she said, “The weather stopped.”
Us warm-blooded folk have a wide range of temperatures we can exist in. Cold-blooded reptiles have to regulate their temperatures by alternately sunning and shading themselves. Beats eating. We have a much slimmer range of temperatures we’re exactly comfortable in. Depending on how hardy our temperament, we can enjoy cool autumn, sweater weather and hot June shorts weather. July and August are more challenging. Maybe people who claim to enjoy the cold of winter really do? However you spin it, there is a temperature that feels just right.
On July 9, 2001, the weather stopped on a day temperatures were uterine. I know this because I had just finished a shift at Red Robin in Seattle and I recognized that the temperature was right in my sweet spot. I bought a notebook, there at the mall, and sat outside and wrote. I probably also had a beer. “Dave” served me. I remember because he commented about the temperature. He said, “Nice weather. I don’t blame you for sitting out here.”
After a mild winter, here in NE Ohio, we’ve had a cold spring. I still haven’t written on my porch, this year. That’s my first day of spring. When my body tells me the still air is perfectly in tune with my internal temperature, where I’m not at all chilled and not at all warm. I wouldn’t be surprised if massive endorphins are released when the temperature hits that mark. When you notice your breathing for all the right reasons. I call it the air being like a bath. You just soak in it. David Foster Wallace captured it far better in an essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” with a line I jotted on a piece of scrap paper: “Temperatures were uterine.”
But I like “the weather stopped” best. It’s a small window of temperature on a still day, but it also ties in with mood; if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss it, and it’s coming any day now.
Every Halloween, for the last three years, I’ve been listening to Dead Man’s Bones. I kill it over the week leading up and then I put it away after Halloween and get it out again the next year. I’m somewhat forcing Halloween associations on music that is truly more just good than Halloween oriented but it does have a children’s choir singing about zombies and graves so it works.
I heard one of the songs at work and bought it on the strength of that sound wanting something specific to play around Halloween at my new house. This is also the band you can’t hear about without also hearing Ryan Gosling is in it. I don’t know how involved he is, but I think he’s one of the main musicians. His name isn’t just in there for publicity.
I linked one of the songs I like to my facebook page but also scrolled through some comments on the link, that sort of reflexive scroll down to read the comments that’s more from modern day inertia than interest. Mostly it was fans sharing how much they love the music, but then one guy, who apparently doesn’t, stated that he thinks people don’t really like the music as much as they like Ryan Gosling and want to like his music so much that they were able to convince themselves they liked it without even realizing they were doing it, you know, subconsciously, so that if someone says they weren’t doing that he can keep saying they were but just didn’t realize.
This is a guy whose ‘I think’ translates to ‘Listen everybody, here’s the story,’ although I could just be a guy who conveniently translates I thinks into Listen everybody, here’s the storys, but since I admitted it that proves I’m not, except since I just said that I might be again, but now I’m not, but now I am again. And so on.
This couldn’t have been about anything more trite so it seemed funny, except it’s not, because people felt a need to defend their musical tastes against a character attack and one with some misogynist undertones. Dead Man’s Bones probably got a lot more listens because of Ryan Gosling’s popularity, and some of his popularity is tied into him being considered a male heartthrob, and maybe people gave more of a chance to a unique sound because of him, but it’s a giant leap to suggest people didn’t really like it but forced themselves to because of him. And why even go there?
Because this guy didn’t like the music, and he wasn’t comfortable with people liking it because that didn’t fit his construct of the world. He was more comfortable inventing a theory that made him feel right about his taste in music. I got belatedly interested in David Foster Wallace and I gleaned this from something of his, it might have been his “This is Water” speech I listened to online, but I also read Infinite Jest and it could have been tucked somewhere in there, but the idea is that we’re most comfortable where we already are and we’re threatened anytime anything shifts us off that. This is a human tendency, also known as cognitive dissonance where our brains develop neural pathways for what we believe and after time these pathways become so worn rerouting those neurons becomes painful. (I don’t know if that’s literal or not, I’m not a neurologist, but that’s how it was described in a book I read about scientific blunders, where some of the most brilliant minds of our time, in their older age, couldn’t shift off theories they’d spent their careers working out, even when everyone else in the scientific community was incorporating new evidence that proved the old theories either wrong or limiting.)
We were discussing this theory at work and someone said that’s not true because a lot of people enjoy variety in people’s opinions, enjoy discussion with people who think differently. That’s true, and I wouldn’t even call those exceptions. I only think that tendency is operating in us and we’ve learned to override it, in many cases, but when we’re not vigilant we slip back into that natural human tendency. I catch myself falling into it. This guy fell into it when he blurted a theory off the top of his head to match the opinions of random people online about a style of music to his, maybe not to be snarky, maybe simply because it felt better.
Or maybe he’s not the someone on the internet with a theory maybe I am.
Finishing reading books stops feeling like an accomplishment sometime in your early twenties but there are exceptions. Infinite Jest is a project book. According to the foreword, David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest in three years. I clipped that by about four months. I read an opening chunk on Christmas morning 2013, as I.J. was a requested gift from my mom.(1) I chugged through the last three hundred pages while on a long train trip.
Great books teach you how to read them. Early on I.J. taught me it wasn’t going anywhere, so I didn’t rush. I read other books and picked at it. What I found is that everything about it was dense, too dense at times, but when he was onto an idea that connected, you loved that he got everything out of it, so you can’t read a book like that and wish the claustrophobic portions not to your interest were edited out.(2) It isn’t so much that I.J. is good, then it wouldn’t be tedious, it’s that bits of it are so good, you know you’ll read it again even though portions of it are tedious. It’s called Infinite Jest because it takes so long to read that by the time you finish, you’re ready for a reread because you want to experience again the great parts, and on and on.(3) My favorite parts include the guy who describes the chill dusk,(4) the long bit about how being on the phone is this weird yet firm conviction that even while your attention is shared with ten other things while talking you’re convinced the person on the other side of the line is doing nothing but paying full attention to what you’re saying, and the five pages of Thats.(5) An interesting mark of the kind of book it is is that while portions of the main text feel tedious, some comic gold is to be found in the end notes. There are about 100 pages of end notes and for the most part the longer end notes were especially good. Fiction with end notes? I know, I know.(6)
Most memorable are the profound insights sprinkled in of characters suffering from depression and suicidal thinking, all the more potent given the author’s suicide.(7) Hard not to speculate that he might have drawn from his own experiences when he describes through a character the two forms depression takes: one where joy in life is utterly elusive, sufferers who rarely commit suicide, and the other group who are driven by acute emotional pain to end their lives, who do act on their suicidal thoughts. The analogy in the book is that people don’t jump from buildings to die, they jump from buildings to escape from the fire the building they’re in is engulfed in and then die.
I’m way late onto the D.F.W. bus. I caught wind of him, years ago, but got the impression that he wrote to impress, a common criticism of him, which isn’t exactly unwarranted. I finally decided to check him out after reading an essay by Jonathan Franzen discussing his friend’s death. I got Brief Interviews with Hideous Men out of the library on audio, read by the author. The first story seemed to confirm the bias I had of him. As I recall it was a long heavily descriptive story about a guy in a lawn chair and nothing else happened. The second was a heavily descriptive story, “Forever Overhead,” about a boy jumping off the high dive at a pool on his birthday and nothing else happened and that story instantly became and remains my favorite short story. I felt, after reading that story, that D.F.W. is a writer who covers territory with a certain obsessive compulsive style but he demonstrated, to me, with “Forever Overhead” that he’s capable of perfectly ordering words with absolute sincerity.(8) Once I knew that, I was able to feel like portions of his books weren’t tedious and self-indulgent but just that those portions didn’t speak to me and if I held out and kept reading other portions would in a profound way. I approached I.J. with that in mind and was able to appreciate it and even love it.
(1) I.J. would have been an expensive library book.
(2) Of course you can; what I’m really suggesting is that you don’t.
(3) I’ve waited two and a half years to make that joke.
(4) He doesn’t actually use the phrase “chill dusk.”
(5) The Thats are exotic facts you’ll acquire if you spend time at Ennett House, a Substance-recovery halfway facility that features in the book, one of my favorites was “That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.”
(6) Who reads end notes?
(7) David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. He had recently stopped taking medication he’d been on for most of his life to control his severe depression. According to author friend Jonathan Franzen for a variety of reasons, one a worry the meds were stifling his creativity but another one was worry over the long term effects of the level of medication he was on, which was advisement straight from his doctor.
(8) Anyone who reads this blog regularly might recall an older entry about “Forever Overhead,” which can be found here: https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/12th-birthday-gift-for-my-nephew/ Within that blog is a link to the youtube video of D.F.W. reading the story, which I recommend as a wonderful way to spend around fifteen minutes.
Not many of these blog entries receive hits from the world wide web but one that occasionally does is my blog about what I got my niece for her thirteenth birthday, found here:
If people are looking for gift ideas, I don’t know if they found that helpful or not. I suppose not, if they were looking for something traditional. My sisters’ kids are getting old enough where they’re probably growing aware, if they aren’t already, that their uncle, with his gifts of books he wrote and his letters, is eccentric. Hopefully they’ll think that’s a good thing. It’s sincere, since I’ve never made an effort to be eccentric. At least not a conscious effort.
I bought him Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace but taped it up so that all he can access, easily at least, is “Forever Overhead,” which I shared with him is my favorite short story. As I always do, as I also do with the books I wrote, I offered it to him as something he might want to read and might enjoy. Then I told him some of my favorite parts, which he could read before he read the story or save for after.
I’ll make the same offer to anyone reading this, you can read my favorite parts before or after. Because my first exposure to “Forever Overhead” was listening to it read by the author, I’m still partial to that. What can I say, it spoke to me. Keep in mind, it’s twenty-five minutes to listen to, buy you might enjoy every second, as I did. I can’t tell you why I think it’s so good, because I don’t really know. I describe it, in the letter to my nephew, as a story about a boy, thirteen, who goes to the pool on his birthday and climbs the high board. He looks around and thinks.
Here is the full story, read by the author, on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiuz2L6Aqdc
I suppose if I could say just one thing about it, I would say that it’s precise. I just love the sentences. Here were some of the favorites I picked out and shared with my nephew in the letter accompanying the book. Not in order, except that they fell into a kind of order as I picked them out.
“Each rung presses into the bottoms of your feet and dents them. The dents feel deep and they hurt. You feel heavy. How the big woman over you must feel.”
“The pool rules say one on the ladder at a time, but the guard never shouts about it. The guard makes the real rules by shouting or not shouting.”
“Your family likes you. You are bright and quiet, respectful to elders–though you are not without spine. You are largely good. You look out for your little sister. You are her ally.”
“Listen. It does not seem good, the way she disappears into a time that passes before she sounds. Like a stone down a well. But you think she did not think so. She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking. And now you have made yourself part of it, too.”
“The rungs hurt your feet. They are thin and let you know just how much you weigh. You have real weight on the ladder. The ground wants you back.”
“Now that you’re overhead you can see the whole thing.”
“He says it behind you, his eyes on your ankles, the solid bald man, Hey kid. They want to know. Do your plans up here involve the whole day or what exactly is the story. Hey kid are you okay.”
For me, “Forever Overhead” is one of those stories that makes me think, as a writer, that I will never as long as I live write anything that good but I enjoy reading it so much that I don’t care. Which is a feeling writers love. Hopefully my nephew will read it and enjoy it, but I’ve gotten into the habit of not following up. I like the idea of the books I send them, including the ones I wrote, to just sit in their bookshelves for them to find when the mood strikes. That way reading it will be their own experience, and then if they want to share that they read it with me, they can.