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Read So Hard Libraries Try and Fine Me

March 20, 2012

We’re reading to one song and one song only.


And the best video I could find of the original:


Mentioned/seen in these videos:

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

Marcel Proust

Jay Z and Kanye West

Inventory: The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

March 17, 2012

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
Wallace without  the humility or the humanity.
Status: Just say the word.

AS COLLEGE FICTION WRITING GOES, this novel — which began as one of David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate theses — is some of the best you’ll find. But if you know anything about college fiction (and I include graduate workshops in this category as well), you know that’s not exactly praise. Wallace is too enchanted with his own intellect and subversiveness to really tell a good story here, and it all ends up just feeling like unhappiness. Not even sadness. Just unhappiness.

There are some good parts, and at times I found myself thinking, “Wow! That was written by an undergraduate?” But for the most part my reaction was, “Yep. That was written by an undergraduate.”

Do you want to trade paperbacks?

The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Tragedy Comedy

March 14, 2012

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” 


March 14, 2012, pgs 865-883/1077. Hal, still in first person, goes to brush his teeth. The early morning crying he hears behind closed doors reminds me of the stories I’ve heard from people who were in Teach for America: “Lots of the top players start the A.M. with a quick fit of crying, then are basically hale and well-wrapped for the rest of the day.”

For some reason, the clock in the bathroom reads “11-18-EST456” when the day is actually the 20th. Maybe it’s an uncorrected effect of ETA’s fixing of the mirrors to prevent Pemulis from messing with them.  Maybe it’s something else.  I like to think that the snow on the boys’ dorm windowsill is a basically meaningless but polite nod to “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Hal wanders out to find Ortho Stice chanting to himself. His forehead is frozen to the window, facing outward much like a night watchman, as a previous commenter has pointed out while posing a pretty compelling theory that this is the point at which the narrative begins to line up with the narrative of Hamlet.

If this theory has legs, it’s possible but (again) probably a stretch to think that Wallace dropped a little hint for us. When Hal speaks to Ortho, Ortho asks Hal if he is crying.  At the end of the scene Hal is asked why he’s laughing so much.  In neither case does Hal believe he’s doing either — on speaking to Stice: “My voice had been neutral and a bit puzzled.” But these expressions may be referring to the Tragedy and Comedy masks of the theater (or theatre, if you must). It would be appropriate, if this is officially where “Infinite Jest” — or at least this part of “Infinite Jest” — begins to properly parallel the narrative in “Hamlet.”*

Whatever the case is, strange things are all around. There is a figure outside sitting on the bleachers in the snow. Ortho tells his story about waking up in the middle of the night and slips and says “The point’s I’m up there —” about his bed. Troeltsch and Axhandle have either switched rooms or are in the same room on the same twin bed. The Darkness then asks if Hal believes “in shit” like ghosts. He mentions that someone came by before but just stood behind him silently, “Then he went away. Or…it.” Ortho tells Hal that if he pulls him off the window, “I’ll take and show you some parabnormal shit that’ll shake your personal tree but good,” referring to his bed moving around in his room. Stice won’t come unstuck from the window.

Hal goes for help, taking his toothbrush with him because of a previous incident at ETA in which students’ brushes had been dosed with Betel nut extract. Kenkle interrupts a monologue on sex — which sounds an awful like the description of a beast with two backs — to greet “Good Prince Hal.” Hal explains the situation to them and Kenkle asks him why it’s so funny. He appears to be laughing.

A yell sounds from upstairs.

Then — the US Office of Unspecified Services is preparing for a release of The Entertainment, with market tested ideas on how to reach little kids. It’s an interesting idea but feels like a bit of a distraction from the events unfolding with people we really care about. There is one interesting point of note, a connection to way back on page 419, when Marathe is thinking about the “latent and sadistic” assignments USOUS gives to its operatives. One of the things he lists is “healthy women as hydrocephalic boys or epileptic public-relations executives.” In this scene 460 pages later, Carl E. (‘Buster’) Yee, Director of Marketing and Product-Perception at the Glad Flaccid Receptacle Corporation, has an epileptic fit in the middle of the meeting. And I won’t even venture any unwelcome speculation about hydrocephalic boys.

*Maybe it’s crazy to look for such deliberate clues. It’s as stupid as trying to find “Hamlet” in Pi — unless…


Happy Pi Day everybody!

Read the full Infinite Jest Liveblog

Meanwhile Over at Not Foster Wallace…

March 9, 2012

AN IMAGE FROM the nerdiest Halloween party ever has been picked up on a Tumblr of people who are not David Foster Wallace.

It’s not the fame I want, but it is the fame I deserve.

See more people who are Not Foster Wallace.

The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Alas, Poor Tony

March 8, 2012

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” 


March 8, 2012, pgs 845-864/1076-1077. Finally, the end comes for Poor Tony Krause and Randy Lenz, two of the most unpleasant characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading.  

But age with his stealing steps/ Hath clawed me in his clutch,/ And hath shipped me into the land/ As if I had never been such.

Lenz remains Lenz right up to the very end, apparently cutting Krause’s digits off and offering them up during the AFR civilian testing of The Entertainment. If there was any ambiguity, it seems that Marathe has definitely made his choice since he failed to report Jolene’s presence to Fortier and “had made his decision and his call,” said call being to Steeply. In the meantime, he helps plan an AFR incursion to ETA to get at Hal, Mario and Avril.

Gately dreams. He’s with Joelle getting ready for romance when her revealed face is that of Winston Churchill. This is reminiscent of the description of Ortho Stice from two hundred and ten pages prior: “A beautiful sports body, lithe and tapered and sleekly muscled, smooth…on whose graceful neck sits the face of a ravaged Winston Churchill, broad and slab-featured…”  It’s too far a stretch for me to call this a Hamlet Sighting, but I do think it’s funny that there is some possibly family resemblance between our possible Laertes and our almost certainly Ophelia characters. The root cause, however, is most likely David Foster Wallace’s feeling that Winston Churchill was funny looking. Gately’s touching memory-dream of Mrs. Waite morphs into what appears to be the content of The Entertainment, in which JOI’s death/female/mother cosmology is explained to Gately, who submits to it.

Hal wakes from a dream and — for what I think is the first time — speaks in a first person voice that is loudly and clearly identified as Hal (and not just a random, nameless first-person somewhere in the jumble of characters in the previous 850 pages). Hal now has a voice, and it’s one of the coolest tricks in a tricky novel, mostly because it doesn’t feel like a trick.  Pemulis is off the stage, but he’s clearly on the mind of Hal, who describes the snow outside as “Yachting-cap white.”  He is then struck by that fact that he’s having feelings of not wanting to play tennis: “I couldn’t remember feeling strongly one way or the other about playing for quite a long time, in fact.” Hal is shifting out of neutral, which seems like a good thing, but is also accompanied by the feeling that “without some one-hitters to be able to look forward to smoking alone in the tunnel I was waking up every day feeling as though there was nothing in the day to anticipate or lend anything any meaning.”

Gately wakes up to the real Joelle van Dyne.  Like her Ennet House-mates, Joelle unloads her recovery narrative on Gately, only this time he doesn’t seem to mind.  He takes inspiration from her progress and has his own kind of breakthrough: “He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding.”  We hear a by now familiar Wallace refrain “What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all.” All this business about living in the moment and ignoring the mind carries more-than-subtle notes of Buddhism.

In addition to refusing narcotic painkillers, Gately also tries to convince himself to swear off Joelle.

Read the full Infinite Jest Liveblog

Fiction Advocate: “Nabokov Stole my Grandpa to Make Pale Fire”

March 6, 2012

IN “A SINGULARLY TASTELESS DEVICE,” Fiction Advocate Brian Hurley traces the genealogy of the Hurley clan back to a character in Nabokov’s masterwork of misdirection, “Pale Fire.”

Earl Hurley had three sons (including my father Tom) who were called the Hurley boys. They were infamous in Lexington for their roughhousing ways. Nabokov would have met them in 1951, when he traveled from Cornell, where he was teaching, to Washington and Lee on a lecture tour.

What other clues did Nabokov plant in his story, to pique the suspicions of a young Brian Hurley?

The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Images

March 2, 2012

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” 


March 2, 2012, N/A. With apologies for the slow pace of recent updates — this damn day job is really cramping my style — here are some images to keep you busy.

A police sketch built on descriptions of Hal Incandenza in the book. This was originally on The Composites, a cool site where you can find more of your favorite literary characters pictured as if they robbed a local convenience store and are still at-large. However, Hal’s image has been removed for reasons that are unclear.

And then, from Brain Pickings, “3 Ways to Visualize the David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest” (sic). A flowchat, a geolocation photo tour, and a character diagram.

PS — You can buy this one here (five over, four down).

Finally, an oldie but goodie from The Boston Globe:

Read the full Infinite Jest Liveblog

Inventory: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

February 29, 2012

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
The dude abides.
Status: Limited release in DC area only.

“INHERENT VICE” IS the Pynchon book I was the least interested in reading, and the one I flat out enjoyed the most.

Late-60s California surfer noir (on weed) is not really my thing, or so I thought.  Even a YouTube video featuring the famously reclusive author speaking as the book’s lead character Doc Sportello, who describes himself as “a private gum shoe…or nowadays more like gum sandal,” didn’t catch my interest. I went to the book reluctantly, and it turned out to be well worth the read.

“Vice” is a shorter novel, and not one of Pynchon’s 500+ page picaresques. The obvious comparison is to “The Crying of Lot 49,” but “Vice” has more substance on its story and more to care about in his characters. Pynchon paints the transition into the 1970s as a lost era of innocent hedonism, a time when the last stragglers at a long party — pushed as far West as they can go, and waiting as long as they possibly can — come up against the hard knowledge that the party is ending. It’s silly, heavy, and at times heartfelt, with plenty of Pynchon’s standard ingredients of odd conspiracies, strangely dangerous rock bands, mysticism, technology and even a little sexual dominance (but just a little).

The man does a really good weird detective novel.

Do you want to trade paperbacks?


Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
> Zero Cool.
Status: Available.

I’VE HEARD NEAL STEPHENSON’S NAME MENTIONED alongside writers like Pynchon and David Foster Wallace a few times, especially in reference to his 1999 novel “Cryptonomicon.” The book is a long, intricately plotted story following an ensemble cast through multiple, interwoven narratives, and Stephenson isn’t afraid of explicit writing about sex, science, violence, history, math or technology. Not to mention that he can also be really funny. The story is less challenging and, ironically, less cryptic than anything I’ve come across from DFW or TP, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and Stephenson withstands the comparison.

From its name, its gray on black artwork and the cruciform designs on its cover, I assumed “Cryptonomicon” was going to be about something more fantastical and occult. It’s not; the closest thing to magic here is the card-based role-playing game happening in the background of a meeting between hackers. The hackers in question would likely just be called computer programmers today, but in the late 1990s they were guys who knew how to program UNIX machines to do things the government and corporations were concerned about, or outright afraid of. “Cryptonomicon” is set right at the point when guys like these were gaining legitimacy, and huge paydays, but are still on the fringes of most things having to do with society.  One of the “hackers,” Randy Waterhouse, is working with a number of other eccentrics to establish a data haven on a fictional island in the South Pacific, roughly the equivalent of legally immune Swiss banks, but for information. Other reasons for the project are revealed as events progress.

When we’re not in the late 90s, we’re following a handful of globe-trotting characters during World War II. The chapters alternate between Randy, the American Marine Bobby Shaftoe having adventures in the Pacific theater of the war, a Japanese engineer, a rogue Catholic priest/mercenary, and Allied Forces code breaker Lawrence Waterhouse — Randy’s grandfather and the man charged with deciphering Japanese and German codes, then figuring out how to use them without revealing to the enemy that their codes are broken.  Things gets really interesting when it becomes clear why the various narratives are connected.

“Cryptonomicon” could have stood to lose some pages, and when writing about Bobby Shaftoe, who provides an almost slapstick style of comic relief in some of his scenes, Stephenson let’s his “Catch-22” influence show a little bit too often. But there’s no place where the story drags, which is saying a lot for a 900 page book.

Do you want to trade paperbacks?

The Infinite Jest Liveblog: “…”

February 25, 2012

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” 


February 25, 2012, pgs 809-845/1076. Gately is laid up in the trauma wing of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, mute and only non-narcotically medicated.  As such, he has become a target for Ennet House visitors eager to unload their memories, and for his own mind to unload a few of his own memories as well. Tiny Ewell is first, along with a “tall and slumped ghostish figure” and “the blurred seated square-head boy” who is likely to be Otis P. Lord with the computer monitor still stuck over his head. Ewell’s story of his school boy days makes him sound quite a bit like an early Mike Pemulis. Gately keeps dreaming about “Orientals” for some reason that I can’t identify.

Gately talks about the “airless and hellish, horrid” condition of being unable to speak and it seems that, as we approach the final pages of the book, both of our main protagonists are fighting the temptation to take drugs.  Hal sees faces in the floor and Gately sees breathing in the ceiling.  Gately’s bed is moved like Stice’s and he ends up next to a crying patient with a very deep voice.  No clue who that is.

Enter ghost.  The figure that has been resting its tailbone on the window sill (like JOI’s mother in previous scenes) is JOI Himself. The Hamlet Sightings are off the charts here, with the se offendendo that Wallace notes in the endnotes to JOI being the ghost of Hamlet’s father to his insertion of the word LAERTES into Gately’s thoughts. Bear in mind also that Laertes is the father of Odysseus, so there may even be some James Joyce/Homer sightings taking place here as well. We learn from the ghost of JOI about figurants, and how he felt like one his entire life and how Hal had started to become one just before JOI’s se offendendo. The figurants conversation also offers a hefty justification for why this book pretty much features “every single performer’s voice, no matter how far out on the cinematographic or narrative periphery they were.”  Immediately the early Clenette chapter (“Wardine say her mama aint treat her right…”) comes to mind.

We learn that the purpose of The Entertainment was for JOI to connect with Hal, “To bring him ‘out of himself,’ as they say. The womb could be used both ways. A way to say I AM SO VERY, VERY SORRY and have it heard. A life-long dream. The scholars and Foundations and disseminators never saw that his most serious wish was: to entertain.” I’m not certain of the exact timeline here, but it seems possible that JOI-as-wraith might be able, at some point during these interactions with Gately, to whisk up the hill to ETA and see his son actually watching and presumably being entertained by his father’s movies.

Gately slips in and out of consciousness, remembering the MP who abused his mother.

Read the full Infinite Jest Liveblog

DFW: 1962-2008

February 21, 2012

He would have been 50 today.

Here are some good things to read:

A letter from Wallace to Don DeLillo on Letters of Note

David Foster Wallace at 50: Why he still matters and always will by Alexander Nazaryan at the New York Daily News

46 Things to Read and See for David Foster Wallace’s 50th Birthday by Carrie Frye at The Awl

Clips from a long 2003 interview, and links to the full exchange

Flavorwire: Tattoos inspired by David Foster Wallace

Galleycat: Seven Books that Inspired David Foster Wallace that You Can Get as Free eBooks

Consider the Human by Kevin Bloom in The Daily Maverick

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