Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
If you’re like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people.
And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the “best” book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don’t). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer’s bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages.
With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet.
Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints.
Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.
Nick Moran, The Millions intern.
Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley’s Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.
Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding.
Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories.
Duff McKagan, author of It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N’ Roses.
Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
Amy Waldman, author of The Submission.
Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories.
David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World.
Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married.
Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen.
Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States.
Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen.
Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend.
Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season.
Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm.
Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic.
Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood.
Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles.
Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India.
David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California.
Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric.
Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories.
Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper’s Lament.
Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown.
Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium.
Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season.
Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.
Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org.
Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions.
Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel.
Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes.
Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case.
Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones.
Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich.
Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama.
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination.
Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.
Belinda McKeon, author of Solace.
Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
A.N. Devers, editor of Writers’ Houses.
Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings.
Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls.
Rachel Syme, NPR contributor.
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We met at a writer’s conference at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. At sixty-six, Patrick O’Connor had a roving eye and a drinking problem. A self-professed Trotskyite and anti-Stalinist from the old radical ‘30s left wing of the Democrat party, he was Ayn Rand’s editor at New American Library in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
We quickly discovered we had something in common: our aversion to Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
I was an insecure young professor of philosophy at a conservative evangelical college, with a troubled marriage and two kids. Cedarville College was four miles from Antioch, but so distant ideologically from the famously radical Antioch that it might as well have been four light years.
I was prepared to dislike Patrick O’Connor intensely, based upon his association with a writer I considered odious. But he knocked me off balance with his first words. I later learned he was quite practiced at this.
We met in the quad during a cigarette break. Patrick O’Connor nursed a black coffee in a white ceramic mug he’d walked off with from the college cafeteria. I had a deep tan from mowing five acres of grass every week that summer, and lazing with my kids at the pool. A small man with a round face, he had a sly smile and a direct manner. We regarded each other from opposite ends of a picnic table.
Hey kid, have your good looks gotten in the way of you being taken seriously as a writer?
I deflected his question. Feeling misplaced in both a marriage and a job led to fantasies about women, art, and salvation that would later land me in world of trouble; I had already taken one of the women writers at the conference for a late night spin in my convertible, and had plans to see her that night. Somehow I had arrived at two non-original ideas: that I needed to write fiction, not philosophy, and that my personal aesthetic should be, “I write to get the girl.” I was a hollowed out writing conference cliché, and I was sure Patrick O’Connor saw right through me.
Was I a frivolous person, impersonating a serious one? Talking to her favorite editor, I was certain that Ayn Rand did not see herself this way.
On April 15, 2011, almost twenty years after my encounter with Patrick O’Connor, and almost 30 years after Ayn Rand’s death in 1982, Atlas Shrugged opened in theaters around the country. The movie is based on Rand’s bestselling dystopian novel of the same name, a literary vehicle expressing her trademark worldview: the morality of rational self-interest, or, Objectivism. The film was financed by a wealthy devotee of Ayn Rand’s work, and marketed aggressively to the Tea Party demographic by FreedomWorks, one of the prime movers in the Tea Party movement, which engaged in a massive campaign to encourage audience attendance, and to push the film into as many theaters as possible. The opening line of Atlas Shrugged — “Who is John Galt?” — has appeared on signs at Tea Party protests across America. Glenn Beck praises Atlas Shrugged regularly, and hosted a panel discussion dedicated to asking if Rand’s fiction is finally becoming reality. Once a shadowy cult presence in the margins of American life, Ayn Rand is now one of the central intellectual and cultural inspirations for the base of the Republican Party.
Ayn Rand’s books provided that moral justification for my evangelical Christian students. Atlas Shrugged, in particular. They were drawn to the fierce youthful idealism of The Fountainhead, which they found, quote, empowering. I found both novels to be insufferable. Rand was a third rate novelist of turgid prose who saw no reason to pen a sentence without making a speech.
Here is a sample sentence from Atlas Shrugged:
That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.
As a stylist, she could be dreadful, her prose in service to her philosophy:
It meant nothing to him any longer, only a faint tinge of sadness — and somewhere within him, a drop of pain moving briefly and vanishing, like a raindrop on the glass of a window, its course in the shape of a question.
A drop of rain pain in the shape of a question: “Who is John Galt.” That’s some raindrop.
I don’t remember what I said to deflect Patrick O’Connor’s question — something short and inane. I was already deeply conflicted about my appearance, and felt frequently that my life was a fraud, a series of performances at home and at work. Teaching was a kind of performance art. Although I had chosen a substantive discipline, social and political philosophy, I often wondered whether this was to mask my insecurities. I felt myself to be frivolous and vain. Writing a book on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida had done nothing to dissuade me from this view, as Derrida himself was regarded as a lightweight, a “deconstructionist” more in vogue with language and literature departments than with “serious” philosophy departments in academe.
I steered the conversation to safer topics: Antioch, and Ayn Rand’s books. Antioch was a hotbed of student radicalism and curricular innovation. Two years later, four miles southeast, my “Christian” college would try to fire me for publishing a book on feminism, yet here I was in conversation with the editor of an indomitable woman from Russia, herself among the first women to be admitted to university after the Russian Revolution — an atheist and fierce critic of religion — who was nevertheless the guiding light of some of my evangelical Christian students.
The performative contradictions in that last sentence continue to astonish me.
By the time I met Patrick O’Connor, I was itching for a fight about Ayn Rand. Two students were making my life hellish in class. Both were Econ students, promoting Rand as an apostle of free market capitalism and suspicious of my muddle-headed liberalism which harped about the growing chasm in Reagan’s America between the rich and the poor and the need for distributive justice. John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness? Forget it, Rawls was a wuss. Additionally, they were having difficulty with the concept of Jesus of Nazareth having compassion for the poor, like, say, Mother Teresa. Never mind that Jesus was a Jewish Mediterranean peasant, probably illiterate, with a biting critique of the rich and possessed of peasant humor — “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven” — my students weren’t buying it. It was not “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do) for these students, it was more like, “What would John Galt think.” I didn’t give a tinker’s damn about what John Galt thought. Holly and Mark were becoming royal pains and I wanted to kick Patrick O’Connor in the ass.
So when he told me that he was a Trotskyite, a Communist, and from the democratic wing of the Democratic party, I knew he was as misplaced with Rand as I was at my college.
I asked him directly: What was she like to work with? How had he managed to be that woman’s editor all those years?
Do you want to know why Ayn Rand’s books sell so well? he countered.
Because she writes the best children’s literature in America, O’Connor said. The Fountainhead is practically a rite of passage for alienated youth. She writes these epic, Wagnerian things. Where the sex takes place on the very highest plane and it speaks to the kids’ highest aspirations, their youthful idealism. It’s all YA stuff.
In that case, I argued, people should grow out of her, like a phase, they should get over her ideas when they become adults.
This is America, he said. There aren’t many ideas. Ayn Rand had a few simple ones which she believed in fiercely and promoted relentlessly.
But surely you don’t agree with her philosophy? The whole Objectivism thing from Atlas Shrugged?
Of course not! But we never talked politics. I knew better.
I wanted to know just how well Ayn Rand sold, really.
She paid the bills. The lights, the gas, the heating bills, the Christmas bonuses. Here’s the thing you gotta know about publishing, kid. The publishing industry itself is basically left, but true publishers publish what they think will sell. There is very little publishing “from belief” and that’s the way it has always been. We’ll publish anything that we know will sell, and everyone — no matter what they may think of her personally — everyone, every one, admires her sales.
I asked about the “didactic nature” of her prose and he laughed.
Didactic, hell, it’s worse than that. She writes to convert!
I thought of my evangelical Christian students. They liked the idea of conversion. They’d like to convert all of godless Russia to Christianity. China, too. And of course, they wanted to “win America for Christ.” The irony of this: these good Christian kids admired an evangelical atheist who believed in conversion. My head swam.
What about Rand’s reputation for being “difficult?”
I did everything she said.
What’s everything? (I had three books in the pipeline. Naively, and un-Rand-like, I said yes to everything Macmillan and Prentice Hall told me.)
Ayn Rand wanted approval of copy, advertising, art, you name it, O’Connor said. Publishers almost never give in to these kinds of demands, but we did. Because of her sales. I told the bosses, look, it’s her bat and ball.
You can get schooled at Twitter if you have the right friends. The other day someone tweeted that Facebook is the people you went to school with, and Twitter the people you wish you went to school with.
So. the other day, Maud Newton tweeted: “Irony of Atlas Shrugged, movie about great people laid low by mediocre jealous people, is that it is wholly mediocre.”
It’s been years since I spoke with Patrick O’Connor. And I’ve had time to think about Rand, about her legacy, about the way she never really went out of fashion among what John Scalzi calls the “nerd revenge porn” crowd. And I agree with O’Connor that Rand wrote children’s literature. The problem is that a lot of these people have grown up, put on colorful colonial uniforms, and are trying to shrink the nation’s budget to the size where it can be dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the bathtub. A libertarian whose ideas are as wacky as Rand’s (who in fact is named Rand) is now a United States senator in Kentucky. Former Fed Chairman and economist Alan Greenspan is a devotee of Ayn Rand. And a guy whom no one had heard of until recently, congressman Paul Ryan, (R-WI) Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has been making the GOP case for massive budget cuts that will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable among us, using principles derived from Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” of Objectivism, and requiring his staff to read her work.
Paul Ryan proposes a budget plan would cap non-security discretionary spending at $360 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and freezing it for five years. That’s equal to 2006 spending levels. Over the next decade that means cuts to education, job training, and social services of 25 percent below levels needed to maintain current services. These reductions come on top of the $38.5 billion already cut from this year’s budget.
Two-thirds of the long term budget cuts that Ryan proposes are directed at middle class and low-income people, as well as the poorest of the poor at home and abroad. At the same time, he proposes tax cuts up to 30 percent for the nation’s wealthiest corporations.
Paul Ryan and his followers have solidified the connection between Ayn Rand, the Tea Party, and the Grand Old Party, with nary an outcry from the “religious right,” Karl Rove’s “base” that put George W. Bush in power. No one that I am aware of in the religious right has called attention to the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah in the Bible:
Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you?
Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message translation
In lecture tours around America, Ayn Rand defended “the virtue of selfishness.” She had a long term love affair with Nathaniel Brandon, a young psychologist, who later established the Nathaniel Brandon Institute to promote Rand’s philosophy. Though it was reported that she did so with her husband’s full knowledge, it is generally acknowledged that Frank O’Connor (no relation to Patrick) found the experience to be “difficult.”
I don’t know if Patrick O’Connor got himself laid in Yellow Springs, Ohio. But the affair with the writer I met at that Antioch conference created deep pain in my family, and in hers, and led to the breakup of both marriages. In time, I came to understand the wisdom of that saying, “All love affairs are special cases, and yet at the same time each is the same case” — but in my case, it was too late.
I understand the selfishness part of Objectivism. It’s the virtue part that causes me difficulty.
On the day that Atlas Shrugged opened in theatres, someone tweeted, “Republicanism is crumbling of its own avarice, lust for power, excesses, and hypocrisy. It could not be otherwise when their entire “philosophy” is based upon the works of a sociopath.”
Patrick O’Connor did not think that Ayn Rand was a sociopath—to him she was just a loveable little old Jewish lady from Leningrad– although apparently his bosses at New American Library thought otherwise.
“She can’t be Jewish, she’s a fascist!” he reported them saying.
O’Connor challenged their hypocrisy: You’ve been living off this woman for years. She’s been paying all your bills.
The philosopher Jurgen Habermas spoke often of the “legitimation crisis” that plagues late capitalism, as core communication functions in society become disabled or “colonized” by money and power. I’ve often wondered whether Patrick O’Connor believed that publishers decrying Ayn Rand as a fascist while enjoying the benefits of her labor should undergo a legitimation crisis or shut up.
Here are Ayn Rand’s own words, in Atlas Shrugged.
Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become tools of other men. Blood, whips, guns—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other.
My encounter with Patrick O’Connor went to the heart of my struggles in those days: Was I a serious person? Was I really a pretty boy, flighty, without substance? Or someone serious enough to write, to take myself seriously as a writer? Ayn Rand took herself seriously and produced dreck—really dangerous stuff. She was a true believer. I no longer knew what I believed. I was carried away by the next breeze, toward the next woman, self absorbed and a wisp of the wind—but she stood as firmly planted as an oak. Rand was like Reagan: wrong but strong. She has endured, despite turgid prose and half baked ideas that were laughed out of the academy by people like me.
The year before I met Patrick O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill published a novel called Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which featured a thinly disguised Rand character, Anna Granite, and her philosophy of “Definitism.” Like the character Justine in her novel, Gaitskill had actually interviewed followers of Ayn Rand. I asked Mary Gaitskill: what is it about Ayn Rand, and why is she still here? What inspired her to write about Ayn Rand? Gaitskill wrote back:
I was inspired in part by realizing how important Ayn Rand’s ideas still were, and how deep they got into the American psyche. I thought then (and I’ve been proved right) that she was much more influential than she was given credit for. I didn’t have to be that smart to conclude this, I knew that Alan Greenspan had been an early devotee, and that William Buckley had taken her very seriously and that Atlas Shrugged was (according to one poll) one of the five top best-sellers in the history of the world, up there with the Bible. I found this astonishing. Still do.
Gaitskill went on to say:
Rand appears to be so crazy, and yet she really does speak for an aspect of America, really for an aspect of human experience. She treats big ideas in a way the common person can understand them; that is one legitimate reason for her popularity. Something I noticed about the followers, the “cultists” that I met–they tended to be nice people yearning for bigger meaning in their lives. Most of them were not especially selfish. It’s worth noting that most of them were also NOT people who knew Rand or were part of the early group. Those people, the few I met, struck me as both crazy and unpleasant. But the lower-level followers, no. They were in their own way idealists.
Patrick O’Connor believed that Ayn Rand sold because she knew who she was, she knew what she wanted, and because she spoke to people’s common dreams– the dreams of well meaning, idealistic people who want something more. I wasn’t dreaming of anything that day at Antioch, except maybe Rilke’s earnest childlike plea: Change your life. I knew that I needed to change my life, but didn’t know how. I couldn’t guide anyone reliably, anywhere, except in circles.
Saul Alinsky used to say, when you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.
Meanwhile, The Economist has reported several sharp spikes in sales of Atlas Shrugged since 2007. According to the Ayn Rand Institute, sales of the novel hit an all-time annual record that year, then reached a new record in 2008. USA Today reports that Atlas Shrugged made its debut on the USA Today Best Selling Books List on January 22, 2009, two days after President Obama’s inauguration. On April 20, Atlas Shrugged, first published in 1957, hit number 65 on the list, propelled by the new movie. Released in 299 theatres, the movie made $1.7 million in its first week.
As Patrick O’Connor insisted to me in 1992, she sells.
Do you remember this joke that was circulating in the 1980s: While deconstructionists were taking over English departments, Republicans were taking over the country.
I never found that joke to be funny.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
It seems fitting to begin a reflection on the late David Foster Wallace in a fit of anxiety about reception – about the propensity of words, sentences, personae, to falsify or to be misunderstood.
For example: I know this seems fraudulent and fanciful and like the scratching of some deep narcissistic itch, to write publicly about a famous person’s death. And also: I want you to know I know, and to make sure you know I want you to know I know, so that you don’t mistake me for someone less intelligent, original, precise, and self-critical than I am. Because I am terrified of the ethical misstep, of solipsism, and above all of getting things wrong.
So, I think, was my subject, for whom the vicious regress sketched above could go on infinitely, each new confession forcing a confession about the rhetoric behind that confession. Indeed, in his later work, as in the short story “Octet,” David Foster Wallace found a way to make the regress feel infinite. Some readers saw in this a kind of heroism – a commitment to representing philosophical truth, no matter how ungainly. Others saw it as evidence that Wallace had hit some kind of aesthetic cul-de-sac. Some even saw it as both: a heroic cul-de-sac. But it seems to me that Wallace’s manic sincerity was merely the obverse of our age’s reflexive irony. Each was an expression of deep suspicion of abstractions like “trust” and “faith.”
Which makes Wallace’s achievement even more impressive. Ultimately, his characters and narrators managed to push beyond paradox and to risk saying something about what used to be called the human condition. In honor of those risks – and with the preliminary apologiae more or less in place – let me try here to risk saying something about David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace was a large, shaggy, uncomfortable, funny person who once held me and 75 other people hostage for over an hour in a basement room in St. Louis. He was reading from his new book, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I was 19, and when the reading was over I squeaked out something like, “Infinite Jest really meant a lot to me,” and he said something like, “Do you want me to sign your copy?” and I said something like “I checked it out of the library” and then I ran away.
That is, Wallace was a person I did not, in any respectable sense of the word, know, though I am currently feeling a dreadful temptation to pretend otherwise, to insist on a connection between reader and writer, to assert some rights over the body, and over the life, and over the work. Then again, in another sense, I knew him – I did. I heard the critic John Leonard say one time that the great writers, the ones who matter, are “friends of the mind,” and David Foster Wallace was mine. Simply put: his work has mattered more to me, and for longer, than any other writer’s, and when he killed himself last week at age 46, I felt like I had lost a friend. His voice is still in my head.
I came to that voice in high school, when I first read Infinite Jest. This was immediately and not incidentally prior to my discovery of literature per se. I read the thousand-page book more or less continuously for three weeks (as would be my habit every few years) and I felt like someone was speaking to me directly, in my language, about people I knew, or had been. “Like most North Americans of his generation,” Wallace wrote, in a passage that hooked me early on, Hal Incandenza
tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.
The secret power of this voice, as Wallace would discover in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” lay in its immense ethical appeal. Although his descriptions of Hal’s life at a tennis academy, and of pharmaceutical habits or Eschaton, did not stint on arcana, Wallace was perfectly willing to admit that certain things were “hard to say.” Moreover, there was the seeming correspondence between the authorial persona and the real person I glimpsed through the interstices of the fiction, and, later, nonfiction.
That person was like an extreme caricature of many generational traits: polymathic, ironic, brilliant, damaged, and under intense pressure to perform. The difference was that DFW (as I came to think of him) had performed. Unlike so many of the other great minds of our time, he had made good on his promise, less by virtue of talent than through moral courage and hard work. I still think the elucidation of Gerhard Schtitt’s tennis philosophy in Infinite Jest is some of the best writing about writing I’ve ever read: “How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.” Wallace somehow managed to pay attention to everything.
Of course, nothing is so unforgivable in postmodern America as an assertion of one’s own value, and in various large and small ways, Wallace’s critical reception would be dampened by schadenfreude. The surest way to marginalize the literary high-water-mark of the 1990s would be to exaggerate its (considerable) length and difficulty. “Sure Infinite Jest is great,” the logic went, “but does anybody actually read it?”
Similarly, I think, it would be both inaccurate and reductive to blame the burden of following up a masterpiece for driving Wallace to his death. In the 10 years that followed Infinite Jest – which might have been a perfectly reasonable gestation period for another long novel – Wallace published five books, for a more than respectable average of one every two years. The short stories “Church Not Made With Hands” and “Good Old Neon,” and the essays on the porn industry and John McCain in Consider the Lobster would be among his best work.
Furthermore, it was impossible to read about the Depressed Person in “The Depressed Person” and not to understand that the author had known depression on the most wrenching and intimate and long-term terms. The suicide that now hangs shadelike over the Wallace corpus in fact predated it, at least as a potentiality; think of The Sad Stork and Kate Gompert and “Suicide as a Sort of Present” and the narrator of “Good Old Neon.”
Or don’t, because revisiting Wallace’s work is liable to offer more questions than answers. E.g.: How can someone with so much going for him have felt so bad? How could such an ambitious communicator have settled for this final muteness? And what, in the end, can we say about it?
We can say, first of all, that David Foster Wallace’s death is a historic loss for readers. To me, the self-annihilating qualities of “Octet” and “Mister Squishy” and “Oblivion” didn’t read as fictional dead-ends, but as attempts to solve, once and for all, the preoccupations of Wallace’s youth, prior to some astonishing new novel.
And we can remember that that book would have reflected a side of David Foster Wallace his critics didn’t often acknowledge: the metaphysician. In retrospect, Wallace’s belief in something larger than logic is everywhere: in Schtitt’s philosophies, in the prayerful ending of “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” and in “Good Old Neon,” where a suicide suggests that “all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life [turn] out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward.” Indeed, it offers some solace to recall that Wallace imagined death, in Infinite Jest, as a restoration, a
catapult[ing] home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.
This lovely image of connection posits death as the antithesis of depression, whose cause and effect, as Wallace diagnosed them, was the ontological problem of aloneness. Wallace revisited the proposition again and again, most recently in a soon-to-be-minutely-parsed commencement address at Kenyon College:
I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of what 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.
But on this point, Wallace, who got so much right and saw so much so clearly, fell prey to a junior-grade fallacy, which now deepens into irony. As he himself put it in Infinite Jest: “sometimes words that seem to express really invoke.”
Even as Wallace’s darkest images expressed the anguish of existential solitude, the act of writing fiction, of writing it so well, was itself an invocation of community. His finest creation, Don Gately (the Leopold Bloom of Infinite Jest) bodies forth the possibility of true empathy, and we learn, through a series of hints, that he will try to lead Hal Incandenza out of the prison of the self.
Gately’s secret? He has come to understand that there is no proof, that some things one simply takes on faith. And as Gately observes, it works. David Foster Wallace’s death looks, from where I’m sitting, like a failure of communication. But his life, and his work, are an affirmation of it. Death is not the end.
Recently, the innovative literary magazine One-Story launched a campaign to “Save the Short Story.” As the essay below suggests, we at The Millions found this effort admirable, and also puzzling. Is “the short story” even a single thing? And, if so, does it need saving? On both questions, the evidence seems mixed. We can agree, however, that short stories seem to have lost some of their prominence in the popular imagination. Mainstream book coverage tends to track the agendas of the publishing industry; those agendas, in turn, tend to be driven by coverage. With our “Short Story Week,” we aim to subvert the cycle. Between now and Friday, we hopeto revisit the work of living masters,to celebrate the writers who paved their way,to talk a bit about teaching the short story, and writing it,to link to interesting short-story sites and periodicalsto provide a selective bibliography of our favorite story collections,and, as always, to hear from you.In short: we hope you enjoy it. We’ll be linking to the week’s installments below.Inter Alia #8: Whither the Short Story?On BrevityExpat Laureate: Paul Bowles’s Too Far From HomeThe Elusive Thread of Memory: The Displaced World of Mavis GallantAdventures in Consciousness: A Review of Deborah Eisenberg’s Under the 82nd AirborneSome Recommended Short FictionAnthologies EvolvedAnd May We Also RecommendShort Story Week LinksOn Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections