A Brief History of the Future: On James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History

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“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”
—Susan Sontag, quoting “an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy,” but part of which (i.e., the first half) is often attributed to John Archibald Wheeler (who “admitted to having found it scrawled in a Texas men’s room”), Woody Allen, and Albert Einstein, but which actually appeared before all of these figures were supposed to have said or written it in a novel by Ray Cummings from 1922 called The Girl in the Golden Atom and is spoken by a character named Big Business Man, so I guess one can only really credit Sontag (or, I suppose, the “old riff” to which she refers) with the part about space (which, admittedly, is a totally brilliant and enriching addendum; really makes the phrase, don’t you think?), and if you think this quote attribution is convoluted and confusing well then hold onto your hats, there, buddy, because shit’s about to get real weird
Tom Robbins, in his 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, abruptly interrupts the narrative and briefly expounds on the nature of time in literature. “Even though we agree that time is relative,” he writes, “that most subjective notions of it are inaccurate just as most objective expressions of it are arbitrary…even so, we have come to expect, for better or worse, some sort of chronological order in the books we read, for it is the function of literature to provide what life has not.” He has interjected, he explains, to inform the reader of some reordering of certain events — i.e., that the events of Parts I and II occurred after the events currently being described in Part III. “The author apologizes” for any confusion but “does not, however, disavow the impulses that lead to his presentation…nor does he, in repentance, embrace the notion that literature should mirror reality.” Moreover, he continues:
A book no more contains reality than a clock contains time. A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real (both more real, perhaps, than those ideas to which they allude); but let’s not kid ourselves — all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.
This passage — one of my very favorites — drifted into my mind (a psychological phenomenon referred to, I now know, as “involuntary mental time travel”) as I read through James Gleick’s fascinating new book Time Travel: A History, as Robbins’s quote seems to have anticipated (or, maybe, pre-emptively challenged) just such a work.  What could any book, a mere vessel of subjective interpretation, tell us about time, an invisible system of measuring change? I suspected that by the end I’d either feel tricked or confounded.

It turns out that I felt neither deceived nor confused — or, rather, I did feel those things, but about the subject and not the book. Gleick’s hybrid of history, literary criticism, theoretical physics, and philosophical meditation is itself a time-jumping, head-tripping odyssey, and it works so well. Even though Gleick can elucidate complex ideas into accessible language, he’s even better at explicating notions that remain perplexing. That is, he’s good at explaining paradoxes — itself a sort of paradoxical phrase, paradoxes supposedly being logical contradictions that defy common sense and are thus difficult — if not impossible — to comprehend. But a subject like time travel, as we savvy citizens of the 21st century well know by now, is rife with paradox, and any account of its history must not only engage with those incongruities but transcend them in some powerful way. There has to be, in other words, more insight than one would find in a given episode of Doctor Who.

That’s not to say that elements of popular culture are out of the time-travel historian’s reach (Doctor Who, for instance, is fruitfully used by Gleick in Time Travel), but rather that such an enterprise’s primary subject must only ostensibly be time travel but that it’s truly about why we’re so interested in the subject and what that means about who we are. The infinite intricacies of moving forward or backward in time have been so thoroughly dissected by popular culture that, quite amazingly, these meta-cognitive and entirely theoretical ideas have become clichés. In her fun and insightful new book Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies, Hadley Freeman notes a plot hole in 1985’s Back to the Future: “But complaining about credibility issues in a movie about time travel is surely the definition of carping.” And to think that humanity, as a species, didn’t even consider the concept of time travel until a little more than 100 years ago, and already such innovative and cerebral ideas have grown so banal they’re barely worthy of comment. It is amazing what human beings can become bored with.

Gleick is particularly suited to the task of writing a history of time travel. His previous books include Genius, a rich biography of physics bad-boy Richard Feynman; The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, which traces the origins of the information age; and Chaos: Making a New Science, a work that tackles chaos theory and that made “the Butterfly Effect” a common term. Gleick was also the founder, with Uday Ivatury, of The Pipeline in 1993, one of the earliest Internet service providers. Time travel, for such a writer, must be almost bromidic. And to be sure, there is a slight trace of disdain in Gleick for his subject here, almost as if he’s getting annoyed having to explicate ideas he knows are hogwash — e.g., his takedown of “time capsules,” which he refers to as “a special kind of foolishness,” — or having the irksome duty of assembling such declarations as, “In point of fact, time is not a river.”

But by the end of the book I too developed a frustration with the myriad arguments surrounding time — not at any of the arguers but of the flimsiness of my hold on it as a subject of speculation. Every time I felt I had a grasp on a particular way of thinking about time, some new theory threw my understanding out the window. For example, Gleick begins his history with the creator of time travel, H.G. Wells, and his monumental work of science fiction of 1895, The Time Machine. In its early pages, the protagonist, the Time Traveller, Socratically explains the basics of his invention with some skeptical (and similarly ersatz) characters:

‘You know of course [said the Time Traveller] that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions.’

‘That is all right,’ said the Psychologist.

‘Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.’

‘There I object,’ said Filby. ‘Of course a solid body may exist. All real things-‘

‘So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?’

‘Don’t follow you,’ said Filby.

‘Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?’

Filby became pensive. ‘Clearly,’ the Time Traveller proceeded, ‘any real body must have extension in four dimensions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and — Duration.”

Gleick calls Filby a “poor sap” for putting up such a “feeble resistance” to the Time Traveller’s points, but for me such a basic explanation was revelatory — to consider duration as a necessary component to existence seems not only true but rather obvious once you’ve learned it.

But it quickly becomes clear that the validity of time as the “fourth dimension” wasn’t going to last too long in the rapid development of subsequent time travel theorems and the physics and quantum mechanics that eventually joined the party. Just as my brain congratulated itself for its keen comprehension, it was thrown for a new loop. Not that this is Gleick’s fault, of course — the very subject of time travel invites headaches if pondered longer than a few minutes, and Gleick’s book totals 336 pages of mind-bending conundra: some mental pain is inevitable, both for author and reader.

Gleick, though, through his years of scientific authorship, has become an artful writer who clearly has a deep love for literature, consequently employing fictional techniques in his nonfiction work. He repeatedly opens sections with the mise-en-scène of novels or TV show episodes that feature time travel, as in this description of the opening of La Jetée, a film by Chris Marker from 1962 that is made up of only still images, and which was the inspiration for the 1995 Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys:

We begin again. A woman stands at the end of “pier” — the open-air observation platform at Orly Airport (la grande jetée D’Orly), over-looking a sea of concrete on which the great metal jetliners rest, pointed like arrows toward the future. The sun is pale in a charcoal sky. We hear shrill jet blasts, a ghostly choir, murmuring voices.

There is a ton of rhetorical work going on here, the kind usually associated with fictional narratives, from the thematic reference of the jets “pointed like arrows toward the future” to the asyndeton in the final sentence. Or consider Time Travel’s opening sentence, introducing Wells’s Time Traveller: “A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods — a squat, ugly contraption, somehow out of focus, not easy for the poor reader to visualize, despite the listing of parts and materials.” Notice how subtly Gleick takes us from literal description (“A man stands…”) to metaphorical commentary (the 19th century as “a drafty corridor”) to literary criticism (“…the poor reader…”) to cluing us into the fact that he’s talking about a novel (“despite the listing of parts…”). Gleick may have a little of the frustrated novelist in him, but he’s certainly learned well how to exercise (and exorcise) that frustration advantageously. Time Travel is as elegant and eloquent as it is edifying.

This love of literature manifests in other ways in the book, too, also beneficially. Though Gleick runs the gambit of physicists and philosophers and theorists (from St. Augustine to Stephen Hawking), he’s most fruitful and fun and alive as a writer when he dissects novels and films and television — which is more than fitting considering that time travel itself was the invention of a fiction writer; Gleick, by featuring more fiction than theory, as it were, is merely staying in the tradition that originated the notion. For instructive tools, Gleick takes the reader through, e.g., Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and William Gibson’s The Peripheral and, most interestingly, E.M. Forster’s bleak and just fucking weird novella The Machine Stops. But perhaps my favorite is that episode of Doctor Who Gleick discusses (which I at first wanted to summarize here to grapple with a bit but which proved way too elaborate to do in anything fewer than like seven or eight sentences, and this is already getting too long as it is). Part of the fun of these sections is the various ways Gleick uses them to demonstrate certain abstractions or murky concepts, but what really makes them sing is how richly palpable Gleick’s love for sci-fi is — for its inventiveness, yes, but more so for its playfulness, the way it can positively relish the paradoxes and the moral dilemmas and the general confusion of it all. (Best example: Robert Heinlein’s short story “By Your Bootstraps.”)

And his love is particularly noticeable when set against his growing irritation at now commonly accepted views of time — most of which he so obviously disagrees with. “Timelessness, eternity, the four-dimensional spacetime loaf,” he concludes, “These are the illusions.” Time, for Gleick, no matter how skillful the rhetoric or how tempting the logic, simply cannot be denied its reality (or at least our illusion of its reality), because of how completely it situates our experiences of everyday life. It is, rather, space that is the illusion.

By the end I found I concurred with Gleick about time’s irrepressible existence, which might have warranted more examination of our psychological perception of time, as in Claudia Hammond’s 2013 engaging work Time Warped, which mostly ignores those dusty arguments over whether or not time exists and instead focuses on the way we experience it as a phenomenon. She notes, for instance, that as humans we’re not only organized by time but also exceptionally skilled at it (though, Hammond notes, citing Jean Piaget, the “father of developmental psychology,” that as children, we “find it hard to distinguish between size as it relates to time and size as it relates to space”). Hammond shows how time affects more aspects of our lives than we might assume, like conversations:

To produce and understand speech, we rely on critical timings of less than a tenth of a second. The difference between the sound of a ‘pa’ and a ‘ba’ is all in the timing of the delay before the subsequent vowel, so if the delay is longer you hear a ‘p,’ if it’s short you hear a ‘b.’ If you put your hand on your vocal cords you can even feel that with the ‘ba’ your lips open at the same time as you feel your cords start to vibrate. With the ‘pa’ the vibrations starts a moment earlier. This relies on timing accurate to the millisecond.

If the abstract debates over time are inadequate at worst and irrelevant at best, then shouldn’t these be the kinds of ideas we focus on? If time (and not space) is fundamental to nature, and we’re stuck with its effects no matter how much of an illusion we “prove” it to be, then our clever excursions through the epochs in science fiction might not be the most productive use of our intellectual attention.

But what the hell do I know? With each thought regarding all these pitfall-ridden concepts, I second-guess myself, and I begin to relate to Tom Robbins’s meditation in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. After his apology for mucking up the chronology and noting that books don’t actually reflect reality, he adds that he’s got a repertoire of sentences at his disposal, to do with what he wishes. “This sentence is made of yak wool,” he writes, while another sentence “has a crush on Norman Mailer.” “This sentence went to Woodstock” goes another, and “this little sentence went wee wee all the way home.” It’s a fun bit, but the one I really relate to is the final one: “This sentence is rather confounded by the whole damn thing.”

Ward Farnsworth Doesn’t Mess Around: On ‘Classical English Metaphor’

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In 2010, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric became an unlikely bestseller and was immortalized here at The Millions by Steven Dodson. Rhetoric functions on a micro scale, and some of its instructive value may even come across as perfunctory because, like linguistics and grammar, we all regularly employ rhetorical techniques without knowing their names.

But even for those familiar elements, there is still use in learning its definition and seeing some effective examples. For instance, here is Ward Farnsworth on asyndeton, which is when a writer omits a conjunction that would ordinarily be there:
a. The omission of the conjunction is irregular and unexpected, and thus can create a moment of emphasis.
b.The omission suggests that each of the items has independent force…
c. Omitting conjunctions may suggest that the items mentioned are restatements of one another, or that each is a substitute for the last, rather than a list of independent entries.
And so on through the letter g. Though we all undoubtedly have read and used asyndeton, it is unlikely that many were aware of the term or had heard it defined so eloquently. People rarely realize the linguistic tools in their arsenal but still use them to their full effect; English speakers can conjugate a verb into the pluperfect verb tense, successfully and comprehensively, without ever having heard of it by name.

Besides helping common readers understand the things they’re already saying and making them very easy to understand, Farnsworth also takes you on a tour of literary efficacy. Rhetoric as a subject, and Farnsworth as a writer, are not interested in the larger and more ineffable artfulness of literature — structure, setting, character, dialogue, et al (and good thing, too, because those components are not teachable the way rhetoric is, and often those how-to-write-better volumes end up discouraging and daunting, as if one’s inability to learn from The Great Gatsby or In Cold Blood pointed to an overall failing. I’ve read over a dozen such books, and mostly they succeed only at showing just how great the great writers are, and just how large the gap between you and them really is).

Farnsworth focuses on subtler and more achievable examples, like this one for asyndeton, which comes from former MP Neil Kinnock: “The House of Lords must go — not be reformed, not be replaced, not be reborn in some nominated life-after-death patronage paradise, just closed down, abolished, finished.” This is an extremely effective use of asyndeton but it’s also clear and practically instructive example. You can see how you might use it.

Farnsworth’s Rhetoric succeeded despite the many barriers to success in the marketplace for a book on classical writing because it repeatedly and implicitly reiterates the reasons these rhetoricians and writers were so successfully and memorably communicative. But instead of merely extolling their virtues and leaving the aspiring writer in the literary dust, Farnsworth, by getting down to the nitty-gritty of sentences, actually winds up doing something much more worthwhile — that is, he uses iconic figures as representative examples without making the reader feeling hopelessly inadequate. When Charles Dickens or Herman Melville, et al, put all their sentences together, something enigmatic and more profoundly artful emerges — but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the sentences without even stepping into the paragraphs or the chapters in which they appear.

With his last book, Farnsworth was able to make ancient methodologies relevant, the craftsmanship of major authors explicable, and the fine and minute mechanisms teachable. And all of it done with typical British primness — i.e., with unceremonious eloquence, zero contemporaneous sources, and little humor — which actually aids in Farnsworth’s project, because it means he doesn’t fuck around. With each chapter set up like an entry in a dictionary, his Rhetoric is like an encyclopedia of selected terms, less essayistic than it is economical, which ought to make it dry and dull. There is no fat in Farnsworth’s work, but it’s nonetheless a nourishing meal.

Now, six years on, Farnsworth has produced a sequel (a term associated more with Hollywood franchises than with manuals on literary technique). Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor duplicates its predecessor in approach and structure and voice and directness, and for all intents and purposes is just as fun and accessible, too. But Farnsworth’s latest subject, the metaphor, makes his follow-up better and more insightful than the first one, but also, in some ways, less useful, a fact that has less to do with Farnsworth’s skill and more to do with the metaphor’s nuanced utility. It is not that Farnsworth doesn’t do an excellent job illuminating the various ways we use language to compare things — sometimes the only means of apt description — or that his examples are less instructive or applicable. Rather, it is that the metaphor is simply employed far less often than the enormous toolbox of rhetoric, and, when it is used, its power stems less from its structure and more from the lucidity and the inventiveness and the clarity of the comparison. Metaphors have a quality of “wrongness,” as Walker Percy put it in 1975’s The Message in the Bottle (a book way too recent to have assumed Farnsworth has read it), and “that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.”

Farnsworth, of course, is acutely aware of his subject’s elusiveness and sets about his project with clear-eyed fortitude:
Good metaphors are not usually the result of calculation and planning; they are made intuitively, just as they are consumed, and often well up from sources that seem half-conscious (as perhaps they are; we dream in metaphors). They process of educating the intuition and imagination is best carried out with light doses of theory and long immersion in examples. This books supplies illustrations in heaping quantities. It puts related cases near each other to invite comparisons of comparisons, to inspire the eye, and to suggest, in a short space, the range of uses that a give metaphorical idea may have.
Moreover, he separates out what he sees as the general effect of metaphor types from the specific content of individual cases, and because — as was his practice in his Rhetoric — Farnsworth spends no time extolling the skills of his paragons, the types emerge as cumulatively edifying instead of discretely intimidating. He also disavows the arbitrarily emphasized distinction between metaphors and similes, choosing instead to include all literary comparisons in the one term. Farnsworth knows the score and makes a point to simplify things down to their most instructional essence.

But as we all know, the best laid plans of mice and academics mean shit in the end. So how does Farnsworth, in a practical sense, approach the enterprise? Is he successful? What can an ordinary reader (or an aspiring novice) gain from it? And lastly but most significantly, are the insights as transferable as they were in Rhetoric?

The answer to the first question is that his approach remains exactly the same — that is, dividing the metaphor into usage subcategories, briefly commenting on their effects, and providing, to use his term, “heaping quantities” of demonstrative quotations. The answer to the second — regarding whether or not he’s successful — is a resounding hell yes. Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor is a feat of elegant demystification. The metaphor, for all its slipperiness, turns out to be just as divisible and as generalized as rhetorical devices, though the classifications are different. Whereas rhetoric comes equipped with esoteric terms and specific definitions, here Farnsworth delineates the various sources from which comparisons are made — “the animal kingdom; nature (apart from animals); human behavior, circumstances, and institutions; stories of various kinds, as from history, myth, or literature; [and] man-made objects: machines, architecture, tools, etc.” Though, as Farnsworth admits, this list is a tad reductive, the book is all the better for it, as it points to a seemingly obvious but oft-obscured fact that although the things writers hope to describe or communicate are infinite, the things to which they refer in order to do so are, in a sense, not. Thus is Farnsworth able to focus on the finite material of metaphorical referents — which are, again in a loose sense, somewhat stable — without having to bother with the original item or idea those referents aid in depicting. Writers, then, can begin with their own content and then can mine Farnsworth’s text for potential sources — and what’s more, there is also intelligent commentary on each source’s tonal implications and general efficacy. It’s quite a brilliant strategy, both in its utility for writers and the inherent insight Farnsworth’s divisions suggest about his subject — i.e., that metaphors can be defined by the things to which they compare rather than the things being compared. To use a classic metaphor, if the world is a stage, Farnsworth’s lessons lie inside the theater; the world, on the other hand, is up to you.

But here’s the rub: any sentence you write is filled with rhetorical potential, so even a cursory glance at rhetoric’s principles can greatly assist your impact; metaphors, meanwhile, are less frequently employed, so even though the lessons of Farnsworth’s Metaphor are more nuanced and astute, they are also less applicable. Now of course anyone picking up the book will know what they are getting into and so probably wouldn’t even register (let alone complain about) such a subtle distinction. I only make this comment because of the wild success of its predecessor — which is why this new work exists in the first place — and, more importantly, to disavow any attempt to connect the immense value of this book with its sales and how it does or does not fail to live up to financial expectations. Farnsworth’s Rhetoric was a good book for a wide audience; Farnsworth’s Metaphor is a great book for a smaller one. But for those who venture into Farnsworth’s level-headed take on murky abstractions, the benefits will be less far-reaching, less comprehensively employable, but they will also be richer, longer-lasting, and as demystifying and powerful as the strongest metaphors — an unexpected perspective that allows you see the thing anew, or even for the first time.


The Failed Mechanics of Masculinity: On B.H. Fairchild’s ‘The Blue Buick’

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The ostensible occasion for this review is the paperback release of B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems, a compendium of 30 years of work, but the real reason is that I was simply moved to write about this book and moreover this poet, this B.H. Fairchild, whose name had previously existed in my peripheral vision but who became for three days of rapid but somehow still assiduous reading the only portal through which I viewed the world, as rivet by rivet the machinery of Fairchild’s frank verse contorted me through its circuitous veins.

Pardon my lousy lyricism there. It’s just that after reading The Blue Buick in large gulps, Fairchild — not his style so much as his spirit — wore off on me. He’s one of those writers whose rhythm you fade into, smoothly, and when you emerge, the undulations still pulse in you, and it’s hard not to mimic the mechanics.

I was doing it again a bit, sorry. The point is that Fairchild’s a hell of a poet, an artist of real power, and though this career-covering collection does contain enough misfires as to become a dependable fault, the majority are really good, and a quite a few are great. It is a testament to Fairchild’s considerable skills — as a poet, yes, but also as a storyteller — that the 300-plus pages of The Blue Buick go down as effortlessly as a beer with friends, creating a tender, yet necessarily critical, mythology of Middle American life.

B.H. Fairchild is actually Bertram Henry Fairchild, III, though he mostly goes by Pete, the name his father wanted to call him, but who was fighting in WWII at the time of the birth and couldn’t object to the traditional christening. Bertram, Sr. called his son Pete anyway. Fairchild spent his childhood in Texas (where he was born in 1942), Kansas, and Oklahoma, and for a portion of that time he watched his father work as a lathe machinist. Young Fairchild clearly absorbed the sumptuous details of his native region, as well as the mechanic rhythm of the machines that powered it. His first three collections, The Arrival of the Future (1985), Local Knowledge (1991), and especially the multiple award-winning The Art of the Lathe (1998), established Fairchild as a master on both subjects.

Any “New and Selected” collection offers the reader an opportunity to view the progress of a writer’s themes and forms. In The Blue Buick’s early pages, we see Fairchild painting portraits of moments, like “Hair,” which depicts the men at “the 23rd Street Barber Shop” who act “like well-behaved children”: “silent, sleepy—sheets / tucked neatly beneath their chins, / legs too short to touch the floor.” In “Angels,” Fairchild presents his first recurring character from his childhood, something he’ll do more and more (and to various effects) throughout his career. We also glimpse, in The Arrival of the Future, a tension that will dominate his verse: Fairchild’s developing identity set against his environment. Initially this tension exists in juxtapositions of diction, as in “Groceries,” when “A woman waits in line and reads / from a book of poems to kill time,” or in “Angels,” when Elliot Ray Neiderland “[hauls] a load of Herefords / from Hogtown to Guymon with a pint of / Ezra Brooks and a copy of Rilke’s Duineser / Elegien on the seat beside him.”

In his second book, Local Knowledge, Fairchild continues his small town portraits but also leaps forward, perhaps too much sometimes, to incorporate more of the philosophical side of the tension. The narratives now include scenes in Czechoslovakia, an Edgar Degas painting, and a college classroom, and instead of only juxtaposing high and low registers within poems Fairchild now divides them between poems. So “Language, Nonsense, Desire” and “L’Attente” sit next to “Kansas” and “Toban’s Precision Machine Shop,” though even in this last setting “Mahler / drifts from Toban’s office in the back,” the undercurrent of art still undulating among the sweat and the oil (two of Fairchild’s favorite words), the whirrs and hums, of mechanized work.

It is as if, in Local Knowledge (a finely phrased paradox when applied to content of the work), Fairchild were trying to disavow his background while also unable to escape its grasp — as if he didn’t want to spend his life writing about Kansas and machinists. The young man with a clear interest in classical music, philosophy, poetry, and art didn’t yet see in the people he knew growing up the material to make art as grand and important as Mahler, say, or Rilke. Fairchild himself is, of course, in these poems, but tenuously, torn between the venturing intellectual poet and the young machinist’s apprentice.

The marriage of these two identities occurs to wondrous effect in The Art of the Lathe, Fairchild’s best collection. He embraces his homeland and imbues it with contemplative energy, finding the philosophical vibrancy he had previously only glimpsed. To exemplify and extol the success of The Art of the Lathe, I’ll focus on two poems that I love so much. The first is “Beauty,” a long poem in which Fairchild thinks about how “no male member of my family has ever used / this word in my hearing or anyone else’s except / in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or a dead deer.” Fairchild’s earlier portraits inadvertently mythologize and, through powerfully descriptive language and the absence of direct commentary, even glorify the men of his upbringing. Here, the poet confronts whom these men are, and whom he was in their proximity. After describing a chance encounter on the radio “with a discussion of beauty between Robert Penn Warren / and Paul Weiss at Yale College” and how he “felt transported, stunned,” at how they treated the subject “with dignity as if they and the topic / were as normal as normal topics of discussion / between men such as soybean prices or why / the commodities market was a sucker’s game,” Fairchild remembers, by way of contrast, a family incident:
One time my Uncle Ross from California called my mom’s
Sunday dinner centerpiece “lovely,” and my father
left the room, clearly troubled by the word lovely
coupled probably with the very idea of California
and the fact that my Uncle Ross liked to tap-dance.
“Lovely” and “Beauty” — both in italics, like foreign words — are not in the vocabulary of Men (read: straight men), but of course they are integral to the lexicon of art, the language young Fairchild hoped to one day speak. But Fairchild’s friends don’t have such lofty ideas of beauty: when they hear that President Kennedy was shot, they refer to Lee Harvey Oswald’s shot from the Book Depository a “beauty.” When two men (also from California) take a job at his father’s shop and one day strip naked as if “they had forgotten somehow where they were, / that this was not the locker room after the game,” Bobby Sudduth goes after them with an iron file with “not just anger but a kind / of terror on his face,” until he’s stopped my Fairchild’s father, who tells the new employees, “in a voice almost terrible in its gentleness…you boys will have to leave now.” Later, he hears from his father the details of Bobby Sudduth’s suicide: “a single shot / from a twelve-gauge which he held against his chest.” He is reminded, then, of what “someone said of the death of Hart Crane,” “the death of the heart, I suppose, a kind of terrible beauty.”

Notice the repetition of the “terror” on Bobby’s face as he lunges at the offending nudity and the “terrible…gentleness” of his father’s parting words and the “terribly beauty” of his self-inflicted death — these false and homophobic and misogynistic notions of “manhood” and “masculinity” thread themselves through this community, a terribleness that can haunt and even kill the very men who enforce and perpetuate it. Using both the philosophical construct of beauty and the men’s moratorium on its usage, Fairchild pursues high-level profundity with low-brow mechanics.

The second poem, which is maybe my favorite of the book, is “Body and Soul,” in which the father of one of Fairchild’s friends tells a story “about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma, decades ago.” Fairchild’s father is there, too, and both the elder men are “half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs” and are “in love with their own stories.” This one’s about a Sunday ballgame between two teams of grown men, only one team is a player short. “Can we use this boy?” they asked. “He’s only fifteen years old, and at least he’ll make a game.” The opposing team agrees (“oh, hell, sure, / let’s play ball”), and the boy with “angelic blond hair” steps up to bat and hits a deep home run. On his second at-bat, the boy nails a curve ball out of the park. “As if this isn’t enough,” the poem continues, “the next time up he bats left-handed,” and even the pitcher’s tricky throw (“something / out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs”) doesn’t stop him. He hits five home runs all told, and “It is something to see.”

This boy, this impossibly gifted ballplayer, turns out to be Mickey Mantle. Fairchild, listening, waits “for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh / why in hell didn’t they just throw around the kid, walk him, / after he hit the third homer?” Fairchild believes he knows the answer:
…they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and noticed the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing couples
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
Ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen-year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home.
Mantle showed these men “the vast gap between talent and genius” and “will not be easily forgiven” for it. This is peak Fairchild: contemplative but not obvious, critical but not malicious, and melancholy but not sentimental.

There are also, of course, acrostic verses (including one based not on a single painting but on “All the People in Hopper’s Paintings”) and riffs on machinery. In the title poem, Fairchild introduces the two most important figures — other than his father — of his poetic oeuvre, Roy and Maria Garcia, who feature prominently in his next two collections. In Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, Fairchild’s longest poem, the beautifully elegiac “The Blue Buick,” is an ode to the well-traveled, artistic couple from Fairchild’s youth. And later, Fairchild writes prose poems in Roy’s voice; Usher, his next book, contains five more. Through figures like Roy and Maria, and through in general Fairchild’s vivid rendering of the small towns of his past, The Blue Buick, and Fairchild’s career, reads like a complexly plotted story. When “The Memory Palace” arrives at the end of Early Occult Memory Systems and many of the previous subjects and people (Roy, O.T., the word beauty, Uncle Harry, et al) reappear, there is a sense of wistfulness in it, as if we, too, have come to know these people and this region.

His last book, Usher, and the “New Poems” featured here are by far The Blue Buick’s weakest. Usher has better moments, like the multi-part “The Beauty of Abandoned Towns,” which speaks both to Fairchild’s past and the inalterable changes that have occurred since he left. At an abandoned school, Fairchild notes: “Nothing is everywhere: doorless doorways, / dirt-filled foundations, and weed-pocked / sidewalks leading to a sky that blued / the eyes of bored students stupefied / by geometry and Caesar’s Latin.” But the voice poems here — from the point of view of Maria Rasputin, Hart Crane, Frieda Pushnik, and others — don’t work nearly as well as Fairchild’s natural tone. And the philosophical investigations, once so finely integrated into the fold of reality, now stand directly in the reader’s face.

And there seems to be a dearth of interesting subjects in the “New Poems,” and worse, nothing interesting is added to them. “The Story” is a tired, unoriginal poem on artistic inspiration (ending with the lines, “This is where the story ends. And now you know, / this is also where it begins, and you lean / into the light, put the pen to paper, and write”). A poem dedicated to his college professors, “Leaving,” is so amateurish I can’t believe it was written by the same person. As he drives off to college, Fairchild uses the car’s rearview mirror to depict the past he’s leaving, “while ahead wait Plato, Aristotle, Dante, / Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, Dostoyevsky, / Fitzgerald, the blue lawn, the green light, / and a New World called the life of the mind.” No doubt this is how many of us felt as we emerged from youth into the tantalizing threshold of adulthood, and if asked many might articulate their excitement in similar terms, but this is no commercial for the poem. It sounds more like a poorly written memoir.

The poems that work best are the ones that grapple with Fairchild’s identity set against his familial and regional legacies. He was a quiet kid who liked beauty in towns riddled with homophobia, misogyny, and strict yet unspoken notions of masculinity. Fairchild, as a poet, fights against these ideas, yet how many of the people he knew and loved will go with them? The era is bound to pass, and does, as represented by the introduction of the diamond drill bit, which basically eliminated his father’s vocation. When told of their inevitable doom, Fairchild recalls his reaction:
…I looked at the face
of my father staring into the future, at the shop
he had built, the lathes lined up along the north side,
their iron song almost unbroken through twenty years,
the never-washed, grease-laden windows, gutted drawworks,
gears, bushings, tools spilled across the now scarred
cement floor where I had worked every summer
since I was ten. And then a feather grazed my ear,
the ruffle of wings, and a vision rose in my head:
I was free.
The old gears of Fairchild’s youth — and the town and people who operated them — have finally stopped, freeing Fairchild to pursue art, yes, but also allowing him to define himself without allegiance to his father or his shop. He can now read Molière or say beauty as much as he wants, a burden lifted, and the beliefs instilled in him by Kansas and Texas and Oklahoma can finally be disavowed. But the machinery isn’t gone from the world completely — it was merely replaced by a better and more effective tool — just from Fairchild’s heart. Prejudice and privilege still exist and are as insidious and as damaging as ever, but there is still a sliver of solace to be taken from Fairchild’s experience, if only to hope for its proliferating recurrence: to better and enrich the world, one heart at a time.


A Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man: On James Wood’s ‘The Nearest Thing to Life’

James Wood is a kind of literary mentor to me. He seems to be able to take murky notions floating around in my head and articulate them with casual precision, as if he wrote from the tip of my tongue. His compact volume How Fiction Works –– which I read in a single sitting on a bus from New York to Boston –– is one of the loveliest and most concise primers on fiction I’ve come across. But if that book was too stuffy for some (like Walter Kirn, who, in his review for The New York Times couldn’t suppress his disdain for a critic of Wood’s ilk, who “flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic”), Wood’s essay collection The Fun Stuff displayed a more personal side. In essays like “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library” and “The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon,” Wood shows how emotionally resonant and stylistically idiosyncratic he can be. Add to this his remarkable considerations of Edmund Wilson, Lydia Davis, W.G. Sebald, and Geoff Dyer, and you have a well-rounded book that should quiet anyone suspicious of a term like artist-critic.

But if suspicions still abound, here is Wood’s newest work, The Nearest Thing to Life, taken from a series of lectures given at Brandies and the British Museum. This book, which manages to be even slimmer than How Fiction Works, also manages to be even better. The Nearest Thing to Life is as close as we’ll ever get to a manifesto from the British-born New Yorker critic. Contained in the book’s 134 pages is a passionate defense of criticism, a memoir of Wood’s early life and influences, and an insightful study of the meaning of fiction.

This should all be old hat by now. Every year, new books arrive promising some meditation on fiction’s quintessence, and though many of them are useful and even well written, they rarely offer truly fresh observations. All of which makes The Nearest Thing to Life that much more remarkable. Wood succeeds so well because of his knack for recognizing defining contradictions. Consider the way he unpacks the duality of fiction through the lens of religion:

The idea that anything can be thought and said inside the novel –– a garden where the great Why? hangs unpicked, gloating in the free air –– had, for me, an ironically symmetrical connection with the actual fears of official Christianity outside the novel: that without God, as Dostoyevsky put it, “everything is permitted.” Take away God, and chaos and confusion reign; people will commit all kinds of crimes, think all kinds of thoughts. You need God to keep a lid on things. This is the usual conservative Christian line. By contrast, the novel seems, commonsensically, to say: ‘Everything has always been permitted, even when God was around. God has nothing to do with it.’

Wood loves fiction because of its “proximity to, and final difference from, religious texts.” Fiction, he writes, “moves in the shadow of a doubt, knows it is a true lie.” And although we believe in the veracity of a novel’s world, this belief “only resembles actual belief.” These are ideas I’ve written about before but never with such sure-footed clarity. Wood, in this wonderful book, is able to exude dispassionate scrutiny with personal expression, a rare feat indeed.

James Wood was born in Durham, England, in 1965 but has for the last 18 years lived in America, specifically Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches at Harvard. His standing as a foreigner leads to a lovely meditation on what Wood refers to as “homelooseness:” “Exile is acute, massive, transformative; but homelooseness, because it moves along its axis of departure and return, can be banal, welcome, necessary, continuous.” For Wood, this is one of contemporary fiction’s most prevalent themes, the search for a semblance of home in an increasingly global community. A glimpse at many of the well-acclaimed American novels from the past decade or so proves his thesis: from Jhumpa Lahiri to Junot Díaz to Teju Cole to Gary Shteyngart, some of our most lasting recent fiction has come from immigrants, emigrants, exiles, expats, a diasporic smorgasbord. Wood returns here to Aleksander Hemon, a writer Wood greatly admires and about whom he has written repeatedly, and one can see why Wood feels such a connection to the Bosnia-born Hemon, for exiles, no matter what their origin, all share this in common: wherever they are isn’t home. Or, as Hemon himself puts it in The Lazarus Project: “If you can’t go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world –– indeed, nowhere is the world.”

But perhaps Wood is best in this brilliant book when he writes passionately and tenderly about criticism itself. First, he distinguishes what he calls “writer’s criticism” from “academic literary criticism.” Though English studies began in universities around World War I, criticism has been around for centuries, but, as Wood points out, “it existed as literature” by writers like Samuel Johnson and Samuel Coleridge and Virginia Woolf. Academia, with its claims to dispassionate engagement, can’t quite capture the beauty of literature. “A lot of the criticism I admire,” Wood writes, “is not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate redescription.” Though he doesn’t use the term, Wood calls for criticism as testimony, a creative and revelatory way to pay witness.

Consider the example Wood provides here. Virginia Woolf attends a lecture in London given by the art critic Roger Fry, and she describes the way Fry pauses while studying one of his slides. Suddenly, a word strikes him “as if for the first time” and in this moment the audience sees something important, something the critic does not see: himself.

For two hours they had been looking at pictures. But they had seen one of which the lecturer himself was unconscious –– the outline of a man against the screen, an ascetic figure in evening dress who paused and pondered, and then raised his stick and pointed. That was a picture that would remain in memory together with the rest, a rough sketch that would serve many of the audience in years to come as the portrait of a great critic, a man of profound sensibility but of exacting honesty, who, when reason could penetrate no further, broke off; but was convinced, and convinced others, that what he saw was there.

It is a remarkably beautiful passage, one that captures criticism at its most moving. Wood, though, fails to point out that Woolf is doing the very thing she attributes to Fry: she is convinced, and convinces other, that what she saw was there. This is testimony about testimony, one artist enraptured with other artists. Wood captures Woolf who captures Fry. Criticism (and art, for that matter) is nothing if not endless, complex description of our own experiences with literature, and our descriptions of other people’s description. In many ways, literature is a path paved by paraphrase.

Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, wrote, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.” In keeping with this notion, The Nearest Thing to Life gives us a profound portrait of an inimitable artist.

Like Father, Like Son: Literary Parentage in Reif Larsen’s ‘I Am Radar’

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Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a frustrating narrative wrapped in a beautiful work of art. Parts of it, story-wise, worked wonderfully, but many sections dragged ponderously along, and then the confounding and ill-fitting finale was rushed, as if impatient to be over. But the imagination of the novel­­ –– the lovely images annotating the text, T.S. himself –– is undeniable, as is the talent of its author. But one can always forgive a debut novel its ambition, so it was with much interest that I embarked upon Larsen’s second effort, I Am Radar, a measurably better novel than T.S. Spivet, both for its leanness and its grandness. It’s an epic page-turner filled with small, tender moments of wonder, beginning with its almost archetypally postmodern opening:

It was just after midnight in birthing room 4C and Dr. Sherman, the mustached obstetrician presiding over the delivery, was sweating slightly into his cotton underwear, holding out his hands like a beggar, ready to receive the imminent cranium.

Without warning, the room plunged into total darkness.

The “imminent cranium” belongs to Radar Radmanovic, the center, if not exactly the protagonist, of this tale, and when the lights come back on in the delivery room, Radar comes out a pitch black baby — was it the electrical event somehow? — with white parents. It’s 1975 in New Jersey and rumors spread, leading Radar’s mother, Charlene, to find every doctor she can to figure what happened to her son. Soon, the family lands in Norway so that Radar can undergo an experimental procedure involving a machine called a vircator, which can emit a large electromagnetic pulse and somehow rid Radar of his skin abnormality. It works, Radar’s skin lightens until it becomes “a slightly yellowish, flushed cream color,” but it also causes Radar to suffer epileptic seizures. The procedure is overseen by a group of artists/activists/puppeteers called Kirkenesferda, who are, as a group, the real protagonist of I Am Radar. After the first section, we’re launched into various histories surrounding Kirkenesferda. First we learn of the group’s master puppeteer, Miroslav Danilovic and his father, Danilo, both caught in the precursors to the Bosnian War. Miro’s creations seem impossible, puppets with no puppeteer. We get the history of a man named Raksmey Raksmey who, as a baby, was found floating on Cambodia’s Mekong River in a basket. There is also a man in the Congo who is attempting to collect every book in the world. And finally there is Kermin, Radar’s father, who may have inadvertently caused a giant rolling blackout in New Jersey.

If this all sounds eerily Pynchonian to you, that’s because it is. Deliberately. Charlene, Radar’s mother, is described reading The Crying of Lot 49, feeling “overcome with what we are able to accomplish with the simple constellation of words.” The phrase “gravity’s rainbow” appears. One sequence features the mysterious Tunguska Event from 1908, when, in the words of one character:

There was a huge explosion in Siberia. It blew out two thousand square meters of forest, something like this. Eighty million trees destroyed. Center of explosion was seventy kilometers from Vanavara, but people there, they still feel heat blast all across their skin. The shockwave broke windows, collapsed woodsheds. It blew men right off their horse. It was powerful, so powerful. Stronger than an atom bomb.

This perfectly Pynchonian (and perfectly true) historical event was also explored in Thomas Pynchon’s unjustly dismissed masterwork Against the Day, the novel to which I Am Radar is most closely aligned, in my eyes. But Larsen is doing more than simply riffing on one of his favorite author’s themes –– rather, he is riffing on many of his favorite authors’ themes. One can, while reading, pick up references to Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Nikolai Gogol (Akaky Akakievich, the protagonist from one of my very favorite short stories, “The Overcoat,” show ups) and you can sense –– in the structure, in the prose, in the language –– the influence of Salman Rushdie, Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z.Danielewski, and, of course, Pynchon. This is a novel steeped in its own influences.

Additionally, within this 653-page tome are fictional books, like, for instance, a book on the history of Kirkenesferda, which the narrator references throughout (replete with excerpts, images, and footnotes), and a novella on part of the life of Raksmey Raksmey. There is also Radar’s book, which, within the novel’s world, he hasn’t written yet. Is I Am Radar the book Radar will write? Well, yes and no. See, on page 621, there is an image taken, a note tells us, from “Radmanovic, R. (2013) I Am Radar, p. 621,” which would suggest that, indeed, the book we’re holding in our hands is this same book. Yet, just a little later, on page 641, another image credit refers to page 705. Radar, we are to assume, wrote his own version that extends beyond the story here and that we won’t get to read.

So real books and fake books –– but what’s the point? Why engage in such esoteric literary pastiche? The short answer is that, like Radar and the other sons here, Larsen wants to declare himself.

The primary emotional thread of I Am Radar is fathers and sons, of familial legacy and individual identity. Kermin and Radar. Miro and Danilo. Raksmey and his adopted father Jean-Baptiste de Broglie. Each son struggles with becoming their own person while still acknowledging (sometimes begrudgingly) their forebears. They are like their fathers, but they are different. Like father, like son…sort of.

Larsen makes a clear connection between these literal fathers and sons and literary fathers and sons. Near the end of the book, as Radar and companions head up the Congo toward a massive secret library created by the man hoping to collect all the world’s books, an almost Biblical passage appears. It lasts nearly two pages, and comes in the form of a speech by Professor Funes, the ambitious collector who also happens to have “perfect and complete memory.” Because he can remember everything in great detail, he’s able to list all of the authors he read throughout his life. Here is a short excerpt:

I read Defoe and Asturias and Sterne and Stendhal and Verga and Carducci and Blasco Ibáñez and Hugo and Verne and Balzac and Stendhal and Flaubert and Baudelaire and Sand and Verlaine and Paz and Maupassant and Ibsen and Wordsworth and Austen and Coleridge and Shelley and Keats and Blake and Scott and Carpentier and García Márquez and Puig and Cortázar and García Lorca.

And so on, until it more or less moves it way up to “DeLillo and Mailer and Salinger.” This is like a personal version of Genesis or Chronicles with all those endless begats. Larsen, as the finale shows, acknowledges the great authors who came before him, how their influence on him is undeniable, unavoidable, deep –– but that he is still his own writer, one with formidable gifts and looming ambition.

If not everything quite works in I Am Radar –– like, e.g., characters’ names sometimes change and are hard to keep track of, which lessens the emotional impact of some of their arcs; and sometimes it’s difficult to tell if we’re reading an omniscient narrator or borrowed information from one of the fictional books or some hybrid of the two –– it’s partly due to Larsen’s maximalist approach. How can any writer sustain perfection in such a large undertaking? It’s nearly impossible to do. Anna Karenina has parts that lag, that underwhelm (most notably Levin’s long diatribes on his serfs), as does Ulysses and The Brothers Karamozov and Infinite Jest. Novels like I Am Radar, which would technically fall under the “historiographic metafiction,” are especially prone to unwieldy excess and inscrutability. Pynchon’s books fall into that same category, and his novels are unquestionably flawed. And here is Larsen, continuing the legacy, in the same vein but in his own way. Like father, like son. Sort of.

Unquote: The Benefits of Excising Quotation Marks

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Quotation marks can be insidious little creatures. They have immense, unacknowledged power. They can turn a good idea into a “good idea.” With the simple addition of the those lines, something that would have been accepted for only its definition becomes suspect, questionable, even a parody of itself. Quotation marks render a statement euphemistic, a cover for the real thing, as in, He’s with his “friend” Andrew. Or they can be dysphemistic, as in, He’s with his “boyfriend” Andrew. Words surrounded by light, floating lines seem to lift right off the page, hovering over it, detached from any fixed meaning.

The exact same sentence appears wholly different to us when framed within the distancing “protection” of quotes:

There is no God.

is very different from,

“There is no God.”

The difference, on the surface, is that in one case a writer made a statement, while the other is merely quoting what somebody said or wrote. One is potentially offensive, controversial, even incendiary; the other is simple reportage. It transfers the meaning to a character and away from the author. But the point remains: we’ve been trained to view the words within quotes (whatever they may be) as inherently separate from everything else.

Let’s look at a piece of prose and investigate its functionality with regard to quotation marks:

“We’ll get him,” I said quickly. I was fearful as I said this, dizzy.


He took his hands away. “Yes,” he said again. He tapped his watch, bit down on his lip. “Now if the police would come. They need to get a statement. They should have been here.”

“Which police?”


Dialogue (as suggested by quotes) is the space where an author gets to engage in colloquial speech, where the lively voices of “real” people are offset by the articulacy of the prose. This reinforces something most of us implicitly (and uncritically) believe: that ordered, writerly language is superior to messy, human speech. A narrative voice looks down from on high, even when that narrator is the protagonist.

Let’s look again at the dialogue excerpt from above, but this time with the quotation marks removed:

We’ll get him, I said quickly. I was fearful as I said this, dizzy.


He took his hands away. Yes, he said again. He tapped his watch, bit down on his lip. Now if the police would come. They need to get a statement. They should have been here.

Which police?


This passage comes from early into The Round House by Louise Erdrich, and it does not have quotation marks. Without quotes, the distinction between the father’s dialogue and the prose describing his anxiety are blurred. If a reader pays attention to the rhythm of the language, what’s spoken and what’s written become clear. Suddenly, the words spoken by the characters look different, don’t they? They’ve become equal to the surrounding narration. But instead of the dialogue disappearing into the background, it now pops off the page, but not in the uncertain, hovering way quotation marks created, but more like 3-D, a jutted-out image still strongly tethered to the foundation below.

There’s also something else about the way quote-less prose looks. To my eyes, this Louise Erdrich passage reminds me of poetry. Miranda July doesn’t use quotation marks in her story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, and definitely takes advantage of the excision. Here is the opening of her story “I Kiss a Door:”

Now that I know, it seems so obvious. Suddenly, there is nothing I remember that doesn’t contain a clue. I remember a beautiful blue wool coat with flat silver buttons. It fit her perfectly, it even gripped her.

Where did you find that coat?

My father bought it for me.

Really? It’s so cool.

It just arrived this morning.

He picked it out? How did he know how to pick out something so cool?

I don’t know.

The thing about poetry is that it moves in associative ways, which means the reader must make little leaps with the poet, follow along a thread of thought, of theme, of language. Stories don’t usually work like this. But all we get here is a little paragraph of guiding information before being launched into a conversation that contains no dialogue attribution or quotation marks. But what do we know? First, that there is an I narrator and a she who is wearing the beautiful wool coat. Thus, we can surmise that the subsequent conversation is between the I and the she. Also, the narrator’s disbelief that a father could pick out such beautiful things tells us much about her relationship to her dad. The narrator is clearly impressed with the woman in the coat, which leads us to the next section:

It seemed unfair that Eleanor should be so pretty and the lead singer of the best band and have a dad who sent amazing coats from expensive stores that were tailored to her exact measurements. My father didn’t send me anything, but he called me sometimes to ask if I could give him a job.

I’m a waitress.

But what about the person who works under the waitress?

The busboy?


We don’t have busboys. I bus the tables.

You could subcontract out to me; it would save you a lot of time.

Look, I can’t send you money.

Did I ask for money? I asked for work!

I just can’t do it right now.

I don’t want money; I want a meaningful path in life!

I have to go.

Just fifty dollars. I’ll pay the wire fee.

The first paragraph elucidates the names and situations of the characters, but really we already figured out most of the information by gleaning it from the dialogue before it. We knew that the narrator was jealous of the singer, and, moreover, that part of the reason had to do with comparing their fathers. Then we’re launched directly into another conversation, this time with the father, and the comparison is solidified: one father has money to spare; the other asks for some.

But the main point is July’s technique asks slightly more than what readers are used to, especially for stories that are written with clean, direct prose, nary a periodic sentence in the bunch. In a way, July is training her readers to make these associative leaps, to be willing to go directly from abstract narration to a scene with characters, without any hand-holding. Not to mention that her stories would look clunky and busy if quotes were added, and, I would argue, they would actually make keeping track of who’s talking more confusing. And this is because of the way the dialogue pops when it isn’t constrained by those sneaky marks.

Some writers, no matter how well it’s done, will never jump on the quote-less train. They just hate it. When asked, other, less annoyed writers say they’ll continue to use quotes for the sake of clarity and convenience. Why risk confusing the reader unnecessarily? But is this their only reason for the continued usage of something plenty of writers have shown is not vital? Is convention the only thing keeping it going?

When I read fiction without quotes, I find that the voices reach deep into my mind and latch themselves there. I recall the voice of Junot Diaz’s Yunior brashly declaring his masculinity and inadvertently showing his immaturity. I vividly remember Ali Smith’s troubled characters and their linguistic investigations. This is because, I believe, their language –– the most recognizable aspect of any person –– is given the same platform as the so-called literary prose describing their lives.

This is why I no longer use quotation marks in fiction. And why I think more fiction writers should rid their work of these subtly insidious lines. In the end, they aren’t even necessary, and it takes no additional work for the writer to communicate who’s talking when. Don’t believe me? Read the fiction of Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, Miranda July, Ali Smith (or James Joyce, Roddy Doyle and various others who use dashes as attribution), and tell me you find it confusing. Attribution still exists here. But now the language of your characters will seem just as important (and just as stylistically fertile) as the rest of the book. Every single aspect of a novel is important, not “important.” Let’s let the voice of our characters sing, come to life –– let their words pop of the page, because they are no longer chained to it.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

All the Dumb Young Literary Stand-Ins: On Arthur Bradford’s ‘Turtleface and Beyond’

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In his other life as a filmmaker, Arthur Bradford made a fantastic documentary about the making of an episode of South Park called 6 Days to Air. The title references how quickly Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and crew are able to produce a half an hour of blistering animation, and in one particularly insightful moment, Parker offers this bit of writing advice:

I sort of always call it the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens. Whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” and “therefores,” makes for better writing.

What he’s talking about is narrative economy, about figuring out the most efficient way to tell a story, but he’s also tapped into something deeper — namely, that the power of scenes is, in many ways, relational. Stories work best, in other words, when sequential action is causal or obstructive.

One can see why Bradford would make a documentary about these guys. The stories in his new collection Turtleface and Beyond are positively stuffed with “buts” and “therefores.” The stories even function almost like episodes, and, as Parker instructed, each story employs skillful economy. A young man named Georgie is our narrator, and this consistency greatly increases the impact of each story as the collection moves along: Georgie is more and more defined, so we don’t need to be reintroduced to him, leaving Bradford with the chance to move directly into his weird, funny adventures.

In the opener, “Turtleface,” Georgie watches his friend unwisely decide to run down a cliff face into a river. Amazingly the friend makes it into the water. Unfortunately, he smacks his face into a floating turtle. Georgie, tellingly, seems to care as much for the now-broken turtle as he does for his cavalier buddy, even bringing the little guy home until he’s mended. Later, in “Snakebite,” Georgie and a few friends stop to help a hitchhiker who’s been bitten by a cottonmouth. Georgie, of course, ends up being the one to suck the poison out (a doctor asks him later, “Why the hell did you do that?”). And still later, Georgie gets mixed up with a partner at a law firm who’s going through a mid-life crisis. Georgie, with nothing but the best intentions, becomes the lawyer’s middleman for drugs and prostitutes.

The point is: Georgie is a good guy who ends up in some compromising situations. But Georgie’s goodness is more than just a character trait –– it’s a narrative strategy. Through his hapless narrator, Bradford is able to push the stories into some absurd territory, because Georgie means well, and doesn’t always see where his choices will take him. In other words, Georgie grounds the stories for the reader, weighting them so they don’t float off into pure silliness.

Sometimes, Georgie should have seen the shit coming. When he gets “fired from my job for a stupid indiscretion,” (which, we readers assume, refers to the time he slept with a patient at a mental institution where he was an orderly, but could be referencing any number of other fuck-ups) he wants to “leave town.” The person with whom he finds a ride is a man named Paul O’Malley. Here is the ominous (but also very funny) preview of their trip together:

Paul was passing through town on his way to the West Coast and had announced that he would be gone in the morning. I saw him two weeks later though, right after I’d been fired from that job. He was wandering downtown, looking a little dazed and strung out.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” he told me.

“I thought you were going out west,” I said.

“I am.”

“But you said you were leaving two weeks ago.”

“I got hung up. Wait, two weeks? It hasn’t been that long.”

“Yes, it has.”

“Oh.” Paul scratched his head.

Most of us would probably take Paul’s sudden loss of two weeks as a sign to avoid spending hours alone and on the road with this dude, but Georgie, desperate and good-hearted, jumps right in. (Spoiler: the trip doesn’t go well).

Yet this is another part of Georgie’s charm: he’s willing to do stupid, irresponsible things — dangerous, illegal things — but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a decent person. Take, for instance, the funny and poignant story “The LSD and the Baby.” Yes, Georgie agrees to go out into the woods with a guy named Richard to “sample a batch of LSD he recently completed.” And, yes, he doesn’t object when he learns that a woman named Sabrina and her baby are tagging along. But when both Richard and Sabrina disappear into the woods (presumably to have acid-enhanced sex), good ole Georgie takes the baby’s life into his own hands, first to a hospital (the baby eats some possibly poisonous berries) and then to his job, and all while tripping balls. Georgie only gets a quiet yet dignified catharsis at the end of the story, but it’s a lovely moment.

I was reminded of Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Junot Díaz’s Yunior stories in Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. And then, of course, going back to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road and even further back to Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Sad Young Men (and Keith Gessen’s Sad Young Literary Men). Essentially, these are all –– from Bradford to Hemingway, the lot of them –– often just stories about young men doing stupid shit, or young men not doing enough good shit, or young men doing good shit in the wrong way. In many cases, we assume the narrator is a stand-in for the author (or, as in Gessen’s case, he takes all the pretext of guesswork out of it by naming his narrator Keith), and we often interpret each piece as some form of self-reflection. They read easy, almost like reportage, and their authenticity is built into the voice, the rhythm and flow of the prose. Sometimes, though, the shallowness isn’t a disguise for anything more meaningful than the story itself, which places great weight on the likeability, and not to mention the humanity, of the protagonist. Sal Paradise, I can live without. And to me Dean Moriarity seems like a real asshole. Yunior, though, I adore. And Georgie, well, Georgie’s a good dude in my book. As I read, I wanted to follow along with him, so even when a story didn’t exactly work as a whole, I didn’t mind — Georgie had my back.

It’s been 14 years since Bradford’s last story collection Dogwalker. In the meantime, he hasn’t been what anyone would call prolific, but he’s been living quite a life. He worked in New York for a while, he recently wrote, and he “directed a summer camp, made several films, had two children, and currently works at a juvenile detention center in Portland, Ore.” And it’s true: the stories in Turtleface and Beyond do read like the result of someone with a multitude of absurd experiences, real, visceral familiarity with these people, this world depicted within its pages. Good for him.

The Art of the Final Sentence

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This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters.

(Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.)

There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite.

The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby’s equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing):
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general — the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality.

Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it.

Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.”

Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom…and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin:
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.
Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason.

Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively:
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– — his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves.

Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it.

Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ — which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible — may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed).

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov — truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction — guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does:
I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will
Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– — quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note.

I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency — the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist — they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity — the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you — give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up — take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty!

See? It’s easy.

Now everybody —

See Also: The End of the End: Writers on Last Lines

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Art of the Chapter

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You want to know how weird and deep my rabbit hole goes? I’ve developed what I’ll call an eccentricity about chapters. As in: there are certain choices that writers make when dividing up their narratives that quite simply drive me fucking crazy. Without an ounce of justification, I get a pound of pissed. And what this makes me realize is not so much that I’ve developed strange little idiosyncratic tics while I’m reading (that much is obvious) but more that my reading experience is personal and solitary and deeply entrenched in whole loads of bullshit that have nothing to do with the books, i.e., that the completely happenstantial list of books I’ve read over my life has somehow hoisted onto me certain expectations of literature and literary narrative technique that are built upon wholly dubious foundations that belong only to me and cannot be argued with any intellectual integrity. And even though I know this to be true I still in some way hold my complaint against the writer and more specifically whatever book I’m reading at the time and sometimes even go so far as to downright dislike the book (though of course I keep my reasoning to myself, mostly).

Because the thing about chapters is that they provide a lot of opportunities for the writer to communicate information about their book and can in fact orient the reader as to how to read the thing. A more crass version of the chapter’s utility can be plainly seen in, e.g., the novels of Dan Brown, in which the chapters are so short (and the pagination designed just so in order to create as many pages with only a few lines on them as possible) that a reader is goaded into thinking they’re moving through the book super-quick. This is not authorial assistance; it is a kind of manipulation that, given the meteoric popularity of Brown’s novels and others like them, most people are apparently pretty cool with.

What I’m talking about instead are the ways in which chapters are not merely components of a narrative’s foundational architecture but also part of its aesthetic, i.e., more like those imposing Ionic columns that both hold up the facade and immensely add to the overall quality of the building. To begin with an obvious example: think of how much the Fantasy genre has benefited from borrowing the chapter structure of histories. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings––as the archetypal built-world saga––divides itself up into Books and Parts and Chapters, these last of which each come with a title. Plus there’s also the Notes, Maps and Appendices––all of which add to the verisimilitude of legit history, preparing the reader for a similar treatment of a fictional place. These verisimilitudinous appropriations are so effective for Fantasy and Sci-fi genres that they’ve become a standard part of their aesthetic.

A person who picks up Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao will know right away the scope of the novel. After a short but foreboding prologue, we enter the first part of the book. Chapter One, then, is titled, “GhettoNerd at the End of the World: 1974­­–1987.” How much information about the rest of the story can be gleaned from just this chapter heading? Well, for one we can tell that Oscar’s story will take place over a number of years, which connotes a sense of the epic on par with nonfiction histories. Moreover, “GhettoNerd” effectively characterizes both the citizens that people the story and the nomenclature they use. And the appended prepositional phrase, “at the End of the World” suggests grandness of a different kind: that of comic books and adventure stories, the very same kind gobbled up by the hopelessly uncool protagonist. Also, these emphatically grand names (later chapters are titled, e.g., “Sentimental Education: 1988-1992” and “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral: 1955-1962”) help absorb some of the momentum-shock of suddenly jumping from one time and place to another, and raise this thickly-accented contemporary tale to the status of History (a notion furthered by the book’s actual preoccupation with educating readers about the horrors of Trujillo). Tolkien borrowed from History to make his fantasy world Real; Díaz used it to make his story Significant.

But there are other ways of structuring a novel to reinforce its aims and intent. Ali Smith’s There but for the sections itself into the four words of the title, and each part not only begins with the titular word but also investigates it. The unfinished sentence, “there but for the,” becomes the connective tissue of the novel, each part working like a lengthy footnote to each word. The section, e.g., “but” features a poem on the conjunction/preposition that ends:

But but?

And and?

(So simple.)


And conjuctions?

(So simple.)

The way things connect.

Ali Smith incredibly makes her book seem like a narrative investigation of a single, incomplete sentence––the ending of which is of course known to all of us and factors into the story as well.

Chapter titles can sometimes become almost like characters, as in Office Girl by Joe Meno (a writer I unabashedly enjoy and who seems forever attached to his early success with Hairstyles of the Damned despite continuing to publish interesting works like The Boy Detective Fails, Demons in the Spring, and The Great Perhaps). The third-person-narrative novel has these short little chapters with titles like “But Ten Years Before” and “And That Night Goes to an Art Opening” and “Because This Is What He’s Been Doing.” These casual (and causal) names add a nice rhythm to the story and are actually quite necessary tactics for the reader to understand the ways the two protagonists feel about certain things in their life.

Books like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor use numerical ordering as techniques––Haddon’s protagonist, the autistic Christopher John Francis Boone, finds safety in math, especially prime numbers, so the chapters are headlined by those indivisible numbers; Palahniuk’s 1999 novel’s chapters are in reverse sequence––starting with Chapter 47 and ending with 1––as is the pagination, thereby “counting down” to the climax in the most literal way possible. These are simple and effective touches, connecting the disparate elements of the novels into single, cohesive units. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries uses the Zodiac to reinforce the written-in-the-stars nature of her tale. Twelve main characters mirror the twelve signs, and the book’s even got twelve chapters and those are made up of smaller sections named after the precise (as I’m sure Catton researched it thoroughly) locations of the corresponding sign, as in, e.g., “Mercury in Sagittarius.” Taken altogether, Catton’s chapters work to add to the tone of the work (which is an uber-complex mystery featuring mediums and séances and ghosts (of a sort)) but are way too complex for someone like me who both doesn’t buy into astrology and knows next to nothing about it. In other words, from my point of view Catton succeeded in creating a forest even though I don’t understand the trees.

And then there is, of course, the shit that bothers me: for example, Moliere’s Tartuffe, a play in which the introduction of any character to a scene calls for a new one. What is this about? It makes for frustrating reading, akin to having someone announcing the entrance of every featured player in a sitcom. There’s Jerry! And look––Kramer! Just annoying. I know my aversion isn’t intellectually justifiable (after all, the scene numbers would be invisible if I ever actually saw a production of Tartuffe) but everyone has to admit that we’ve come to expect certain things from chapters, right? But here is a great problem: my arbitrary history with reading has not only given me these unfair proclivities but it’s also somehow convinced me that everyone else agrees with me.

Take, for instance, Charles Baxter’s otherwise fine novel The Feast of Love. In the opening of the book, Charlie Baxter embarks on a late-night walk after a night of restless sleep. This chapter, entitled “Preludes,” ends when Charlie’s friend Bradley comes upon him: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” Then, the section ends. The next chapter, “One,” begins like this: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” It’s the same setting, the same scene––hell, the same fucking moment––yet Baxter inserts a division here. Why? Well, I could see someone saying that Bradley’s entrance marks a shift in the story, since it is Bradley’s stories that comprise the novel. But then Baxter does this again. Chapter One ends with Bradley launching into his tales: “Okay,” he says. “Chapter One. Every relationship has at least one really good day…” and then Chapter Two begins, “Every relationship has at least one really good day.”

I don’t know why Baxter’s creative choices in The Feast of Love annoy me so much (and, to be fair, he doesn’t do this the entire book), but I think it might have to do with the physical properties of chapters. When a narrative stops and then continues on another page, I immediately assume some passage of time has elapsed or that maybe a change in perspective has occurred––there is just something psychically affecting about having to turn a page or having larger text interrupt prose. But when the scene merely continues, I am yanked out of the story and into the mind of the writer (or, more accurately, what I perceive to be the mind of the writer). So does this mean that I should try to eradicate my tendencies, open myself up to the myriad ways that chapters can function? Or do I simply use my weird shit as a helpful barometer for my taste? Should I, i.e., accept that certain books cannot and will not meet my stupid expectations and move along? There are already way too many books in this world for me to read, so maybe I should simple stop wasting my time with stuff that annoys me, even if my annoyance has zero legitimacy.

Okay, a little more time. It really pisses me off when books that have multiple parts still number the chapters as if the parts weren’t there. Díaz’s Oscar Wao does this, as do a number of bigger novels. This seems to ignore the entire purpose of Parts and Books, which to me create their own internal structure, much like the way each floor of a hotel begins numbering the rooms from 01. When writers ignore this, I tend to think of the Parts and Books to be arbitrary, an unnecessary intrusion to the larger rhythm.

But all of these weird little tics are mine and mine alone. I would never actually assume anyone else agrees or even thinks about this. I only know that when I read, these factors come into major play––justifiable or not––and help determine my assessment of a work. Even if I never mention it to others, in conversation or in a review, this stuff ends up mattering to me. Art (and art criticism) is full of unfair and unsubstantiated subjectivity like this but we love to pretend that we can approach things with cool empirical impartiality. Some can, I suppose, but I sure as hell can’t. I get stuck on chapters, on character names, on setting, on my perception of the author’s intention––because to me there isn’t any one aspect of fiction that stands above everything else. Every part of a novel or a story is a choice, made by a human being, and each part is as important as the next. And then there’s me––all-too-human, full of my own idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences and unable to stop them from taking over––responding to an author’s idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences. It’s like any relationship, I guess: the writer has their baggage, and I have mine. All I can do is hope that more often than not I stumble upon artists whose baggage is closest to mine. Because the other option would be for me to try to change these tics––which without going into too much detail I’ll just assure you is impossible.

Image credit: Unsplash/Will Tarpey.

To Make Us Feel Less Alone: On ‘The David Foster Wallace Reader’

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Little, Brown’s The David Foster Wallace Reader is, for my money, a total Gift, an appropriate word considering that Wallace believed that all True Art takes the form of a Gift (see Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for more on that). For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. Judged purely from the outside, the lengthy parade (especially since his death) of critics and writers extolling Wallace’s genius plus the sheer girth of his books could easily sway casual readers away. It’s a shame, and if this Reader accomplishes anything, it would be wonderful if some new Wallace fans emerged from its publication. For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. And this is what I’d like to do now: use this beautiful new volume as a means of dissecting DFW’s entire oeuvre and trying to make some claims about his work as a whole. To wit:


The David Foster Wallace Reader features excerpts from all three of his novels –– The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King –– as well as a sampling of his short stories – taken from the collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion –– and his essays––taken from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and Both Flesh and Not –– and finally some examples of teaching materials Wallace used over his many years as a college professor at Emerson, Illinois State, and Pomona College. Viewed together, it’s impossible for me not to draw certain conclusions about the way Wallace wrote and the tools his used to meet his ends, and for me to lay all this out requires that we investigate his work through the lens of his nonfiction, at the center of which I believe we’ll find a key to Wallace’s technique and his philosophical goals, w/r/t literature and its purpose in the universe.

The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, David Lynch, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction. Moreover, Wallace’s complex mind and neurotic tendencies found their most successful (i.e. accessible and popular) outlet in nonfiction, and that although history may remember his novels and stories as his most important contributions to literature, his nonfiction is more successful in doing what he aimed to do with literature and more representative of who he was as a person and a writer.


I love Wallace’s novels and short stories. For my money, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece, one that changed my perception of what fiction can do. “Good Old Neon” and “Forever Overhead” are two of the best short stories I’ve ever read. And The Pale King, I’ll argue a little later, contained a mixture of Wallace’s nonfiction style within it, an exciting yet sad revelation considering that it’s the last of his fiction. I just wanted to make clear that I am not here to say that his fiction was difficult and therefore unredeemable. Rather, my contention here is that Wallace was not unlike an inventor who creates a new tool to assist in the creation of his latest device but whose tool sells better than his invention.

Basically, by the time of the publication of Signifying Rappers in 1989 (a book not excerpted in TDFWR), Wallace had already established certain tropes he would reuse and refine over the rest of his critical/journalistic career. Beyond mere stylistic elements, the main tropes are the way he employs an Ethical Appeal and how he becomes self-referential (a word he uses to describe rap as a whole) in the process; the other is his transparency w/r/t his approach, i.e., his seemingly involuntary tendency to tell you what he’s about to do, essay-wise. Clearly these are postmodern techniques, but when you read this prose, it doesn’t come across that way. Because without fiction’s distancing Narrator, Wallace’s voice seems simply honest and guileless and direct. He isn’t trying to trick you into buying his authority; he isn’t lying about his credentials; he isn’t lying at all. He earnestly wants you to Trust Him, and he does so by explaining exactly what he’s about to do. He just wants to be a regular guy, and if he has to destroy many conventions of nonfiction in order to do so, then so be it.


The main point here is that there is nothing implicit in a David Foster Wallace essay. Or, if anything is implicit, it’s related to Wallace’s approach, not his theses. In essay after essay, Wallace’s directness remains. Just take a look at this passage, from early on in “Authority and American Usage”:
The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press’s recent release of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today’s US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront: “Should you buy this book?” And because Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple of years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative “…rather than that book?” to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind.
The “question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront” is, of course, stated here upfront. Wallace established the parameters of his essay directly, explaining not just what he’s going to do but also how he’s going to do it. In fiction, this kind of technique would certainly be considered postmodern. Think for a moment of the opening sentences of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.” Calvino (or, to be accurate, the Narrator) instructs the reader on how to read the book and what to expect from it. An opening like this in a novel jars a reader. We’re reminded of the writer when we’re not “supposed” to be, a reason many critics are dismissive of much postmodern fiction. But apply this same technique to an essay, and you get what amounts to a super successful Ethical Appeal, a tactic I want to argue is less postmodern and more sincere.

Let’s get back to “Authority and American Usage.” In dissecting “how ADMAU is different from other specialty-products of its kind,” Wallace focuses his attention on Garner’s rhetoric. Since most usage guides are basically “preaching to the choir,” they rarely include Ethical Appeals, which for Wallace “amounts to…a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,'” which “requires the rhetor to convince us of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s hopes and fears.” What is Wallace doing in the block passage if not establishing those same qualities for himself? It’s the regular-guy stance, something Wallace was deliberate about evincing. In David Lipsky’s book-length interview with Wallace Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says, “In those essays…there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am…I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much like everybody else.”

Yet Wallace was completely unlike everybody else. He was much, much smarter –– not just what he knew but how he thought –– but his prose glistens with “regular guyness:” his word choice and sentence structure, as well as his approach, which is to state everything upfront and proceed with intellectual caution. In the case of “Authority and American Usage,” he does exactly what he’s praising Garner for doing. He creates “a certain persona” that allows the reader to trust him: he asks “unmentionable” questions other reviewers would skirt; he establishes his knowledge of the genre (as in, e.g., his long footnote about being a “SNOOT”); and he tackles his subjects under the guise of being honest and direct, even about his biases.

One must admit, though, that there’s a bit of rhetorical sneakiness going on here. Wallace is brilliant in this way. He knows that he’s too smart for most readers and that this intelligence will probably alienate them from his points. But instead of dumbing down his language (who, after all, would consider Wallace’s prose to be “regular” in any sense?) or simplifying the subject, he acknowledges the inherent abstruseness or strangeness of the topic at hand. In his most famous essay, the hilarious “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he opens by questioning the entire premise of the piece and stating outright this dubiousness w/r/t the magazine he’s writing for:
A certain swanky East-Coast magazine approved of the results of sending me to a plain old simple State Fair last year to do a directionless essayish thing. So now I get offered this tropical plum assignment w/ the exact same paucity of direction or angle. But this time there’s this new feeling of pressure: total expenses for the State Fair were $27.00 excluding games of chance. This time Harper’s has shelled out over $3000 U.S. before seeing pithy sensuous description one. They keep saying––on the phone, Ship-to-Shore, very patiently––not to fret about it. They are sort of disingenuous, I believe, these magazine people. They say all they want is a sort of really big experiential postcard –– go, plow the Caribbean in style, come back, say what you’ve seen.
By setting himself up as unequipped for the task, Wallace makes each of his numerous observations all the more earnest and agenda-less. He seems like someone a bit over his head trying to do the job he was assigned. But of course we know how the scales were really tipped, as how fair is it, e.g., for someone of Wallace’s intellectual acumen to scrutinize the ad-copy of a cruise ship’s onboard publicity? Moreover, Harper’s had to know that Wallace wouldn’t exactly enjoy himself on such an excursion, since by reading anything he ever wrote one could discern at the very least what I’ll call intense neuroses just utterly emanating from his pages. Put the author of “The Depressed Person” on a 7-day cruise filled with skeetshooting and buffets and conga lines and what he calls Managed Fun? Seems like a perfect combination, right? But somehow none of these obvious motivations for the piece come across in the finished essay. Instead, Wallace’s schmucky, regular-guy rhetoric works like gangbusters and we come to Trust Him wholeheartedly throughout, despite the fact that many of his neurotic tendencies are wholly his and not “like everybody else,” as when he becomes dreadfully afraid that the head Captain is conspiring to eliminate him via the crazy suction of the toilets. He’s neurotic as hell, yet we always grant him Authority.

In his fiction, Wallace-as-Narrator is also neurotic as hell, and so are his characters. See Hal Incandenza’s ritual of sneaking off by himself through elaborate tunnels to smoke weed; or the narrator of “Good Old Neon,” who circularly explains how fraudulent he is, even when he’s admitting that he’s fraudulent; or the numerous men in the various iterations of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” Not all of his characters are neurotic, but most of the protagonists are. Many of his character’s neuroses can be summarized by the flash fiction piece that opens BIWHM, entitled “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life:”
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
The main point of his little riff is that our desire to “be liked” often gets in the way of real human intimacy. None of the three characters have an honest interaction. All they did was “preserve good relations,” which might make a moment less anxiety-inducing but ultimately makes life pretty sad indeed.

But the neuroses on display in his stories and novels are decidedly not metafictional. There are exceptions, of course: the terminal novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” of Girl with Curious Hair takes place in an MFA writing program and parts of it “are written on the margins of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse,” a seminal work of metafiction; and “Good Old Neon” (the acronym of which would be, if we used the atomic name of neon, “G.O.Ne”) and Infinite Jest employ some autobiographical details but nothing we would go so far as to call meta. Mostly, his fiction is heady, involved, experimental, satirical, and strange –– but not meta. At least not in the same sense his nonfiction is. In fact, Wallace found metafictional techniques to be limited. In an interview with Larry McCaffery (quoted in Zadie Smith’s essay on BIWHM), he says:
Metafiction…helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion’s dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted…by the eighties, it’d become a god-awful trap.

That is, until The Pale King. (The brouhaha over the posthumous publication of this unfinished novel indicates to me what Wallace’s legacy will be. A final collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, was also published after his death, but it was met with much less fanfare.) Much of The Pale King consists of typical Wallace antics: mind-bogglingly longwinded descriptions of people’s thoughts (read neuroses); conspiratorial upper-level managers discussing their tactics; long conversations that occur with little narrative description to go alongside them; interviews with the questions redacted to Qs; elaborate investigations into boredom; characters with ambiguous motives; a suggestion of plot rather than a relation, &c. Plus it contains some representative examples of the (oft-unremarked-upon) beauty of Wallace’s prose, as in the opening (which is too long to quote here but I sincerely suggest you go check it out; it’s featured in TDFWR and it’s extraordinary). The astonishing power of this opening contains foreshadows for what’s to come, but nothing that would indicate how truly radical (for Wallace) the novel would become. In one of the excerpts from TPK featured in TDFWR, we turn to an Author’s Foreword, which begins thusly:

Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:

All of this is true. This book is really true.

Here, Wallace writes metafiction in the truest sense of the phrase: he literally steps into his own novel. Metafiction can take many forms, and many sophisticated examples don’t actually require the novelist to become a character. Awareness of the novel as a text and referenced as such is all that’s required of metafiction, but Wallace chooses to go the literal route. Of course, he can’t do so without some meta-qualifications. He insists that this is “not some abstract narrative persona,” distinguishing his meta-device from past iterations. He gets meta about his meta. What this amounts to is another kind of Ethical Appeal: he’s assuring you that he, too, is aware of the metafictional convention but that he not up to those kinds of tricks.

The opening of TPK is dense, descriptive and filled with arcane vocabulary. Its sentences are long and its purpose opaque. Whereas the Wallace-as-Narrator’s prose moves very directly from the moment it starts. The syntax is simpler, its intention clearer. This is Wallace’s nonfiction voice, which he rarely used in his fiction. Wallace believed, according to D.T. Max in his biography of Wallace, that “the novel was the big form, the one that mattered.” More than that, Wallace was an unabashed moralist with a deep interest in human relationships (or lack thereof) in contemporary living. It’s as if he didn’t attribute as much creative importance to journalistic endeavors, despite his mastery of the form. Maybe Wallace would second William H. Gass’s note about his (Gass’s) nonfiction representing a “novelist insufficiently off duty.” At the very least, he kept his voices relatively separate.

Allow me, for a brief pause, to back up that last claim, as I suspect many would disagree with the assertion. Here’s a passage taken from Infinite Jest, in which Orin Incandenza decides to make the “extremely unlikely defection from college tennis to college football:”

The real football reason, in all its inevitable real-reason banality, was that, over the course of weeks of dawns of watching the autosprinklers and the Pep Squad (which really did practice at dawn) practices, Orin had developed a horrible schoolboy-grade crush, complete with dilated pupils and weak knees, for a certain big-haired sophomore baton-twirler he watched twirl and strut from a distance through the diffracted spectrum of the plumed sprinklers, all the way across the field’s dewy turf, a twirler who’d attended a few of the All-Athletic-Team mixers Orin and his strabismic B.U. doubles partner had gone to, and who danced the same way she twirled and invoked mass Pep, which is to say in a way that seemed to turn everything solid in Orin’s body watery and distant and oddly refracted.

Though this is quintessential Wallace, doesn’t it sound a bit more like the opening passage of TPK than it does the meta section? A major development of Orin’s life is explained here in a single sentence. Wallace in fiction-mode loved these kinds of periodic probing of a character’s idiosyncrasies –– IJ is loaded with them. But the Wallace-as-Narrator in TPK uses a different (although undeniably similar) voice:

In any event, the point is that I journeyed to Peoria on whatever particular day in May from my family’s home in Philo, to which my brief return had been shall we say untriumphant, and where certain members of my family had more or less been looking at their watches impatiently the whole brief time I was home. Without mentioning or identifying anyone in particular, let’s just say that the prevailing attitude in my family tended to be “What have you done for me lately?” or, maybe better, “What have you achieved/earned/attained lately that my in some way (imaginary or not) reflect well on us and let us bask in some kind of reflected (real or not) accomplishment?” It was a bit like a for-profit company, my family, in that you were pretty much only as good as your last sales quarter. Although, you know, whatever.

(I apologize, by the way, for all the long-winded quotations, but Wallace isn’t super-conducive to brevity.) So, there is still the same “regular-guyness” with his usage of colloquialisms like “the point is,” “more or less,” “pretty much,” etc, and his final blasé conclusion: “Although, you know, whatever.” But in a deeper way, this clearly is more aligned with the above-quoted passage from “Authority and American Usage” or “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” And that’s what made TPK so special and promising and, consequently, so tragic.


All of which is to say that The David Foster Wallace Reader does a fantastic job of surveying Wallace’s work, and gave this enormous fan a chance to put my complicated thoughts on DFW on paper, to stop them (the thoughts) from swimming in my head like unhappy fish in a bowl and pick them out and set them free.

To conclude: I agree with critic Michael Schmidt’s assessment of Wallace’s essays but not his novels, which Schmidt believes are “uneven.” For Schmidt, Wallace “makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction,” and his essays “entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres.” And also:

He reinvents the form from within, using its own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with “impartial” journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire.

What is this but another way of saying he that he wrote meta-nonfiction? Here’s how Wallace himself put it in Quack This Way, a book-length interview he did with Bryan A. Garner (whose usage manual was the subject of Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” essay excerpted above): “Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential.” Wallace dove inside the tropes of the essay and stretched them until they seemed new, like a restored Victorian home updated with every contemporary amenity yet remaining classic and beautiful and timeless. His greatest asset in the essays, though, wasn’t his experimentation, his rethinking of the form, but what he described to David Lipsky as his “regular-guyness.” Though he used this voice in his fiction, it is employed with much higher success in his nonfiction. But this wouldn’t have meant a damn thing if the voice didn’t lead to something extraordinary. The voice is the invitation; the actual stuff going on in the essays –– that’s the magic.

Schmidt characterizes Wallace as “a postmodernist with premodern values,” and I think this is key to his writing. Wallace was a polymath, a genius, a postmodern wizard, but at heart he was almost naïvely optimistic, almost sentimental (something particularly clear in his famous Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, also not included in TDFWR). Wallace accomplished something many critics of postmodernism never believed was possible: he used the “tricks” and “gimmicks” of postmodern technique in the interest of human connection. He did this in his novels, too, but less successfully, maybe in part due to his tendency to “impersonate what he describes, even when the subject is debased, vulgar, boring,” as James Wood put it. But his essays were genuine attempts to work through the topic at hand, to explain his thinking process to the reader as thoroughly and truthfully as possible, with limited filters. He earned our Trust through rigorous ethos and followed through with staggering intelligence and wit. As The Pale King shows, he could have used these techniques in fiction to considerable effect, but we’ll never know where he would have gone intellectually or creatively. We only have what he left behind. And we also know that he did, at least, achieve what were to him the greatest aims of literature: to connect, to challenge, and to make us feel less alone.