April 1, 2011

"He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops."

"Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connected to nothing he’d ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never went down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind’s own devices."

A vision of hell — quoted in the NYT review — found in "The Pale King," the book that was pieced together out of the unfinished pages and notes left by the self-murdered David Foster Wallace.
It’s impossible to know whether Wallace, had he finished the book, might have decided to pare away such passages, or whether he truly wanted to test the reader’s tolerance for tedium...

The big clash in the novel pits old-school I.R.S. employees, “driven by self-righteousness,” against newer ones with a corporate desire “to maximize revenue.” We have to slog through stultifying technical talk about “the distinctions between §162 and §212(2) deductions related to rental properties,” and inside-baseball accounts of obscure battles within the I.R.S. hierarchy. There is even one chapter that consists of little but a series of I.R.S. workers turning page after page after page.
What the reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, does not say is that, in addition to wondering whether this section would have been edited down or rewritten, the reader must wonder whether this is the expression — or the cause — of suicidal despair. Reading long tedious passages — deliberately tedious passages? — how can one escape from the nagging thought that the author himself escaped from this tedium?

39 comments:

Maguro said...

The big clash in the novel pits old-school I.R.S. employees, “driven by self-righteousness,” against newer ones with a corporate desire “to maximize revenue.

You've got to be fucking kidding me.

Sixty Grit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Crack Emcee said...

Despair in the face of evil.

Screw the I.R.S., it's like being aware you share the planet with Arianna.

Lincolntf said...

"Infinite Jest" must've been a test run. I liked (can't say loved because entire swaths of it have been forgotten) the book, but there were long passages where I got the feeling he was trying to antagonize the reader in just the way described.

Toby said...

From what I've read, with this book Wallace wanted to drive home the importance of extended concentration, elevating it to the (near?) spiritual level. Perhaps he wanted to induce that sort of concentration in his readers through the tedium in this novel.

E.M. Davis said...

Happiness, Wallace suggests in a Kierkegaardian note at the end of this deeply sad, deeply philosophical book, is the ability to pay attention, to live in the present moment, to find “second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.”

This is demonstrably true, but it is not the only form of happiness.

Oligonicella said...

David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus “Infinite Jest” depicted an America so distracted and obsessed with entertainment that a mesmerizing movie becomes a potential terrorist weapon — capable of making viewers die of pleasure.

So,even his 'magnum opus' was just a long and wordy Monty Python joke?

Almost Ali said...

Is that a New York Times link?

Lincolntf said...

Oligon, pretty much. I read it over the course of a month and also read a mystery or thriller every few days just to clear my head. I do recommend it, especially if you can get a used or cheap ppb copy. It's the size of a phonebook, so don't expect to slip it in a purse or pocket for travel. Be prepared for footnotes, lots and lots of footnotes. Some of them tell a story of their own, so they're worth at least keeping track of. I remember laughing out loud at the beach more than once and staying up until the wee hours to keep reading, if that says anything.

Harry Phartz said...

The guy was nucking futz.

Oligonicella said...

There are those who enjoy tedious movies, books, etc. I do not.

As for a book on the inner workings of the IRS... I've contracted to them and other fed gov bureaus. There is no need for me to ever experience that tedium again.

Self-murdered, cute.

Lem said...

This novel reminds us what a remarkable observer Wallace was — a first-class “noticer,” to use a Saul Bellow term, of the muchness of the world around him, chronicling the overwhelming data and demands that we are pelted with, second by second, minute by minute, and the protean, overstuffed landscape we dwell in.

A sentence form Infinite Jest..

You have to love old fashioned men's rooms: the citrus scent of deodorant disks in the long porcelain trough; the stalls with wooden doors in frames of cool marble; these thin sinks in rows, basins supported by rickety alphabets of exposed plumbing; mirrors over metal shelves; behind all the voices the slight sound of a ceaseless trickle, inflated by echo against wet porcelain and a cold tile floor whose mosaic pattern looks almost Islamic at this close range.

Pogo said...

The movie Stranger Than Fiction was the most I ever wanted to see/hear/read about the IRS as entertainment.

David Foster Wallace sounds like the main character in the movie Pi, driven mad by his numerical quest.

Motorcycle said...

Well duh. In fact as I was reading the graphs I thought that that was THE point of it. It's a map straight to self inflicted depression.

FloridaSteve said...

Reminds me of the scene from "Joe Vs The Volcano". In that movie it led him to, well, jump into a volcano!

Michael said...

Dunbar, in Catch 22, loved boredom because it made life last longer. He loved all the people who annoyed him, all the people who hated him because it made the time go slower. He would wait in lines and then return to the end when he got near the front. he loved going to the dentist.

edutcher said...

Alas, poor Wallace, a fellow of infinite ego, that he would think he followed in the path of Master Will.

"the author himself escaped from this tedium?"

Or was it that he escaped himself?

Ann Althouse said...

self-murdered David Foster Wallace

That anything like suicide?

PETER V. BELLA said...

Is self-murdered the new politically correct term for suicide? :)

MayBee said...

A guy who worked for my husband was bipolar, but my husband didn't know it. One weekend, he started receiving emails from this man, emails that were ever longer and full of meandering thought. This poor guy was starting a new phase, and he sat at his computer and typed and typed and typed the hours away.
My husband didn't understand what he was supposed to be getting out of these pages and pages of writing.

This sounds like that.

traditionalguy said...

We are seeing more and more that the driving force in human personality is not the Freudian sex drive, but it is the desire for power and control over others. Since the IRS may be the most unlimited destructive power that exists in American life, tell me again that Wallace felt so restrained by rules there that it depressed him. He needs to become a Christian and to play more golf.

Joe said...

Ah, the writer who thinks what anyone else is doing is fundamentally flawed and crazy. Yet, he killed himself and we didn't.

Lem said...

I suspect "self-murdered" is a way of expressing contempt for the act in a way "suicide" could not.

Jim Treacher said...

David Foster Wallace's work isn't boring, it's a meditation on tedium.

Yeah, that's it.

Smilin' Jack said...

There is some great writing in "Infinite Jest," but it got too infinite for me--I didn't finish it. His shorter works are better, IMO.

t-man said...

It sounds like he was trying to create a modern version of Moby Dick, with IRS regulations substituting for Cetology.

Sigivald said...

So, he's some author I was supposed to care about even before his death, right?

KenK said...

DFW looks like some of the panhandlers I see around the UM campus. Intelligent but not quite all there.

Lincolntf said...

I think his addictions/suicide might be causing people to project some overarching philosophical pall onto his books. First and foremost he was funny. Even in the most tedious portions of Infinite Jest, the language is designed to amuse.

William said...

"There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." I used to welcome the tedious and boring parts of my working life. I found the small rituals comforting and my ability to perform them reassuring. Perhaps it's the kind of satisfaction that women get from knitting. There's something to be said for tedium.....The NYT review, as quoted here, will not inspire any book sales. A writer desires a review that criticizes his lurid libido not his taste for tedium.

The Crack Emcee said...

Joe - this is not intended as an attack but philosophy:

Ah, the writer who thinks what anyone else is doing is fundamentally flawed and crazy. Yet, he killed himself and we didn't.

I am no fan of Wallace's, but I don't think living is such a major accomplishment, or great proof of one's sanity. As a matter of fact, under the circumstances, it can just as much be proof that the living are users who kill the souls of innocents and are proud of it. (That's what my Arianna comment referred to, and I could extend it to many others.) Many of our greatest minds have chosen suicide because it IS an option - an escape from the despicable rest. You can spin their deaths as smugly as you want, but the truth is, no matter how clever or nice you think you are, like a beautiful girl, there's someone who's sick of you. The only question is if they're rightfully so.

I watch, every day, as this country slips further down the toilet. I don't consider myself a "great mind" but it's problems don't seem insurmountable to me - they actually seems easily fixable - but the so-called "great minds" the rest of you are drawn to, mostly for superficial reasons like they don't swear or are otherwise publicly insulting, are your expressions of another kind of suicide that you wish to force on us all. As you envision other suicides, I consider the rest of you even more pathetic because, unlike a DFW, you're stubbornly taking others with you because you can't openly admit - to others or to yourselves - you're not men or women up to the job of actually knowing how to live.

I could kill myself. I'm neither afraid of death, or embarrassed to want to leave. I no longer have the sufficient love, or respect, for my fellow man to welcome another day as I used to - and you all have taught me that. You can deny it all you want, but, yes, I know better and one of the things I know is you're cowards when it comes to anything but defending your image of yourselves. Not the truth - but the image - and you'll fight harder for the projection than the fact.

And if I can't kill your worthless lying ass, just for that, then, sometimes, there really doesn't seem to be much point in me being here.

Unlike you, I'm a man.

The Crack Emcee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bgates said...

I think he wanted to be a nice person. I don't mean that as a slur, like he tried to be nice and failed; I mean he recognized times and situations in his life that lent themselves to scowling selfishness, and he talked about the importance of overcoming them.

That link is to an edited version of a commencement speech he gave in 2005. The speech has sentences with typical leftist crap about how awful are SUVs and the political and religious bumper stickers on them and most of all the drivers who picked the cars and the stickers - but those sentences are embedded in paragraphs that make clear to his collegiate audience that automatically disparaging people like that is equally easy, selfish, thoughtless, and wrong.

I thought Infinite Jest was laugh out loud funny in places, and it has more calculus in the footnotes than any other work of fiction I know. It's sad that he died, and much more sad how he died.

Ann Althouse said...

I prefer to say "self-murder" rather than "suicide" because it's more in English and I want to be clear.

Luther said...

I wasn't aware that suicide, as a term, was unclear.

Crack, you seem to be morphing into that which you deplore.

Ann Althouse said...

If you think "suicide" sounds kinder than "self-murder," then it's not as clear.

Luther said...

I don't think it sounds kinder. Suicide. They killed themselves, is, I would guess, the most common interpretation of suicide. Which yes, is self-murder. I'm not sure the distinction is all that different. As an aside, how would that distinction be applied to abortions. Murdered my fetus, or killed my fetus. Is there actionable difference there?

The Crack Emcee said...

Crack, you seem to be morphing into that which you deplore.

So what's your point?

Lincolntf said...

"Crack, you seem to be morphing into that which you deplore."

Wait a minute. Are you saying that Crack wasn't playing an April Fool's Day prank when he offered to sell me a sacred energy crystal to help me with my Final Four picks?

Luther said...

I didn't have a point. I suppose just somewhat sad at seeing you become a preacher. As that is how I saw your diatribe above. And sad because I admire your creativity and writing but, as I mentioned to you before, you lose people with your image of what being a man is all about and how all should emulate you or Sheen or Roissy otherwise we're all pussies.

Though I'm not saying there isn't truth in what you say, just that we all may have our different demons that we fight off as best we can. Some do better than others, of course.