An unsalvageably bad movie, but not without its charms. Baz Luhrmann is grotesque, but not totally untalented, and I suspect that Leo really enjoyed the process of playing his Gatsby. If this film has any future, it will almost certainly be a camp thing, for “We’ll always have West Egg” fails on romantic levels that would make even Rick Blaine cringe.
“… and his name became a tag for abject failure, for deviant, for skank.
To pull a Monomian.
To go Monomian.
No one, had you asked them, would have thought he was real. Only he knew he was real. And he only knew that, he thought, by his suffering.”
- Joshua Cohen, “Emission,” Four New Messages
“But death on the page is just a typo, I said: You can’t say for example, She is dead – ‘she’ no longer is. You can’t say for example, She was dead – death itself, a condition coterminous with eternity, renders the past tense inaccurate.”
- Joshua Cohen, “McDonald’s,” Four New Messages
“Sora, who’d overwrite and overcharacterize and overdetermine and overexplain and just spoonfeed you, the reader, everything – she’d tell you what clothes a character was wearing only when it had no bearing on her story, she’d cite exactly what kind of meals her villain was munching when it had precisely nothing to do with advancing her arc or deepening characterization (why should it matter that her Alaskan psychic lesbian spy preferred spotted jumpers belted with appliqué flowers, pink pigskin gloves, and purplestriped, kneehigh galoshes, a strict diet of turkey chili and fries?)…”
- Joshua Cohen, “The College Borough,” Four New Messages
“Toyta, for her part, was never infected with the worst of the diseases you could contract in America – doubt…”
- Joshua Cohen, “Sent,” Four New Messages
“One day an older nun stopped me in the corridor. She asked me whether I knew what I was doing, and when I said I didn’t understand, she said the staff had a name for people like myself: hyaenidae. As I still failed to understand, she said: hyenas. Men of my kind, she said, lurked around bodies that were dying; each time I fed upon a women, I hastened her death.”
- Jerzy Kosinski, Steps
“I am in the wrong heaven I said to Queen Houri.
I walked in strange to them shoes around and around the trunk of the Tree around and around their infinite ring (or at least never remembering one of them the women twice in thrice and more around) and around the trunk of the Tree and said to them I was embraced by explosion into this paradise that is yours and not mine, that I do not belong here because you say I don’t belong here (I listened), and that I am I only because you are you.”
- Joshua Cohen, A Heaven of Others
“In a university prospectus, an italic script over a picture of the Firth of Forth: Philosophy is learning how to die. Philosophy is listening to warbling posh boys, it is being more bored than you have ever been in your life, more bored than you thought it possible to be. It is wishing yourself anywhere else, in a different spot somewhere in the multiverse which is a concept you will never truly understand. In the end, only one idea reliably retained: time as a relative experience, different for the jogger, the lover, the tortured, the leisured. Like right now, when a minute seems to stretch itself into an hour. Otherwise useless. An unpaid, growing debt. Along with a feeling of resentment: what was the purpose of preparing for a life never intended her? Years too disconnected from everything else to feel real. Edinburgh’s dour hill-climb and unexpected-alley, castle-shadow and fifty pence whisky chaser, WalterScottStone and student loan shopping. Out of her mouth: a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone. Never, never forgotten: the bastard in that first class, sniggering. I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY, Leah writes, and doodles passionately around it.”
(The Penguin Press, 2012)
“Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.”
- Vladimir Nabokov, “Signs and Symbols”
“All right, I want something beautiful, and it will be done by June.”
- John Cheever, Journals
Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
by D.T. Max
- There will be better biographies. This is more of an acknowledgment of the way history tends to shake out the white noise than a criticism of Max’s book, although he is at least a little guilty of the sort of “St. Dave” narrative which infects a great deal of contemporary Wallace studies. We will simply have a better idea in 50 years if Wallace was justified in his theoretical rejection of irony (a rejection he had a difficult time actualizing in his fiction); if his enduring admiration for the early postmodernists – Barthelme, Sorrentino – was deserved, or if it was, as Zadie Smith devilishly advocated, “a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart”. Great literary biographies, like Andrew Motion’s Keats or Joakim Garff on Kierkegaard, benefit from historical distance: they are able to suss out the diffusion of a given artist’s thought not only within his own milieu but also on pursuant generations, an advantage Max obviously doesn’t have.
- You can make a decent case that Wallace’s critical influence was baleful – Mark Leyner didn’t publish a book of fiction from 1998 to 2012, for better or worse – and you can make a near-airtight one that his stylistic influence is deadly. With regards to (w/r/t in Wallacespeak) the latter point: like Hemingway’s, Wallace’s prose seems easy to imitate: exhaust one’s thesaurus and slangily hedge and qualify into eternity: prove that you know that they know that you know that they know ad nauseum. This is not to say that his acolytes are necessarily disingenuous piggybackers (or “crank-turners”, in his memorable phrase), merely that once you’ve read enough of Wallace’s stuff it has a way of permeating and ultimately altering the way you think and therefore write (or vice versa, I suppose, depending on how one feels about Chomsky). Similarly, the nascent reaction against his style/thought is simply what happens when you become a titan; it is a form of literary patricide.
- Wallace’s insecurity was not just a literary tic. Evan Hughes wrote a great piece last year for “New York Books” about Wallace’s generation of writers, in which he details Wallace’s response to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections: ‘That breakthrough novel provoked a six-page letter in ten-point type from Wallace. He wrote of his mix of happiness for his friend and his feelings of envy and depression. Franzen says, “I think it hurt for each of us to get the latest [book] from the other.” Franzen became more secure in himself in the wake of The Corrections, [the novelist Mark] Costello says. But Wallace? “Dave never had a secure hour in his life.”’ In another instance, when Wallace completed “Up, Simba”, his piece on the 2000 presidential campaign, he wrote his agent that he hoped it would prove that “I’m still capable of good work (my own insecurities, I know).” Yet when you consider that a line like “Ghosts talking to us all the time – but we think their voices are our own thoughts” didn’t even make it into the final draft of “Good Old Neon”, it’s tragically evident what little need Wallace had for doubt.
- There are many parallels to be made – see Hughes’s article – between Wallace’s friendship with Franzen and the friendship between Walter Berglund and Richard Katz in Franzen’s most recent novel Freedom, some more suspect than others. However, the following is fairly striking:
‘Once talking to Franzen [Wallace] wondered aloud whether his only purpose on earth was “to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible.”’ (Max, D.T.: Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, p. 232)
‘Over the years, Patty extracted from Walter various disturbing things that Richard had said to him in private, including “Sometimes I think my purpose on earth is to put my penis in the vaginas of as many women as I can”…’ (Franzen, Jonathan: Freedom, p. 142)
- One alarming motif that emerges from Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story (what a title!) is that Wallace was more than just a depressive, or even manic-depressive – he was often literally crazy. Max on his relationship with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr: “Wallace’s literary rebirth did not coincide with any calming of his conviction that he had to be with Karr. Indeed, the opposite. In fact, one day in February, he thought briefly of committing murder for her. He called an ex-con he knew through his recovery program and tried to buy a gun. He had decided to he would wait no longer for Karr to leave her husband; he planned to shoot him instead when he came into Cambridge to pick up the family dog.” Karr herself emerges as one cool, no-nonsense lady though: ‘When [Wallace] told her he had put certain scenes into Infinite Jest because they were “cool,” she responded, “that’s what my fucking five year old says about Spiderman.”’
- Wittgenstein’s influence on Wallace can’t be overstated. Wallace: “If words are all we have as a world and god, we must treat them with care and rigor: we must worship.” Such a conviction is not only illuminatory of the aesthetic seriousness of Wallace’s project, but also of the intellectual paucity of much of the aforementioned piggybackers.
- There is a legitimate danger of Wallace’s oeuvre being reduced to “This Is Water”, his deservedly acclaimed commencement speech at Kenyon College. A) Of all his writings, it’s probably the most accessible, at least linguistically; B) facile interpretations give it the impression of being appallingly self-help-y, a sort of Rhonda Byrne with intellectual heft, like Sartre at his worst. I suspect that many people read “This Is Water” and assume it to be representative Wallacia, which it is manifestly not. Rather, the speech is a form of the self at its best, and while this should be applauded, we should also bear in mind that many of the characters who populate his fiction have more in common with the psychic grotesqueries of Poe than perhaps any other American author.
But more on “This Is Water”, maybe more for my sake than yours (for which I apologize, dear potentially fictional reader). The fact is that Wallace was a deeply bourgeois guy, someone who once wrote his editor, “everyone here has a tattoo or a criminal record or both!” “This Is Water” is accordingly bourgeois, as is perfectly appropriate for a “triumphal academic setting” (Wallace was, to the last, extraordinarily conscious of, and sympathetic to, the “know thy audience” trope). The recognition of the essential middle class-ness of the Kenyon speech in no way lessens its power, but it does limit its scope. It’s one thing to tell a cute college sophomore to maybe stop taking so many party pics with that neat Warhol effect on her Macbook Pro – “Hey babe, this is water, there’s a world outside one’s skull-sized kingdom, etc.” – but quite another to tell a harried Ecuadorian mother of six to maybe pay more attention to what, exactly, is happening around her. Or think of the Bang-Bang Club: “paying attention” is precisely what contributed to photojournalist Kevin Carter’s suicide, “haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.” “This Is Water” is a profound and important document if you have the luxury of being able to think about it; yet as far as slogans of postmodernity go, it becomes empty and absurd when run up against another three words that once adorned an iron gate somewhere in southern Poland.
“I had come home from the office one day, late, tired, and irritable. We all sat down to dinner. My two daughters, Miriam and Ruth, eight and five at the time, had been quarreling and continued to quarrel as we sat down to the evening meal. I asked them to stop but they ignored me. They also ignored several additional requests, increasingly less gently put. Completely involved with each other, they paid no attention to me. In my desire to put an end to it, and possibly motivated unconsciously by other preoccupations, such as those described earlier, I turned to them and, addressing each by the other’s name, demanded they stop. The quarrel was immediately forgotten. To my surprise, they turned from each other toward me with laughter and delight. They had interpreted my action as a new game I had invented for their amusement, and they urged me to continue it. I did.
But not for long. Within a few minutes Ruth, the younger, became somewhat uncertain about whether we still were playing and asked for reassurance: ‘Daddy, this is a game, isn’t it?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘it’s for real.’
We played on a bit longer, but soon both girls became disturbed and apprehensive. Then they pleaded with me to stop - which of course I did. The entire incident took less than ten minutes.
I had violated their primitive belief in their own identities - a belief they had in the first place learned in no small measure from me. For the first time in their lives, something had led them to experience serious doubts about a fact they had previously taken completely for granted, and this sent both of them into a panic reaction. The stimulus that evoked it seemed on the surface trivial enough. It involved nothing more than changing a single word. But this word represents the most succinct summary of many beliefs, all of which together make up one’s sense of identity.”
- Milton Rokeach, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
“I will say that learning how to write has to do in part with learning how to accede to yourself and your object, instead of writing what you think you ought to write, or what at that point in time the world thinks poetry is about. Or what you think you ought to be about. The moment comes, if it ever comes, when you have enough strength to give way, to give in to being who you are, to give in to your themes. Giving in to your obsessions, giving in to the things that you will be writing about over and over. And sometimes the things you’ll be writing about over and over are things that some people don’t find very nice.”
- Frederick Seidel, Interview
* * * * *
“A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare,
But right now one is coming through the door
With a mop, to mop up the cow flops on the floor.
She kisses the train wreck in the tent and combs his white hair.”
- Ibid., “Climbing Everest”
“It’s interesting how young poets think of death while old fogies think of girls.”
- Bohumil Hrabal, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age
“Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
- Groucho Marx, Duck Soup
“Part of our minds - in any normal person it is the dominant part - believes that man is a noble animal and life is worth living: but there is also a sort of inner self which at least intermittently stands aghast at the horror of existence. In the queerest way, pleasure and disgust are linked together. The human body is beautiful: it is also repulsive and ridiculous, a fact which can be verified at any swimming pool. The sexual organs are objects of desire and also of loathing, so much so that in many languages, if not in all languages, their names are used as words of abuse.”
- George Orwell, “Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels”