A few weeks after I finished “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page novel, a friend asked me if it was really worth the time. It took some two months of reading and dictionary consulting, of heavy annotating, cross-referencing, and back-and-forth turning between the book’s body and all 388 of its endnotes, but at the time I told him that yes of course it was, that the book was as much a work of genius as all the back-cover blurbs had made it out to be, long and dense but powerfully written in a language that shifts between the lowbrow and the hyper-literate with intertwined plot lines and shifting points of view and all of it was simply gilded, yes gilded, with layers and layers of meaning and allusion that could only be created by, I told him, a Genius. I still stand by most of what I said. But reading “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story,” D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace, I realize that my reasons for recommending the book were all too naïve, and that I had, more or less, failed as a reader of Wallace’s works. The fact is that although David Foster Wallace is a great writer because of the way he assembles words on the page, he is something much greater and much more important—“artist” may be the appropriate word here, purple and sappy as it sounds—because of the moral heart of his fiction. Read the rest of this entry »
Adam Levin/Photo: Renee Feldman
By Eric Lutz
Adam Levin’s debut novel, “The Instructions,” aimed high: Over a thousand pages, with missives on religion, war, identity and Philip Roth. It was an outstanding hunk of fiction, and elicited from critics all the superlatives (and expletives) you might expect a work of such length and power to receive. If there was anything bothersome about the novel, though, it was the slight—yet frequent—sense that Levin hadn’t quite divorced himself from the writers to which he’s been compared and clearly admires.
In his excellent new collection of short stories, “Hot Pink,” Levin hurdles over that problem. While proudly displaying his literary lineage, Levin–who teaches at the School of the Art Institute–also wades out into fresh waters, offering up absurdity, farce and near-academic dissection in an eclectic array of voices, all at once recognizable and entirely unique. Read the rest of this entry »
You don’t have to have read much of Jonathan Franzen (though you should) to know the basics, because in recent years he’s reached a level of cultural saturation that’s generally not the province of middle-aged literary writers with contrarian tendencies. “Farther Away,” Franzen’s latest essay collection, written over the past five years and mostly first published in The New Yorker, seems to be a product of that fame: the Franzen here is the authorial equivalent of the celebrity guest star who shows up playing a heightened version of himself. He’s out-Franzened Franzen.
His primary obsessions—books, the perils of modern technology, loneliness, his late friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace and birds–are well documented, both by him and by everyone who writes about him, and the pieces collected in “Farther Away” pair and re-pair Franzen’s fixations with comic consistency. Technology, birds. Books, technology. David Foster Wallace, birds. David Foster Wallace, books. Read the rest of this entry »
Illustration: Phil McAndrew
By Monica Westin
F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” David Foster Wallace (it’s nearly impossible to separate the man from his writing—more on that later) embodied this last sentence more than any popular contemporary fiction writer I can think of: one who knew how profoundly degenerate social life had become, yet in every piece of his writing was determined not to give into easy irony and hip nihilism. “Infinite Jest” proved him to be a master satirist and serious novelist; in his essays he anatomized the absurdity of contemporary America; and “The Pale King,” his posthumous novel about achieving transcendence through drudgery, anchors his place as the consummate “postmodern” writer who cared far more for earnestness than sarcasm, and about being good and being human, whatever that means now, than being edgy. Other contemporary writers like Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders attempt to restore morality and humanism in their fiction, but nobody has done it with as much ambition, as much deadly serious enthusiasm in the face of despair. Read the rest of this entry »
One sensibly approaches a “theme” book with trepidation, especially a compendium of writers describing their “most cherished book”—and most especially one in which the author who has written the foreword is by far the best known. When you read how Ray Bradbury’s aunt introduced him to the literary imagination, you might suspect this is as good as it will get.
If so, you would be wrong. Not only do many of these essays go to the soul of how their writers found their calling, but the diversity of their experiences is totally unexpected. For example, one essayist’s most cherished volume is a massive new masterpiece by his own favorite author, but because of his diminishing eyesight, they are also the last pages he will ever read.
This volume also breaks its own rules by admitting a visual artist, the widow of David Foster Wallace. Her grief at her husband’s suicide is magnified for us by her encounter with the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office, where she faces the commodification of death in the sale of gift items with chalk-line logos. She does not talk about viewing her husband’s body; this is raw enough.
Refreshingly, this collection poignantly delivers even more than it promises. (Martin Northway)
“Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book”
Edited by Sean Manning; foreword by Ray Bradbury
Da Capo Press, 240 pages, paper, $15.95
By Rachel Sugar
On the heels of the unexpected ascent of “Infinite Jest” to the New York Times best seller list upon its publication, Rolling Stone sent David Lipsky to accompany novelist David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his book tour. The piece never ran. (Always publicity-ambivalent, Wallace was apparently less than heartbroken.) Fourteen years later, and two years after Wallace’s suicide, we have the results of the five-day, cross-country interview in the form of “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace,” a lightly edited transcript of Lipsky’s epic 1996 interview. In his introduction, Lipsky writes that what’s to follow “has the feel of a highway conversation. Late at night, the only car in the world, yelling at other drivers. It has the rhythms of the road: grouchiness, indefensible meals, and the sudden front-seat connections.” It is also in turns a fiction workshop, a buddy movie, a lecture series, a romance and a joke book.
For the acolyte, five days of David Foster Wallace is a dream come true, and even for the uninitiated, Wallace proves a pretty ideal traveling companion. Read the rest of this entry »
By Tom Lynch
Marcus Sakey suggests we meet at the Starbucks at Clark and Belmont, just across the way from The Alley. Late afternoon on a weekday, the place is packed. Nowhere to sit, line out the door. Better idea—wanna get a beer at the L&L instead?
“Now you’re speaking my language,” he tells me, and we head over to the bar. Nobody wants to interview a crime writer in a Starbucks anyway.
Sakey grew up outside Flint, Michigan. His dad worked in the auto industry. He always loved to read and write, but didn’t study it at school. After college he landed an advertising job in Atlanta and spent years in that world, developing skills he jokingly says are “perfect for a crime novelist.” Met a girl at his office, married her.
Remember that scene in “Fight Club” when Tyler Durden turns the car into oncoming traffic and asks the passengers what they wish they would’ve done before they died? Sakey’s asking me. He says that’s what the moment was like when he decided to write books, or, at least, that’s how he would’ve answered that question. He left the advertising and marketing world, moved to Chicago and started to type. Read the rest of this entry »