The modern world is interesting for reasons other than the Internet — October 20, 2010

The modern world is interesting for reasons other than the Internet

William F. Buckley, chin held way up, looking thoughtful with his hands near his chin in some sort of weird 'wait, how did your hand end up in that position?' kind of postureJessa Crispin linked via Twitter to a piece about novelists’ difficulty talking about the Internet. Should their characters be like a lot of us, constantly switching between Facebook, Twitter, email, phone calls, text messages, and the rest? Should their books deliberately *avoid* writing about those things, and instead focus on (here I adopt a Brahmin chin tilted 30 degrees up from the horizontal; imagine Bill Buckley saying this) “the eternal present”?

Listen, the Internet is important. Many of us spend a lot of our time on it. But we spend a lot of our time doing lots of other things, too. How about focusing on rampant job insecurity, for instance? How about focusing on what happens when people lose jobs and realize that there’s virtually no social safety net left?

I’m not saying that writing has any obligation to be socially relevant; it doesn’t. As a practical matter, writers only have an obligation to do what pays the bills. (Or not! They might not be able to make money writing, so they do whatever else they need to do to pay the bills, like sling lattes at Starbucks while they write on the side.)

What I *am* saying, though, is that we have a tendency — either when we look at the world we live in now, or at former worlds — to focus on one detail and obsessively assert that That’s What Everyone Spent All Their Time Thinking About. Look at slavery, for instance: it’s really hard to read about the era between the signing of the Constitution and the Civil War without getting this picture of everyone just counting the days until society was torn apart by war. Or England from the late 18th century through the mid-19th: there’s this picture of people toiling away in the dark Satanic mills and thinking nonstop about What Industrialization Meant when they weren’t Suffering The Ill Effects of Industrialization. Surely these things were important — world-historical, even — but so were lots of other things.

And in the grand scheme of modern living, the Internet is *time-consuming*, but it’s not at all clear that it’s *important*. Spending time with your family is important. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising are important. Not needing to drink yourself to sleep at night is important. Inasmuch as work-related stress impinges on all of these things, work is very important. Facebook is not important.

So why are there so many more stories and essays about the effect of the modern media environment on fiction writing than there are about the effect of job insecurity? David Foster Wallace, for instance, spent just about his entire career obsessing over television’s and the web’s effect on fiction writing: his essay “E Unibus Plurum” [sic], which was included in [book: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]; [book: Infinite Jest] itself (about a movie so addicting that you’d sacrifice anything to keep watching it); an essay or two in [book: Consider the Lobster]; and a good fraction of the post-[book: Infinite Jest] interview with Wallace in [book: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] focus on the media. Wallace is considered an “important writer” largely on that basis.

Where are the people writing novels about job insecurity? It sounds a little silly when phrased that way; no one would really want to read that. But it’s not clear, stated abstractly, that anyone would want to read a novel about the effects of television on American [foreign: ennui], but there you have the shortest possible description of [book: Infinite Jest].

Hypothesis: Wallace’s fiction — and all other fiction coming from people who obsess more about the media environment than they do about the rest of life — appeals more to urbane single dudes in their 20s and 30s, whose biggest concern is that they use Twitter too much, than it does to folks who are having trouble making ends meet.

Then again, the last piece of fiction I can remember reading from someone who was self-consciously trying to Engage With The People was George Packer’s [book: Central Square], about my beloved neighborhood. I give Packer credit for trying, but that book was condescending, as virtually all of Packer’s writing since then has been. (Though you really, really, really need to read his [book: Blood of the Liberals].) Condescension may be inevitable when you’re deliberately trying to make a point through your fiction; you engage in telling rather than showing.

So maybe the idea should be: don’t write a novel that tries to talk about income inequality, or talk about job insecurity, or talk about the pernicious effects of Angry Birds. Just write a novel that respects its characters enough to depict them honestly, and hope that anything you want to say will emerge naturally from that. When I find such a novel, I’ll let you know.

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” and Other Essays — September 20, 2010

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” and Other Essays

Cover of _Consider the Lobster_: stark white background, title and subtitle in black, author in red, then 'Author of Infinite Jest' below the author's name. Finally, a photo of a deeply red lobster at the bottom of the page

(Attention conservation notice: 1700 words, having reached the end of the line with David Foster Wallace’s brand of free-associative rambling.)

I’ve spoken with a great many people by now who’ve found Weezer’s last few albums so terrible that it’s made them reconsider whether the Blue Album and [album: Pinkerton] were as great as we all thought at the time. I’m sad to say that “Consider the Lobster” has made me do the same for David Foster Wallace.

What makes Wallace really charming is him, as a person. His best essays are really about him. Take the title essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, for instance; it’s one of the most enjoyable essays I’ve ever read, and what makes it so is a) that Wallace is funny, b) that Wallace is neurotic and aware of his neurosis, and to a much lesser extent c) the funny commentary Wallace deploys about society in general and what cruise ships have to say about life in late-20th-century America among upper-middle-class folks whose every want is basically already taken care of. Even on that last point, though, Wallace is at his best when he talks about his own experience as a microcosm of the larger point. He’s spoiled on a cruise ship, and he finds himself getting more and more annoyed at the little deviations from perfection that would, land-side, never have bothered him in the slightest — e.g., that all they have is Dr. Pepper rather than Mr. Pibb, when everyone knows that the former is just no goddamn substitute at all for the latter. Being spoiled beyond comprehension has made Wallace sensitive about far too much. I submit that almost none of what’s memorable in “A Supposedly Fun Thing” has to do with the world beyond Wallace’s own head.

That’s not true of that entire earlier essay collection, though. A Supposedly Fun Thing has some neat thoughts about the role of television on fiction writing (I believe that was in “E Unibus Plurum” [sic]), has an obsessive little essay about David Lynch, and so forth. Wallace is definitely a smart guy. But he’s really just run out of steam in “Consider the Lobster”. There’s an obscenely long essay reviewing an English-usage guide, ably torn to shreds 8 years ago on the Languagehat blog; most of that takedown can be reduced to “Wallace just goes on and on and on, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about.” And that critique extends to most of the rest of what’s in “Consider the Lobster”. Much of it sounds like a college bull session committed to paper. For instance, on page 85, in the middle of “Authority and American Usage” (the essay that Languagehat took down), we have Wallace saying that

Even in the physical sciences, everything from quantum mechanics to Information Theory has shown that an act of observation is itself part of the phenomenon observed and is analytically inseparable from it.

Well … I’m no physicist, but I’m fairly certain that this is what happens when you get a guy who’s trained in critical theory and let him read In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. I invite physicists to critique my interpretation here, but I believe QM says that only at very small scales does the act of observation change the thing observed. That’s because when you, e.g., shine light on a particle, you impart momentum to the particle and thereby move it. So the act of observing the particle has changed the state of the particle. Our observing the Sun has no effect at all on the Sun.

The extra-special irony here is that on page 56, in an otherwise great essay on John Updike’s self-centric, penis-centric writing, Wallace takes Updike to the woodshed for similar sins:

[One of Updike’s characters] is particularly keen on subatomic physics and something he calls the theory of “many worlds” — which actually dates from 1957 and is a proposed solution to certain quantum paradoxes entailed by the principles of Uncertainty and Complementarity, and which is unbelievably abstract and complicated but which Turnbull seems to think is roughly the same thing as the Theory of Past-Life Channeling, apparently thereby explaining the set pieces where Turnbull is somebody else. The whole quantum setup ends up being embarrassing the way something pretentious is embarrassing when it’s also wrong.

(I’ve assumed all along that Wallace’s Everything and More, which purports to cover Georg Cantor and the various shocking, counterintuitive results about infinity, would be more Wallace bull-session wankery. Nothing in “Consider the Lobster” encourages me to read Wallace’s thoughts on higher math.)

Wallace’s demeanor is so folksy and charming that I found myself not normally paying attention to whether what he says makes any sense at all. Then the Languagehat blog comes along and pricks the balloon, and suddenly I realize that Wallace just doesn’t have much to say in a lot of this book. Much of it starts to feel like a man who’s talking and talking and talking to delay something that’s not clear to the reader (and may not be clear to the author).

And talk he does. He needs an editor more than ever. Infinite Jest apparently started out as a 1,500-page work, which eventually got chopped down to just over 1,000, according to David Lipsky’s biography. Infinite Jest was great, but it would have been even greater had it been half as long. “Consider the Lobster” could be reduced from 300 pages to maybe 200 without a lot of substantive loss.

While I’m here, I have to comment on Wallace’s footnotes; they’re one of the most noticeable features of his writing. They are terrible. I have always found them terrible, especially in Infinite Jest. There, the footnotes were mostly endnotes, so one had to keep two bookmarks going and continually interrupt the flow of the novel to read some 20-page excursus about the director’s [foreign: oeuvre]. It made Infinite Jest actually cause mental pain, of exactly the same sort that you feel when you’re trying to think hard about some important problem at work and get interrupted every couple minutes by some well-intentioned but annoying coworker.

Come to find out, in Lipsky’s book and dramatically confirmed in “Consider the Lobster”, that this similarity was not coincidental. Wallace’s contention in Lipsky is that the world we live in is so fragmented, with so many streams of information coming at us at once, that literature has to reflect this somehow. There don’t exist enough capital letters, enough bolding, and enough italics in this world for me to express just how terribly wrong I think this is. The world is fragmented and saturated with news, yes, which is precisely why literature — and for that matter, the rest of our institutions — needs to provide filtration, perspective, and order. When I read a book, I want to get lost; I want to forget, for a time, the maddening flicker and noise of the outside world. I want to submerge myself in the author’s world. Wallace’s strategy, and apparently his philosophy, are to keep me from ever getting immersed in his work. The strongest evidence I can amass for this claim is the very final essay in “Consider the Lobster”, whose final two pages look like this:

Two pages from _Consider the Lobster_. There are boxes offset from the text, with arrows pointing to boxes from inside other boxes on different pages. It's a recursive, distracting mess.

(click to enlarge)

This takes Wallace’s footnote habit and runs off a cliff with it. Like the footnotes, which sometimes have sub-footnotes, the boxes and arrows sometimes have their own sub-boxes and sub-arrows; as you can see from this example, sometimes you need to follow arrows onto other pages, then trace your way back to the page where you started. I don’t believe this image captures one further annoyance of the boxes-and-arrows system, namely that sometimes a box precedes the text it refers to, so you have to train yourself to skip the boxes until the arrows tell you it’s time to read them.

Maybe you find the notes charming. After all, they’re a natural extension of what’s often charming about Wallace: you feel like you’re getting direct access to his mind and the funny things that he thinks from moment to moment. Clearly his own mind is fragmented, so his writing is the same way.

Me, I just find it lazy, and I’ve found it lazy as far back as Infinite Jest. A more disciplined writer would find a way either to flow the content of the notes into the body of the text, or would just strike out those digressions that don’t add to the content of the work. That Wallace clearly disagrees with me here, and that this isn’t laziness but is entirely deliberate, is exactly the problem: Wallace believes that the digressions and the footnotes are absolutely crucial to the body of the work.

This particular final essay, with the structural experimentation and the arrows and boxes, features Wallace sitting for a night or a few nights in a Los Angeles-area conservative talk-radio station, telling us all sorts of things: the particular mechanics of beaming a story from the station to the millions of L.A. listeners, with particular reference to which machines get used for which purposes; the sound engineers and their mastery of special devices that speed up and slow down sounds to fit within a precise window and give advertisers their allotted on-air time; the radio host himself, and what he’s like when the mic is turned off; some notes on the Fairness Doctrine and what its end had to do with the rise of talk radio; and some college-bull-session-level out-loud meditations on What It All Means.

A lot of this stuff is good, but a lot is just needless digression. When Wallace applies the same formula to John McCain, in what became “Up, Simba!”, it essentially has one through-line with a lot of useless ornamentation. The story is that John McCain spent five years in a box in Vietnam, and explicitly refused to be released from prison just because his father was a bigshot in the military; he waited to be released after others who’d gone in before him. Wallace asks us to imagine the psychological and physical torment McCain underwent, and the sense of duty that must exist inside McCain to make that sacrifice for his brothers. McCain has become a politician since then, so it’s hard to know whether what he says is just salesman bullshit, or whether maybe he really is the Leader that he wants us to believe he is. In the world we live in, it’s hard not to impart cynical motives to everyone around us — especially politicians — but Wallace holds out hope that McCain might be the real deal.

All of that is wonderful. Adorning it, though, are pages and pages of Wallace’s ramblings. I’ve reached the end of my patience for that. Much of “Consider the Lobster” feels like I’m reading a series of blog posts, albeit written by a very smart friend. The world supplies me with enough blogs; when I read a book, I want to read a book.

iPhone 4 FaceTime/Infinite Jest mashup — June 7, 2010

iPhone 4 FaceTime/Infinite Jest mashup

Apple’s introduction of FaceTime, their videophone protocol in the forthcoming iPhone 4, reminds me of this great passage in David Foster Wallace’s [book: Infinite Jest]:

> (1) It turned out there there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that they’d been subject to an insidious but wholly marvelous delusion about conventional voice-only telephony. They’d never noticed it before, the delusion – it’s like it was so emotionally complex that it could be countenanced only in the context of its loss. Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation – utilizing a hand-held phone whose earpiece contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained (62) or 36 little pinholes – let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet – and this was the retrospectively marvelous part – even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided. During a traiditional call, e.g., as you let’s say performed a close tactile blemish-scan of your chin, you were in no way oppressed by the thought that your phonemate was perhaps also devoting a good percentage of her attention to a close tactile blemish-scan. It was an illusion and the illusion was aural and aurally supported: the phone-line’s other end’s voice was dense, tightly compressed, and vectored right into your ear, enabling you to imagine that the voice’s owner’s attention was similarly compressed and focused … even though your own attention was *not*, was the thing. This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it. Regarded with the objectivity of hindsight, the illusion appears arational, almost literally fantastic: it would be like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time.

This is only the beginning of a several-pages-long discussion of why videophones (from the future-retrospective stance) failed. People notice first that they look really gross on camera. Then they get self-conscious, so they wear masks when they’re on their videophones. This makes them terrified to meet people in real life, because those people will discover that they’ve been lied to during their videophone chats. So people stay indoors. There are a few other steps in there that I forget (and Google Books is no help), but the end result is that society eventually makes one big coordinated move to drop its videophones.

(You really need to read [book: Infinite Jest]. It’s one of those books that everyone knows about but few read. You should be one of the few to read it. I reviewed it on Amazon back in 2001.)

By the way: I’ve been considering switching to any of the new Android phones when my AT&T contract expires in August, but the new iPhone seals the deal for Apple.