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  • Jeff Somers 8:30 pm on 2017/01/27 Permalink
    Tags: david foster wallace, , ,   

    10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Infinite Jest 

    Just over twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace published his best-known and most frustrating novel, Infinite Jest. It’s a big (very big), bold, complex book that divided critics yet nevertheless landed with a thud on that list of novels everyone intends to read “someday.” When people do tackle it, they often give up within the first 200 pages or so—one of the most difficult parts of the whole 1,000 pages—and may leave unsure of what they’ve just experienced.

    But that is all by Wallace’s design. Any novel that’s still being discussed and dissected two decades later is worth reading (and rereading), and one of the wonders of this book is that no matter how often you read it, new things will leap out at you. You’ll never discover all of Infinite Jest’s secrets. As proof of concept, here are 10 things you probably don’t know about this classic postmodern novel.

    The first draft was “a mess”
    Wallace began work on the novel as early as 1986, intending it to be “sad.” The first draft was described as a “mess,” with sections in different fonts, an insane nested page-numbering system, and half of the material in the form of hand-written notes or doodles. It was 1,600 pages long, and the main job of Wallace’s editor was to browbeat the author into cutting it down. Wallace reportedly forced himself to delete whole sections entirely from his hard drive to stop himself from later reinserting the excised passages.

    Dave Eggers hated the book before he loved it

    In the 2006 reissue of the novel, Dave Eggers (of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fame) composed an introduction praising the novel as, “drum-tight and relentlessly smart” and as including, “not one lazy sentence.” High praise from a peer, indeed. What’s interesting is that in 1996, Eggers’ review of the book in the San Francisco Chronicle described it as an, “endless joke on somebody” and, “extravagantly self-indulgent … often difficult to navigate.” The lesson here: we all have a hot-take in our lives we’ll later regret.

    Wallace hadn’t yet used the Internet when he wrote it
    Infinite Jest is often praised for its prescience; the cartridge entertainment system it describes seems to be Netflix a decade before Netflix existed, and is even mentioned to have video streaming capabilities (albeit with such a cumbersome system that no one in the novel uses it). Wallace also seems to see Skype coming long before it was possible. Yet the author later admitted that when he wrote the novel, he’d never once used the Internet (which is forgivable, because in 1996 “the Internet” probably meant America Online).

    All the tennis stuff comes from Wallace
    One of the aspects of the story that either fascinates or bores people to death is the tennis minutiae. With much of the story set at a tennis academy, there are long stretches discussing the game. This isn’t a random affectation; Wallace was a serious tennis player in his youth. He described himself as “near great” at the game, though many noted that he peaked in high school and was only ranked 11th in the Middle Illinois Tennis Association—not exactly a worldwide reputation.

    You can actually play Eschaton
    If you’re the sort who itches to play Quidditch IRL, you might be interested to learn that the game Wallace invents in the novel, called Eschaton—in which global thermonuclear war is replicated using six tennis courts, balls, rackets, and shoes—can actually be played. To get an idea of what that might be like, check out the video for “Calamity Song” by the Decemberists.

    It’s been adapted…sort of
    There’s been talk of a film adaptation of Infinite Jest since it was published, with various reports of screenplays underway emerging and then withering away. Of course, the challenge of turning this complex and inscrutable novel into a coherent film—or even a TV miniseries—is huge, and so far no one’s been able to make it happen. But if you want to see the book’s key moments visually, check out BrickJest, a collaboration between a college professor and his young son, recreating the book scene-by-scene…in Lego.

    You’ll need three bookmarks to read it
    This is a book best read in physical form, with the standard advice being to read it using three bookmarks—one for your progress in the text, one for your place in the footnotes gathered at the back of the book, and one to keep track of the page (usually page 223 depending on your version) where Wallace lays out the order of subsidized years. If you ignore all other advice, use a bookmark for the latter. You’ll be referring to it often as you move through the puzzling timeline of the story.

    You’ll also need the Internet
    Despite being published before The Internet turned into the high-speed don’t-read-the-comments-section of modern life, Infinite Jest may be the first novel to truly require The Internet to be read properly. Websites offering guidance, supplementary reading lists, and encouragement abound, and are probably necessary, unless you’re planning to read it while sitting in a library.

    Wallace admitted the story makes no sense
    If you’ve finished Infinite Jest you know it sort of…ends, abruptly, with little resolution. For years, Wallace insisted the story did resolve, just outside the frame of the page, and that the reader had everything they needed to figure out what happens. But in Marshall Boswell and Stephen J. Burn’s academic work A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies, author Jonathan Franzen is quoted as saying he received an email from Wallace admitting, “the story can’t fully be made sense of,” and that if Franzen ever told anyone that, he would deny he’d ever said it. So don’t feel too bad if you can’t quite puzzle everything out.


    The post 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Infinite Jest appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 7:30 pm on 2016/12/13 Permalink
    Tags: david foster wallace, , , , , not to be continued, the crimson petal and the white, the magus   

    6 Famous Novels That Don’t Have an Ending 

    If you tried to write a novel last month, you know how difficult it can be. Just finishing a book—no matter how long it takes you—is quite an achievement, let alone in one month. In fact, chances are pretty good that by the end of National Novel Writing Month, many of you fell short, and you closed out the month without a finished manuscript on your hands. But ask yourself—does that matter? Some of the most celebrated novels in history are similarly minus an ending. It’s true—here are six examples of novels that have been published and praised despite the fact that they’re clearly unfinished.

    The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
    Pynchon unfolds The Crying of Lot 49 like a detective novel. Along the way, Oedipa Maas goes from determined to worrying about her sanity, from intensely interested in the mystery to being almost exhausted by it. Just as she seems about to give up, a final clue draws her to the titular auction, and readers might be forgiven for assuming at least some resolution to the mystery would be on offer, but instead, the book ends just as the auction begins. To paraphrase Willy Wonka, we get nothing. Now, Pynchon’s probably the genius here, but wouldn’t it be fun to imagine that he also tried to write a novel in one month, and just typed out “The End” when the deadline hit?

    Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce
    Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s final work, is possibly the most famous novel that basically no one has actually read. Incorporating poetic language, coined words, and seemingly nonsense phrases, the book is either the work of a genius beyond most people’s ability to appreciate, or the ultimate joke from a literary prankster. Either way, one thing is certain: in as much as Finnegans Wake has a plot at all (and critical opinions differ on this point) it certainly has no ending; the final line is actually the beginning of the first line, making the whole thing an endless loop that you can simply continue reading, onward, forever.

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
    Wallace was a writer who eschewed and disdained neat plots and simple resolutions. While Infinite Jest has the superficial look of a normal novel with a beginning, middle, and end, once you think about the final pages, you realize that a great many very important aspects of the plot are simply not resolved at all. You have to consider the prologue, in fact, to even have the slightest glimpse of how everything turns out, and even that keeps thing pretty ambiguous. Wallace’s skill is such that the lack of an ending isn’t apparent at first, but creeps up on you as the story lingers in your head, like a sore tooth you can’t help but poke at.

    The Magus, by John Fowles
    Fowles is a writer you expect tricks from, and The Magus , his first novel (though third published) is more or less all about tricks—and a trick itself. Nicholas, a recent Oxford graduate who takes a teaching position on a remote Greek island and meets the manipulative, psychologically tricky Maurice Conchis. Conchis plays what he calls the Godgame, composed of psychological games. At first Nicholas believes this to be all illusion, but slowly realizes he is being subsumed into the Godgame as a puppet and performer. As his grip on reality crumbles, the reader can be forgiven for being unsure of events—and then the book just ends with a quote in Latin, outcome vague. Fowles continued the trick by giving different answers to questions about the ending every time he was asked.

    The Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay
    If you’ve never heard of The Picnic at Hanging Rock, you’ve missed a novel that created a sensation upon publication, both in Australia and internationally; the film adaptation was Peter Weir’s fourth directorial effort. The story about students from an elite women’s college who disappear mysteriously during a day trip to Hanging Rock near Victoria was elevated to pop culture immortality when the publisher suggested Lindsay remove the final chapter, which explained away the mystery. As a result, the novel has no actual ending, and no way for readers to guess what happened. This is partially because Lindsay’s intended ending is quite, quite bonkers. You can read it in the posthumously published The Secret of Hanging Rock if you want, but this is one book that’s improved by a lack of ending.

    The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber
    Faber’s tale of a self-interested Victorian man, his mad, beautiful wife, and the prostitute he incorporates into his household is mesmerizing in its complexity, exploring these lives in fascinating detail. As William’s utter lack of interest in the women who are tied so closely to him leads to tragedy, there is wide latitude on how to interpret the events that occur—especially because the fate of the characters is not clearly stated, leading to endless discussion about the path of each character’s fate. Any novel that ends with the feeling that there’s a chapter or two missing should be a failure, but Faber’s genius is that he makes it work.


    The post 6 Famous Novels That Don’t Have an Ending appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 8:00 pm on 2016/11/21 Permalink
    Tags: bad technology, dave eggars, david foster wallace, , , , , , rudy ricker,   

    8 Books About Technology Run Amok 

    Technology is here to stay. Anyone who imagines they retain the basic survival skills of their forebears has never lived through an extended blackout, marked by staring dully at blank screens, dead microwaves, and the puddle of melt dripping out of your refrigerator. To paraphrase Madonna, we’re all material beings living in a material world that runs on AC power and lithium batteries. The penetration of technology into our lives does cause plenty of perfectly legitimate anxiety—we all have our “Luddite” moments when it scares us, how much we rely on our gadgets. Tapping into that primal fear, these eight stories offer up tales of technology run amok that will make any Luddite feel smugly justified—and the rest of us, plenty disturbed.

    Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut
    Vonnegut is a master at presenting horrific, dystopian, and disturbing premises with so much cranky humor, you almost forget how awful his imagined worlds were. In Player Piano, automation has made human labor in almost any form obsolete. While that sounds pretty good on a Monday morning when the alarm goes off, what it means in practice is billions of people all over the world living on welfare and bored out of their minds. In a world where self-driving trucks are delivering our beer, we’d all best start making plans for how to fill our spare time when all we have is spare time.

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
    You may not think of this book as a story of technology—but at its heart, the premise cuts right to our modern-day, streaming-addicted lifestyle: a film that is so entertaining people can’t stop watching it, and in fact, would rather starve to death than do so. The Entertainment, as its called, is one of those simple ideas that haunts you, especially when you’re about to cue up your fifth Black Mirror episode of the day instead of standing up and accomplishing something (something aside from watching all of Black Mirror, I guess).

    The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells
    More than a century after its publication, Wells’ classic novel retains its power to horrify—a power that only increases as medicine advances. The question of whether or not we should do some of the things medical science is now capable of—or will shortly be capable of—will never be an easy one to answer. While Moreau’s insane experiments on animal/human hybrids may be a bit far-fetched no matter how far genetic science advances, the story demonstrates in horrific fashion just how much suffering awaits us if we ever decide that things like ethics and morals are holding back our ability to control the fundamental biology that makes each species unique—and makes us us.

    The Ware Tetralogy, by Rudy Rucker
    Robots in rebellion. Robots in rebellion living on the Moon. Who consume the brains of human beings in order to transform them into robots. Rucker’s classic series of cyberpunk novels doesn’t shy away from presenting an alternative to the sober, civilized robots in the Asimovian mode, constrained by Three Laws. Instead, his “Boppers” are woke, fiercely dedicated to natural selection, and ready to fight for what they see as theirs—which should scare the pants off of anyone who ever thought having a robot around the house would be cool.

    Trucks, by Stephen King
    This bonkers short story, which was turned into the bonkers film Maximum Overdrive, never really offers a sound explanation for how or why all the machines of the world suddenly become self-aware (and violently opposed to humanity). Instead, in classic King style, the story focuses on the horror of discovering just how surrounded you are by machinery you do not actually have any control over. All we have to do is glance out the window at all the cars parked outside to understand just how much trouble we’d be in if some alien force did animate the machines.

    Cell, by Stephen King
    King doesn’t go for subtlety in this 2006 novel either. When a mysterious signal broadcast to every cell phone turns the majority of the population into mindless, violent monsters, madness ensues. As society collapses, a few lucky (or unlucky) survivors try for safe havens, and King’s magic touch elevates the premise into a terrifying story predicated on our increasing interconnectedness. That connection we now share with almost everyone in the world should terrify us to some extent, because it’s a signal we can neither control or predict.

    The Circle, by Dave Eggers
    Eggers’ 2013 novel tackles the one piece of technology billions of us use on a daily basis—Facebook and its sibling social media platforms. Eggers zeros in on the real horror of these services: the transactional nature that our privacy takes on. Trading our information—our likes, dislikes, movements, and opinions—for a few scraps of convenient photo sharing and communication code is what horrifies him, and what will horrify you as you read this novel, and realize just how close we already are to the terrible world he describes.

    Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
    The idea of extending your life always seems like a good one. If you could have some replacement organs grown so that your spoiled kidney, liver, or heart could be swapped out without any chance of rejection, why wouldn’t you? Except, of course, when you think about the sad, short lives of your clones, born and raised solely to keep your replacement parts warm until you need them. A lot of sci-fi presents technology as clean and sterile—encased in Apple-like white boxes. But the real horror of technology gone mad will be the visceral blood-and-guts cost.

    The post 8 Books About Technology Run Amok appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 8:00 pm on 2016/08/03 Permalink
    Tags: , david foster wallace, , , it could be worse,   

    Keep This Year’s Politics in Perspective with These Insane Fictional Presidents 

    Election Mania ’16, otherwise known as presidential convention season, is in the rearview mirror. In Cleveland and Philadelphia, our two major political parties gathered to officially choose their candidates for president, which means we’re finally in this election’s home stretch, and not a moment too soon. No matter your beliefs or affiliation, this has been one of the most unpredictable presidential campaigns in history. But as always, fiction has a lesson for us. You might think this election is madness, but trust us: it could be worse. (Or better, depending on your point of view.) Here are six fictional presidents who will make you feel a little better about our real-life prospects.

    Richard Nixon, apprentice sorcerer, in Crooked, by Austin Grossman
    Only Nixon could go to China, and as Grossman reveals in this startlingly inventive book, likewise only Nixon could defeat Lovecraftian horrors that hunger to consume the world. Grossman’s reinvention of Tricky Dick as the inheritor of a presidency imbued with magical powers—a man consistently distrusted and marginalized by the people who could have prepared him for the battles to comes—is thoroughly enjoyable. Most importantly, it offers up an idea of a president who has more than a veto up his or her sleeves. Cartainly a little black magic would be very welcome in today’s unsettled world.

    Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter, in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame
    Similarly, Grahame’s vision of Abe Lincoln, the most iconic of American presidents, moonlighting as a merciless vampire hunter is satisfying for many reasons, chief among them the security implications. Action movies continuously imagine presidents with Bourne-level reflexes and Bondian smarts, but they pale in comparison to the general badassery Lincoln is revealed to possess is this twisted secret history. Seeing a candidate go ax-crazy on live television after a horde of undead bursts in to violently protest your party platform would certainly be a game-changing moment in American politics—and a much better reason to vote for someone than their snooze-worthy tax policy

    Charles Lindbergh, fascist-in-chief, in The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
    Roth’s ambitious novel pivots from the once very real prospect of a President Lindbergh, a man whose heroism in aviation was balanced by the fascist leanings of his politics. Roth’s slow burn exploration of an America that turns isolationist instead of entering World War II on the side of the allies is tense, depressing, and instructive. Based in real-life events and statements, the story is a solid reminder that who we elect President will always be important, and as a lesson in the way celebrity and charm aren’t always a good gauge of the person underneath the mask.

    Johnny Gentle, insane germophobe, in Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
    Wallace’s intimidating novel is one of those books people lie about having read, or spend a lifetime aspiring to read “someday.” It’s good to remember that, under layers of postmodern technique and meta-textual references, this is a deeply silly, hilarious book. After all, in Wallace’s imagined future the President of the United States is Johnny Gentle, a former lounge singer applies his personal germophobia to the entire country by turning a huge swath of the Northeast into a toxic dumping ground for the rest of the country. While it might be hard to imagine someone securing the votes necessary for such a plan, Gentle is a towering example of what could happen if you accidentally elect an insane person to the most powerful post on the planet.

    Zaphod Beeblebrox, useful idiot, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
    Beeblebrox, on the other hand, is a towering example of the good things that can come from electing a charming idiot. Presented as one of the coolest people in the universe, Beeblebrox celebrates his election as President of the Galaxy by stealing an advanced starship equipped with an Infinite Improbability Drive. His rise to power is slowly revealed (SPOILERS!) to be a distraction: the President of the Galaxy, we discover, is always a hand-picked moron intended to keep the public distracted so those with real power go about its business of running things (never mind that they are eventually revealed to be no less horrifyingly stupid). Whether or not you see parallels to our current election cycle is entirely up to you.

    John Henry Eden, artificial intelligence-in-chief, in Fallout
    Finally, let’s celebrate the ultimate fictional president, John Henry Eden, from the Fallout video game universe. An artificial intelligence that builds its personality from the combined records of all preceding commanders-in-chief (to the point where it eventually claims to have been “born” in Kentucky, like Lincoln), Eden drips jingoism and violent threats, and is absolutely the president a post-apocalypse America deserves. Someday, we too might have the chance to vote for a computer to lead the hopefully-still-free world (pro tip: if they list their party affiliation as “Skynet,” vote for any other candidate), but until that glorious day, we can content ourselves with playing Fallout after casting a vote for some boring human.


  • Jenny Kawecki 5:00 pm on 2015/11/20 Permalink
    Tags: , david foster wallace, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,   

    A Book for Every Relative at Your Thanksgiving Table 

    Thanksgiving is upon us, which means now’s the time to dredge up all the patience and calm you have buried in your tired soul and bring it to the surface—yep, it’s time to deal with your relatives again. Your aunts and cousins have their moments, sure, but most of the time you just want to shove…these books into their hands, and then run. Fast.

    For Your Marriage-Obsessed Grandmother: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
    If you could erase one thing in your grandmother’s mind, it would be whatever impulse tells her to pester you about your marriage prospects every single time she sees you. No, you haven’t “settled down” yet, and no, you don’t have any plans to in the next six months. Years, maybe. So just hand her a copy of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl—not only should the suspense give her something else to think about (finally), but hopefully it just might change her mind about marriage being the end all, be all of life. Because not all marriages are happily ever after…

    For Your Lovelorn Cousin: Grey, by E. L. James
    Your cousin is lovely and smart and totally capablewhich is why you’re going to throttle her if you have to hear her complain about her latest ex for hours on end. What she really needs is a good boyfriend, and you know what makes the best boyfriend of all? A book. Specifically this book, which should provide all the romance, drama, and excitement your cousin needs, so she can get back to doing interesting things with her life.

    For Your Sports-Loving Father: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
    The trouble with sports fans on Thanksgiving day is that it’s pretty much impossible to change the subject. Distract your favorite football fanatic, then, with The Art of Fieldinga sports book that’s so good, it could quench his need for sports conversation altogether. Or at least inspire him to talk about the book for a bit first.

    For Your Niece with the Attitude: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?by Mindy Kaling
    There’s nothing like a nice healthy dose of perspective to check the overconfident, right? It’s not like your niece is that much younger or hipper than you—there’s what, ten years between you?—but she acts more like it’s forty. Kaling’s hilarious book might make her rethink the way she looks at life (and her own sense of self-importance). And if nothing else, you two will finally have something in common to talk about.

    For Your Know-It-All Brother: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
    You love your brother, but if he interrupts you to mansplain his latest dubious opinion one more time, you’re going to “accidentally” eat that last piece of pie he’s been gunning for. Occupy that brain of his with all 1,104 pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which at the very least should keep him busy until the new year rolls around. Bonus? You can spend the rest of the holidays asking for impromptu book reports on his progress and quizzing him on the plot—especially the footnotes.

    For Your Guilt-Tripping Mother: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
    How do you guilt trip a guilt tripper? Subtly, of course. And who better to make your mother reconsider her ways than Enid, Franzen’s sympathetic yet terribly frustrating portrait of overbearing mothers everywhere? She’ll love her and hate her for her needy-yet-domineering ways (how is that even possible?), and maybe, just maybe, she’ll learn to cool it on the pressure.

    For Your Perfect Sister: The Opposite of Lonelinessby Marina Keegan
    You want to give her a book that’ll express your frustrations, but let’s face it: even you think your sister is perfect. She’s up there on that glowing, golden pedestal for a reason. So despite the fact that her awesomeness annoys you to no end, you can’t help but want to be the one who gives her a book that’ll fascinate and impress her. With its combination of fiction, nonfiction, and sheer brilliance, The Opposite of Loneliness will make your sister fall in love with being young and break her heart all at once, and she’ll have you to thank for it. (Well, you and Keegan.)

    For That One Inappropriate Male Relative: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
    Is he your uncle? Your second cousin? No one’s really sure how, exactly, he’s related to everyone at the table; he just showed up one year, and no one’s been able to stop him since. But between his creepy prolonged staring and totally terrible jokes, you really wish you could send him back to his real family—or at least get him to stop waggling his eyebrows whenever he talks to you. The solution? Give him a subtle reminder that anyone in your family could take revenge a la Jackson’s creepy classic We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Because nothing says “Happy Thanksgiving” like arsenic in the sugar bowl.

    What reading recommendations do you have for your obnoxious relatives?

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