Why Good People Write Bad Prose

the-sense-of-styleSo you think you can write? Steve Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century defines and exemplifies good writing. For him, true prose is defined by classic style, which is not as high and mighty as it sounds. Simply, it shows the reader something in the world and strives for clear, concrete prose. It is a window, showing the world through a glass clearly.

Pinker provides a diverse set of examples such a passage from Dawkins, an obituary, and a Dear Abby column, along with comic strips. His strongest chapter, “The Curse of Knowledge,” gets to the heart of the matter: “The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.” Knowledge can be a blessing or a curse depending on how you use it. So can writing.

If Stunk and White’s advice can be reduced to the timeless dictum “Omit needless words,” then Pinker’s advice is “Write well.” No matter how well-read you are or how big your vocabulary is, one must be mindful of the audience: “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.” To write well, one must constantly be mindful of the audience. Why use the word “differentiate” when “differ” will do?

Pinker’s book, along with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, is the kind of guide any aspiring writer should follow because good writing isn’t just a way to transfer knowledge but can also, Pinker concludes, “add beauty to the world.”

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world.

* For a good and bad review of Pinker’s latest book, see Nathan Heller’s “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar” and Charles McGrath’s “Steven Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style,’ “ by Charles McGrath.


To Act You Have to Be Relentless

article-lvcranston8f-505There’s something very satisfying about seeing someone who is really good at what they do – something transcendent about talent. We see the glory of a fine performance like Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad, and we think, this is it, whatever it is. For Cranston, the ‘it’ factor was a calling, a love of acting, which he realized while biking through Virginia: “I will pursue something that I love – and hopefully become good at, instead of pursuing something that I’m good at – but don’t love.” In his recent memoir A Life in Parts (271 pages), Cranston movingly traces his many roles as a working-class actor, from farmhand and paperboy to thespian and Hollywood actor.

What matters, Cranston writes, is a love of the process itself, losing yourself in a character, memorizing line after line. This is precisely what Bryan Cranston’s career shows, from commercials for Preparation H into a A-list actor snagging three consecutive Emmy’s, a Tony, and an Oscar nomination.

Cranston’s father, Joseph, who disappeared for ten years during his childhood, provides a cautionary tale as a failed actor who never made it big like his son: “my dad was only interested in the home run. Early in my career, I’d learned how to hit singles.” If you are only chasing celebrity and fame, you will never arrive, but if you possess a relentless love of acting, as Bryan does, performing is an end in itself. The rest is just icing on the cake.

The great acting guru Constantine Stanislavski said, “Love art in yourself, not yourself in art.” I think of that often. I try to live by that. Work, hone your craft, enjoy your success in whatever doses they may come. But do not fall in love with the poster, the image of you in a movie, winning an Oscar, the perks, the limo, being rich and famous. If that is what you’re falling in love with, you’re doomed to fail. . . . Fall in love with creative expression and the surprising discoveries and empowerment it can bring. Be wary of the rest. (158)

Shyamalan’s Split Revives Old Magic

split-movie-girlsSplit has practically resurrected M. Night Shyamalan’s career, commercially speaking. It has scored number one at the box office two weekends in a row – a feat not accomplished since The Sixth Sense. It seems Shyamalan has found his mojo again, hopefully for keeps.

Split breaks into action when Kevin (James McAvoy) kidnaps Clair (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Shula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), three teenage girls, and locks them in a room in an anonymous underground compound. As the film progresses, it’s tension is primarily buttressed by showcase performances from McAvoy and Taylor-Joy. They convincingly portray two traumatized characters: Kevin has 23 different personalities, and Casey’s traumatic past is unveiled in a series of flashbacks.

McAvoy revels in each personality: one minute he is dressed in black and bespectacled as Dennis, the next he is in blue athletic apparel and talking like a child as Hedwig, the nine-year-old. One particular character pays homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho when McAvoy wears a maroon dress, transforming into the female Patricia. When he meets with his therapist Dr. Fletcher (played convincingly by Betty Buckley), he is Barry, a gay fashionista.

McAvoy’s blue eyes tease as he playfully, darkly displays his range as an actor, both fascinating and terrifying in his portrayal of evil. Although we never see his other personalities, the vacillation between these four is enough to keep us on our toes.

Against Kevin’s legion self is Casey. Like Clarice (Jodie Foster) from Silence of the Lambs, Casey has a traumatic past. Anya Taylor-Joy, who broke out in 2016’s The Witch, owns her role as the wounded Casey. In one flashback, Casey’s Dad teaches her how to shoot a rifle when she is a young child. This, of course, comes handy near the end.

In Split Shyamalan splinters the archetype of Jekyll and Hyde with dissociative identity disorder: for most of the film, McAvoy moves between the four personalities, but he keeps hinting at his multiple personalities coalescing into the Beast. Kevin eventually transforms into his own menacing Hyde.

Despite Split’s predictable plot, the dynamic between Kevin and Casey provides plenty of suspense and unease. Split wears its theme on its sleeve, and the enigma of affliction is filtered through Nietzsche’s what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Casey and Kevin embody different facets of this maxim.

As the tension and atmosphere build, the climax delivers an intense and riveting finale involving – yes! – a rifle, with a throwback twist at the end. What truly gives this movie it’s pizzazz are the knockout performances by McAvoy and Taylor-Joy.

After a decade of diminishing returns, it seems Shyamalan the auteur is back to play, his talents in full flare.

What is Life For?

2000-almost-famousWhat is the purpose of college – and life itself – after all?

In William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014) and Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education (2013), both reflect on higher education in the 21st century and the search for meaning and purpose that it can and should inspire.

Edmundson laments how the standard undergraduate education is now all about obtaining a degree and acquiring marketable skills to find a job after graduation; in short, to prepare students for a career. He has a different, more idealized goal for students and professors:

The function of a liberal arts education, as I see it, is to rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish, revise, overwhelm, replace, reorder, or maybe just slightly retouch the web of words that Rorty calls the final vocabulary. A language, Wittgenstein thought, is a way of life. A new language, whether we learn it from a historian, a poet, a painter, or a composer of music, is potentially also a new way to live.

Rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish. The essence, for Edmundson, the telos of education, is to inspire. He wants students to cultivate the skills of close reading, critical analysis, and reflection that great works of literature (history, philosophy, science) spur. Literature, at its best, can teach us how to live. When great writers are read contemplatively, they becomes catalysts, a kind of portal to the sublime:

The best reason to read them is to see if they know you better than you know yourself. . . . Reading the great writers, you may have the experience Longinus associated with the sublime: You feel that you have actually created the text yourself. For somehow your predecessors are more yourself than you are.

Deresiewicz aptly summarizes his own grievances in one word: technocratic. Universities today are fragmented, over-specialized, and myopically insistent on math and science. Deresiewicz champions the humanities, wary of how Ivy League students are motivated by careers, and, worst of all, risk averse. These HYPSters – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford students – are too prim, too afraid. His advice is simple: “People say find your passion, but they don’t say be prepared to suffer.”

He exhorts students to break from their manic dash for credits and to take time off and travel. He persists, and insists – there is more to life than credentials:

Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think. To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for. Do students ever hear this?

Edmundson expresses a similar anxiety about today’s typical college student, whom he describes as “considerate, easy to please, and a touch depressed.” His most salient piece of advice, to me, came from his 2005 convocation address “Glorious Failure,” whose message is: Do not fear failure. He mentions a ghost resume: “all the things that went awry, the essays that didn’t work, the book projects that fell apart, the writing that seemed like it was coming from the pen of Samuel Johnson on Tuesday and turned out on Friday not to make much sense at all.”

No one, no matter how intelligent or talented, ever reaches the point where he or she reaches complete development as a human being. We are always in a state of flux. And this is a good thing. Edmundson, with a touch of humility, expresses as much:

When I was a young man I had a myth of my own. It’s the myth of arrival, and what that myth said was that at a certain point you get to a place in your career and everything goes well. Everything you do works, because you’re a success and that’s that. I’m here to tell you that that point does not exist.

Each day one must rise and slay the dragon. There is a stigma in American society attached to failure. But all the great minds failed. Failure requires courage. As uncool and unsexy as failure may feel, it demands our full attention. Edmundson quotes Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) from Almost Famous: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”


Apart from Edmundson’s concern that universities across the nation are developing into “corporate cities” and his worries about the coming generations, he still has hope. True education, Edmundson concludes, is a Keatsian soul-makinga life-long endeavor that just begins in college.

Echoing Edmundson, Deresiewicz summons Odysseus, that classic mythic hero who embodies “the life-changing, soul-making journey.” He gracefully concludes:

The only grade is this: how well you’ve lived your life.

Expect suffering, anticipate failure – because they are our best teachers.


The Power of Marriage

Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.

Hannah Arendt

dbe9ecf8-202b-4100-8a12-a5c14c2bc1d6Considering the political maelstrom of 2016, it’s surprising the New York Times most read story was Alain de Botton’s “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”

As there are many ways we all fail in life, it’s important that the few successes we attain hold weight: pursuing the right career, moving to the right city, and – perhaps most important of all – choosing the right spouse. How is this possible when, according to Botton, there is no “right” spouse?

Our unrealistic expectations deceive us. To prevent this, he encourages us to ask our potential spouse “And how are you crazy?” He proposes a more realistic, grounded approach to marriage. In essence, we need to erase the notion of  a soul mate:

We mustn’t abandon him or her, only the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.

Instead, we should pursue someone with whom we can disagree harmoniously: “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

You may think married the right person: you may ace the metrics of compatibility – similar worldview, overlapping life goals, shared affinity for ice cream – but we change. When kids enter the picture. When kids leave. Whether your nest is full or empty, we change. The person who seemed infallible will transform over the years into a human, broken individual.

If we always choose the wrong person, no matter how careful our courtship, then how can we ever hope to achieve success? Like any major life decision, it’s complicated.

In an interview, New York Times writer David Brooks said, “Every kid should take a course on how to choose a marriage partner.” In fact, choosing a lasting marriage partner is so vital to our well-being that Brooks compares it to your doubling your income.

Timothy Keller agrees. In The Meaning of Marriage, he writes:

If your marriage is strong, even if all the circumstances in your life around you are filled with trouble and weakness, it won’t matter. You will be able to move out into the world in strength. However, if your marriage is weak, even if all the circumstances in your life around you are marked by success and strength, it won’t matter. You will move out into the world in weakness. Marriage has that kind of power – the power to set the course of your whole life.

Thus, there is great power in marriage to heal and to empower. You are as vulnerable with your spouse as you will ever be with another individual.


In George Eliot’s masterful novel Middlemarch, her two main protagonists, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, both marry the wrong person, and it makes for one of the best novels.

Dorothy, a young and aspiring idealist, decides at the age of 17 to marry the Reverend Causabon, a 45 -year-old man who, initially, appears to possess an intellect that will both enlighten and educate Dorothy.

Post-wedding, however, Causabon turns out to be an utter drag of a husband. He is emotionally cold, intellectually dry, and – in all – a miserable man with little light to offer Dorothy.

Lydgate experiences a similar disappointment. Taken with Rosamund’s physical beauty, he proposes and marries her, only to realize what a shallow, selfish, and manipulative individual she is.

One character, however, gets it right. Fred Vincy pursues his childhood friend Mary Garth. As Zadie Smith aptly observes in her essay “Middlemarch and Everybody,” Fred is the wisest of them all because he pursues someone better than himself.

Fred is in love with a good girl; a girl who does not love him because he is not worthy; Fred agrees with her. Maybe the point is this: of all the people striving in Middlemarch, only Fred is striving for a thing worth striving for. Dorothea mistakes Casaubon terribly, as Lydgate mistakes Rosamund, but Fred thinks Mary is worth having, that she is probably a good in the world, or at least, good for him (“She is the best girl I know!”) – and he’s right.

Fred wants someone better than him, and his committed, driven pursuit of Mary makes him a better person in the process. May the pursuit of our own Beloved be as rich and ripe with growth.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to any lasting marriage is our own inflated self concern. No matter how shining or sunny or selfless our disposition, we are all steeped in our own moral mediocrity, our own consummate concern with our self. We are selfish.

Forget Hollywood romance and star-studded soul mates. Love is war, and any union of two people is, in essence, two lost and broken people who, by selfless devotion to one another, can escape the tyranny of ego and its endless demands by entering a sacred union whose binding power is as strong as death.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.

Song of Songs, 8:6


Letters to a Young Demon

lewis-writingLet us pretend for a moment: Imagine that someone wishes you ill, that they have your worst interest in mind. Your destruction is their celebration, their telos. And worse yet, they are invisible and have a legion of supporters that are collaborating in league against you.

Enough to make one sleep with an night light.

C. S. Lewis not only pretends such a scenario but believed it and, similar to Dante, descended into his own inferno in his slim epistlolary novel The Screwtape Letters (notice the odd aural similarity to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). Lewis creates a kind of modern Inferno through 31 letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood.

One would presume Lewis, scholar-artist that he was, consciously mimics the 31 chapters of Proverbs with Screwtape’s own 31 letters; Lewis himself wrote, “Screwtape’s outlook is like a photographic negative; his whites are out blacks and whatever he welcomes we ought to dread.” Thus, Screwtape can be an exhausting read at times because one must constantly reverse Screwtape’s advice. For example, when he refers to “The Enemy” he is actually referring to God, and when he writes “Our Father’s house” he means Hell. Through Screwtape, Lewis provides an inverted Proverbs, forcing the reader to perform a constant mental gymnastics.

One can imagine how difficult it was for Lewis to inhabit the mind of a demon. After completing Screwtape in Febraury 1942, he planned never to pen another letter. Yet as trying as the process of creation was for Lewis, one can sense that he also had some fun mocking Satan and his demons. Glubose, Triptweeze, Slubglob, Slumtrimpet – the names of the demons are ridiculous fun (Bill Watterson borrowed the name Wormwood for Calvin’s teacher in his timeless comic Calvin and Hobbe’s). The epigraphs preview Lewis’ irreverent stance toward Satan, one from Martin Luther reading: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, it to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

The letters were originally published weekly in an Anglican periodical called The Guardian between May and November 1941. Each letter is no more than two or three pages, ending with the avuncular signature “Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.” The plot, in brief: in each letter, Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood on how to win “the Patient” (a young man who is never named) over to eternal damnation; this Patient recently converted to the Christian faith and, in the course of the letters, falls in love with a girl and endures World War II and, finally, dies in a air raid. Screwtape – spoiler alert! – loses: by the time the Patient dies, he has been “captured” by the “Enemy,” saved by God. And in the midst of his short life, the patient’s demon Wormwood is taught futile tactics.

Screwtape outlines a fascinating schema of human nature by imaging three layers, from outer to inner: fantasy, intellect, will. The will is where the true battle takes place; as Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “The terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but also mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.” While Screwtape wants the patient to push all his good will into the realm of fantasy and inaction in order to win over the Patient’s will. At one point Screwtape nearly echoes Christ when he writes:

Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Reading this passage, I couldn’t help but recall Christ’s cry on the cross My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Considering all the suffering in the world, it is extremely difficult much of the time to believe in a higher power that is omnipotent and benevolent. Like Job, we often feel beleaguered or forsaken in some way. How strange to imagine – to believe – that this suffering is inflicted and allowed by the Higher Powers that be, that its source is Satan or some such malignant demonic force that wants to break each of us into a surrender of hate.

Yes, the goal is surrender, but to which force – hate or love? Lewis makes you think, agnostic or atheist or theist: Could this life be a test of will, a series of daily choices for good and evil? A kind of theology of the quotidian is provided in each letter.

As it happens, Screwtape, like much of what Lewis wrote, has endured over the years. David Foster Wallace listed it in his Top Ten Books list, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia praised the novel in an interview as penetrating study of human nature. The novel has been adapted for the stage multiple times. Screwtape covers a breadth of human emotion and experience; he writes of gluttony, cowardice, despair, sexual temptation, affliction, and suffering, and – in an addendum titled “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” later published for the Saturday Evening Post in 1959 – on education. I could quote numerous passages from each individual letter, but here are a handful:

On solipsism: You must bring him to a condition in which he can practice self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about himself which are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with him or worked in the same office.

On monotony: The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart – an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.

On individuality: The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for it’s own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right food, the “important” books.

As the saying goes, the road to hell is subtle (“Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts”). It is a daily venture, and the small choices the Patient makes day by day affect his fate. I am reminded of the Cherokee Legend, where the old Cherokee teaches his grandson about life, saying: “A fight is going on inside me”:

It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.

And when the grandson wonders which will win, the evil wolf or the good wolf, his grandfather replies, The one you feed.

This scenario probably sounds too primly black and white: a glib, moral parable that oversimplifies – as if one could reduce every minute action and thought throughout the day into the category of “good” or “evil.” A scenario comparable to the cartoon devil and angel on either shoulder, both whispering into either ear.

Regardless of how one perceives this good/evil paradigm, it can force one to question how s/he lives each day. Although DFW’s commencement address is quoted ad nauseam, this is a prime moment to quote from his speech, especially since he listed Screwtape as one of his favorite books. Dave’s central thrust is: We all worship something. We all bend our will toward some end.

The word that captures the core of Lewis’ message is “sacred,” an adjective that may, prima facie, seem anachronistic for our postmodern times – but I find it compelling. Lewis, through the letters of a demon, forces one to wonder what dream or vision drives your days. The days themselves are sacred, demanding a million different choices from you, second by second. Choose carefully.

w/r/t David Foster Wallace

gettyimages-50397607As Dave himself would say, let us have a prolegomenous look at two quotations. First, from his Kenyon commencement address, “This is Water”:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly care about people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

And from Margaret Atwood’s essay, “Happy Endings”:

So much for endings. Beginnings are always much more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.


How does one begin to do the man justice? Since his death in 2008, we have tried very hard, and are still trying. First there was the posthumous publication of his unfinished manuscript, The Pale King (2011), nominated for the Pulitzer. Along came D. T. Max’s biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (2012), with the posthumous essay collection Both Flesh and Not (2012) and a republishing of his earlier works: his undergraduate thesis Fate, Time and Language (2011) and, most recently, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (2013). His commencement address was made into a YouTube video. Currently, James Ponsoldt is directing a film titled The End of the Tour, based on David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (starring Jason Segel as DFW and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky). Let us keep trying! For the man was gone too soon at the age of 46 (oddly, the same age as Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Like many DFW fans, I’ve indulged.

I read Both Flesh and Not as well as D. T. Max’s biography Every Love Story. I have read and re-read countless times “This is Water.” Finally, I read through all of Infinite Jest. Though I still have not read everything Dave wrote, most recently I finished his essay collection Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2005). Allow me to relay my experience.

A. Short summary of essay collection:

This is Dave’s other essay collection, after A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). I made my way through ASFTINDA in a frenzy of reading, so it was only a matter of time before I read Consider the Lobster. Certain essays in it I have read multiple times before; specifically, the essays on Kafka and Dostoevsky. In short, ten essays: six are ten to twenty pages in length, and then the big four: “Big Red Son,” “Authority and American Usage,” “Up, Simba,” and “Host,” each ranging from fifty to eighty pages. That’s when you know you’re in DFW essay territory: the sheer length and diversity of the essays, covering topics as various as: tennis, grammar and language, politics, talk radio, belles lettres (Updike, Dostoevsky, Kafka), the Maine Lobster Festival, 9/11, and porn.

The vitality of Dave’s manic persona is on full display, buttressed with the usual and so but’s and pretty much’s, the interpolations, and the run-on sentences that extend into footnotes and footnotes-within-footnotes. All are present in abundance.

As usual, Dave makes you care about subjects and think of questions you’d never considered. Like any great writer, he looks close and wonders: What does it take to be a great athlete? Just how sentient is a lobster? What makes a true political leader? And he makes the exploration of these questions fun, engaging, and educational, sentence by sentence, with a vocabulary to rival Melville.

Quick breakdown:

  1. “Big, Red Son”: odd, comical report of Dave’s time at the Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas.
  2. “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”: review of Updike’s novel Towards the End of Time, placing Updike in a “Great Male Narcissist” trinity (along with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth).
  3. “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed”: long title, short essay on Kafka and how the joke is on us.
  4. “Authority and American Usage”: review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.
  5. “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”: reflection on 9/11 from the good ol’ Midwest.
  6. “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”: review of Tracy Austin’s memoir Beyond Center Court: My Story and Dave’s disappointment with its lack of depth.
  7. “Up, Simba”: on assignment for Rolling Stone, Dave follows McCain on the 2000 presidential campaign trail.
  8. “Consider the Lobster”: Dave attends the Maine Lobster Festival and wonders if it’s ethically questionable to boil and eat lobster.
  9. “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”: review of Frank’s fourth volume biography on D., along with a reflection on meaningful fiction.
  10. “Host”: profile of conservative John Ziegler and his LA-based radio talk show.

While I found “Host” almost unreadable with is fragmented style and “Big, Red Son” too sensational, I enjoyed all the essays in between. I have yet to read an Updike novel, but Dave did inspire me to start reading Frank’s Dostoevsky biography, which, for any Dostoevsky fans out there, I highly recommend.

B. Wait, so who is this David Foster Wallace guy?

Born in 1962 in Ithaca, NY to a Philosophy professor father and English professor mother, Dave was raised in Illinois, attended Amherst, where he double majored in philosophy and English, and U of Arizona for his MFA, He was catapulted to literary fame with his novel Infinite Jest, which totals 1079 pages. Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding, described the behemoth book as “a dense star for lesser works to orbit.” Zadie Smith aptly summarized Dave’s authorial prowess as a convergence of three qualities: “encyclopedic knowledge,” “mathematical prowess,” and “complex dialectical thought.”

The man wrote feverishly, leaving us six works of fiction and, to date, seven works of nonfiction. In 2008 he committed suicide by hanging himself on his back porch. He was the first Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College. His widowed wife Karen Green, since his death, has penned a memoir titled Bough Down. Also, Dave was good friends with Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom), who wrote an essay for The New Yorker retelling his experience of dumping Dave’s ashes on a South American island.

C. A couple excerpts w/ brief analysis:

The thrust here is that Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being – that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal. (“Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”)

I’m always encouraged when a contemporary writer I like happens to admire a classic writer I love. As a huge Dostoevksy fan myself, I was pleased to see Dave’s mutual love for the D. In a way, it’s easy to see how D. influenced him, with The Brothers Karamazov’s main characters Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha mirrored in Infinite Jest’s fraternal trio of Orin, Hal, and Mario Incandenza. For anyone who has read D., or excerpts from “The Grand Inquisitor” in a Philosophy 101 class, you know that, indeed, he is all about what it means to be a human being. Not many fiction writers today concern themselves with heavy subjects like death, freedom, and faith. In many ways, I think a lot of the responsibility has transferred to media, with complex TV series like Breaking Bad and House and of Cards, and cinematic dramas like 12 Years a Slave and her. Living a life “informed by values and principles” – like Dave says, it’s extremely hard even to mention such terms without sounding way out-of-touch and un-hip and irrelevant – these values and principles, arguably, are what makes us human. The fact that we aren’t blind will and hunger but have ethical fiber that reasons and desires – or, as Tennyson writes: strives, seeks, finds, and does not yield.

A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people. . . . A leader’s true authority is a power you voluntarily give to him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please. (“Up, Simba”)

Near the end of his essay on McCain, Dave reflects on what makes a great political leader and leader in general: characteristics such as charisma and inspiration. In short, the best leaders, the true leaders (like the best writers) have vision, something they strive towards and share with others. They have a how and a why for their life. Think of Mandela, who recently passed away on December 5th, 2013. There was a leader – a man who spent decades in prison and emerged to become the first black president of South Africa. (I recommend Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Mandela’s autobiography of the same title.) The mystery isn’t that these leaders demand your following; like Dave says, you “voluntarily” and mysteriously follow this person.

D. Some final thoughts:

You may wonder, Does this essay collection have an overarching theme or message? Yes, at least to me. Dave seems to enjoy the deconstruction of clichés, as he does so in his commencement address (the cliché that education is about teaching you “how to think,” translated by Dave to “You get to decide what to worship”). Dave always helps us to look deeper into these bromides. The title speaks for itself: in a word, consider. Consider such disparate and disconnected people as McCain, Updike, and Tracy Austin; consider old-fashioned ideas of morals and values.

Perhaps the person who tried hardest of all was Dave himself, writing and thinking in so many words. The best thing we can do is let his hard-earned prose speak for itself – and listen. Let it interrogate us and force us to contemplate both the quotidian and the bigger picture.

Yes, the days can be mundane and the afternoons tediously long – a what and a what and a what. It is hard to care, hard to engage. Yet the only chance we have at grasping the big picture is to understand how we live now, why we are alive today. To help others in “petty, unsexy ways” by holding open the door open for someone, waiting patiently in the grocery store line, saying hello to our neighbors.

Really, the best advice comes from Dave himself: Try to stay awake.