Wednesday, September 17, 2008

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

As I have previously noted (and I am not so arrogant to think that anyone reads this with any regularity or in any depth or even is reading this as I type), but I am woefully given to fanboyism. I get girlish in my admiration of artists, especially literary and musical. When I fall in love with an artist's work I go hog-wild. To the point of ruination. I consume, voraciously, the entire oeuvres of artists whom I admire, especially writers. I ate all I could from Vonnegut and Salinger and Tom Robbins and, embarrassingly perhaps, Douglas Adams in high school. In college my diet was pretty strictly dictated through college, but since I have consumed Franzen and George Saunders and David Foster Wallace and dabbled in Barth and Pynchon and Bartheleme, though more cautiously.

And once I have annihilated an author's life's work to date--given that I enjoyed it, which if I have read more than two books, I have--I am left with an eager sadness that there isn't more and an ardent hunger for there to be more. On September 12th, 2008, I ran out of Wallace. Beyond filling me with a very selfish remorse that I will, probably, never get the chance to read a new piece by Wallace again for the first time, I was saddened by a brilliant mine struck down by what Vonnegut would call its "own bad chemicals."

There is always, of course, a notable, palpable sadness when talent, relative youth, and death befall an individual all at once. There is the predictable "what-might-have-been" response that is valid and expected. When such a young and talented person takes his own life, as it is readily apparent that David Foster Wallace did, there is an equally natural reaction of tragedy and a fear that someone so appreciated might well have been saved had he known how appreciated and important he was to his fans or readers or followers. This is again totally natural but not at all what I find intellectually poignant about Wallace's death. (Emotionally, and yes, I have had an emotional response that I find almost surprising, these thoughts are appealing. My fairly common emotional responses, however, are quite surprisingly uninteresting to read and, even, sort of uninteresting for me to think.)

What I have been thinking, instead, about Wallace's recent death (or at least what I have been thinking and that which I think is worthy of sharing, even if in a forum so unformal and undeniably unimportant as this) stems from two cribbed thoughts from elsewhere.

McSweeneys.net has been running comments, thoughts, and ruminations and celebrations of David Foster Wallace. (McSweeney's has been charmingly, if a bit cloyingly, focussed on Wallace as a man as much, if not more, than as a writer.) I was struck by a comment by a Michael R. Hufford, a former (and possibly current, though Mr. Hufford never makes it clear) Abnormal Psychology professor at the University of Montana. Mr. Hufford posits, "It's difficult to imagine how painful it must have been--a unique mind like that, turned on itself."

Having read Wallace extensively as evidence, and given the large numbers of testimonies and obituaries and tributes I have read about the man in recent days, his intellect was a healthy and hungry one tempered by an obsession for clarity of communication so rich that it often ran toward tangent and abstraction and complication, all in service of the ideal of getting the whole idea out, in its entirety with a dedication to diagramming all the idea's moving parts and features. This, of course, was what critics hailed as his pretension and indulgence. Regardless, I think it's clear, or at least interesting and tragic to speculate, that Wallace truly believed what he wrote (in persona of Neal, a "yuppie incapable of love") in "Good Ol' Neon," a story that many people are understandably pointing to in wake of his death, as it is a first-person narrative from the posthumous perspective of a man who killed himself:

You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all that you can ever let anyone know.

When Wallace writes about "ever let[ing] anyone know," he is not referring to shame about all that flashes within him, as maybe I thought when first reading this years ago. Needless to say, Neal is ashamed of himself and what he perceives as his unending fraudulent tendencies. And even more obvious is that Neal or Wallace or me or you or anybody thinks all sorts of things worthy of shame. But this sentence turns on "can." If Wallace were implying shame, you'd know he'd have been specific in his word choice and would have opted for "dare," or it's nearest nine syllable equivalent.

What actually haunts Neal, and what I am daringly projecting on to a man who I never even met much less walked inside, is that the issue is one of sheer possibility. If we could be seen for all our thoughts and feelings at once, whole, instantaneously, perhaps that would be salvation. Or at least relief. This "unique mind" that "turned on itself," coupled with Wallace's noted insecurity about being misunderstood or misrepresented is what interests me in the wake of his suicide by hanging. That he could never get it all out and that getting it all out might have been the relief of some tension is what interests me.

Of course this is just play. I didn't know the man. But it's made me think.

The other cribbed thought I have been tossing around is something I heard on a remembrance on NPR's All Things Considered by writer David Lipsky:

When someone very gifted kills themselves, it's like the best student dropping out of high school. There's the tragedy, but it's set in a particular and personal fear: What are they seeing that we don't?

While I am tempted to criticize Lipsky's number agreement problems (no doubt in an effort to avoid any appearance of sexism in his pronouns) as a homage to Wallace, I don't wish to be glib about the point being made here. Also, were a SNOOT like Wallace himself to read my blatherings, I am certain that I am guilty of far more transgressive usage and grammatical felonies.

What interests me is the idea that Wallace's suicide demonstrates his seeing something that you or I do not. I don't mean this is the sophomoric and dark sense that were we all brighter we'd hang ourselves. What interests me, instead, is that there has always seemed to be a correlation between depression and creative genius. Not exclusively, both occur independent of one another, but that they seem to occur together often enough so as to be statistically significant when compared to population averages.

This is a thought I have had for years and I think the correlation of substance abuse and talent is much the same. There is something seen by some sorts of genius that leads to malaise and ennui that leads to depression and suicide. I guess it is not surprising, for were one's creative genius to allow him a view of the whole of humanity in a raw and unadulterated form, there is an awful lot of ugliness to behold. There is an awful lot of despair to be felt and an awful lot of reason to not feel much hope for us as a lot. I think, however, that it's more than that. Vonnegut's opinions of humanity were pretty dark, but they always bespoke an optimism in that he was only hurt by humanity because he expected it, us, to be better than our behavior so often indicated. (Vonnegut, too, attempted suicide, however.)

Suicide is, to my way of thinking, generally a very personal affair with very personal causes. (Sorry Durkheim, your model is compelling only insofar as it provides the backbone of a sociological way of looking at human behavior. Anomie may be troubling, but not like a childhood history of sexual abuse or faulty neural receptors or any number of a million personal causes and combinations thereof.) I am wont to believe that Wallace's suicide was caused by internal and deeply personal factors ranging from the ethereal issues of the mind and personality to more quantifiable causes such as dopamine. But I also think depressive and suicidal tendencies may also be a by-product of creativity, just as I think drug abuse may be as well. There are a great many of artists with substance abuse problems, but the substance was never the cause of the creativity. I have often thought that substance abuse is as much a symptom of self-medicating tendencies and depression as it is a stand-alone disease.

Maybe depression is a by-product of certain creativities in certain people? I cannot help but think that it ever helped Wallace, but was rather something he bore until he could bear no longer, but it is unfortunate that the instability had to coincide with the genius. We have to come to romanticize the early deaths of admirable men and women since Christ himself, but it never fails to shock and it never ceases to hurt that we forever have to wonder what might have been.

All this thoughtplay about Wallace's suicide, of course, bespeak one of the great virtues and, perhaps, one of the great lies about literature specifically: that we know the writer because we have read his work. It is personal, it is a communication of course. But to think we know the man or woman who produced it because we know the text is a deliciously enticing fallacy. I did not know this man. I do know that I am sad he has taken his life, however.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Steadfast Travel Rule

I am a 26 year old man of moderate means, so when I travel it means I'm usually staying with friends or family. I have come across an absolute steadfast rule regarding couch-surfing.

1) If the people with whom you are staying are under 30, you are an asshole for not bringing your own towel.

2) Conversely, if your hosts are over 30, THEY are the assholes if they are not able to provide you with a clean towel.

Addenda to this rule are as follows:

1) If your host are under 30, but married, they should have a clean towel for you as weddings net linens in absurd volumes. (My sister-in-law would argue that said volumes only appear absurd to me as I am a dirty bachelor.)

2) If your hosts have an actual guest bedroom to provide you, as opposed to merely a couch, they can pony up for extra clean towels.

ALSO:

It is polite to bring your own soap and shampoo, but no one really notices if you use theres as long as you stay away from personal loofas and the like in the shower. Using another person's loofa is just fucking tacky and gross.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Surprisingly Orthodox Comment from One Who is Something of a Heathen

I have found myself watching the two political conventions with an embarrassing intensity. Last week was more easily swallowed than this week, but as much as I would enjoy ranting about the failed policies of the Bush administration, or the nauseating similarity of Senator McCain's foreign policy platform to said failed policies, or the myopic energy policy proposed by Senator McCain, or the shameless pandering of the selection of Sarah Palin as a VP nominee, or any number of the offensive and foolish "selfishness-described-as-the-view-of-the-common-man" Republican party bullshit, I am, at this moment, on whatever whim, in the mood to level a very mild semantic complaint against both parties.

Elected officials of America, when pandering to the religious right or merely when towing the inoffensive party line and attempting to appeal to the millions of religious people in this nation, please insert a "may" before uttering "God bless America."

I know, it's minor. Pitifully minor. But as a thoroughly secular, woefully irreligious heathen, I cringe at the phrase, "God bless all of you, and God bless America!" The omission of "may" makes it seem as though earthly politicians are commanding God's blessing. I am far from a biblical scholar, but I have read enough Old Testament to know that God is not the sort of guy you go pushing around and demanding blessings of. I kinda think God curses and blesses people and nations and baseball teams as He sees fit and if He sees fit. If He's even there. Or a He. Or could possibly be expressed or understood in any sort of man's terms. (I'm a devout agnostic, I have no idea and am fervent in the belief that I have no fucking idea. I a snake-handling agnostic. I have been knocked down unconscious by the force of the presence of the Holy "What-if.")

But this little gesture, this token nod to the "common man," seems a bit haughty--and moreover, disingenuous--to not ask for God's blessing, but to command it or to single handedly bestow it, as a mere mortal, upon a nation. I may have not done much churchin' in my days, but I think the Catholics have got it right: if you're going to ask a guy who's as insecure and petty a son of a bitch as the Old Testament God (even if he has mellowed with age, according to the apostles) for anything, you get on your knees.

Were I a religious person, I'd find the phrase "May God bless America" to be more comforting rhetoric. Lord knows, if you go around demanding His blessing or proclaiming to know it to others, you'd have to consider being turned into a pillar of salt the LEAST of the things He might do to you in recompense.

But that's just one lost soul's humble opinion.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Robert Pollard: A Fan-Boy's (Salty?) Salute

First, let it be said, that I am given to what I have always called "fan-boyism." I'm prone to cross the line from appreciator of artist to devotee of artist all the way to borderline obsessive stalker of artist. I've grown up a little bit; I try, desperately, to not talk to those I admire at events such as readings or fora such as stage doors. Having met and talked to a handful of "heroes" in high school, I got tired of the sniveling, groveling, obsessive twit I became in the presence of those whom I admired. I received the exact sort of saccharine, synthetic "Get-me-the-hell-out-of-here" smiles and nods from said celebrities (or in my case, pseudo-celebrity as my tastes ran to the nerdy fringe in high school) that I imagine politicians flash when asked to kiss a particularly drooly baby whose diaper is quite obviously full of shit. ("Yes, I know there are cameras present, but do I REALLY have to TOUCH this thing?!")

Case in point: I was a tremendous They Might Be Giants fan in high school. For those unaware, They Might Be Giants might have been the ultimate house band for Jewish summer camp cabins and the basement bedrooms of telescope owning teenage virgins of the 1990s. (That being said I will still defend their wit and their edgy "dork-as-punk" fuck you, East Village experimental attitude, even if they are now spending most of their declining talent on Dunkin Donuts ads these days. To wit: "Lincoln" and "John Henry" are probably the two best nerd-rock albums since Talking Heads' "More Songs About Buildings and Food.") Though dorky and awkward and chubby in high school, I was relatively cool by the standards of their concert goers. In their presence, however, I turned to an amorphous blob of fan-boy goo. I once screamed with girlish delight at touching TMBG guitarist John Flansburgh's super cool lefty, square guitar (seen in use here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/a/aa/John_Flansburgh_2008.jpg/220px-John_Flansburgh_2008.jpg ) during an intermission. Worse yet, and I have never publicly admitted this, I insisted on a family trip to Boston that my parents drive past Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Lincoln, MA where They Might Be Giants' founding Johns, Linnell and Flansburgh, met. I still have pictures.

I have, however, in recent years striven to mellow out and ditch my super unhip fan-boy ways. The first step in this has been to avoiding contact with those whose art I have found myself in awe. Simple, right? Just don't talk to them and you can't make an ass of yourself. Also, should I find myself unable to resist the urge to talk to someone who I admire (or whose art I admire), I would only do so if I had something more scintillating to say then, "Dude! I love your music! I love YOU!!!"

Just such a situation presented itself some two years ago. At the time I worked in Downtown Chicago and it just so happened that one of my heroes, Robert Pollard (founder, front man, primary [and exhaustive] songwriter for Guided By Voices, a band which stands as an inspiration to all Midwestern dreamers, a fact which will be duly expounded upon below) was speaking and signing books with former GbV bassist and GbV biographer, Jim Greer at the Barnes and Noble adjacent to the law school where I worked. It even coincided with my 7PM lunch break. How could I not go?!

So I went and sat and stood in line and hemmed and hawed at what to say. Mercifully for me, Pollard--for a rock god--is unbelievably approachable to a Midwestern boy like me. Much of this is his appeal to me.

The reasons for my love of this man's music are numerous, but allow me to expound upon a few of the main points:

1) The man has no inner censor. This is both a boon to productivity and occasionally, charmingly, a hindrance to quality. Pollard has released an obscene number of songs through GbV and his varying solo projects. The man writes and writes and writes and occasionally it will render a last second addition to an album that is an absolute GEM, a la "Exit Flagger" on Propeller. It could just as likely turn out to be a throw-away songlet like "I Am Produced" on Mag Earwhig!. But Pollard's sheer productivity is a testament to the virtue of creation without shame. He is living proof of how the scales are tipped in the balance of perspiration to inspiration regarding creativity.

2) He is one of the best lyricists of his time, but quite possibly by accident. Pollard manages to simultaneously be both meaningless and evocative. His songs rarely seem to be ABOUT anything, but his choice of words rarely seems frivolous. Who, pray tell, might "Jane of the Waking Universe" be, and what the hell is a "waking universe" anyway? But coupled with the melody it is an undeniably perfect lyric and title. Even whimsical titles like "Postal Blowfish" still evoke an image. The "Official Iron Man Rally Song" manages to be anthemic without falling into the cockrock trappings a song of said title might fall prey to. And Pollard penned one of my all time meaningless song lyrics: "I walked into the house of miraculous recover and stood before King Everything!"

At times Pollard falls into an almost cheesy earnestness, but when coupled with a knowledge of his story and his background (see below) and the obvious emotional and personal investment in his music, it is adorably forgivable, the same way one give Neil Young the benefit of the doubt regarding cheesiness. From the failed "Window of my World" on Half Smiles of the Decomposed to the hackneyed, keep-fighting-tiger message underpinning "Don't Stop Now" on Under the Bushes Under the Stars, Pollard's cheesy-ness is not a failure of creativity, but a triumph of sincerity. (Minus "Hold on Hope" from Do the Collapse. That song's a piece of shit and an whorish attempt at a radio hit and I blame Ric Ocasek almost exclusively for its cloying, weepy, mid-90s pussy-pop tone.)

3) Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices have one of the best stories in the history of rock. Their story is not a sexy story of drug abuse and trashed hotel rooms and bad record deals. Their story is one of day-jobs and wives and children and being working class guys from Dayton who were just too starry-eyed to give up on the dream. Pollard was a 4th grade teacher for a decade before GbV made it big enough to even consider music a career. He lives, still, in Northridge, a working class section of the decidedly un-sexy, un-Sid-and-Nancy city of Dayton, Ohio. Dayton, in fact, hated GbV early in their career, so they went to the studio and didn't play live for YEARS while they honed their song-writing and home-recording craft. These were guys who didn't know what they were doing and didn't know any better and occasionally struck gold because of these things. Implicit, always, was passion. To crib an analogy from a Times' movie review I read years ago for the movie Barbershop, Guided by Voices is NOT a fine French meal: it is a meatloaf that mom overcooked, but that she made with love specifically for you.

4) Guided by Voices is music that will always remind me of the beer-soaked, smoky Midwestern basements and garages of my late teens and early twenties. This is just a personal reason, but I had a lot of friends and acquaintances in bands a few years back...and for whatever reason...Guided by Voices just always reminds me of hanging out listening to friends' bands and drinking shitty beer and talking and just generally have a good ol' Midwestern summer evening.

There are too many reasons of why I love this band.

However, the first time I met Robert Pollard, we talked a little shop. I am not a musician, but as noted above, I have several friends who are basement Midwestern rockers. It turns out we know a few of the same people, at least tangentially. I was totally not a fan-boy. I felt like a hero.

Of course, the next time I saw him in person was at an art opening of his collages here in New York City. I knocked on the bathroom door while he was pissing and got a curt, "Hold on a minute!" through the door. When he exited and I realized just whose micturation I had interrupted, all I could manage was a gulp and a "Whoa! I...I...I...I'm sorry I knocked. I really like your collages, man!"

We are all still fourteen years old some times.