Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: Two David Foster Wallace Books [Vol. 3, #38]

“Forming, and Being Formed By, Culture

A Review of

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself:
A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace

By David Lipsky
The Broom of the System: A Novel by Dav id Foster Wallace.
CD Audiobook Read by Robert Petkoff.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself:
A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace

David Lipsky

Paperback: Broadway Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

The Broom of the System: A Novel
Dav id Foster Wallace.
CD Audiobook Read by Robert Petkoff.
Hachette Audio, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

[ Read an excerpt from ALTHOUGH OF COURSE…  ]

Although Of Course You End Up...I have been familiar with the name of the late American writer David Foster Wallace for several years now and have read several shorter pieces by or about him, but had never tackled any of his books.  Thus, when I saw earlier this year that two books with his name on them were being released – one a biography of sorts and the other an audiobook of his first novel The Broom of the System – I figured that they would provide me with a great opportunity to immerse myself in his work.  Having found myself intrigued by The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani eulogistic description of Wallace as one who “used his prodigious gifts as a writer — his manic, exuberant prose, his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse avant-garde techniques with old-fashioned moral seriousness — to create a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification” (14 Sept. 2008), I was eager to learn more about Wallace and to engage his work.

BROOM OF THE SYSTEMIn March 1996, Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky joined Wallace for the final leg of his Infinite Jest book tour, and recorded much of their conversation over a five day period.  That conversation has now been published as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and is the closest thing we presently have to a biography (or autobiography) of Wallace.  Not surprisingly the book reads like an extended Rolling Stone interview, and given the context of the conversation – unfolding over several days and interrupted by various events related to the book tour – the book tends to wander from one topic to the next, often circling back to topics discussed earlier in the conversation.  Along the way, we get a good chunk of Wallace’s life story, growing up with parents who were academics, and learning to love reading but at the same time very much loving television and popular culture.

And this childhood context sets the tone for the picture of Wallace’s life that is painted over the course of the book, a man of striking creativity and genius, who is engaged with and brings his penetrating intellect to bear upon many aspects of popular culture: from television to sports to rap music, and on and on.  About halfway through the book the conversation turns toward the topic of country music, and Wallace observes that beneath the “patina of the absent [and] of the romantic shit” there is a deep, existential longing in much of country music.  He says: “[All] the pathos … is they’re singing about something much more elemental being missing, and their being incomplete without it.  Than just, you know, some girl in tight jeans or something” (198).

If you hang on for the choppy ride of Lipsky’s and Wallace’s conversation – which, of course, is the way that conversations tend to unfold in real life – you start to get the sense of something truly profound going on in Wallace’s life and writings about the sorts of tensions in the midst of which we all live.   Our desires and reflections about the world are deeply entangled with the world and the things we do and experience in the world – even the most mundane things like listening to the radio or watching sports.   And so, we catch a glimpse of a vision of forming and re-forming culture from within.   The tragedy of Wallace’s life, however, is that despite his engagements with the culture around him – from the broader sorts of cultural engagement, like watching television or listening to the radio, to the more personal engagements like teaching students and dancing with the members of a local church – Wallace lived a fairly isolated life and one gets the sense that he saw humanity forging and being forged by culture primarily as individuals, as opposed to communities doing so in specific places.  One wonders, therefore, to what extent this philosophical – and to a lesser extent, lived – isolation contributed to the eventual taking of his own life.  His life was not that of Camus’s stranger Meursault, detached and floating through a life without meaning, but rather one of being deeply submerged in a life that was rich with meaning, but finding in that meaning a pain too much for one person to bear.

The characters of Wallace’s first novel The Broom of the System, essentially function in similar ways; although they are embedded in several stories that crisscross each other over the course of the book, they are basically individuals, trying to make sense of the world through their own isolated faculties.  Indeed one of the major recurring themes of the novel is the relationship of self and other and the “membrane” by which the two are keep distinct.  I was glad to have the opportunity to listen to this book, as Wallace’s playfulness with names and language – bordering on the eyerolling at times, as in characters named Judith Prietht or Neil Obstat – comes across more distinctly in listening to an oral reading that it would have in a visual reading.  Robert Petkoff does a fine job of the reading, effectively providing distinct voices for each character – my favorite of which was his cawing voice of the parrot, Vlad the Impaler – and even varying the voice according to the demands of the story, as for instance when Dr. Curtis Jay is conversing with his patient, the book’s main character Lenore Beadsman, while wearing a gas mask.  The only challenge of the audiobook format was the length.  Clocking in at over 15 hours, listening to the book required a huge commitment.

Wallace’s philosophical explorations in Broom, which were enjoyable to me, can become a bit heavy-handed as the book wears on.   Broom does seem to fit its place as Wallace’s first novel, and as I understand it, is much rougher in comparison with his masterpiece Infinite Jest, but yet is a careful and probing piece of literature that still stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction.  Wallace (in Although of Course…) says that he is not proud of Broom, noting that it was “written very quickly, rewritten sloppily” and that he avoided “doing the hard work” that was suggested to him in the editorial process.  I do intend to read Infinite Jest in the near future (though I may first tackle Wallace’s soon-to-be-released essay on freewill, Fate, Time and Language), and hopefully my appreciation of it will be even deeper given the background of having worked through the text of Broom.

Wallace’s life and writings represent one of the keenest minds of our times, and there is much that we can learn from his valiant struggles to make sense the world.  However, it is a great tragedy that the powers of individualism and displacement in our world formed him in a way that essentially left him to fight these battles alone, a fight for which even our best and brightest are, in the end, not fit.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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