Tag Archives: Writing

A terribly sad thing I never want to hear again

Infinite Jest has been on my bookshelf for about six years. I made it through the first 80 pages two or three times, but never mustered the willpower to plow through the whole thing. I read Broom of the System and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, also about six years ago, but don’t remember them well other than that some of the short stories in Brief Interviews were depressingly impressive.

So I can’t properly speak to the importance, quality, or influence of David Foster Wallace’s fiction. But, boy, his nonfiction was good.

Some of the essays and articles — okay, all of them — collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster are incredibly pretentious in parts. But Wallace still somehow managed to be one of the most interesting, thoughtful, observant, and absurdly smart writers I’ve ever read.

He took the cliche of cultural essay writing — the discovery of grand meaning in banal American minutia, or in a movie, or in an athlete, or in anything — and repeatedly made it true, through sheer force of intellect, imagination, and accumulated detail. I agree with John Seery: “Already it seems as if some special portal of human intelligence has been closed off.”

After Stephen King and Stephen Hunter, Wallace was probably the biggest influence on my own formative writing and thinking. (In college that influence expressed itself as blatant copycat pieces. I hope by now his influence is more a part of my thought process, and shows up in my writing primarily as purposeful homage, like using the word “tummies” in this post.) And I’m really, really sad that he’s dead.

I wish I could write more of a tribute, but I’d have to reread all his stuff to do it justice. You should just go read those two nonfiction collections (some of the essays in them are available online: a dispatch from the Maine Lobster Festival; an article on Roger Federer; a piece on David Lynch).

Anyway, writing about the suicide of creative-genius heroes sucks. So I’ll just end with the beginning of an appreciation of Elliott Smith I wrote in 2003. Replace the word “musician” with “writer” (and ignore the addiction part, I assume) and the sentiment still holds.

There’s a terrible irony to suicide. In too many cases when overwhelming loneliness and self-loathing ultimately end in death, it turns out that love and appreciation were there in abundance. They just couldn’t get through the barriers built of depression and addiction.

It’s even worse to think about musician suicides: They were unable to accept or process not only the affection of family and friends, but the joy, pleasure and awe they inspired in their many fans.

The truth is, I didn’t just want to be as good a writer as DFW — I wanted to be as smart as he was. But if this is the price of genius, I’m happy never to know what that’s like.


Why Dana Milbank is awesome

I don’t always agree with Dana Milbank’s take on politics, but I always love reading his Washington Sketch pieces for the Washington Post. To me, he represents where newspaper journalism should be heading: reporters as honestly subjective sources unto themselves, rather than faux-objective conduits for he-said, she-said quote-getting.

My favorite Milbank pieces are sketches of congressional hearings. He’s not afraid of actually pointing out the absurdity and dulling obfuscation of government bureaucracy in action. I often wonder why the Post bothers running “straight” news stories about hearings — the kind of stories that dutifully recount “newsworthy” quotes (i.e. scripted boilerplate) — when Milbank’s sketch invariably tells you what really happened.

Milbank’s new piece on Hillary Clinton’s win in West Virginia isn’t about a hearing, but it’s one of his best columns yet. Not just because he uses Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch to frame Clinton’s dwindling candidacy, but because he finally reveals the hollowness of my all-time favorite stumping-politician move: the smarmily grinning point-and-wave (and its close cousins the grinning point, wave, and-thumbs-up; and the grinning point-and-nod, which Hillary Clinton does at the 8- and 52-second marks of this video and which Bill Clinton does three times in the first 21 seconds of this video).

Milbank’s description of Clinton running through the point-and-wave motions is almost poignant, despite the mockery of the story’s Monty Python framing:

A steep descent brings Clinton’s plane to Charleston’s hilltop airport. After an appropriate wait, she steps from the plane and pretends to wave to a crowd of supporters; in fact, she is waving to 10 photographers underneath the airplane’s wing. She pretends to spot an old friend in the crowd, points and gives another wave; in fact, she was waving at an aide she had been talking with on the plane minutes earlier.

If there’s been a more succinct, perfect illustration of Clinton’s end-game — or a better skewering of the point-and-wave — I haven’t seen it.

UPDATE: Credit Bill Walsh for the terrific headline (“This Is an Ex-Candidate”) on Milbank’s story. Walsh posted some other headlines he considered; I especially like “White Americans and the Norwegian Blue,” but I think his final headline was poifect.