INFINITE JEST as Performance Art


I was at Punta della Dogana in Venice when I first saw Ryan Trecartin’s Center Jenny. The movie was projected on the wall and brooded over Lizzie Fitch’s sculptures: lawn chairs and picnic benches chained to golf course-quality grass like a scary garden party. The film itself follows a group of sorority sisters with psychedelic skin to the soundtrack of breaking glass; their dialogue is alien English, merely clusters of Internet sound bites. The narrative is still in disconnect no matter how many times I watch the film, not quite something that can be revealed without its own consent, by which I mean that Center Jenny is content in control of itself and aware of its own audience—it’s not just video art, or something to be absorbed, but performance art. The same can be said for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Wallace’s mammoth of a book, a 1000-page manifesto on American addiction and entertainment, interrupts itself (a self-conscious being as famously analytical as its author) with 350 different footnotes—through footnotes the book first has a conversation with itself, then with the reader. Like Hamlet, from which the novel’s title is drawn, Infinite Jest is a performance within itself. In Hamlet, a play is performed within the play (an early commentary on entertainment), whereas Infinite Jest is a lethally entertaining film within a book of the same title. Continue Reading

A Knack for Names


I once read (though the source is now lost to me) that the names of the characters in a novel do the work of telling the reader what world he’s in. Musicality, characterization, hints at a character’s gender, ethnicity, and social status—all of these are important in a name. But at the most basic level, a name’s realism, surrealism, or undisguised silliness helps ground us in the universe we’ve entered. In this way, names are something of an expedient, a key to reading a book as comic or tragic, both or neither.

Firmly situated in this tradition is the comic name, which goes back as far as literature itself. Don’t forget that along with his Lear and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare had a character named Bottom. An even earlier example: the name of the title character in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata means, roughly, army-disbander, a joke for the Ancient Greek audience watching a play about a woman scheming to end a war.

Such monikers are called “cratylic,” from Plato’s dialogues with Cratylus about the truthfulness of names. Cratylic names, per the Guardian, “advertise a property that is fixed, whether terrible or ludicrous. A character thus named must act out a characteristic, which is his inescapable identity.”

Nowhere is this principle more apparent than in Dickens’ broad morality tales. There is tattered spinster Miss Havisham, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, vengeful Madame Defarge, and obsequious snake Uriah Heep. We can glean from these names not only that we’re reading satire, but the general trajectory of each character.
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The Saving Thing


Mark Twain called humor “the great thing, the saving thing,” and indeed I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t like to laugh. Why, then, aren’t a greater number of humorous stories published in literary journals? Why don’t more humorous books—or films, for that matter—win prizes?

“In the troubled sea of the world’s ambition, men rise by gravity, sink by levity,” Lewis Lapham writes. Woody Allen puts it another way: “When you do comedy, you are not sitting at the grownups table.”

I’ve got almost no interest in writing that isn’t funny. To paraphrase Martin Amis, all the great writers are funny, and if they’re not funny, they’re not great. Hold your excoriations for a second while I define “funny.” My rubric is liberal. Anything with a shred of mirth, a whisper of levity, a toenail of wit, qualifies. The blackest of ironies and the broadest of slapstick. A joke told by a hangman and an idiot’s pants falling down. What I’m saying is, there are jokes in Tolstoy, if you start looking. They won’t make you laugh out loud on the subway or anything, but they’re there.Continue Reading

Literary Boroughs #56: Tucson, Arizona

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive. The series originally ran on our blog from May 2012 until April 2013. Please enjoy the 56th post on Tucson, Arizona, by Adrienne Celt. —Ellen Duffer, Ploughshares Managing Editor Tucson, Arizona Only sixty miles north of the US/Mexico border, Tucson is a city of cultural intersection. This is a place where you can just as easily end up living in a luxury condo or an adobe courtyard building from the 1800s; where you can get a hand-mixed cocktail to follow your Sonorant hotdog (i.e. a hotdog wrapped in mesquite-smoked bacon, grilled, and topped with onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise, jalapeños, and roasted chiles); and where you can ride a horse, attend a world-class literary festival, and visit a Spanish Catholic mission–all in the same day. Despite its size (around 525,000 people), Tucson has an undiscovered, frontier feeling, with a passel of young people starting businesses, artists filling up coffee shops and decorating streetlamps, and a popular downtown parade dedicated to the Mexican Day of the Dead. Boasting warm winters, a low cost of living, and a hypnotically strange landscape, Tucson has a lot to offer creative minds.Continue Reading

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Great Tennis Player: Looking Back at Foster Wallace on Federer

Roger Federer: Temporal being or beams of light?

Roger Federer: Temporal being or beams of light?

Under Review: “Federer as Religious Experience,” article by David Foster Wallace for New York Times, August 20, 2006. Collected in Both Flesh and Not: Essays (Little, Brown and Company, 2012, 336 pages). On July 6th, Swiss tennis player Roger Federer lost the final match in this year’s Wimbledon men’s tennis tournament, to the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic. Even though Wimbledon is tennis’ most legacy-steeped and prestigious tournament, this hardly seems like news to people, like myself, who only peripherally follow tennis.Continue Reading

The Things I Haven’t Read

aaaLegend had it that a famous scholar of nineteenth century American literature visited my college to lecture, and someone asked him a question about Melville. He began his answer with “While I’ve never read Moby-Dick…”

At this remove, I still question the man’s scholarship and sanity—but I do admire his honesty. For writers, there’s a lot of pressure to read (or at least to have read) everything contemporary, everyone important or promising or underrated—and that’s on top of the classics we were supposed to have conquered years ago. I doubt I’m alone in sometimes feeling like a failure as a reader. I may have read Ulysses, but if I haven’t read The Goldfinch yet I can’t take part in the conversation. (People who aren’t writers always look so disappointed in me. I imagine the thought bubble as “You haven’t read The Goldfinch yet? But I thought you were a writer!”) I imagine it’s the same for English teachers and reviewers and booksellers and librarians and copy editors.

I think it’s time we follow the lead of that crackpot anti-Melville Americanist, and embrace our own reading failures. I have some I’d like to get off my chest. To wit:

book 1

Never read it.              (Buy: book | ebook)

– I have never read a word of Willa Cather. Although I could tell you a lot about it, I have not actually read “The Metamorphosis.” I have started, but never finished, a Pynchon novel.

– It takes me at least two minutes to remember the difference between Jacques Cousteau and Jean Cocteau. I think I’ve got it straight now that one of them was a red-hatted deep-sea explorer (or possibly some kind of pirate?) and the other was a poet who might have started a restaurant. But I could not tell you, right now, which is which.

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One Gift Guide to Rule Them All

It’s getting late, people. And your literary friends expect brilliant Festivus gifts from you. So let’s get cracking! Here’s something for everyone on your list.

For the English major:

gift glassesThese fake blood page markers and some hipster glasses. (Remember: your goal is not to educate the English major. Your goal is to get the English major laid by other English majors.)

For the poet:

The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, now out in paperback. And some tea. (Don’t poets like tea?) And, let’s face it, a loan.

For your relative who mostly just watches Jersey Shore and reads US Weekly:

A subscription to Tin House or Ploughshares or American Short Fiction. Because she’ll be like, Whaaa? but she won’t be able to return it and you’ll have spent $20 supporting literature, so ha.

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Self-Help Seduction

There are certain books we all hide. You know them. The ones purchased late at night when no one we know is in the bookstore. Or better yet, ordered from Amazon for further anonymity. These are books we don’t want anyone to know we read, certainly not our literary pals.

These, readers, are the self-help books.

“Anyone wanting to damage their intellectual credentials,” writes Swiss/British philosopher/writer Alain de Botton, “… need only do one simple thing: confess they read self-help books. There’s no more ridiculed genre in the literary canon…”

Despite that, some of us do read them, because our lives or selves are, from time to time, a mess. Desperate, we suffer through the cheesy titles and chapter headings, and the demeaningly simple prose, all because we want what we believe these books have to offer us: change. Or at least a chance at it.

AMECoverSelf-help books haven’t always been this way. When Tasso Vance Orr published Applied Mental Efficiency in 1913, the self-help genre was neither a billion dollar industry nor widely ridiculed. For a mere $1.50, those eager to improve themselves personally and professionally could buy Applied Mental Efficiency without any cultural baggage, and choose from 48 easy-to-read chapters ranging from Card Indexing the Mind to The Purchasing Power of a Smile to The Art of Asking Questions.

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Writing Lessons: Graham Oliver

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Graham Oliver, who recently attended the Aspen Summer Words Writing Retreat 2013. You can follow Graham @grahammoliver. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

OliverHeadshotOur classroom was outside, on a deck that faced the side of one of the omnipresent mountains around Aspen. This was occasionally frustrating—the sun beat down on us early and often—but mainly inspiring. The person most inspired by the setting, though, was our instructor David Lipsky, who was ecstatic about being able to smoke while conducting the workshop.

His excitement was contagious. After a few days of reviewing the work of Joan Didion and Renata Adler, the humor of Martin Amis and Tad Friend, and the editing work of Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, we began to get it. Someone would tentatively suggest an edit to one of the manuscripts and Lipsky’s face would light up; he’d lean in across the table and gesture with his cigarette and tell you “I made that exact correction.”

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Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft Round 1 – Buckle Your Corn Belts vs Vonnegut to the Chopper!

Round 1 of the Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft continues! Last week The Mighty Duck Palahniuks sprinted out to a quick 33-5 lead against Leave it to Cheever only to let off the gas midway through the week and only barely eke out a 35-28 victory. Alvarez’s “role players” nearly pulled off a stunning upset, but this matchup proves once again that the bums will always win when it comes to pop vs. high culture.

Benjamin Samuel’s Plimpton-led crew advances to take on the Holden Caulbabies, the powerful group assembled by Michael Nye of the Missouri Review.

Draft bracket - Round1Match1 resized

First, though, we have this week’s match-up between Buckle Your Corn Belts, manned by the Kenyon Review duo of Joumana Khatib and Marty Kezon, and Vonnegut to the Chopper, led by Ploughshares blogger Brenna Dixon!Continue Reading