the child grows enormous but never grows up

Our editor Lorin Stein writes a letter to the New York Times editor regarding Paul Elie’s essay “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?.”


Our editor Lorin Stein writes a letter to the New York Times editor regarding Paul Elie’s essay “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?.”

The story, Wallace’s act of anger against Elizabeth Wurtzel, ends without hope: the depressed person cannot break out of the cage of solipsism that her ‘terrible and unceasing emotional pain’ has placed her in.
D.T. Max, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story
The Malady Was Life Itself: The Origin of A David Foster Wallace Anecdote



Last night Harvard hosted a stimulating conversation between the literary critic James Wood and David Foster Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max. Despite my own dyspeptic ambivalence about Infinite Jest, I seem to have an endless appetite for smart people saying smart things about Wallace’s life and art, and there were a great many smart things said last night.

While Wallace’s upbringing, his intermittent struggle with depression, and his literary influences were all discussed in depth, I was surprised to learn that neither Wood nor Max could place the Kafka line that Wallace had posted to his bedroom wall in high school: “The disease was life itself.” It’s a haunting sentence, both in connection to the undeniably grim elements in Wallace’s own work, and the even grimmer conclusion to his life. It’s no surprise that this detail of adolescent wall decor made it into David Lipsky’s 2009 Rolling Stone account of Wallace’s last years, and thence into Max’s biography, tracing a wide circle across the DFW-based interweb in the meantime.

But perhaps the reason that neither Wood nor Max could recall the original Kafka sentence is because Kafka never wrote it. (A search through one database of Kafka’s works turns up no results for the phrase or its variants.) The line, according to Wallace’s sister Amy, was clipped from a magazine article on Kafka — and sure enough, in 1983 Time magazine published a review of a Kafka story collection under the headline, “The Malady Was Life Itself.” The clipped line, however, was not Kafka’s own but the invention of Time critic Stefan Kanfer:

‘Not all the sickness was psychosomatic. Kafka succumbed to tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40. But he regarded even real disease with paranoid suspicion: “My brain and my lungs must have conspired in secret.” He believed in “only one illness, and medicine hunts it blindly like a beast through unending forests.” The malady was life itself.’

Does it matter that it was Kanfer, not Kafka, who Wallace clipped, or that the key word was “malady,” not “disease”? Probably not. (In fact neither Lipsky or Max positively affirm that it was Kafka who wrote the sentence, although that seems to be the prevailing assumption, both at last night’s talk and around the internet.) At some level this is an even more trivial piece of literary minutiae than an account of how Raymond Chandler got his first bicycle.


Does it matter that because the article didn’t appear until July 1983, Wallace couldn’t have tacked it to his wall in high school, but sometime after his sophomore year at Amherst College? Probably not, either, although it might prompt a few tiny revisions in the chronology of Wallace’s adolescent and post-adolescent depression, and the way that depression swirled around DFW’s turn towards literature in his early twenties. After all, Max’s closing argument in last night’s talk was that Wallace, never much of a writer in high school or early college, embraced literary art (rather than philosophy, mathematics, etc) as the only possible intellectual remedy for existential despair. The malady, as Kafka never said, might be life itself, but the medicine was reading Kafka — and writing like him.

In the end, Lewis more-or-less turned his back on self-scrutiny. He ceased to find himself interesting as a subject for reflection — something his friends often noted about him.

Lewis thought of this loss of interest in the Self as a gift that emerged from his religious conversion: in his autobiography Surprised by Joy he wrote, “If Theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured me of the time-wasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary.” The connection between Theism and the abandonment of a diary may not seem obvious, but apparently Lewis thought that once one believes in God, then God becomes the chief proper object of one’s contemplation; and if one believes in the Christian God, then one’s neighbor becomes the second proper object. People occupied in the hard task of loving God and neighbor don’t have much time left over for constant self-scrutiny. (So Lewis believed; many committed journal-keepers will no doubt disagree.)

All of which leads me to think: how sad it was for Wallace, trapped in those endless “loops” of self-consciousness, and struggling most of his life between faith and unbelief. There’s a chicken-egg question here: Did he get caught in the loops because he couldn’t find his way to secure faith? Or was he unable to achieve such faith because he was caught in the loops? Presumably each experience fed and strengthened the other — it is one of the more vicious of all vicious circles.

Alan Jacobs (via wesleyhill)

DFW Notebook from TPK Archives


DFW Notebook from TPK Archives

I asked him why Wallace gets to be this icon, rather than another writer.

“Part of it is that he just had the look: the bandana, the long hair, like literary rock’n’roll. And part of it’s the backstory: prodigy, drugs, suicide. But the main part of it’s in his body of work: He wrote about our world, the world that our generation actually lives in. He wrote about TV in a serious way that didn’t condescend, drugs in a serious way that didn’t romanticize. He took our world for what it was, and then, he animated our world. It was like, he wrote through a gaze circumscribed by self-consciousness, and for the rest of us, self-consciousness is a self-defeating, deadening force. But not for him. Wallace’s writing was alive, invigorated, like he found a way to take that crippling, paralyzing, awful affliction of self-consciousness and redeem it, make it something new, something that enlivens rather than deadens.”

I observed that eventually self-consciousness, along with other factors, did kill Wallace.

“Well see that’s the tragedy.”

But it could only be the voice of one person, and it could only be written.

Elaine Blair, "A New Brilliant Start"

a review of d.t. max’s david foster wallace bio


“Why did he choose to send me a postcard? Simply because it’s a few cents cheaper than mailing a letter in an envelope? Was it just sitting around when he was looking for something to write on? Does he buy stacks of these postcards for the express purpose of responding to random fans? And worse, does he write this same prepared response to every letter?” Frank Cassese on hearing from DFW.


But unlike Franzen’s belligerence about “society” having a deleterious effect on art or “the soul,” or Wallace’s paralyzing concern about the relationship between writers and their television screens, Smith’s work as both a critic and novelist invites her readers to celebrate the delicious and ever disastrous commingling of the world and the self. She blurs these borders in order to simultaneously honor and disparage art’s greatest article of faith-based flapdoodle: authenticity. It is a really neat trick.

- Emily Keeler on Zadie Smith’s NW for The New Inquiry (via thenewinquiry)

Everything I write for TNI is about Realness.

(via emk-irl)

One of the human brain’s many tricks is that it automatically finishes unfinished things. This is remedial psychology — Sensation-Perception 101. If we see part of a circle, our mind closes it. If we see part of a word, our mind fills in the mssng lttrs. Something analogous happens, I think, with unfinished novels: we always end up finishing them with something. We fill in the blanks, unconsciously, with what is closest at hand: the gestalt, the legend, the vibe, the tone, the aesthetic of the author in question. This is, after all, part of what a great author does: he trains us not just to receive his vision but also to extend it — to read the world (its landscapes, people, events, texts) in the peculiar way that he would have read them.
Sam Anderson on David Foster Wallace (via austinkleon)
Alexi Murdoch - Slow Revolution
6,849 plays


True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.

David Foster Wallace in The Pale King

Song: “Slow Revolution” by Alexi Murdoch

iTunes :: Amazon

Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world.
The fifth effect has more to do with you, how you’re perceived. It’s powerful although its use is more restricted. Pay attention, boy. The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it. This is the way of people. Suddenly ask what’s wrong, and whether they open up and spill their guts or deny it and pretend you’re off, they’ll think you’re perceptive and understanding. They’ll either be grateful, or they’ll be frightened and avoid you from then on. Both reactions have their uses, as we’ll get to. You can play it either way. This works over 90 percent of the time.
David Foster Wallace - The Pale King (via Mockingbird)


Read the full article “David Foster Wallace materials related to The Pale King now open for research” on the Harry Ransom Center’s website.

Typescript draft of “Author’s Foreword” in “The Pale King.” © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.

Very early handwritten draft of “Author’s Foreword” in “he Pale King.” © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.

Handwritten list including characters in “The Pale King,” designated a “Tornado of Characters” in the left margin. © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.

Manila folder for “The Pale King” drafts with a handwritten list of names of characters and places and a hand drawn map of Peoria, the setting of the novel.   © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.

Typescript coversheet draft of “What is Peoria For?,” one of the early titles for “The Pale King.”  © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.

David Foster Wallace’s notebook, which contains reading notes, clippings, and writings related to “The Pale King.” © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.


And other shocking revelations from Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

franzen and poop forever