Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing

I became curious about Bryan Garner after reading DFW’s long piece in Consider the Lobster about usage of the English language wherein he reveres Garner as a genius. Apparently the two met twice in real life but carried on an epistolary friendship along with scattered phone calls. The second real life meetings was the one captured in this book— Garner interviewed him in LA for an hour about writing and language. (The first meeting DFW brought his mom—a huge Garner fan—and his dad along, but Garner never even bothers to call DFW’s mother by name in his intro, all while mentioning James—his dad—as a philosophy professor. ARGH.) The conversation recorded here proves DFW’s charm and humor and smarts, conveying words of writerly wisdom while making my heart hurt from our loss of him. (Garner includes a weird bit about being disturbed by the way DFW signed books, crossing out his printed name with an editing mark, which apparently signaled a suicidal mind in the handwriting analysis books he read as a kid.)

I love that Wallace considered himself a journeyman of writing, someone skilled at a craft from having worked his way day-in and day-out, honing, struggling, showing up. He revealed that his process for writing the long form non-fiction essays took him about six months with obsessive notes and several drafts before he figured out what it was he wanted to say.

Random thoughts on writing:

  • “The reader cannot read your mind.”
  • Learn to pay attention in different ways, such as the exercise where you take a book you like, read a page 3 or 4 times, put it down, try to imitate it word for word to feel your own muscles trying to achieve the effects of the text. It will be in your failure to duplicate it that you learn what’s going on.
  • “The writing writing that I do is longhand… the first 2 or 3 drafts… I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.”
  • “One of the things that the college drummed into me is, ‘Welcome to the adult world. It doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.'”
  • How to write effectively is more a matter of spirit than of intellect or verbal facility. “The spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”
  • “The average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity.”
  • Bryan asked him what writers he admired. “You mean writers I think are models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose? William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich… here’s a weird one, though: one of my very favorites is Cormac McCarthy.”
  • “If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—[it] becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.”
  • “And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day… Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”
  • Necessary tools: OED, Roget thesaurus, and a usage dictionary like Garner’s Modern American Usage. “It’s like if all of English is a treasure and this is the chest that it’s in.”
  • “A good opener fails to repel… it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes.”
  • “The general rule of thing is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation…[and] there’s this thing called ‘elegant variation.’ You have to be able… In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.”

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

What can you say about DFW that hasn’t already been moaned before? I love his essays, his incisive bite, his bulging vocabulary that precisely pinpoints the exact word necessary to bowl you over. Reading him in 2018 you get almost nauseated with sadness, the gaping hole where his skewering of the McDonald Tr*mp era would have fit nicely. There are glimpses of what his take would have been, like in the footnote in Big Red Son where he’s describing adult film star Scotty Schwartz’s recounting of praise he’s gotten (and gnashing of teeth over the fact that rival Corey Feldman’s career survived rehab):

“Russ comes over to me and goes, ‘Scotty, I been watching you. I like your style. I’m a good judge of people, and Scotty, you’re good people. I never heard one person say one bad thing about you.'” [Keep in mind that this is Scotty telling the story. Note how verbatim he gets Hampshire’s dialogue. Note the altered timbre and perfectly timed delivery. Note the way it never even occurs to Schwartz that a normal US citizen might be bored or repelled by Scotty’s lengthy recitation of someone else’s praise of him. Schwartz knows only that this interchange occurred and that it signified that a big fish approves of him and that it redounds to Scotty’s credit and that he wants it widely, widely known.]… What is the socially appropriate response to an anecdote like this—a contextless anecdote, apropos nothing, with its smugly unsubtle (and yet not unmoving, finally, in its naked insecurity) agenda of getting you to admire the teller?

Consider the Lobster is brimming with delights. A lengthy tour of the Vegas-hosted adult video awards where an industry journalist makes the prescient quote that “Nobody ever goes broke overestimating the rage and misogyny of the average American male.” DFW’s complete body slam of John Updike brought a huge smile to my face along with his coining of the Great Male Narcissist label for Mailer, Updike & Roth, and the perfect ending to the piece: “It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.” The epic essay on American English Usage, drowning in footnotes and sidebars and interpolations. A raw recounting of experiencing 9/11 with a group of ladies from his church in Bloomington, Indiana, and the aftermath of flags that popped up the next day, leading him on a futile search that ended in breaking down in a gas station, comforted by the Pakistani owner over cups of styrofoam tea. His incisive and bitter review of tennis phenom Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten memoir where he wonders why she bothered to have someone ghostwrite such terrible things like “I immediately knee what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled.” His 80 page article for Rolling Stone covering McCain’s 2000 run, hilarious and more entertaining than HS Thompson’s classic from the campaign trail. His questioning of the ethics of eating meat after attending the Maine Lobster Festival wherein these creatures are boiled alive (including a great footnote about tourists, see below). His quick glimpse at Frank’s epic bio of Dostoevsky which I’ve added Vol 4 to my to-read list since C&P has been sitting beside me for months in a please read me again attempt; also includes some tirades against translation which I enjoyed (more below). And finally, a really long piece (Host) that is nearly unreadable in the way it’s laid out on the page with boxes and arrows overlaying the main thrust of the article about a certain AM talk radio host; of interest in this piece is the early discussion of the fragmentation of news controlled by a handful of companies, creating “precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda.”

On tourists:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way — hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

On translation. DFW is not a fan of Constance Garnett’s “excruciatingly Victorianish translations” but he also has problems with the overly popular P&V translations. “Russian, a non-Latinate language, is extraordinarily hard to translate into English, and when you add to this the archaism of a language 100-plus years old, Dostoevsky’s prose and dialogue can come off stilted and pleonastic and silly.”

 

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

I was inducted into the cult this weekend, devouring this collection of essays, enjoying the tapdancing in my head, exhausting my dictionary. All those rabid fans are right– Wallace is one of the greats. This collection includes extensions of work published in Harper’s, Harvard Book Review, Premier, Esquire, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. The topics cover: tennis in tornado conditions, the impact of television on culture, David Lynch, an Illinois state fair, deconstructionism, how pro tennis players differ from us, and a 7 day Caribbean cruise. It is hilarious, achingly well written, and mind-stretching. The work speaks for itself, I will not attempt my usual desultory summarization. Instead, I leave bread crumbs of words that I picked up from the 300+ pages. I am now interested in details like what Wallace circled in his dictionary. Rabbit hole, here I come.
A partial word list I learned or re-introduced myself to:

ectomorphic, melisma, strabismus, lacuna, senescence, thanatology, saprophytic, spume, gestalt, preterite, rictus, titivate, onanism, olla podrida, hermeneutic, ablate, crepuscular, anamorphic, pulchritude, weltschmerz, teleological, ad hominem, exergue, ostensive, otiose, commissure, promulgate, enfilade, plangent, soteriology, eidetic, solmization, coffle, solipsism, prurient, synecdoche, hebephrenia, saurian, glabrous, candent, miscegenation.

Some of my favorites from the above:

  • lacuna: blank space or missing part
  • spume: frothy matter on liquid (and called out as DFW’s favorite word learned on the cruise)
  • rictus: a gaping grin
  • titivate: to spruce up
  • ablate: to remove by cutting/evaporating; to vaporize
  • weltschmerz: depression about state of world compared to ideal state
  • otiose: futile
  • plangent: having a loud reverberating sound
  • solipsism: extreme egoism
  • glabrous: smooth, hairless

When my dictionary failed me, I searched for definitions online (for plumeocide), which led me to other people’s word-love with Wallace. I like this community.
Wallace seemed to prefer certain words, too. My unsophisticated noticing saw several uses of these in the book: miscegenation, plangent, sophist, instantiate, otiose, promulgate, weltschmerz.