The Howling Fantods

David Foster Wallace News and Resources Since March 97

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Word Bookstore Pale King Event

In response to my call for event reports last week Joe Winkler put something together for you all to read. 
Thanks, Joe!

The Word Bookstore is exactly what you would think: a quiet, friendly, indie bookstore with a cute cashier who wears trendy, hipster glasses. The light glows friendly, inviting, nothing like the lights of a mall. The colors, vivid, bright, blossoming. The store’s quiet feels almost library like. The workers are kind, smiling at you, a half smile, not a faux smile of the paid smilers of larger stores. Most likely introverts themselves, (who else works at indie bookstores?) they know the annoyance of the officious help in department stores, ones who bombard you with practiced smiles and words memorized from a protocol.  The manager, a self proclaimed non-DFW obsessive, has a tattoo of which I can only see the word, "word".  I feel a pang of jealousy. I am here alone, mostly because I hide the inner book-nerd in me, or at least the extent. Her tattoo that proclaims her love or books, or words, embarrasses my quiet passion. 
[Continue after the jump]
As the event starts I can't help trying to mimic the thoughts of DFW, his acute observational skills… Mostly men, a ratio of 80 to 20, which feels sad on some level I'd rather not explore (You always notice that DFW uses this tact, he always tells us that this is something he’d rather not explore, or of which the ramifications he can’t fathom, maybe to simplify his characters, or to express his inability to put his thoughts into words. He always is not exploring something but actually exploring that exact something). The ratio changes as the start of the event approaches, apparently the men just arrive earlier, a fact I cannot explain.

The room, small, cozy, intimate, with yolky yellow bumpy walls and a decoration of small bug like lights adorning the wall. The chairs sit the attendees leg to leg and still we need more room. People sit alone without talking to each other unless they've come with a date. Many arrive alone, and choose a seat away from a person, similar to the unspoken etiquette of urinals. I do not know if this points to a certain isolationist tendency amongst DFW fans, or the awkwardness of the event itself. I'm no better. The kind, friendly manager reminds us of the raffle numerous times, but not in an overbearing manner. She feels self-conscious about this. I try to imagine if this turned into a dance party, without alcohol. I envision a fifth grade divide with boys on the left acting nonchalantly, and girls on the right, subtly staring over. It appears that if we measured the self consciousness of this room, or somehow or self-consciousness concretized into physical matter it would fill the whole store. The man sitting two seats away, who I never said hi to you (sorry), drops a hardcover edition of Infinite Jest. It booms throughout this cave like room and we all laugh. I cannot tell if this laughter stems from nerves or the laughter of an insider joke without any outsiders to feel different from.

After the third self conscious announcement of the raffle by the endearing manager, the readings begin. Authors receive introductions as authors, although I'm not sure why. The stage is quirkily colorful and so very small. It contains a stool and podium like object lined with bottles of waters. Most readers do not drink the water. I don’t think I remember each individual reading well enough to do justice to their wonderful performances. General impressions appear more fitting. Most read from Infinite Jest. Two authors read from Little Expressionless Animals, one read a Brief Interview, one read from the cruise essay, one from Everything and More, one from The Pale King, and I read from Forever Overhead.

Some observations: The authors’ readings were the most like performances instead of confessions. They read as if actors, with pauses, with the ability to look up at the crowd as they read, with gesticulations and facial movements meant to mimic the tone and characters of the story. One author read from B.I. #11, I believe. Her performance of this particularly hideous man, who leaves his girlfriend not in confirmation of, but because of her worry, brought the story some new and added depth, especially because as a woman, I felt particularly attacked by her performance, in a beautiful way. Another author read hilariously from Alex Trebek’s conversation with his psychiatrist. I found it revealing that the pieces gained new depth from being read, out loud by people clearly connected to the content. The rest of us lay readers brought a more confessional, personal tone to each reading. We fucked up and apologized, we interjected with our thoughts, we let the extent of these pieces importance into our lives out.

Most people chose to read a particularly funny piece which in light of the event raised some obvious questions: Did most of us choose funny because of their performance value, or because of the inherent sadness of the event? One brave girl, who looked a little like the lead singer from Paramore but with blond hair, chose a particularly brutal and sad passage from IJ. Even before she read it, she began to tear. Her reading felt intimate, an intrusion on something too personal despite the words not being her own. I like to believe this speaks to what makes many of us obsessed with DFW in the first place: an uncanny ability to speak in a voice that we didn’t even know we had.

Throughout the night, we all laughed a lot, but I thought I could see the slow buildup of liquid in the eyes of the crowd. I read last. I first thanked the management for this unique event and noticed the goodness of fit between this event and the general tone of DFW’s writing. Here we sat, collected in a basement of a bookstore to listen to regular people read the words of author whom we all loved, like viscerally actually loved on some weird level, an author who committed suicide, whose posthumous book is both sad, intelligent, absurd, humorous, insightful, touching, and ultimately generous just as this event. As I said at the time, I chose to read from Forever Overhead for two reasons. First, I believe it presented the range of DFW. You will not find the paragraph long sentences full of dictionary grabbing required words, or recursive self consciousness. In some ways it is his least conventional piece relative to everything else he wrote. Short sentences, heavy physical imagery, word and sound repetition, alliteration, the story as a metaphor, plain old visceral and elemental stuff. I also chose this story, because as we all know, sometimes authors steal parts of your life. They capture a stage, an event, so well that you can no longer think of that stage/event solely in terms of your memories, but with their words, and Forever Overhead, for me in retrospect captured both puberty and the awakening into consciousness of choice. I told this to the crowd, and added a playful Fuck you to DFW. I began reading the story and again, it felt oddly like a confession. Here I stood, reading a person’s words I never met and I felt like I might as well have been masturbating in front of this friendly crowd. I finished the story with a heavy emotional catharsis I didn’t know I needed. Thank you Word, thank you Stephanie, and thank you to all in attendance. It truly was a strange, but beautiful night.

But one thing itches at my thoughts. 

I can't help think of Franzen's recent piece in the New Yorker about whom DFW's work attracts: isolated people stung by loneliness. I try to think if this event proves him wrong. We do sit apart from each other, I don’t witness that much mingling, myself included. I think of the fifth grade dance. I try to think if that matters and I can't help think of my grandmother. Seven years ago, when I first read the cruise essay I could not shut up about it, "have you heard of this author David Foster Wallace? No? You should read his essay on cruises. It will change your life. No, seriously, I don't say that lightly it will change your life, but this will trust me, and I know its 90 pages with extensive footnotes, but you will not regret me.” My mother liked it. She said it was sad and true, and hilarious all at the same time. I felt proud. At age 19 I found my dividing line, my benchmark for people. Either they got it or they didn't. My mom understood. My grandmother asked me for a book recommendation. She did not expect a speech...

Having been on numerous cruises, I could not wait to hear her reaction to this piece. Two weeks later we talked. I don't get it. Get what? I mean, I can see his brilliance, I can see his humor, but why does he have to be so sad, so negative all the time? My dividing line grew less stable. My grandmother is good people. Must be a generational gap I thought. But that's the point. The sadness, the absurdity it’s lying there beneath the surface, I said. Most of us fear scratching, that's all. Joe, I know sadness. Real sadness, this just feels pessimistic, a choice to be unhappy and find faults everywhere you go, a person who he himself just hasn’t lived enough life to know when to enjoy himself. Agree to disagree I thought. We live on different wavelengths. She must not get it. I could tell the conversation needed no elaboration. So, Joe, any girls in your life…?

Looking back, I realize I get this response from friends quite a bit. Of course cruises reek of hedonism, and the quiet resentment of the workers, but why focus on that? Why not just let yourself feel happy? I feel like I used to know a better answer to this question. Something to do with the healthy minded vs. the sick souls from the Varieties of religious experience. But growing up, feeling this cult like obsession with DFW, seeing what I am a part of raises uncomfortable questions about my relationship to DFW, about his sadness, his viewpoint. His thoughts permeate my low thrumming ceaseless inner monologue. At what point does obsession turn into idol-worship? I don’t know. I know it felt beautiful to be in a roomful of people who felt something I’ve felt. To bridge the gap of existential loneliness, but what’s next? It appears we are all looking for that next voice to guide us, “we lost our voice”, we say of DFW’s death, but somehow that gives him too much power, I think. Reading up there, tearing up at someone else’s word, I knew I might have gone too far. I need a voice of my own; I need a break from DFW.

R.I.P. DFW. You are loved.
Joe Winkler
Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 April 2011 07:42