Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

Tag: David Foster Wallace

What a Game of Eschaton Looks Like

I’ve remained on the fence way too long re: The Decemberists, the rock band that I should, on paper, like a lot more than I do. (They wrote a song about Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season; they brought in Gillian Welch to sing on their most recent album; and they are generally pretty literary and wordy without being too unbearably pretentious about it (at least most of the time).)

This new video, for “Calamity Song,” has got to put them over the top with me. Directed by Michael Schur, who works on the fantastic Parks and Recreation, “Calamity Song” depicts a game of Eschaton from the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest (which I’ve written about here). The New York Times wrote a piece giving the full background.

Eschaton is a game that the students in Infinite Jest‘s fictional Enfield Tennis Academy play on an expanse of multiple tennis courts, nets removed. It’s a game of apocalyptic global warfare, with students forming blocs like REDCHIN (Red China) and SOUTHAF (South Africa). They take turns lobbing tennis balls, representing so many megatons of explosives, across the court to hit targets in other nations. The accumulating damages, measured in military destruction and civilian casualties, are tallied by a student who works a computer on wheels, continuously calculating the effects of, say, a direct hit on a major metropolitan center in the middle of ONAN (Organization of North American Nations).

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Franzen Redux

1) I received Freedom in the mail yesterday. Quite excited to start it, though I am just getting into Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which so far is fantastic.

2) I have a subscription to MOG, an online music site that’s a pleasant and necessary diversion at work. I was a big fan of Lala, until Apple bought it so they could demolish it (as it was an iTunes competitor). One cool thing about MOG is that there is a scale one can slide during a given song, selecting a notch on a spectrum from “Artist Only” to “Similar Artists.” So when I was listening to a ton of Ween, I could have slid the scale over to “Similar Artists” to listen to what MOG thought was in the same ballpark. And if I were listening to a compilation album, and Ween came up, I could then slide the scale all the way over to “Artist Only” and thereby jump into a Ween mix. And so on—you could jump in and out, deciding you like Ween but you’d like to see similar artists, and from that decide what you really wanted to hear was the Butthole Surfers or early Flaming Lips—and so forth. Here is an interesting New Yorker piece about the larger online-music scene, with some special attention paid to MOG.

Navigating MOG, though, has put me in mind of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and a program he describes one of the characters writing that uses (what sounds to me like) similar technology, and which the character sells off for nearly $20 million. I’d always thought it was called Eigenvector, but apparently it’s actually “Eigenmelody.”

It is, of course, deeply impressive that Franzen thought this up. I suppose similar things were around in the early 2000s, but I remember reading The Corrections a few years late and being impressed by the novelty of this idea. Invention isn’t considered the strength of Franzen’s writing, but this again calls to mind his friend, David Foster Wallace, and all the technological developments described in Infinite Jest.

Franzen

Jonathan Franzen interviewed by the AV Club here. Two of my favorite things, finally joined. His new novel, Freedom, is receiving glowing reviews. I’m bending in my position of resigning myself to waiting a year ’til the paperback comes out . . . and have just added my name to the surely long waiting list at the Carnegie Library. From the interview alone, though, one gets a sense of the scope of the novel and its ambition. You can also get a clear sense of Franzen as a thoughtful writer, grappling with significant issues: freedom, clearly, and what it means in the current American context, but also slightly meta concerns such as hooking and keeping readers. His take on it is, as with most things, unimpeachable: that it’s the writer’s job to produce work so compelling the reader turns away from cable, YouTube, video games, etc., etc. in order to read the book. Period.

In what limited press and review materials I’ve read from this novel’s publicity push, Franzen has come off as a more likeable person. Having read both How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, I got the clear sense that he’s a warm and funny person but that there’s a thin shell of reserve that can come off as chilly. Even reading this interview, the number of long pauses put me in mind of television appearances where his stoic face, those thick-framed glasses, that arrogant stubble(! I don’t know where that came from; I’m just going to go with it), made him come off as detached, a snob. Knowing he went to Swarthmore College, and possessing just enough knowledge of the place to form some key assumptions, probably doesn’t help. (I grew up one town over from Swarthmore.) Franzen seems, in general, the opposite side of the coin of his friend David Foster Wallace, who possessed a formidable intellect but seemed always to take pains to be self-deprecating and to connect to his audience. This is an observation, though, that suggests the folly of thinking you “really know” a public figure based on his/her writings and televised appearances.

Addendum: I forgot about this, or perhaps I never fully noticed, but I guess there was a small “feud” surrounding Franzen and Freedom when the writers Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner both complained about all the press. It was one of those annoying one-sided feuds that shouldn’t be called a “feud” because, well, you wouldn’t call mosquitoes buzzing around your ear a feud. But there’s a good rundown and, indeed, takedown by Lisa Solod at Open Salon (I guess a branch of Salon where people can post their own stuff? Don’t let that keep you away, though: the writing and reasoning are both Salon-quality.).

“Assorted Fire Events” by David Means

I finished this collection yesterday. It was one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a while. I went in with an ever-so-slightly adversarial attitude, on the basis of never having read Means but making assumptions based on his pedigree (publications in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, etc.) and the general perceived blandness of his name and the titles of his books (The Spot made me want to take a nap; The Secret Goldfish made me roll my eyes).

Man, I was wrong. Halfway through the collection, given the opportunity to browse a big used bookstore, I looked first for Means books, and picked up The Secret Goldfish. The stories have a compactness that reminded me a tiny bit of Andre Dubus. Means frequently uses long, complexly punctuated sentences—he loves the semi-colon—that made me think of some close readings I did in grad school of Dubus stories. His method seems to be to present something, and then to complicate it or go deeper into that fact, that impression. At other times I thought of David Foster Wallace, the way Means seemed to pick his way through a fictional event—in the story “The Interruption,” a bum crashes a wedding reception and is badly beaten, but we never quite see the beating that (you’d assume) is the climax and centerpiece of the story—giving meaning to the whole constellation of details, characters, events, and relationships in the story without succumbing to the craving to (in the case of the Means story) give us the meat and potatoes of the fight itself. It reminded me of the way I felt during the last 50 or so pages of Infinite Jest, realizing there was to be no explicit action sequence resolving everything, that the really entertaining stuff was to take place off-screen, as it were. The implication in both books was that that’s not what’s important. Or, maybe more accurately, that these climactic fictional events are intensely important but one way of giving them their due is to omit them, to have the rest of the story swirl around them, a conspicuous absence.

I never felt unsatisfied by the stories or their conclusions, though; I still felt, in a way, that I did get my meat and potatoes from these stories. Each had a completeness, a feeling of exhaustively going through the possibilities, that made each story feel compact and self-contained. One example that’s online: “The Woodcutter,” one of the last stories in the book.

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