Wallace whitens (part two and a half)
rom the whispers of the alleys, from the off handed comments slipped between “Can you pass me that cutting board?” and “When should I meet you?,” the secret is out: several of my friends have been considering moving to the States. In hindsight I realize it happened gradually, subversively, with subtle references to cities we were fond of. A roster that previously contained nothing more than Canadian and European locations began to hum with US cred. New York, Chicago.
Here on the west coast, Seattle worked it’s way into our trio of three civic stompin’ grounds, followed closely by San Francisco as our incomes and access to cars and cheap plane tickets increased. Next up, Pacifica darling: Portland. Sharing our timezone dropped all our old-school inhibitions about the cities, the states even. Washington, Oregon, California? Pretty much BC.
My best friend went to a US university for her Masters, then her PhD; so did a growing number of my other college friends. Another friend ended up in Boston for an internship. One by one more cities began to creep up on the US map, emerging out of ambiguity: Minneapolis, San José, Boulder, Carrie. Accelerated by my TAL repertoire, the US became complex, personable and someone I would like to get to know better.
From a 2008 road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway.
America had always been something I have always regarded with mild curiosity and a bit of fear. Growing up, when cross-examining our parents about what lay on the other side of the river (we lived 45 minutes from Niagara Falls and the border) we were given basic the lexicon that they were just like us except with guns, and no healthcare. My parents strange aversion to the US entrenched my stigmas; squinting across the hazy horizon of Lake Ontario never yielded any interesting results and on closer land-locked occasions, I failed to see the enormous dotted line or patrolled fence I imagined kept us apart. The muddy, brown fields on the other side tended to look identical to the muddy brown fields on our own.
East-West roadtrip, Chicago, 2008.
In the past five years however, America has begun to hold an increasing allure and romance. The people won me over first: like Canadians with the volume turned up, the Americans I met while abroad consistently represented the polarities of all the personalities I had ever met. The were paradoxically the most kind, the most interesting, the most boring, the most healthy, the most unhealthy, the fattest, the thinnest, the most worldly, the most generous, the most ignorant, the most talented, the most rude, and the most polite. The list went on. How could one country be capable of producing such extremely contrastingly different people?
In college, a surprising number of my close friends were revealed to be American. A visit to New York in 2005, presented further food for thought: despite arriving alone at Penn station just after midnight, visibly Canadian and disoriented, saw me to my friends apartment, alive. I didn’t get shot, people bluntly gave me accurate directions; no one apologized, but people weren’t mean. New York just seemed like a busier, blunter, dirtier Toronto with unilingual packaging.
David Foster Wallace continues to enforce these ideals. The amalgamated snippets that form his memoir are interspersed with explicit and understated interpretations of US identity and economy. Gradually, you begin to see how such a vast, “freedom”-fuelled economy would be the ideal tabula rasa to create anyone. Like a pre-cambrian explosion of personalities and people.
In one particularly politically charged section (Chapter 19), which takes the form of a discussion between two unnamed, descriptor-less entities digresses into the downfall of the US, and the ascent of ego:
Corporations aren’t citizens or neighbors or parents. They can’t vote or serve in combat. They don’t learn the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t have souls. They’re revenue machines. I don’t have any problem with that. I think it’s absurd to lay moral or civic obligations on them.Their only obligations are strategic, and while they can get very complex, at root they’re not civic entities. With corporations, I have no problem with government enforcement of statutes and regulatory policy serving a conscience function. What my problem is, is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it’s illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is OK.
This is so simple, but also so backwards. Hiding in plain sight.
Center of the Universe, Idaho, East-west roadtrip, 2008
Spurred by the G8 summit/protests in Québec City in 2001, I have been deeply interested in globalization. Interests seated in Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, (which I picked up thinking it would be funny-HA!) and supported by semi-political punk and folk-rock (rather than the other way around). In my mind, one of the seminal documentaries I watched in this span was The Corporation, which went on to great lengths to draw parallels between psychopaths and the socially, environmentally and ethically irresponsible behavior of corporations. DFW’s suggestion that this is fine, but that we just have to all stop behaving so corporately…this is the revolutionary part.
In this same chapter, he calls for change. Or at least ominously foreshadows the future:
… As citizens we cede more and more of our autonomy, but if we the government take away the citizens’ freedom to cede their autonomy we’re now taking away their autonomy. It’s a paradox. Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them. Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think-of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. Cleverness as opposed to wisdom. Wanting and having instead of thinking and making. We cannot stop it. I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster-depression, hyperinflation-and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly. Like Rome-conqueror of its own people.
DFW ended his life in 2008, in September, the midst of the dragon-and-tail implosion of the American economy. After FYP, I can never omit context, and I can only help but wonder if he saw it coming….I also watched the new Batman last night (The Dark Knight Rises, yes, it was the midnight showing and yes, it was all that and a bag of chips) so this idea of impending anarchy is somewhat more vivid today than it was when I made these notes. In The Pale King DFW buries these insights within the most ubiquitous and boring milieu imaginable: the IRS. If the numbers don’t lie, is DFW setting us up for disaster? Is the Government as equally disenchanted with it’s People as the people with Power? Er, or the people with the People with Power? In a country of anyone how can a system fail everyone? Only postulating plot lines…
* * *
One other thing I am totally relishing about this novel are DFW’s totally obtuse descriptors of people and places. For example:
If I had to describe my father, I would first say that my mother and father’s marriage was one of the only ones I’ve seen in which the wife was noticeably taller than the man.*
This is the opening sentence of a nearly 100 page chapter detailing his father’s house, career, personality life and death. You know that DFW is mindful with his words and thoughts. This is opening sentence and descriptor is an entirely human detail that implies a subset of other characteristics. It’s graceful, obscure, and totally typical of DFW. It’s wonderful.
*N.B. Personal note of interest: my mom is also noticeably taller than my dad (much to his dismay).
Books like this, books that speak with this kind of unabashed openness about all sorts of social taboos and social awkwardnesses make me feel happy and delightfully un-alone. In the beginning of Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, he speaks of the lead female protagonist being completely in love with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and carrying it around with her everywhere, tucked under her arm, like some secret signal to fellow book-lovers who would understand her secret code and kinship. It makes me want to carry The Pale King everywhere. I already find myself laying it down on counters when I go to pay for coffee (instead of wedging it under my elbow), or carrying it in my hands (instead of tucking it in my book). I want someone to notice it, or at least ask me about it. For example, the following quote about those who are able to focus on tax audits:
One sensed that these were people who did not fidget, who did not read a page, of, say, dull taxpayer explanation about the deduction of some item and then realize that they’d actually been thinking about the apple in their lunch-bag and whether or not to maybe eat the apple right here and now until they realized that their eyes had passed over all the words (or, given the venue here, perhaps columns of figures) on the page without actually having read them at all- with read here meaning internalized, comprehended, or whatever we mean by really reading vs. simply having one’s eyes pass over symbols in a certain order. Seeing this was kind of traumatic.
We’ve all been there. It’s books like these with glaring, painful human details, the things you are supposed to confess to no-one, or when he devotes immeasurable pages to the things that you are not supposed to value, the boring things, the true things. John Steinbeck’s musing: “can you honestly love a dishonest thing?” could not echo more truth into my growing love for this book. It’s honesty and discombobulation are completely winning me over.
One hundred pages to go…
Pretty drop cap from Jessica Hische.