If there was a literary equivalant of Scott Stevens – a complete badass without being a douche (bear with me Rangers fans), a modern talent, a lover of his craft/game, and mostly liked by his peers – it’s David Foster Wallace. The more I read him, and I don’t honestly read enough of him, the more I like him. Waiting for specs today, I gandered at the “Essays” section of B&N; the best way to pass time in a bookstore or library is to read out of a Short-Story Anthology or an Essay Anthology. What am I gonna do, start reading The Brothers Karamazov or Infinite Jest while killing just under an hour’s time?? Oh great, maybe I can finish 0.284% of either (not both). So today I sat down with the Essay Anthology titled Consider The Lobster. It’s a David Foster Wallace essay collection published in 2005 (novel form). I read two of them: first “Authority and American Usage” originally published in Harper’s Mag, 2001, and the second a review of the latest (at the time) John Updike novel Towards The End of Time called “Certainly The End of Something or Other…” from The New York Observer, 1997.
“Authority and American Usage” proved a not-shabby-at-all daily introduction to the man’s style (I’d been introduced sometime before his DEATH, circa 2005-06ish, from a friend/ex-lit-teacher) whilst sitting across from an angry looking High Schooler reading some over 1000 page novel with the Star of David on the cover. No, I didn’t get the title or author, I didn’t have my glasses yet! I just got that 6-star-ed, double triangled, symbol staring me down. I wonder what he was reading, cause this kid looked like he listened to Insane Clown Posse. I think there’s more than meets the eye with those clowns: their WikiPage claims they lyrically oppose racism, bigotry, war, and child abuse. Interesting. Anyways, this Foster Wallace essay talked about the “seedy underbelly” of the lexicon of the United States. Apparently some modern dictionaries are notoriously LIBERAL, while others remain notoriously CONSERVATIVE. Even our dictionaries speak in “Hannity and Colmes“/”CNN’s Crossfire“/Fox News vs. MSNBC terms? This is news to me. Not surprising news, but news nonetheless.
My font has inexplicably changed (Arial?). Oh well. Wallace ends his opening paragraph with the hilarious question: “Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?”. I didn’t. Essentially what “Authority and American Usage” is, is a review of a new linguistics Guide to EVERYTHING called A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Brian Garner. But like most of Wallace’s reviews, this is more an essay on what exactly, in this case “the American lexicon”, means anymore. The division of America, which I’d assume began in my lifetime but perhaps not, is now filtering into every aspect of American culture. Even the way we speak, write, and communicate. Wallace closes with a statement powerfully on-the-nose, and scary to boot: “Dictionary of Modern American Usage‘s real thesis, in other words, is that the purposes of the expert authority and the purposes of the lay reader are identical, and identically rhetorical — which I submit is about as Democratic these days as you’re going to get.”
The real balls of D.F. Wallace showed though when I read his review – again, more of an essay on American culture – of Towards The End of Time by legend (for good or bad) John Updike. Mailer, Updike, Roth’s — the Great Male Narcissists (GMN’s as Wallace calls them) — time on Earth, and in America, is coming to a close. [Yea, that got me back.] These are writers who emerged as a part of the Counter-Culture movement, but who’s personal philosophies represent everything that was shitty about hippies. Wallace calls this generation the “single most self-absorbed generation since Louix XVI“. What generation has so quickly deteriorated into self-absorbtion from selflessness than this one? As Wallace puts it: “But the young educated adults of the 90s — who were, of course, the children of the same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so beautifully — got to watch all this brave new individualism and self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation“. Like Scott Stevens, Wallace takes aim at the cultural outshoots skating in open ice with their heads down.
But this was really quite a breath of fresh after after hearing a 60-ish year old, bitter man describe how young people these days “just don’t have it”, and how no one wants to work hard anymore on WCCO 830 Talk Radio. Yup, cause YOUR generation was putting in 10 hour days between rolling through the landscape in an RV, or school bus, while taking acid and having consequence free, meaningless, no strings-attached, unprotected sex… right?? Oh sorry, I forgot to mention that 5 out of 13 protested, but only 2 out of that 5 KNEW what they were protesting about, and only .5 out of that 2 weren’t tripping balls at the time. So spare me the fucking speech about how young people are to blame for the American Problems of today. Look into a mirror… you’ll see a person who’s abandoned everything they’ve ever believed in (though lots of it was bullshit to begin with), traded it for a vacation home and Social Conservatism. When asked how the Counter-Culture movement could so quickly turn into the majority of invasion-loving, snide, militarism, fist-pumpers, a great Constitutional Law professor of mine (who, importantly, was CONSERVATIVE) thought for a moment and responded blatantly: “I know exactly how. They’re extremists. I saw it when I was young: burning down medical research facilities, spitting on police, bombing recruitment centers. Now I see it as I’m old, it’s just the opposite side of the spectrum”.
Ok- if my generation’s to blame for the shit economy of today, the societal standards of today, then YOUR generation is to blame for the ideological extremism in America. You’ve been on both sides of the fence, own up to it. David Foster Wallace saw it was a child of the 80′s and a young adult of the 90′s, I’m seeing it as a child of the 90′s and a young adult of the 2000′s. A lot of these people, both writers like Updike and callers of talk radio, are self-absorbed. They were as children, they were as young adults, they are as old men and women (like my teacher once said). How can we be blamed for a shit professional work ethic when there aren’t any jobs for us? How can we be told we’re the problem when we’ve only just begun? I don’t get that attitude. Perhaps DF Wallace’s final passage of Authority and American Usage will explain something (or maybe it’s just venting frustrations; one in the same?): “I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Erect or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.”