Friday, January 22, 2010

David Foster Wallace

Have you read that guy? Oh my gosh. He's good. Was good. If you didn't know, he committed suicide in September of 2008, which makes it a little awkward when he's writing about depression and suicide. But he did it so well. And with levity, and it works, it makes you smile, you can't help it.
(And if you think that's not the sort of thing that should make you smile, then you should not read this guy. Because he's one of those people, like Mel Brooks or Trey Parker, who has shown us that anything can be funny. *Anything*. I mean, without these people we would never have laughed at the Holocaust or AIDS or self-annihilation by microwave oven. And that would have been a shame.)

Early last year I read *Infinite Jest* and it changed my life. I said, Yes, this is it, this is brilliant, this is the kind of book I've been looking for my entire life. And then I went on with my life and basically forgot about that hefty novel (it's 1100 pages). Then I recently picked up *Brief Interviews with Hideous Men* and I remembered, Oh yeah, this guy exists, or existed not so long ago, David Foster Wallace, and he was a genius.

In case you're wondering, Brief Interviews is a collection of short stories, and the title comes from these fictional interviews that are kind of evenly spaced throughout the book. You don't know what the questions are, but the interviewees are all misogynists. I know, hilarious, right?

Here's an excerpt, where two graduate students are being interviewed. Their names are K--- and E---, and they are responding to the same question:

K--- 'What does today's woman want. That's the big one.'
E--- 'I agree. It's the big one all right. It's the what-do-you-call...'
K--- 'Or put another way, what do today's women *think* they want versus what do they really deep down *want*.'
E--- 'Or what do they think they're *supposed* to want.'

And you can imagine what two over-educated, theory-soaked misogynists can tell you about what women *really*, *deep down* want.

Anyway, it's a great book, and I recommend it as an intro to DFW if you're not quite up for Infinite Jest. Also, here's a great essay I found about Wallace at The Point Magazine:

[And yes, I'm one of those people who uses the words "genius" and "brilliant" a bit lightly. Which is one way to divide the world. Those who do and those who don't. The way you might categorize carbonated beverage fans as Coke-lovers or Pepsi-lovers; taxonomical biologists as lumpers or splitters; or physicists as strict-Copenhagen-ers or non-strict-Copenhagen-ers.]


whatyoudream said...

What does it mean to be a "(non-) strict Copenhagener" for a physicist?

Sub-sub-librarian said...

That’s a reference to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. The Copenhagen part comes from the fact that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were working in that city in the 1920s. And their way of explaining the weird results physicists were getting in the lab was referred to as the Copenhagen interpretation. So, for one thing, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, that you can’t know with complete accuracy both the position and momentum of a very small particle, was interpreted as a discovery about observation. That the very act of observing is not just limited by our technology or the small scale of the quantum world, but that it has an actual affect/effect on the physical state of the particle. That your knowledge of the precise position of a particle *makes* it impossible for the momentum to be known. That the particle doesn’t even *have* a precise momentum, like it’s some decision that it just hasn’t made yet because it doesn’t have to because you weren’t looking at the momentum, were you, you were looking at the position and the particle says “Ok, you know where I’m at, but I’m going to be just a slut about my momentum and have a bunch of them at the same time and you won’t know which one it is because you haven’t asked and so I won’t tell.” That’s really weird, and that’s the sort of thing that Bohr and Heisenberg were trying to explain to people. Physicists didn’t buy it for a while, even people like Einstein. But eventually most physicists became convinced of this, and as I understand it, the Copenhagen interpretation (and people throw in “strict” Copenhagen interpretation when they emphasize the observation-determining-reality part) is the dominant belief among contemporary physicists. Still, there are a few hold-outs.

Sub-sub-librarian said...

This shouldn't really bother me, but I'm always thinking of at least 8 different ways of how someone might interpret what I write, and my last comment had the word "slut" in it. Which, I agree, can definitely be seen as a specifically gendered word, as in the female gender, and it's one of those words that *some* men might use as a synonym for a certain kind of woman without ever using it to refer to a man. I don't think of it that way, and in fact I tried to think of a more masculine equivalent of that word when I wrote it, just to avoid any misunderstandings. But I decided that *slut* shouldn't be gendered. It's genderless. And in fact, when I picture an electron slut, it's male. It's one of your typical egotistical electrons who pick up young, not necessarily great looking momentums but momentums who are in their ballpark. These 20 year old momentums who think that electrons who have graduated from college with a degree in finance and have meticulous bed-head-hair and an ankle tattoo are just dreamy. This electron will have several momentums texting him at the same time, asking if he had a good time at some club they went to or some party they met at, and he's basically ignoring them unless he's interested in that just one last hook-up (the kids still use this phrase right?) before he permanently blows them off. That's the kind of slut I had in mind.