Essay: The Straight and the Forward

“Everyone Has Flags Out”: Bloomington-Normal and its Geometric Forwardness


The American Midwest is flat and chequered. From an airplane it looks like a colourful chess board – it’s as if someone took a giant ruler, drew equidistant lines lengthwise as far as the ruler would take you, and perpendicular lines along the immense width of the land as far as the eye can see. It turned out these lines were roads. I have pictures.

In the flat of this flat is Illinois, and just north of its middle, amid all these perpendicular tar, concrete and asphalt vectors is a town called Normal, an aptly named small-ish community with plenty of American flags on front yards, backyards, shopping malls, parks, college quads, parking lots etc.,[1] and roads that are straight and swing you all the way up to the door of where you need to go. College Avenue leads all the way up to Illinois State University. College Hill is a shopping area on College Avenue. Division Street divides Bloomington and Normal, the two sister cities. Easy.

There was hardly anyone aboard the small aircraft, with blue fake leather seats that have probably seen at least a bit of the 1980s. In front of me was a man with deep lines worn on his tanned and leathery neck, like if his career had been as a human phone line post. He may have been wearing a State Farm baseball cap, and clearly pulled it on back to front – his hair on the back of his head was standing up towards the rim of the cap. He sat on the aisle side, even though there was nobody on the window side, or even in the seats in front of him; his ticket said ‘aisle’, a covert look over his shoulder revealed.

“Would you like something to drink?” a stewardess asked me, catching me out looking over the shoulder of the man in front.

I looked around in slight astonishment, as she wasn’t pushing a drinks trolley, but decided to go ahead anyway:

“Can I have a coffee?” with a genuine inquisitorial tone and appropriately raised eyebrows.

“Sure, do you want milk or sugar?”

“Uh…” (remember, there is no drinks trolley) “Sure,[2]” I said. “Milk, please.”

“Sure thing,” she said, and walked away to the front of the plane. Well played, lady.

She soon walked back with a Starbucks mug.

“There you go,” she said, and asked for the Baseball Cap Man’s beverage preferences. I couldn’t believe it.

Bloomington does not have much in the way of taxis, a fact I quickly discovered at the airport. My phone didn’t work, but that’s ok I thought; it’s an airport, and airports have taxi ranks. Except Bloomington-Normal Airport – it is here that it turned out that everyone in Bloomington drives their own car, which makes the whole idea of taxis unnecessary and sort of foreign. And true to this form; although there wasn’t a single taxi waiting outside there were a total of three different rental car service desks inside the terminal (though only one of these posts was manned[3]). After I had walked the (admittedly modest) width of the front hall of the airport eight times in a humiliating hunt for transport,[4] I was finally outside in the gorgeously setting sun, waiting for my taxi. Everywhere I looked there was parking lot, uncountable, stretching far into the distance with a sea of cars.

When the taxi came I hailed it down and said hi, and that I had called a taxi (trying to imply that I wasn’t stealing some other person’s taxi, which is a terrible but uncatchable sin in places like London). The taxi driver, the fattest man I have ever seen, said “yeah I’m here for you man,” looking at me like I was suffering from some kind of Foreign Dementia and had just forgotten who the taxi was for. Something tells me they don’t get a great deal of business in Bloomington-Normal.

Bloomington-Normal is wealthy, religious and conservative.[5] It is surrounded by some of the world’s most fertile farmland, which is very expensive but I’m told worth the investment. The town centre has transformed in the last 10 or 20 years, with lots of new office and apartment complex buildings being erected in the very centre, which makes Normal look like a weird mix of tall Soviet-style concrete beehives surrounded by a sleepy little Midwestern town with little saloon-like facades and a 1920s art deco cinema. In fact, I even witnessed one of these concrete towers in early stage construction, as evidenced by the impressive hole in the ground next to Normal’s ‘The Circle’, a fancy grass-filled roundabout in the centre, where on Saturday I saw a local 3 Doors Down cover band playing to locals on family outings, close to the independent Normal Theater. Wealth eventually starts to show.

These offices and apartments serve two distinct demographics: the 30,000 or so students, and State Farm Insurance employees. Bloomington is where the headquarters of State Farm is based, and Normal is the hometown of Illinois State University, which organised the Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference, the subject matter of this article. The university has an excellent drama programme, and sees many young actors come and go. Some of the residents of Bloomington/Normal really enjoy fishing. Really enjoy fishing. Some residents, perhaps many, have never been out of state let alone in a foreign country, have never seen a pound coin and will marvel at the thought of a little coin being worth nearly two dollars. Some residents are ardent fans of the Chicago Blackhawks. Some female residents finish conversations with foreign young males with a ‘nice talkin’ to ya honey’, that simply melts your heart.

All of this I learned from my taxi drivers over the week. A Bloomington-Normal taxi turns out to be the real straight-talk express.

The hotel receptionist’s first question to me was whether I wanted a cookie. My first question was whether I could take a copy of the Pantagraph,[6] and whether that was the local paper.[7] Mistaking my journalistic query for genuine interest in the paper’s editorial production, the hotel receptionist went away to look up the address[8] of the paper headquarters, and came back with it on a piece of paper. She looked so cheerful doing her business that I didn’t want to disturb her, and feign-gratefully took the note, looked at it and even thanked her.

“The General Sensation is That of Being in the Middle of an Armpit”: The DFW Conference and Post-Structural Divisions


Having decided to walk over to Normal along College Avenue[9] in a rising AM heat, I have rarely been so delighted by a pint of Coke as I was in Merry-Ann’s Diner, or by a glass of strawberry flavoured water and air-conditioning as I was in the monolithic Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. I was internally embarrassed that I had even thought to bring a cardigan.[10] Outside you could feel the heat weigh on you, but inside the Marriott Lobby it was like a sunny April day in middle England.

The hotel lobby was a stylish gray-and-dark-brown, with polished gray stone pillars and rectangular dark brown wood structures that hung imposingly from the very high ceiling at various heights between let’s say 4 and 6 metres, structures that looked very impressive and made the whole lobby look like one of those rectangular illusion drawings where the angles couldn’t possibly meet but appear to do so anyway or where a set of stairs are actually upside down or something. The pillars and wood rectangles garnished the lobby with plenty of imposing right angles but the rectangles’ actual purpose only seemed to be as fixtures for small light bulbs, for which purpose these giant mindfuck rectangles seemed in truth a bit of an overkill. Some architect had clearly had a field day with the money Marriott had been willing to throw at the lobby. But it was admittedly stylish, far more so than the life-size toy castle I was staying in where wooden picture frames hung on the walls framing nothing but the wall itself.

Haunted-looking young men in round glasses,[11] some with long hair tied back or top buns or stubbles or full-blown beards, were wandering about in the lobby ordering $4.35 Starbucks lattes[12] and trying to keep their large shoulder bags from falling off their shoulders, eerily slicing the lobby from one side to another like haunted, round-glassed security guards. A brief discussion revealed, after they had also sat on the can-I-take-these-home-comfortable sofas next to me, that most of them were PhD students who had been sent here on grants by their universities and were here to present their academic papers, as opposed to writers who had usually come here on their own and were here to read their writing. This division would only become more apparent as the weekend went on.

This hotel lobby is also where I met Jt.[13] Jackson (‘Jate’) for the first time – Jt was a friend of David Foster Wallace when they were both in the Arizona creative writing programme. Jt is a former marine machine gunner who, by his own account, was a young mathematics prodigy on scholarships from the armed forces, when he was ‘bombed by his major’, i.e., survived an explosion in a training exercise so over the top that it caused permanent and irreparable damage to Jt’s nervous system and led to the dishonourable discharge of his battalion commander.[14] We shared stories and struck up a friendship with Jt pretty much immediately, and I met just about everyone through him in the book fair/break room before the conference started.

“Three Faces Have Resolved into Place”: Panelists, Presentations and Irony


During the conference, presentations would be had in threes every hour – each presenter getting an allocated 15 minutes to speak, plus 15 minutes at the end for questions. This drum-tight schedule makes it entirely impossible to describe all I saw, and picking favourite absurd moments from individual presentations would be disingenuous.[15] That being said, the first panel I went to is probably worth talking about.

To set the scene: people were still feeling sticky and dizzy from the outside heat, and purring in enjoyment of the cool air-conditioning of the Redbird C seminar room.[16] Annotated copies of Infinite Jest were taken from heavy shoulder bags and placed on the tables,[17] showcasing the rainbows of multicoloured tabs sticking from between the pages.

The first speaker was called Sam. He had round glasses and semi-long hair that was tied back, and a stubble. In fact, he looked remarkably like David Foster Wallace on first impression, though physically he was much smaller. He read from his story, The David Foster Wallace Empathy Contest, which was funny and which nobody laughed at.[18]

But the next act was phenomenal. Ashlie M. Kontos started with an explanation of why she was wearing a T-shirt and little makeup (which I hadn’t really noticed until she said it), saying her luggage had been left at Dallas Fort Worth – yes, she underlined; her luggage was now at DFW. Warm up your irony receptors.

Ms Kontos ran over by more than 20 minutes, which is an achievement in a 15-minute presentation. When the chair (a student intern) tried politely to tell Ms Kontos she was out of time, Ms Kontos replied ‘Yeah but I wanna finish,’ with an arsy tone, and then went on for another 20 minutes about how ‘lethally self-indulgent’ modern culture is making us. The irony filled in the room the way a splash of milk spreads and colours coffee. Vacant looks downward from the audience. I felt it as my obligation, just as I feel obliged with very attractive women, to look as though I am totally ignoring her as some kind of One-for-Team-Rest-of-Us –type favour to the world. I doubt she noticed – she didn’t seem particularly acute to the mood in the room, or perhaps the presence of other people at all except as a faceless Audience assembled to hear her wisdom – but if she did that’ll teach her.[19]

The last presentation was the one where DFW & Infinite Jest were taken literally as theology. A thought was developing.

This was followed by a (much shortened) Q&A, in which one young and smartly dressed Tom Winchester piped up immediately, asking a question that was extremely long and did not contain a question mark, but did contain a coherent and forceful plug of his own talk, whose coherency was not carried through to any other section of his multisectionous question/comment/observation. The answer was ‘thank you, that was interesting.’ But hey, you can’t blame a man for being a better salesman than I am.

Another question was directed at Ms Kontos by a cautious young man, whom Ms Kontos forced to clarify his question before saying ‘that’s not what my paper is about’, as the only answer. The guy looked visibly embarrassed, having risen up to the occasion only to be beaten down by a self-indulgent asshole while a train clunked and chooed past somewhere.[20] What a pointless arena to be tested at for this poor guy. Thankfully Sam did try to bring him back into the conversation out of visible empathy later, but I think the damage was already done.

Some presentations were markedly different. I snuck out of the Ashlie M. Kontos Irony Extravaganza Show a little early, and found Jt Jackson at the book fair where I went to get a coffee.[21] He was talking to a man behind a stand, who would later turn out to be his friend/landlord/publishing partner, and putting on a poncho and a hat and holding a long staff in one hand. The proceedings looked sufficiently intriguing, so I went to talk to him. He explained that what he was holding was a ‘Fuji-stick’, a staff upon which Japanese symbols are branded as one makes one’s way up Mount Fuji, which staff he had acquired on a Marine training exercise. The hat and poncho were part of his character, he explained, which he needed to get into to read his long poem. I stood back and let him do his thing without trying to stare at him doing it, which ‘it’ involved long breaths and closed eyes and total, sincere concentration. It was sort of endearing to see someone go so inside himself with such disregard for what he looked like to an external observer.

Still, as Jt was stood before a live audience at the extremely large ‘Redbird C’ wedding reception room, explaining the significance of his hat and poncho and Fuji stick and named his character jaywaltergunn (spelling taken from his powerpoint) and explaining that his character was to be taken as having been present in Arizona when he and David Foster Wallace had been there, before he finally read his poem about that story, it was hard not to think that it wasn’t even a little bit silly.[22] As if aware of this, Jt started his reading with an old joke he and David Foster Wallace used to repeat:

“Dave, how’dya get to be so dang smart? – I did the reading.” (isolated laughs, people sipping coffee.[23])

All sartorial silliness quickly melted to the ground, and it turned out that his actual reading of the poem, of which I now hold a copy as a kind token of budding friendship, was very lyrical, very touching, and he broke down in tears just enough to make it absolutely obvious that he was sincerely trying to hold them back. It ran long, but nobody cared. The room, consisting mostly of the Haunted Young Men in Glasses, was gripped.

He got up, motioned me to come with him, and briskly walked over to his stall at the conference book fair where his friend/landlord/publishing partner sat. Several young men followed him in abject awe, and formed an orderly queue behind him. It is what happened next that forever dispelled all doubt about this man’s sincerity.

He could have sold all the books he wanted, and could probably have used the money. Instead he looked at me with a genuinely terrifying expression, breathed heavily through his clenched teeth and hissed some words at me that are not to be repeated in print, completely oblivious to the crowd of HYMs behind him all with faces shining with hunger to be told’n’sold to, money burning in their pockets for a DFW inside scoop trivia tidbit plus poetry book. I might have turned and fled instead of trying to look calm and composed, terrified as I was; but this was clearly not the approach of the HYMs behind him, who quickly vanished like controlled flatulence in Sahara. Jt had, in one fell swoop, managed to scare off 95% of the sales he would make that weekend. If he is a charlatan, his unconcealed sincerity makes him exceptionally bad at it.[24]

“Insects on a Dead Thing”: The Academia Circuit and Even Greater Ironies


Even my own feeling about the conference was becoming riddled with complex ironies – I felt uncomfortable that David Foster Wallace was treated as a saint or authority, like the US Constitution to be mangled and cited for your own purposes as the ultimate backing of any point you had to make. But, of course, on the other hand, this was the DFW conference, so it was hardly surprising that all the talks were about him.

While some of the talks were by jaded academics whose presentations had, at best, a tenuous connection to David Foster Wallace at all, many of them were enthused, excited, and totally serious. A high school girl called Emily, whose mother never lost sight of her and who started her essay like all high school kids start their essays (“David Foster Wallace once stated…”) did her reading and nobody realised she was a high school girl, which is probably credit to Emily.[25] Chris Ayers, the graphic designer and man behind the website Poor Yorick Entertainment, showcased his ‘visual exploration of James O. Incandenza’s work’, a (and this is true) painstakingly designed series of film posters of fictional films made by the father of one of the main characters in Infinite Jest, to a packed lunchtime audience. Chris must have spent hours on the posters, and if you go on Poor Yorick Entertainment you will find plenty more like it. Chris Ayers, evidently a benevolent fanatic, had also designed the conference pamphlet. In fact, he had even physically hopped on a train and gone to the Randolph Tennis Center, and taken pictures of a youth tennis tournament (‘available on request after the talk’).[26] And no one thought it was weird. Lots of HYMs tweeted about it.

Chris Ayers does not make a penny out of what he does online, and only does it out of personal pleasure and maybe to connect with other DFW fans. He does offer for sale a poster, designed by Sam Potts (another hardcore DFW fan with visual design talents) where he has placed the names of nearly all the characters of Infinite Jest (not actually ALL, as I have been told to correct here, but really, a really large number of them), and drawn lines between them showing their interconnections. The resulting diagram is huge and sprawling, must have taken at least a month to make the master copy of, and Sam Potts has made it available for free viewing as a PDF on his website so you can “check if it would be something you’d be interested in” (Chris Ayers’ words) before purchasing it. I would be surprised if the price is more than 3$ above the cost of producing it plus postage.

But benevolent fandom aside, there is another side to the DFW phenomenon. After my standing steadfast and internally terrified at a large former marine machine gunner who so looked like he was about to lose it that all the Haunted Young Men scattered more quickly than I could make notes of, we had decided to sit next to each other in the Academic Panel talk after lunch.[27] This was after I had relayed to Jt how I was feeling funny about the conference, and how treating David Foster Wallace as some ultimate authority made me feel like something thoroughly ironic was going on. Jt called it the Saint Dave Complex, which seemed apt.

Anyway, it is perhaps fair at this stage to disclose that I was not in a receptive state for what was coming.

Jt got me a glass of water and sat down next to me. The presentation was a large number of academics sitting in a gentle curve, talking for extremely long before handing each other microphones. Usually this was preceded by a quick reformulation of the preceding thinly-veiled five-minute discussion of one’s own area of expertise or interest into a question of some kind. Such questions included: (5 minutes of solo talking) – so what do you think of social media? (10 minutes of soliloquy) – This is confusing, what do you think?

And so on. The self-congratulatory atmosphere was starting to wear me down a bit, and the water tasted mildly alcoholic (for which I momentarily turned my suspicions on Jt, but without a shred of evidence – and besides, he doesn’t drink). To save a lot of ranting about the combined effect on the nervous system of the length and incomprehensibility of the whole thing (and to avoid sounding like I’m bitter or angry, when in reality I am really more like gripped by the irony to the extent that I’m thinking I’m in a Wallace non-fiction piece, which feeling itself was then another layer of irony, especially now) I’ll simply say this: it was a lot of academics talking about the importance of reader identification and entertainment in getting a point across, while spewing out jargon that nobody understands and being thoroughly unentertaining.

The best moment of the conference came when Jt was finally granted his question, and he stood up and said in a booming and lively baritone (after the usual “hi, I’m Jate, some of you may already know me, I was a friend of Dave’s etc etc):

“The most ambitious part of him wanted this audience. He wanted you. Hi guys. He wanted to entertain the academic audience and have this conference about him. Are you entertained?”

A fit of incredulous and sudden laugh, which I quickly attempted to disguise as a cough as nobody else seemed to share my reaction to what had essentially been someone suddenly kicking the elephant in the room in the balls and doing a loud elephant impression in front of everyone.

“Uh. Thank you for that Jate. Thanks. That’s really interesting.”[28]

After that Jt sat back down, turned to me and said:

“What are you doing now?”

“Nothing in particular.”

“Wanna hang out?”


“It’s a little cold. We’ll have to leave soon. Oh, I have no thyroid. I’ll tell you later but I’ve also been nuked.”

Laughter, bonding, internal discomfort about whether he is serious.

Another thought: it is these academics who have literally (no pun intended) made a career of mystifying David Foster Wallace’s work. Stephen J. Burn – the keynote speaker who has carved his life’s work out of sifting through the dregs of Wallace’s writing, his personal letters, postcards, early drafts etc – gave a talk on his finding the letters of DFW that showcased the pinnacle of “Wallace Studies”, a whole (small) industry that lives off David Foster Wallace’s reputation as a genius and has a vested interest in preserving that reputation, in order to cater to the many and isolated islets of hardcore Wallace fans. Stephen Burn finished his talk by saying “this paper is elliptical”, meaning it didn’t really come to any conclusion or raise any points in the conventional sense, and opened the floor to questions.

The first one was, I shit you not: “Ball point or felt tip?” (meaning which did The Great DFW write his letters in).

A: Felt tip. (Nodding. Sombre, serious silence.[29])

Coming out of the panel talks I went to Merry-Ann’s Diner, and sat, and watched squirrels fight or possibly initiate sex across the street, and de-Wallaced without my name tag. A pudgy, pleasantly smiling Midwestern girl said ‘Hi guys have a seat anywhere’ to every new customer and nailed the tone every time.

“We Average Unbeautiful Watchers”: Some Stuff about Fandom, and DFW That Seemed Relevant But Didn’t Fit in Any of the Above Neatly


Your present author being more or less aware of the terrific spiral of ironies[30] the above passages are ripe with, it is perhaps best to pause the description here[31] before the various ironic levels grow beyond what my cognitive abilities can control.[32] A pressing question: what is it that makes everyone in this large wedding reception room (‘Redbird A’) not only an aficionado of fine writing for one’s own personal pleasure but a rabid fan of DFW foaming at the mouth? What is it that creates the market demand for the personal letters of someone most of these people have never met, and gives rise to conferences like this? Who cares, and why? What makes a room of smart people ask stupid questions like ‘ball point or felt tip’? What even is being a fan?

Let’s begin by sharpening up the question. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘fan’ as ‘someone who has a strong interest in or admiration of a particular person or thing’ (Origin: Late 19th century (originally US) Abbreviation of ‘Fanatic’). While questions regarding whether dictionary definitions are meant to be descriptive or authoritative are vexed and more nuanced than most people would like, the definition and common sense experience of seeing fandom from close up nevertheless raises the question: why would anyone have a ‘strong interest’ in a particular person or thing, if that person or thing is in no way connected to that someone?

The intuitive answer seems to be that we feel we are connected in some non-specific way. Who we are fans of is an expression of who we are, which creates a large and profitable industry for t-shirts with writing on them.[33] It is not two weeks since I saw a Harvard University student waiting for a subway train with huge earphones on, playing a large imaginary electric bass and nodding his head, with a copy of Infinite Jest in his hand. Being a fan is as much about what you like as it is about showing people that you like whatever it is that you like. You have an interest in that thing, and you don’t only believe that it is good, as in well-made, but also good, as in conducive somehow to a life well-lived. It is to lend a piece of yourself from somebody else, and showcase that it is really a part of you.

At least I do this. When I am reading a book, all my ideas are from that book. If I read about the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte, all I can talk about in dinner parties is the wild and extravagant escapades or tactical and strategic genius of Napoleon Bonaparte. Or his horse. Or his wives. If I’m listening to a song I like, pretty soon I’ve listened to all the major hits by that artist, or that song a million times. I can’t have Netflix, because if I did I would watch the shows I like until there are no more episodes left. Whatever it is that I am a fan of becomes a part of me, at least for a little while, and I tell my friends about it partly to justify how that part that is now me is good, a good part, worth keeping, and they should get it too.

But with books, or David Foster Wallace, it seems somehow even more about who you are, because when you read David Foster Wallace you feel like he gets you. It’s not that he is giving you a part to incorporate into yourself, it’s that he’s revealing a part that you already had.[34] David Foster Wallace is one of your lot.

Example. In the conference there were plenty of Australians. On the second morning, after my disastrously warm walk to town on the first, I was at the Chateau psychologically prepared to dish out the money for a taxi when a group of Australians with conference name tags came down the lift. We got to talking, and it turned out one of them had rented a Camaro convertible (!) for the weekend and that they were all now going to ride on it to the Marriott. I gently inquired as to the carrying capacity of said Camaro, a quick headcount being in my favour. What ensued then led to my half-day-long social obligation to hang out with Australians and talk to them about Australian stuff.

Anyway, on the way from the (eerily empty) parking complex[35] where the Camaro was left to the adjacent Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, the Australians were talking about Infinite Jest:

Camaroman: *inaudible*

Aussie 2: “Oh really? That’s interesting!”

Camaroman: “yeah, I’ve listed all the Australian words used in Infinite Jest, there are really many.”

Camaroman had a pleasant, slow Australian twang about his speech, and his voice was wonderfully deep.

Aussie 3: “Yeah, there are plenty of words that are just Australian aren’t there? Like crikey.”

Aussie 2: “Yeah I remember that being used in Infinite Jest. Do you think David Foster Wallace had some connection to Australia?”

I didn’t, and I didn’t.

Camaroman: “Yeah it’s there I think.” (I wasn’t sure if this was in reference to DFW’s purported connection with Australia or ‘crikey’ being in Infinite Jest).

Aussie 3: “And bogan.”

(At this point, feeling the crushing weight of the social obligation making me pipe up and add something nice:)

Me: “Oh, is bogan in Infinite Jest? That’s kind of a niche word.”[36]

Camaroman: “No, if it were there it would make me really happy,” he said slowly and with his neck-twinglingly pleasant low voice, “because I am one, I am a bogan. But it’s not.”

Me: “Yeah, I didn’t think it was, but I thought I might have been wrong.”

Camaroman: “No, it’s not there I’m afraid. I wish it was.”

This exchange was totally bizarre – I mean really, I couldn’t think of a single reason why people would hunt for words of a certain origin[37] from a book and felt upset they couldn’t find them, unless they were totally bonkers or wanted to get rich by selling bogus bible codes to the same unsuspecting patsies who send money to televangelists – until I realised that people were looking for pieces of themselves in Infinite Jest.

For some, this perceived soul connection is a matter of genuine helps-get-through-the-day-type solace. In a panel that I chaired, with talks mostly consisting of thinly veiled my-reading-Infinite-Jest-was-cool-type soliloquies running way over the time limit,[38] a young literature graduate (I think) called Danielle relayed her personal story of depression and alienation and feelings of inadequacy, and how Infinite Jest helped her find her way to a happy relationship which though not fairytale-perfect was still super great and growing (her boyfriend was actually in the audience, and never left her side in the conference but didn’t say more than two words to anyone, or to me at least), and a fuller life in general. On the lectern she had her copy of Infinite Jest (which her boyfriend rushed up to her from the audience) with what must have been hundreds of sticky notes sticking out, and her right hand rested on it as if she was being sworn in. Her talk was titled “I’m so totally identifying it’s not even funny”. The whole experience had a vague feeling of an AA meeting to it, which feeling of mine of course then became ironic as Infinite Jest itself has depictions of plenty of AA meetings in it. Danielle’s story was touching, but did add to the growing feeling of alienation I felt from the Raving Fan side of the conference attendees, for better or for worse.

Another striking example of Infinite Jest –based personal transformation story comes from a young man whom I will refrain from naming as he has decided on pursuing a career as an attorney,[39] after his spectacular self-described U-turn in life. He looked uncomfortably like a young David Foster Wallace, he of the short hair and glasses and athletic build (Jt Jackson pointed this out to me when he introduced us, saying this man, whom let’s call David F. Wallace Jr because we have to call him something, was the spitting image of Dave when the two met in the Arizona writing programme), wore a beige blazer and a tie, was flamboyant and charming.

David Jr had been an alcoholic and possibly drug addict. His talk was essentially the story of how he had struggled with the AA programme because it was so stupid and he had perceived himself as too smart for it, and the Big Book (of the Alcoholics Anonymous programme) was full of inane platitudes that he just couldn’t digest. But then the Really Big Book (David Jr’s name for Infinite Jest) had come along and shown him that he was not alone, that others struggled with the same shit and couldn’t swallow the Big Book of Platitudes without chewing it, and that propensity for chewing before swallowing was exactly the problem in a lot of cases, and it had changed his life. His talk was funny and personal and captivating and I so totally identified it wasn’t even funny, even though I didn’t really have any comparable life experiences or had never been an addict.

The point here is that for some, finding something to be a fan of (i.e. finding something to make a piece of yourself) is a genuine question of life and death, or at least a question of life and better life.

But like in the case of young David Jr and my favourable receipt of his message, a lot of fandom is probably about projection. In other words, we recognise an aspect of ourselves[40] in someone else, and make the quiet assumption that other aspects of ourselves are there too. The same technique is widely used for fraud – in that context it is known as Cold Reading, the approach being to say things about the fraudee that are either obviously true (e.g. ‘you have a tendency to be critical of yourself’), statistically likely to apply to everyone or to everyone with certain obvious background facts (e.g. ‘I am sensing an A, do you have a relative with an A in their name?’), something vague that can be interpreted to apply (e.g. ‘you have a lot of unused capacity that you haven’t tapped’) or what the fraud’s target would like to believe about themselves (e.g. ‘you pride yourself for being an independent thinker’). What makes these sentences effective for fraudulent purposes is that they make the target imagine the fraudster knows things about them that the fraudster has never said, and soon feel like the fraudster knows them extremely well. They feel connected.

This is not to say that it is bad to feel that David Foster Wallace really gets you, it is just the sad fact that it is probably untrue. David Foster Wallace really got himself, wrote himself on the page, and the rest is projection.

Not that there is anything bad or sinister about any of this, it’s just a fact that happens and it’s what makes reading such a rewarding experience. When reading (and writing) is at its best, we see ourselves in what we read.

So the point here is that fandom, especially literary fandom, is a weird feedback loop of self-definition. We read, we see ourselves in what we read, we wear t-shirts with logos or writing on it to show that we saw ourselves in the thing we are now endorsing. But then, when we read we also project, we would like to think that we also think like David Foster Wallace, and we make that a part of our identity (and showcase that to others etc). So the feeback loop is this: the more you read and identify, the more you start to convince yourself that that’s how you think (likely, at least in part, through projection), so you identify even more because that’s how you’ve convinced yourself that you think, which makes you think like that even more, leading to more identification and so on.

With books and writing this is especially true. If you’re a fan of a movie or a character in a movie, you might (perhaps subconsciously) imitate their speaking style, or walk, hairstyle or sense of dress (in fact the uniformity of ridiculous hair styles would suggest a lot of people do this). If you’re a fan of the Redbirds or a particular sportsperson you might want try to imitate a touch volley or a swerve kick or free throw they lay down, kick or shoot. If you’re a fan of a businessperson (which fandom I never fully understood, but they exist in the throngs) you might imagine yourself emulating their business manoeuvres in your own imaginary business empire. The point is that with just about anything that fandom attaches to, it is the ability to do something that flushes out our imaginative juices and sometimes makes us grab the racket, put on the old cleats, pump up the old ball or grab a pen and a ruler and start drawing profit margins.

But if you’re a (reader) fan of a book, it is not doing that interests you but thinking. What resonates is not seeing how something is done, but noticing what the writer noticed, and thinking the way the writer is guiding you to think; seeing those images in your head that the writer is conjuring, and drawing conclusions the writer is asking you to. The connection that you feel is much more intimate – the writer is in your head, and you’re in theirs, and you are thinking the same thoughts. The connection to an actor is external; you want to be that person on the screen and do that thing. The connection to a writer is internal; you feel what they feel and think what they think.

But as I write this, I am in a constant confrontation with the limitations that come with striving towards this kind of connection. That is, that words are savage, and dressing up what’s inside you into words never quite manages to convey the complex mixture of emotional and synaptic connections that come with my own internal analysis of a certain experience. There is something cold or cruel about putting many-layered and multifaceted human behaviour like that exhibited by the people in the conference into words, something that exposes the behaviour to an audience and makes it two-dimensional. Description externalises behaviour from its motives. If this sounds like abstract philosophical nonsense, I invite you to imagine a recent ivy league college graduate whose student loans are so crushing that she had to get a safe job at the local State Farm headquarters to pay them off, and whose mother is sick and cannot afford healthcare, so the two come to an arrangement whereby she takes care of her mother in exchange for the house when the mother finally succumbs to the (now, let’s make it) terminal illness. Now imagine someone saying: “you still live with your mother”. It’s true, but putting it into words is cruel because it doesn’t capture the situation, and gives the situation the infantilising slant that usually comes with “living with one’s parents”.[41]

Even the word ‘analysis’ is misleading, as what is happening in my head as I think back and read my notes about the conference and the complex ironies I felt while I was there is not really anything like the cool exploration of conceptual connections that the word ‘analysis’ denotes,[42] but a mixture of excitement and fellow feeling and sadness and tiredness and empathy and annoyance and wanting to be accepted. Or maybe there is a way to write all that into blossom, and this is my writer’s cop-out. I can’t really be sure.

Still, whatever the limitations of words and writing, they are still the best way to give what’s in your head to someone else. Even if it is a slightly colder or meaner or stupider version of what’s in your head.

Anyway, aware of the drain the above musings must impose on the reader, I will only add this: that it is sad, and sometimes heartbreaking to see people hang on to and explain the significance of that piece of their identity that they have got from a certain writer or book. Because that’s what the best parts of the conference were – people explaining why they loved David Foster Wallace, why it is a part of their lives and why that part is a good part. The stronger and more personal this connection was, as with Danielle or David Jr, the more devastatingly moving it was to notice it was there.

Where this emphatic flicker of valves becomes genuine heartbreak is at Jt Jackson. David Foster Wallace, or just Dave for him, was – is – an enormous part of his life. He has held on to early drafts and letters and postcards from Arizona all these years, and still shows them to travelling writers he deems worthy. For him, David Foster Wallace is not DFW the image, but Dave the person he once knew, and had a real personal human-to-human day-to-day connection with outside his work.[43] In private he told me a story that I’m still debating myself whether to reproduce here,[44] which story actually brought tears to my eyes and then made me feel complexly embarrassed that Jt had to get me a tissue and a glass of water when he was actually in the story.

For Jate the ghost of Dave is still around, and haunting, and will probably keep him in its grips for the rest of his life. By all appearances he writes poems about Dave, talks about Dave, and writes to webpages about Dave actively. Dave is such an integral part of his self-definition that I don’t see how he can ever let go. For better or for worse.

But Jt is not alone. David Foster Wallace’s writing career’s end is as poetically lingering as its effect is on his fans – he killed himself in 2008, but his unfinished book The Pale King was published after his death, as was a collection of essays, as was a biography, a long interview transcript, a speech he gave to one graduating class of Kenyon College, his notes, letters and just about everything he ever put a pen to, and more is on the way. The fact that the man who wrote a book about the seductiveness of image is now an image itself is the magnificent irony that Jt put his finger on in his ‘monovoice’ way. It’s all a bit much for me, so it is perhaps best to stop the discussion here.[45]

The conference itself died down slowly, with talks ending after the second but the whole event after the third day, when a series of ‘writing workshops’ of questionable value had been given in the actual Illinois State University where David Foster Wallace used to teach.[46] After relaxed talks from Mary K. Holland and Stephen J. Burn (during which Emily did her elephant kicking), the Go Home You Drunks call was finally made with a chaos of exchanging contact details, or not exchanging them and having to think of polite ways to dance around not exchanging them, from amidst of which chaos I skipped along in what somehow felt like a cowardly exit after Emily-the-high-school-kid, walking slowly so as to make it absolutely clear I’m not following her but just happened to be walking in the same direction. She made this easy, because for a high school kid she walks with such a remarkable sense of direction and speed that one could almost take it as a symbol.

But for me the lingering end finally came after hours of talking with Jt in Merry-Ann’s Diner over milkshakes, when I told him I was planning to write up the conference into a non-fiction piece and showed him my notes. As I finally said goodbye and headed over to my hotel to watch Fox News and pack up, he called in after me:

“Joe. About the piece.”


“Be a nice guy.”

[1] How I came to have eyewitness accounts of all these flags I feel requires some explaining, to dispel the obvious inference that I am some creep who sneaks into people’s backyards. I stayed at the Chateau Hotel and Conference Center, a few miles out of town along Business Loop Interstate 55 whose impressive width I happily skipped over at 5.30am on Thursday (because I could no longer sleep) to College Hill – a shopping area where each shop is an islet in a sea of parking lot and eerie pop music played to vast empty stretches of tarmac in the unforgivingly bright horizontal Illinois sunrise – and the same width I rushed back over in sheer screaming panic between heats of approaching SUV and massive pick-up truck frontal charges at about 6.30 – 7.00am, after my $4.35 coffee at Starbucks (more on coffee prices to follow).

The Chateau was large, looked like what someone who has only seen Disneyland versions of what castles look like would design a castle to look like, and included a big restaurant called Tony Roma’s where breakfast dishes were uniformly huge, high-calorie and no less than $8.99, and where I sat, in total, twice (first time to discover the prices, though in their defence the amount of blueberry syrup that came with my $15 pancakes was so enormous that it felt like the Second Coming in its Plenty, and second time just before I left for my flight back because I couldn’t be arsed to go all the way to town to the far superior, cheaper and smaller Merry-Ann’s Diner, whose exquisite milkshakes were discovered late but this late discovery more than made up for), and each time the hostess (of Tony Roma’s), upon seeing that I was alone and probably wondering what that was all about, seated me in front of the huge television screens that hung perilously above the bar.

As an observational side note, the Chateau was cheaper than the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center which stood out for miles, rising like a grand casino from amidst the two-storey buildings of the old downtown Normal, and where the DFW conference was actually held. The bizarre consequence of this small (in the great scheme of things) difference in price was that it effected a near-perfect division along lines of nationalities in the multinational participants of the DFW conference. Everyone who was British or Australian stayed at the Chateau (including, to my astonishment, the (British) keynote speaker Stephen J. Burn), and most who were American stayed at the Marriott (many of whom weren’t there to present but just as hardcore fans). Clearly the difference in price reflected some innate sense of what a hotel room is worth, and the interesting difference in this innate sense that the value-for-money-desirous Brits and Australians had as opposed to the luxury-hungry Americans had. Whoever thinks careful pricing does not direct behaviour in a meaningful way is dead wrong, this experience seems to suggest to me.

Anyway, the simple point here is that as the Chateau was some distance from the centre of town. For some reason I decided to walk, which despite the straight roads led to a few wrong turns initially because of a thoroughly misperceived scale of the map I had been given (in my defence, the map did not actually map most of the roads that were there in the real Normal, and Midwest Americans do not bother with placing sidewalks along many of their streets and roads because everyone apparently just drives everywhere). Eventually, after stumbling around outside a lot of suburban housing and receiving a few suspicious looks, a friendly lady with an enthusiastic dog told me how to get to College Avenue, which I knew to follow straight to ISU but which she told me anyway leads straight to ISU. And this is how I came to appreciate just how many flags there were everywhere. Nothing journalistically questionable.

[2] I went along with what I at that stage thought to be a bizarre game of seeing whose confidence would break first, opened by her implicit promise that these beverages were really real and available despite the patent lack of any detectable evidence of their existence. I half expected her to raise an invisible coffee pot and pour it into an invisible cup, like at childrens’ tea parties.

[3] Actually by a young woman with a kind Midwestern pudge and roundness about her, who had clearly got the bad end of the work schedule and was now forced to wait at an empty airport terminal until she had clocked her 8 hours. But ‘manned’ with its old regimental connotations still seems somehow the appropriate term here, given the sort of military stoicism involved in standing in a spot for 8 hours where nothing happens, which is what people are really taking pictures of when they photograph the red-coated men with rifles and funny hats outside Buckingham palace in London. Except of course those who are taking pictures of the Most Photographed Men with Rifles and Funny Hats in the World, whose taking the picture is actually in the picture.

[4] 1 walking over get my luggage, 2 walking outside for the taxi rank, 3 coming back inside because there is no taxi rank, 4 chasing down a guy with a high-vis vest who I was hoping worked there to ask for taxi numbers and a phone, 5 walking back to the luggage belt to use the public phone the high-vis vest man had pointed out to me, 6 walking to the other end because the public phone didn’t work and there was another public phone, 7 walking over to the check-in counter after giving up on the whole principle of public phones and asking if she could call me a taxi, 8 walking over to the car rental service on advice of the check-in lady, which car rental service lady then finally let me use her phone to call for a taxi. Imagine the scene – the airport has a total of four people: me, check-in lady, high-vis vest man, car rental lady. One of those people keeps walking back and forth dragging his luggage behind him, like a bad extra in a busy-New-York-street-scene of a Woody Allen movie, except there are no other extras – there is not an audience in the world that would be fooled by that. They must have thought I was bonkers.

[5] Incidentally, I have never seen as many television ads for prescription medication urging to ‘ask your doctor’ whether X drug is right for you. I also saw an electronic billboard ad that said ‘Are you dreaming of a front porch? We’ll make your dream a reality,’ evidently an ad for mortgages, and a TV ad on my first morning at Tony Roma’s Slow and Overpriced Breakfast Place promoting a young lawyer who had unfortunately named his practice ‘Brave Law’ (“cool name huh?”) and described himself as a ‘beast in the courtroom’. In fact, a majority of my brief experience with US TV comprised ads for mortgages, lawyers and pharmaceutical products encouraging people to nag their doctors.

[6] David Foster Wallace once stated: ‘The Pantagraph, which is roundly loathed by most of the natives I know.’

[7] I wasn’t quite sure if I remembered it correctly, but it later turned out that just about everyone I asked at the DFW conference had taken a copy of the Pantagraph with them. I now use mine for swatting flies. The front page reads ‘House OKs parts of budget’, ‘WORKER KILLED’, and ‘Council signs off on rules for Uber’. The world had come to Normal.

[8] After ceremonially handing me the cookie in a napkin, and saying ‘welcome to America’ in a way that made it seem like this was the last and by far the most pleasant of a series of entry controls, the one that finally confirms you’re allowed to be here, starting all the way back in my house in Oxford where I filled in the online yes/no questionnaire confirming that I had never taken part in terrorist activities against the United States, through the confusing matrix of queues at Detroit Metropolitan Airport where I waited amid Southeast Asian people, waiting to get to, ironically, Southeast Asian customs officers who took my picture, asked why I was here and stamped my passport. So imperceptible was the difference in both general appearance (hair, skin colour, eye colour etc) and accent between those asking for entry and those granting it that I still don’t know whether it was a genuinely intentional show of American hospitality and pragmatism (make the entrants comfortable, but also keep the queue moving because the entrants and grantors of entry might share a first language) or an ironic coincidence. Incidentally, my own blonde hair, pale skin and bright eyes so stood out that the whole situation made me visualise myself being picked out for ‘random’ inspection and dragged off to the side, which by the time I got to the end of the (right) queue would have made me miss my connection flight, in what was the slowest-moving race against the clock of my life.

The cookie was great, though. Welcome to America.

[9] See FN 1.

[10] As the hours went on this air-conditioning would turn against you, and my slight internal embarrassment quickly turned into pride that even had little external manifestations; I would suggestively readjust or rebutton my cardigan when others in the conference would complain about how cold it was. But I don’t think anyone took any note.

[11] It of course turned out that these young men were here for the conference, weirdly almost exclusively British or Australian, and that they took zero shit by way of any ironical remarks about how haunted young men in round glasses should have made me clock immediately that this was the right place to come to. I’m not sure they said two words to me after that, even when I attempted to strike up a conversation, and I certainly wasn’t invited to the after-movie drinks on Thursday.

[12] Ok I have to do the coffee price thing now. Never, not once, in my week in the US did I see a latte that was priced above 4 dollars in the price list above the checkout. Similarly, not once was I actually charged below $4.32. This confused me so much, that in my first morning on College Hill Starbucks I eventually walked up to the cute checkout girl and asked how much the coffee was again, having stared at the price list above her head for maybe 15 minutes in a 5am jetlag daze and thoroughly confirmed that it was not the price I had paid. She punched it in the machine and said ‘$4.35’, and went about her business after that, leaving me at the checkout. Embarrassed, I said after her ‘oh, thanks, sorry, I was looking at the wrong thing’, not knowing what to think now.

Turns out that the price quoted in the price lists is price not including tax. This, somehow, seems like a very American thing to do – the US has ever since its inception had a funny relationship with taxes, and the shock of having to pay more at the till than you thought you would because of tax really feels like a fiscal ambush where the government is dipping into your pockets directly, just using your hands.

[13] In a party flyer he later gave me from his and David Wallace’s Arizona days he signs off a little defensively saying ‘Jt. (Yeah, that’s how it’s spelled; what of it?)’.

[14] Jt is his own kettle of fish, of which further below in the main text. Jt had very large gray sideburns, could talk for hours on end in endless incredible tangents and offshoots but could not not mention the Grateful Dead for more than 10 minutes, and would frequently start a sentence or question only to stop mid-sentence to turn around to look at everyone and say, in his wonderfully lively and rich voice: ‘hi, I’m Jate, I guess you may already know that’. One conference attendee (Carson, whose name was so American I literally didn’t believe it at first) later asked another, more senior attendee (who was lovely and who laughed at the funny bits in my reading but whose name I now can’t remember much to my embarrassment and whose name doesn’t appear in my notes because I was sure at the time that I would remember it – but I do remember that her daughter is in college and does what in America is called ‘crew’ and in Oxford is simply called ‘rowing’, and that she thinks rowing is an underappreciated sport in the US) in my presence ‘all that can’t possibly be true, right?’ to which the second attendee replied ‘there is no reason to think it is not true.’

Carson and his mother attended the conference together, either because they were both fans or because Carson (who was about to start college) has a helicopter mother, and when I told them I was thinking about writing this very piece the mother said ‘oh no we’re going to be in it!’, which I take to be a permission to include them here. Consider yourself in, Carson and Carson’s mum.

[15] Presentation topics ranged from the actually hard to believe (e.g. ‘Infinite Jest: To Annotate or Not to Annotate?’) to thinly veiled fanatically excited odes to technology and social media (‘”I am in here”: Kindles, Airplanes and Other Canisters’ & ‘Digital Intimacy: Infinite Jest as Art in the Age of Twitter’) to talks where David Foster Wallace’s work is literally taken as theology (‘”Dying to Give our Lives Away”: Infinite Jest as a Theological Resource for Re-Imagining Sin and Salvation’) to titles comprehensible to only the speaker (‘Infinite Jest Gödel, Escher Bach: An Isomorphic Exploration of Gödelian Metalogic in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest’).

This last title haunts me. Not only does it have the icky two-part structure apparently requisite of all conference titles (mine was no exception; it was ‘Out at Sea – Essay in Memory of David Foster Wallace’), and not only does it pick the most vague and self-congratulatory modifier+noun to describe itself (‘isomorphic’ + ‘exploration’), and not only does it manage actually to drop three famous names without mentioning the author of the likely source book where they are conveniently expressed as a triplet without comprehensively dealing with any of them (by Douglas Hofstadter, called Gödel, Escher, Bach; published by Basic Books 1979), and not only does it use the word meta, and not only does it include a sodding approximation sign, but it also actually dares to be so bold as to drop Infinite Jest twice. Go ahead, check again.

As a further side note, so often was the first part of a presentation title a DFW quotation that it started to give me the mental jitters – it was as if everything the presentation was about was somehow crystallized in something that David Foster Wallace had once said or written, the man treated like a prophetic law-giver when in truth that shit very often came from some wholly unspecial sentence somewhere. This thought was uncomfortable, that David Foster Wallace’s work was now a source of some ultimate truth to be isomorphically explored. Plus I was starting to get visions of how many people would be at my reading.

[16] Bloomington-Normal was so full of Redbird insignia that if this wasn’t a non­-fiction piece you would think it a cheap motif cooked up by your author to start setting the theme at this stage of this essay, later to be used in a striking metaphor or some other hammering home of a point. Redbirds came up in the most unexpected places, including the car rental desk, the napkin the cookie came wrapped in, the local sights brochure inside my hotel room, and the wall of Merry-Ann’s Diner. The answer to the obvious question is, to the best of my knowledge, that it must be a local sports team.

[17] For quick reference? In case the presentation turned out to be boring? This is, remember, a book of more than 1000 pages, which severely limits what it can be used for in a 15-minute presentation, especially by the audience.

[18] Later on Friday I ended up in Sam’s car on the way to a Denny’s that DFW used to frequent (Sam’s idea). It rained and we didn’t get to the Denny’s on time to make it back for the keynote speaker, so he picked something on the way back and ate it in the car. While he was doing it I felt compelled to keep the conversation going, so I let it rip on writing, pop culture, icon etc. When we got back to the parking hall and he finished his sandwich, he looked at me and said ‘have you ever thought you might be an introvert?’

[19] It occurred to me later, that if she was aware of the terrific ironic clash between her message and mode of behaviour, the whole presentation was a modern art masterpiece and should be required sitting-through material for everyone under 30.

[20] This kept happening at strangely fitting instants all throughout the weekend. Or maybe the mind just fixed on it at opportune moments when it felt like it highlighted some message. So much of the weekend seemed like a New Yorker short story about a writers’ conference that it was sometimes hard to believe it was real.

[21] I relied on an abundance of coffee as I was a little bit jetlagged, having woken up at 5am for my nearly deadly concrete wilderness adventure of crossing of the SUV-and-massive-pickup rapids to the Starbucks tax-not-included oasis in the middle of the parking lot desert. As a side note, I had my conference coffee without milk the entire day, even though I have a strong preference for milk in my coffee and even though milk was readily available. This is because I badly misinterpreted the third (from left to right) identical large thermal flask, entitled ‘Half and Half’, next to ones entitled ‘Tea’ and ‘Coffee’, which misinterpretation was strengthened by a well-timed small-talk comment made by another conference attendee who remarked how ‘half-and-half’ was somehow ‘in true Midwest fashion’ (a remark which felt then, and is now confirmed to be, a DFW quote). This misapprehension, that Midwestern Americans characteristically drink a strange mixture of tea and coffee in equal measures, was only rectified the following day when I was told ‘half-and-half’ referred to milk and cream.

[22] In the conference pamphlet every speaker got a little blurb at the back. Jt’s blurb reads, verbatim, as follows:

Jt Jackson let’s just say the former Marine now poet jaywaltergunn abides among transplanted Northwestern roses, volunteer plum trees and banks of solar cells on a south-eastern slope of a flatiron off of the Font Range, while the present performer, JT “jate” Jackson, who they say served with a gunn, was a friend of Dave’s back in those early days, enough to have been designated by “badge” as “the Dude” of his Wallocity (dear jeff do forgive our foolish dreams, but memes the sword, ntach, or was that “word”?). [ ; –0)’.

No kidding.

One Alexis Coe rather unkindly described Jt as either ‘David Foster Wallace’s friend and occasional muse (…) or Wallace’s old pot dealer who is now cashing in on the late writer’s legacy.’ This description was brought up by Jt himself, and roundly denied on both accounts: the suggestion that he was in the very innermost circle of David Foster Wallace at Arizona (“that was Heather and Forrester and of course Amy, we were kinda on the fringe”), and that he ever sold him marijuana (“The Dude abides. But I never sold him anything.”)

[23] It turns out an academic audience is really really difficult to make laugh. In my own reading, which in my view consisted of some of the more humorous parts of my piece, only one or two people laughed and even they in a stifled way. It occurred to me that academia is the only real Irony Free Zone.

[24] In case you were wondering what exactly had happened – it is likely that Jt suffers from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be exceptionally hard for former soldiers to cope with, as their training emphasizes keeping it together come what may in a way that is ingrained deep into the nervous system so as to skip all cerebral analytics. Losing control, when what every faint bio-electrical pulse in your body wants is control, can be tough, to put too fine a point on it.

Another point seems pertinent to add here. It is, of course, possible that Jt is a putting on the act of the anguished old friend for his own financial gain, but it seems unlikely. In my experience with some expert swindlers, these are people who do not miss a trick or sales, however small the venue – and I swear on my mother that what happened after the reading was such a colossal (within the context) shooting of one’s own foot in terms of poetry book sales that I do not see why a rational swindler would have done it. The only reason someone would put on the act to miss sales is to gain some bigger sale in the future, for which he needed the trust gained by the authentic missing of the smaller cashing-in opportunity. And sure, Ms Coe, this might be what Jt is doing, particularly in light of the fact that he did try to sell correspondence between him and David Foster Wallace in an auction (which, I point out, is nothing new – his letters have been sold lots of times in auctions, and are soon to be sold to a mass audience in book form by one Stephen J. Burn), but if that is the case, his swindle is simply operating on a different level that he thinks it is (the One Big Swindle Level rather than the Lots of Small Swindles Level), and a good swindler always knows what level his swindle is at – where the revenue source is. Jt has no Big Swindle that he could possibly pull, and if his conference antics were an act to reassure people of his good intentions, it seems odd that he was so desperate to hide it from the public eye. In light of this I cannot but wholeheartedly and honestly conclude that Jt really does miss his old friend dearly, and those old times, and that his near mental breakdown was genuine and sincere, like almost everything about Jt. And this was the first time I met the guy.

[25] She later claimed more than the average high school kid’s share of sass when, after Mary K. Holland had just made a stunningly self-congratulatory statement that Infinite Jest requires “intelligence and emotional maturity” beyond what high school kids can have, stood up and told everyone she was a high school kid and really rather enjoyed Infinite Jest and being treated like an adult by her English teacher. It was for this comment that I presented Emily with the only gift I had to hand, the script from my reading, for which gesture Jt later bought me a milkshake at Merry-Ann’s after the conference had ended and I had skipped along to the diner for a final goodbye and we spent hours talking about writing.

[26] I had met Chris earlier, when he had awkwardly but, bizarrely, rather personably told me that he likes to be by himself, and had read John Updike’s Rabbit, Run but could not bring himself to read the other three Rabbit books as the first one had so darkened his thoughts for such a long time. This was something of a feature of a certain section of the people I met during the conference – apart from the academics and a few writers, most of the participants are essentially hardcore fans and readers, and a common feature of this third and largest group was that they really, really took to what they read and felt the books they read very strongly. As an extreme example, take Jeff Calzaloia, who in his ‘featured panelist’ reading recited the first chapter of Pale King from memory, with his eyes closed in a prayerful expression, and did it again the final morning when we were having breakfast at Merry-Ann’s Diner. The feat actually defies expressions of disbelief; for those who haven’t read it, it is mostly names of various plants. And nobody, again, was weirded out by this, or thought that perhaps Jeff had a bit too much time in his hands. On the contrary, people felt they wanted to do the same, much in the way that seeing an incredible athlete makes you want to join the local Redbirds and aspire to push the limits of your body.

[27] Actually, there were two panel talks of academics, but you can safely treat them as the same, much larger and longer discussion where the panel changed in the middle. Plus I think we may have snuck out of one and come back to the next without realizing.

[28] This was not actually the only response he got. After the talk, on the corridor leading to the various Redbird conference rooms, a visibly annoyed man named Bill (who was some kind of journalist) had the following exchange with Jt:
“I found your comments very monovoice,” said Bill, surrounded by a small circle of four or five other journalists/academics.

“I’m just trying to give you the background facts to work with.”

“That’s a very monovoice comment.”

I can only guess what ‘monovoice’ means.

[29] As though what pen he wrote in carried some magic key to his writing ability, this appears to be a variant of the classic question at readings: “how do you write?/do you write longhand or shorthand?/do you type on a computer or write with a typewriter?/do you write in the morning or the evening?/etc.” This question, in its many forms, has always puzzled me. Perhaps it is humanising to realise that the words you read were actually really written by someone, in some real way (be it either typewriter or pen, ball point or felt tip – the answer doesn’t really matter, on this logic anyway).

[30] Some defensive or prophylactically defensive.

[31] There isn’t much to describe anyway except that the machine gun pace of the talks continued for another day, about which much has already been said and if I’m honest it was kind of boring for the most part, plus it rained. My own reading came and went, and I now harbour a semi-serious grudge against one Josh Roiland, some academic journalist guy, whose fandom extended to actually mouthing every DFW quote that Ryan (a fellow panellist and a man so nice it was impossible to know if he actually liked you or hated your guts) said, while closing his eyes and lifting his chin up as if to receive heavenly blessings, and who left just as I was about to start reading and who had a stupid gap between his stupid teeth stupid. The two were obviously friends, and I think I saw them in the Marriott bar for the after party of the actual conference.

[32] Irony comes in levels and waves, and it is sometimes tricky to keep track of it. Irony, it seems, is built out of knowing something that is not mentioned on the face of the text but which blossoms because both the speaker and recipient of the irony are on the same level of knowledge, and both know that they both know the things that make the statement or events ironic. On one level it is just funny when the bumbling Homer Simpson gets a gun. On deeper level, one below the immediately obvious, it is hilariously ironic when he shuts up Lisa, the liberal of the family, by saying “You don’t want the King of England on our backs, do you??” and Lisa meekly agrees, mirroring the Freedom Corner the liberals of the United States have painted themselves for decades.

So irony has to do with knowledge of facts outside the main text, and knowledge that both the speaker and recipient both know these facts. This makes irony a great bonding tool, but really, really dicey. Try this: I know, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know that I know, and I know that you know that I know that you know that I know etc etc. If you either skipped over the description of various levels of knowing or attempted to keep genuine track of who knows what, you will have noted that irony is mentally exhausting. P.s. what if you don’t realise what you’re saying is ironic? Is it then even ironic? Is intention a constituent part of irony?

[33] The conference, it seems sort of pointless to even say, had its own.

[34] The extent to which this is a post-reading feeling is unclear. It is unlikely that David Foster Wallace’s written thoughts were actually discovered by you way before you read them, but that’s what it feels like.

[35] Which parking complex seemed, somehow, as though it was still being constructed or the final finishing touches weren’t quite there yet and a group of burly contractors would come any minute and start on the final phase, in a slow-motion orgy of paint and coating and paving and what have you.

[36] ‘Bogan’, meaning essentially what a ‘chav’, or ‘Geordie’ (for Southern and Northeastern England respectively) means in the UK, or what ‘white trash’ means in the US, denoting a lack of refinement and tomato-smeared sweaty tank tops. From old English ‘bogan’, meaning to bow down to – the semantic equivalent of Pleb, from Latin Plebeian, meaning common (in the pejorative sense) people.

[37] And were evidently willing to bend the rules a bit on that very origin to gain this mystical Australian Connection – it is hardly a secret that ‘crikey’ is widely used in Britain as well as Australia.

[38] During which I had both the urgent necessity and ample time to devise and perfect a system of subtle but firm sound signals for asking the speaker to let someone else talk already.

[39] But I will say his name followed the familiar pattern in People Who Want to Be Taken Seriously, namely Formal-Version-of-First-Name/Initial/British-Last-Name/Jr, like John F. Kennedy Jr. Compare: Joseph H. Alexander, colloquially known as Joe.

[40] Either real or idealized – very often David Foster Wallace is characterized as ‘thinking the way you do’ or writing in ‘brain-voice’ (at least so described in a Charlie Rose interview and David Lipsky’s transcribed interview Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself). This is probably an idealized self being projected onto DFW’s writing style – David Foster Wallace himself repeatedly said it takes him a long time to tinker with the sentences, adding asides and taking stuff out and thus they are not the product of a uniformly flowing thought. It is unlikely that my thought, or anyone else’s for that matter, just comfortably flows the way David Foster Wallace’s writing does, if that writing is not there to guide the thought – much as I would like to think otherwise. Even David Foster Wallace himself couldn’t think like that on the spot, as he said in the Lipsky interview: “give me 24 in a room by myself, alone, and I can be really really smart”.

[41] Like the stuff I wrote above about Ashlie M. Kontos is making me feel like I’m not really a very nice guy. Maybe even a bit of an asshole.

[42] For those who are interested, there is a whole field of philosophy devoted to this subject with roots going at least as far back as Plato and the cave analogy, called ‘analytical philosophy’ and branching out at various points, IMHO perhaps most interestingly at Wittgenstein.

[43] And bear in mind, Jt is the first to admit he wasn’t Dave’s best friend by a mile – even in Arizona.

[44] The debate going roughly like this: It’s not my place to tell. But it’s touching. But it’s also complex, and it’s difficult to see what’s touching about it. But if I manage to show what’s touching about it, wouldn’t that be a feather in my self-appreciation cap, like writer-wise? But it’s also kinda long and this piece is really long already. But people who actually read this are likely to be Wallace fans and therefore used to long and complicated stuff. But now that you’ve said it’s touching, what if people don’t find it touching? Or what if they find it touching, but just because you said it was touching? But now that you’ve said all this, you have to tell the story. I am genuinely on the fence here.

[45] But a final, terrifically ironic detail: is this piece the ‘profile of the people writing a profile of David Foster Wallace’ that David Foster Wallace mused about writing?

[46] On ISU philosophy department’s walls I saw a poster that said ‘they have a degree in philosophy’, with a bunch of famous non-philosopher heads including the bandannaed head David Foster Wallace. It seems philosophy departments everywhere are struggling to get people to major in their subject.

Essay: DFW, Irony and Image

Or Certain Stuff about Public and Private Personae in Pop Culture

I never knew David Foster Wallace personally. But I do know an old friend of his. Through him, I have heard countless stories, even had tears in my eyes at one of them. I have seen Wallace’s handwriting on old workshop manuscripts from his early twenties.[1] I have read some of his own manuscripts from his early twenties. But I only know him as a reader. And this turns out to be significant.

Wallace is the kind of author that readers either never get comfortable with or go absolutely apeshit for. Reading his work and engaging with his rhythms you will either hear nothing, or his music sounds so strong your most authentic and bare self shakes and cracks in resonance. His work is at times spectacular. In one camp, readers see his great novel Infinite Jest as both laugh-out-loud funny and, with a few long reflective pauses, chest-implosion-sad. In another, his book is too long, too weird, too complicated, too interested in the internal workings of the self and carries too high a postage fee for a rationally efficient loss-limiting resale online. But before you read his stuff, there is no way to know which camp you’ll unpack your rucksacks in.

The reason for these two polarized camps of readers is, in my opinion, that there is a great irony at the core of his work. And some people are not big on irony.[2]

Let’s unpack. Wallace saw literature as an “antidote to loneliness”, the idea being that reading is a way of connecting with another human being on a deep, thought-sharing level. So in his own work he wanted to get as close to the reader as possible, all the way inside his reader’s head. He writes in brain-voice — sprawling sentences with multiple asides, offshoots, segues, tangents, full of interesting little thoughtlets, the thrust or point spreading forward like a tree branch with joyous cherry blossoms everywhere until you aren’t sure exactly what the point is, but it sure is interesting. He would often run out of the grammatically permissible ways in which strings of clauses can be subordinated (his sentences were sometimes really, really long), and resort to writing in footnotes.[3] It is fireworks of synaptic connections. It is how thought works, if we have the patience to slow down the Michael-Bay-Action-Scene noodling of our noodler and look at each individual blossom patiently, not cutting our thinking short.

The irony is, of course, that this can be extremely alienating to the reader. The brain-voice writing can be really difficult to follow if you are used to reading more conventional stuff where not every side-cavern of every thought has to be burrowed in and explored with high-precision sonar imaging technology before moving on with the main point. In terms of plot, with Infinite Jest you are still figuring out what the hell is going on at page 200, where normally novels start to turn towards some kind of resolution. Even in bare terms of physical dimensions, Infinite Jest is so huge you are best suckered into buying it online where you can’t actually see the book. Starting Infinite Jest means you are committed to playing the long-game, and the payoff may never come.[4]

But park that idea for a moment. Let’s say you do like Wallace, and are not alienated by his style. You find his ideas compelling. His intellect is approachable, understandable, but also totally V-12 Turbo Supercharged. You feel like he speaks to you. You feel like you’re in his head and he’s in yours, like you know him, want to know him, want to get intimate with all that profundity. You watch YouTube interviews of him, feel like you get him as a person, and he gets you. You can’t wait to go to the reading of his next book, to have it signed, to ask him a question, to engage with him personally. You search online for his book tour.

Wallace hanged himself in 2008. Jonathan Franzen, friend of Wallace and another seriously famous book dude, wrote in a 2011 New Yorker piece: “his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.” And this turns out to be significant.

So – person vs public legend. In 1996, David Lipsky spent five days with Wallace, interviewing him on his Infinite Jest book tour. They never communicated since, apart from a note accompanying one of Lipsky’s loafers that Wallace sent to Lipsky’s house after the interview. In 2010, Lipsky had the interview tapes written up, made them into a book, and in 2015 that book is coming out as a film.

The movie, The End of the Tour, caused a few uneasy ripples in the internet Wallacesphere. I have never been very good at judging crowd moods, but at least in my case the uneasiness came from the fact that David Foster Wallace was now a character on screen, played by Jason Segel, in a film that is actually really about the hype that was about Infinite Jest. The idea that he is now a character is kind of both fitting and hilarious.

The film, like Wallace’s own work, also has a great irony at its heart: David Foster Wallace wrote a 1000-page book about how seductive image, particularly televisual image, is to lonely consumers, and how deadly it can be to take image life-devotion-seriously. When promoting that book in ‘96 some reporter recorded some tapes that are have now been made into a movie.[5] Now, he is an image.

An image is crafted by somebody with an interest, designed in a way as to produce maximum appeal to the greatest number of people, so as to produce the largest possible cough-up quotient of consumers carrying their cash to the image’s producer. This should not strike anyone as sinister or even novel, by now. Most blockbuster mainstream cinema has been more about this than anything else for a long time now. The main characters in big Hollywood movies are testosteronic hunks of male muscle or gym-tight female hotbods. They are not supposed to be people, they are supposed to be images that are supposed to be appealing, and that appeal is supposed to sell tickets. Very often they are superheroes.

The DFW movie image is no superhero. The End of the Tour, in true DFW fashion, is cleverer and more ironic than that. It is a movie about a story about someone wanting to do a story about David Foster Wallace’s book being a newsworthy story. So in a way, the film is about itself. The subject matter of the movie is the hype surrounding David Foster Wallace, which hype then reduces Dave Wallace (as he was known to his friends), the person, into DFW the image. But the film is a part of this process, transforming DFW, the image, into DFW, the character – one more step removed from us readers,[6] who are already one more step removed from those who actually knew him.

But an extra layer of irony becomes apparent. It’s not just that David Foster Wallace wrote books about image, and that he is now made into an image, and that the image is now made into a movie, but that the movie is actually supposed to be a Behind the Public Persona look at David Foster Wallace, a glance into the real Dave, behind the three letters, based on a five-day interview/hangout, with extensive lines lifted straight from the interview tapes verbatim.[7] The idea is that we get to know Wallace, find out what he was really like, get the story behind his genius.

But this is a movie. There is literally a screen between you and the person, and the person is not Wallace but someone playing Wallace. Wallace is an image, a distant brilliant artist, all the while saying on screen how he is just a regular guy just like he really said in exactly the same words in 1996. The number of layers of irony is making my head spin.

And then, still, on the other hand, the movie is really, really sincere.[8] That friend of Wallace’s I know characterised it in a subsequent email as “splentabulous, gracious and grand.” At an early screening of the movie my job was to sit next to him so he could keep it together knowing he was among people who cared about him, while watching a representation of an old friend he has lost, on screen. Every five minutes in the movie he pointed out how spot on the portrayal was, and he was visibly touched.

And I have no reason to doubt this conclusion. Jason Segel, and the entire production team, had clearly done their homework, which in Jason Segel’s case actually involved getting through Infinite Jest with a reading group. In a radio interview in the movie Jason Segel sounds so much like Wallace that I had to listen to the scene again just to check it wasn’t actually Wallace.[9] The note that comes with David Lipsky’s loafer in the movie must either have been the real-life note that came with Lipsky’s real-life loafer, or it must have been crafted by a handwriting expert. In a way, the whole project seems like the biggest effort in history that a really serious and well-funded fan club has ever done to make their idol come alive for their pleasure.[10] And DFW sure has some serious fans.

Based on testimonials, the movie is stunningly accurate and does not make a court jester out of Wallace, and the wonderful thing about movies is that they feed interest in their subjects. Everyone knew John Nash, who we should bear in mind was a socially challenged economist, after A Beautiful Mind. A lot of my friends bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time after Theory of Everything came out. And Hawking is a theoretical physicist who is in a wheelchair and literally cannot produce human speech except through a computer. Chances are that when The End of the Tour comes out, lots of people will buy and read and enjoy Infinite Jest, which its style notwithstanding is still a lot more approachable than theoretical physics. And eventually some of them, these new readers, will maybe feel a little less alone. The weird thing about Wallace is that if you want to know him, to hear his thoughts, to connect, you should read his stuff. If you want to distance yourself from him as a person, watch his public persona. There is plenty to discover in both.

And this, then, is the significance of knowing him as a reader as opposed to in real life, and knowing him as public legend. There is no way to meet the real David Wallace now; we can only interact with his writing or his image. If this was an intentional move by Wallace, as Franzen seems to suggest in his anger and frustration, then it is the final, great irony at the core of his core. Turns out Wallace was big on irony. And it is very sad, though possibly genius – just like Infinite Jest itself.

[1] So can you, by the way. Just about everything he has ever written is being published, including his undergraduate thesis and soon his personal letters. If there’s a sheet of paper somewhere that he put pen to, it’s now worth something. Most of the actual physical originals are kept at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Go nuts. And yeah, we’re doing footnotes.

[2] Wallace’s grand piece on TV irony, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, is well worth reading if you are big on it.

[3] Sometimes the footnotes have footnotes and run for pages.

[4] This investment/payoff thinking that Infinite Jest forces on the reader is all actually a part of the book, but that is a topic for another essay.

[5] In which Jason Segel, playing DFW, in an odd twist actually explains this point about the book. More on layers of irony in the main text.

[6] An odd detail: In the movie Jason Segel, playing David Foster Wallace, almost exclusively wears clothes that the real DFW demonstrably wore in public interviews or photos. At the bookstore scene Jason Segel wears the gray polo/white t-shirt combo that DFW wore in an early Charlie Rose interview, together with Jonathan Franzen and Mark Leyner. (Plus a white bandana, bandanas of all colors being the trademark headgear of Wallace, though not worn in that Charlie Rose TV interview. In the movie Jason Segel only takes off the bandana once, but does recite the what-if-people-think-this-bandana-is-just-an-image-thing line from the real interview. Layers.) The next morning he is wearing an outfit from his Newsweek photo, which we incidentally see in the movie reproduced to an impressive level of detail with Jason Segel’s face where DFW’s face is expected to be, so carefully reproduced that it ironically actually looks almost like a bad photoshop job. From this photo we can also see the easy chair next to some cinderblock bookcases that we then see in David’s house in the movie. A shadeless lamp is next to the chair, as it is in a 1997 Getty images photo that I couldn’t find the original publication of but which features in plenty of newspapers. Part of this is, of course, just really thorough research. But research that’s this thorough and loyal to the original source material, which material is literally a set of public images, seems to suggest it’s an image that we’re preserving here. Note also how none of his nerdier, mousy looking bandana-and-shorts-with-sandals-and-socks-looks made it into the film. Or maybe this is just because the film is set in winter.

[7] David Lipsky made the entire collection of interview tapes available to the film production team, and of course Lipsky’s book is a direct transcript.

[8] Sincere being as close to a semantic opposite of ‘ironic’ as one can get, without wrapping oneself in too many definitional layers that then, ironically, become ironic.

[9] Another ironic detail: in the movie Jason Segel loses the accent and tone when his character gets angry at a probing question on heroin use. There, he just sounds like an angry Jason Segel, but the anger feels very real – it’s as though when displaying real emotion, synthesized-on-cue as it may be, he actually sheds the image he plays and becomes a real person, which of course is ironic as he is supposed to be playing a real, behind-the-scenes person. This may be genius or a colossal accident, but either way it’s very fitting.

[10] But then, does that make this idol worship? Does DFW now belong to his fans? Is DFW ours to make images of? Can we just take a public persona and reconfigure it at our pleasure? See, this image-irony business gets very tricky very quickly.

Essay: Out at Sea

Out at Sea*

As I write this I still feel as though the ground under my chair is rocking up and down slowly. The floor and every peg upon which to hang anything in my room are covered in wet and salty clothes. A sleeping bag hangs upside down and gutted from the door of a cupboard like a giant fish. It smells a bit like one too. My hair stands up on its own, and is sticky and windblown into a weird rubbery texture it has never been previously. The water in my shower is about to be turned briefly into seawater. The skin on my face is grainy and crusted, and if I rub it with my rope-tendered fingers salt comes off it. Actual salt. I have enormous bags under my eyes and my face feels swollen, but that might just be the rum, the rum that my sea-savvy undergraduate companions verbally danced around almost exclusively in Captain Jack Sparrow quotes (he of the Pirates of the Caribbean fame, played memorably and commercially extremely viably by Johnny Depp, who if you don’t remember will no doubt revise his role when he next either runs out of money or feels like parodying himself[1]) and that is now by all indicators gone, or at least nobody has had a confirmed sighting of it since Saturday night.

I now know what it is like to sail, or at least be physically positioned on a boat, in gale force winds.[2] Many expressions and turns of phrase which I’ve been aware of previously but whose origin I never quite understood totally make sense to me now, phrases such as ‘prove your salt’ and ‘show the ropes’, having over the weekend been shown the actual ropes (of which there are many and multicoloured variations, and many and multicoloured more), and been covered in aforementioned salt and thus know and appreciate exactly the sort of process that is involved in having any salt to prove. I know to my cost that a folded sail spews out water when it is pulled up and unfolded (maybe ‘hoisted’ is the correct term here, though I never did quite get the hang of all that terminology, and ‘hoist’ is suspiciously every-day to deserve any place on a boat. But a ‘halyard’ is involved in the process – see below). I also know the putrid seawater it spews smells mistakably like cat wee, though I am hoping it isn’t actually cat wee, or wee of any other description. I know how to fold a sail. I have ‘sweated’ a mainsail up (meaning, to the best of my knowledge, that I have pulled one up with my hands as opposed to using a winch). I now have a cute little RYA (Royal Yachting Association) logbook costing £4.99 where I have proudly written my name in the white box on the cover and logged my limited weekend mileage. I have a sailing name (it is ‘Galaxy’ – long story). I know how to judge if you are going to pass in front of a perpendicularly moving boat (if it eats up the landscape behind it you will pass in front, though I am not sure how this translates to passing behind or crashing into). I know how to scout out for strong gusts by looking at the sea (the shiny bits of sea are even winds, the not-shiny bits are gusts. This is the best way I can describe it). I know what it is like to have the contours of my face reduced to salt water receptacles (imagine your tightly closed eye situated in the bottom of a full cup of seawater, the water kept there not by gravity but by the sheer force of the wind plus generous and frequent refilling). I have clambered up from one side of the boat to another (from starboard to port, I believe, but really have no flipping idea), and then dipped in the sea up to my waist as the boat turned again to another side. (It was fun. Like being on a rollercoaster.) A song by Fujiya & Miyagi, as I later found, simply called ‘Uh’ (listen to it and you’ll know why) reportedly on the Breaking Bad soundtrack is now etched forever in my mind as being connected to sailing and the open seas, as that song has – and I use this word only in rare and meritorious occasions – a wicked bass track, especially when appreciated through the medium of a 38-foot yacht’s rhythmically resonating glass fibre hull-cum-ungodly-sized sounding board whose boomwall massiveness really cannot be accurately described here except that it feels a bit like your inner ear has been punched with a Marshall full stack or something suitably shapely and large, like a barn door or the façade of a Guggenheim architectural design competition finalist. Ironically the other theme song of our weekend was ‘All About That Bass’ by somebody or other, which played on the radio every fifteen minutes[3] and whose bass track is wholly unwicked.

All this is because I went out with the OUYC, the Oxford University Yachting Club, on one of their ‘cruising trips’ to the English Channel on a weekend of bipolar-schizophrenic weather, Saturday being a prolonged near-death experience (though I was cheerily unaware of it at the time, and rather felt like pumping a fist diagonally at the dark sky and shouting ‘YEAH!’ or assorted blasphemous insults to Thor or Poseidon for failing to sink us every time the Talisman, our yacht and home for the weekend, crashed through the wall of a giant wave) and Sunday being take-off-your-shirt-and-have-a-beer-why-don’t-you-lovely, with the only exception of the vicious rain that caught us as we were finally about to bring the mainsail (the big back one) down and moor (park) the boat for the very last time. I couldn’t help thinking the rain was my fault for all those blasphemous insults at various sea- and weather-based gods.

I learned of the trip on Thursday, and promptly signed on because it sounded like fun. I then realised it is quite cold outside (it is November), and then that I had essentially nothing to wear that would shield me from this cold or its wind-enhanced, business-meaning, rugby-playing-or-otherwise-substantially-larger-and-meaner cousin who lives on the channel islands and comes out to flex its muscles at inexperienced and hapless writers out at sea. Nor did I have anything that was really waterproof. In my panic of realising I don’t even know about waterproof wearables enough to make any real purchase decisions, I decided to buy wellies. This turned out to be one of the wiser purchases I made that day, and served to confirm the consumer fantasy – that our purchases really show us how wise/enlightened/sophisticated/virtuous we are.[4] Having dry feet is underappreciated in normal, land-based life of short supply lines, and wellies help a great deal in furthering this objective. Though be warned; they will fill up with water if you are dipped in the ocean up to your waist, and their waterproofing feature will then turn against you with a malicious vengeance fitting Greek tragedy or the next series of Game of Thrones.

On Friday evening I duly made it to the rendezvous point, the coach stop in front of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where an odd-looking young man waited perched atop his ‘kitbag’. What made him look so odd was the explode-on-impact visual double-whammy of his offensively extensive neck beard with not a whisk on his actual face, like he was the leader of an anti-movember movement and took his position undergrad-grade-seriously, coupled with his upwards-protruding hair that rose in concaves like the foot of a mushroom cloud or the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant. It transpired later that he was an engineer, though that may or may not have been relevant, and that he is one of the more experienced members of the OUYC racing team, and further that his looks were the result of a game among the club called ‘odds’, of which further below. He said his name was Bryn, and qualified it immediately by saying ‘it is a ridiculous name’. I told him it was alright, and that he should see mine, though we actually only discussed through a possibly-American postgraduate called Elliott or Elias or Eli or something similar, who seemed very concerned that we might be waiting in the wrong place and whose stress-induced blood cortisol levels we were taking turns in trying to keep in check.[5] At five minutes to six he went to check around the corner, and came back crestfallen. We had failed. For the next five minutes his cortisol levels must have been through the roof. His life expectancy might be permanently shortened.

Other people soon arrived, as did the coach. I take it Mr E was happy or at least less concerned, though I had now lost sight of him among the Tesco bags of ridiculous food only undergraduate students with little cooking experience would buy – an enormous amount of bread and boxes of cereal, bacon and at least ten bottles of rum and multiple giant bags of smaller bags of crisps of odd flavours, and not much else – in particular the hopelessly inadequate number of water bottles would prove to have been spent by Sunday morning with a full day of sailing left and a pretty decent hangover all around.[6] The kitbags and comestibles were awkwardly[7] packed on the coach and we took off towards some unknown location, which later turned out to be Portsmouth, home of the infamous and elaborate Tiger Tiger nightclub, presumably named so as a single mention of the ferocious feline simply would not convey firecracker image[8] that this club apparently lived up to.[9]

Nothing much of note happened on the coach trip, as most people did not know each other yet and I sat at the front fearing carsickness, which I am no stranger to and which I would have taken as a really bad omen for a weekend on a boat where seasickness is a real and present danger, and quite desperately needing a wee until I finally discovered the coach toilet hidden by the middle stairs, which toilet I promptly put to good use. I had severe doubts as to whether the radio really needed to be on so loud (my ears rang for hours afterwards), and whether every song on the radio really was as ‘HOT’ as the pre-recorded automatic DJ without a single lapse always exclaimed before playing (just that, ‘HOT’, and nothing else, no explanatory note or anything) – though I will admit some of the songs genuinely had such thermodynamic properties. We arrived at the marina (the boat equivalent of a parking lot), unloaded the coach thrice more awkwardly[10] than we had packed it and on the planks of the marina, amidst what must have been hundreds of oddly-named shining-white boats, divided into our respective yachts with each group taking an experienced student sailor and an unlikely selection of the food on offer with them – our selection included most of the crisps, most of the bread and little else. The marina smelled faintly of fish and salt. The planks made planky sounds as we walked over them.

We all sat down on the seats inside the cabin, moved our kitbags to the hole in the wall where I was to sleep (though if I had known it at the time I might have kicked up a fuss that everybody’s kitbags were kept there, for obvious logistical and spatial reasons), and stared at the floors, walls and ceiling whilst huddled together in close quarters in what must have been one of the most awkward silences I have braved through. The skipper/probable owner[11] of the boat, a thirty-something called Simon, handed us all beers and Tom, the student sailor who was to lose most of his eyebrows within the next hour and a half, attempted unsuccessfully to engage us in conversation. Still, we all loved him for trying.

Small bags of oddly-flavoured crisps were passed around. A two-foot inflatable penis was discovered in one of the cabins, but your present author was unable to elicit any further information as to its origin or purpose from any of the most likely sources: Simon, Tom, Bryn or any of the other experienced student sailors.[12]

An awkward 15-minutes feels like an awkward hour. Because of this socio-psychologically skewed time perception I have no idea how long we spent there in the slowly warming cabin of our yacht trying to learn each others’ names and finding out what we all did, and when those subjects ran their short course we probably just sat in silence – until some time later, not a long time but not short either, a group from the other non-postgrad boat all piled into the cabin of Talisman, bringing food and rum and merry company. When we went around the boat giving our names is when I received my sailing name, one which I did not foresee would stick but which two nights later would still be shouted back and forth between boats mid-sailing in a way that felt really very welcoming, on Sunday when the wind had died down so completely that whole conversations could be had between crews that were boat-lengths away from each other on the open seas.

Among the visitors was a small girl with an unprecedented volume of thick and really blonde hair, blonde that must have been natural but that looked as if it had just been re-bleached five minutes ago and then ten minutes ago, wearing running tights (I remember silently questioning to myself whether they really were the most convenient thing to be wearing on a sailing trip but which highlighted her shapely legs, of which I also said nothing) and a slack hoodie with her last name at the back. She had large front teeth that were left uncovered by duty-abandoning lip most of the time as if she was showcasing them to an approaching predator, sometimes in smile but also in a blank expression and actually just about every other expression. She had a skin problem that she had covered in copious amounts of makeup but which didn’t make her look unattractive, she was funny and quick and I had a semi-serious mini-crush on her for the entire trip (I am almost certain she must have a serious boyfriend as only a second year undergraduate can have,[13] because she kept checking her phone every thirty seconds for the entire weekend), though of course I did not mention this mini-crush to her either. I had to ask her name separately as I had missed it on the first round, I told her she was the funniest person in the boat (which I said sincerely and not because of the mini-crush which was only developing at that stage, more an effect of my finding her so funny than its cause). I have since come around and do not wish to give the name here, as I now see her every Monday for sailing theory which I attend to try to understand what the hell just happened in order to write this piece, and genuinely think she is funny and pleasant and I wish her well, even if my mini-crush may have only lasted the weekend. However, I will say this, that her combination of the sack-like pyjama-esque slackness of her hoodie and the sleek, aerodynamic streamlined skin-tight running bottoms made her look simultaneously really fast, and really, really slow in terms of a capacity to cover a real physical distance between A and B.

My declaring the Blonde Girl the funniest person in the boat caused our second-in-command, Tom, to speak out something to the effect of ‘what about me’. This exclamation was backed by some considerable merit, as he had already swum in the filthy marina (it is also November, I reiterate) and lost one of his eyebrows.

The game of ‘Odds’ is played in the following manner. One sailor challenges another, by saying ‘odds’ after the other has made an audacious claim, such as ‘I can sweat a mainsail in 30 seconds’. The challenged sailor, the one who made the claim, will then choose any number, but all serious players of ‘Odds’ always choose two. Both will then, on count of three, say out a number between one and the number chosen (so usually 1 or 2). Where both the challenger and the challenged say the same number, the challenged wins and the challenger will lose an eyebrow (or possibly have to do the thing originally claimed, depending on whether both have agreed on it). Where the participants say a different number, the challenger wins and the challenged will have to do the thing claimed, or lose an eyebrow.[14]

I do not remember what Tom had claimed, but it evidently had something to do with swimming in the marina. He lost, on odds, stripped down to his boxers (while the girls were watching intently, including or especially the Blonde Girl which stuck a small needle in that competitive man-part of me that seeks self-emphasis and tries to be really funny and make a lot of noise whenever an attractive girl and other young men are around in a group-situation) and jumped in the cold water. He swam two or three strokes, a fact that was later disputed (unsuccessfully) in an effort to make him do it again, got up the ladder and went to have a warm shower.

I forget now exactly what he lost his first eyebrow for, as he certainly did swim in the marina, though in my defence the rules were really rather complex for the uninitiated. I have a vague recollection that he accidentally claimed something so outlandish that nobody could possibly do it, in the way that people who are unaccustomed to the game of Odds do on a daily basis, like “I’ll be two minutes” when nipping to the shops or similar. The game of Odds is, it turns out, very literal and not open to lawyerly interpretation and argument – it is unforgiving as the sea.

A quick tally of which of the young ladies had brought a razor was taken – it turned out most of them had, while none of the gents had bothered. This struck me at the time as exemplifying some fundamental difference between the two genders, the not-being-arsed practicality of men versus the be-prepared-for-all-eventualities long term planning capacity of women. Still, given that it was freezing outside and everybody wore their ‘fowlies’[15] almost the entire time, leaving only a small part of the face visible and presumably the face is not what the ladies had in mind when they bought their razors. I still wonder what they thought was going to happen on the ‘extravaganza cruise’ of the Oxford University Yachting Club, but asking them this turned out to be some kind of inquisitorial faux pas, like asking someone to name their least favourite person on the boat with everyone present, and the question was met with only vague and slightly derisive answers. Anyway, a razor was located suspiciously soon and Tom lost his first eyebrow.

I do remember how he lost his second, taking place not 20 minutes after the first one and progressing from challenge to hair-removal very rapidly indeed. It was simply a case of double or nothing, the challenger being a Northern English lad by the name of Mike (whose full name I assume to be Michael but who you would never consider calling Michael as opposed to Mike), a charming young man with a constant smile on his face and also my cabin mate.[16] Odds were called, Tom replied with ‘two’ (as expected), and then lost his second eyebrow. The rules of the game were becoming more and more shrouded in mystery to me at this stage (why couldn’t he just swim again? What did double or nothing even mean in this context, it’s not as if he can get his first eyebrow back?), but I didn’t want to fuss. At this stage he started to look uncannily like Matt Smith of the Doctor Who fame. For the rest of the weekend people would burst out laughing when he suddenly turned to face them, which might have simply given him the subconscious impression that everyone was always really happy to see him. Anyway, I referred to him as ‘the Doctor’ for the rest of the weekend. I am not sure he appreciated it, and he very politely referred to me by my real name and not ‘Galaxy’, though I tried to indicate in small ways that ‘Galaxy’ was entirely fine with me.

The evening went on with much rum, music (this is when I first heard ‘Uh’) and merriment for hours and hours, it was crowded and tiring and fun. Had this been an American scouts camp or a similar setting I am sure someone would have whipped out a guitar from somewhere and led everyone in a singalong of Kumbaya or something.[17]

I have perhaps dwelt enough on the wind speed and general weather that we went ‘cruising’ in on Saturday. I wish, however, to make clear that it was this day that I learned all the things which I described above as knowing, especially the thing about your eye socket becoming a salt water receptacle. The yacht travelled at such an angle that one of its sides always had water up to the deck itself, and describing a yacht’s motion in strong winds as crashing through waves turns out to be no exaggeration at all. As the wave hits you the boat shakes and it even makes a crashing sound, with water being thrown high up in bathtubfuls only then of course to rain down on you with the same blitzsplash ferocity as PETA-fanatics throw paint on people with fur coats in a multidirectional ambush. It is here that my face was encrusted with salt, my waterproof gloves dishonoured their sale-inducing promise and my legs were dangled down from the surface of the ocean like giant bait for giant fish before I could clamber up. Sitting on the deck was like sitting in a puddle continuously, though the fowlies very respectably did not allow for seepage. Simon never let go of the helm for one second, and I found a new respect for Tom ‘the Doctor’, who was very much in control, knew what he was doing and ceaselessly worked at pulling one rope or another, loosening something here, tightening something there. He explained to me, upon journalistic displays of curiosity which I tried to make as unencroaching upon his important looking job as to keep us afloat, that what he was doing was ‘depowering the sail’ in the incredibly strong gusts, so they wouldn’t knock us over. Sensing an ‘in’, I launched a series of questions about how sailing works and what all the ropes were for, during which I asked what that rope was used for and why was it over there, and Tom answered ‘that’s just the halyard’ with a tone that had implications regarding the questioner’s intelligence. I replied ‘Oh I see’, as if that had somehow explained things, which it hadn’t. I have never even had a flagpole (which not many people in England have), and I had no idea what the word even meant – I didn’t see.[18]

This is also where he taught me how to look out for gusts and asked me to call them out as I saw them so he could take action without having to scan the seas constantly. I believe I might have done a poor job at this, being a little overly excited by the new information which I had never thought of before, that you could ‘see’ gusts like that out at sea, and merely pointing them out like ‘look there’s one’ without doing the proper sailor thing of counting down to when it was going to hit the sail. We travelled really really fast, and occasionally the yacht turned into a 38-foot surfboard as we caught and rode giant waves. It was really really fun, though this is also where my hair got the strange rubbery texture to it and was described by a fellow crewmember as ‘Jedwardesque’, a word which in itself seems to exemplify the combined sophistication/trashy pop culture knowledge of these Oxford undergraduates. If you do not know it, look up ‘Jedward’, and maybe ‘hair’. You will see things.

Someone went below deck, and emerged with a bag of apples which we all passed around kindly but like our lives depended on them, losing one or two in the waves. Then we all sat on the edge of the improbably tilted boat, bit into our apples and let the wind ring in our ears. The air was fresh; the wind felt good as it brushed dry our faces. Within minutes is when the boat would turn abruptly and we would all dip in the sea, but we didn’t know that then, and though the wind was still fierce and the waves still beat against us on occasion, none of us said a word. It was the sweetest mildly salted apple I have ever had, and that was all I thought. The mind did not wander or analyse, it only concentrated on being in time and space. Sailing has its moments.

By the time we got back to the marina, at 3pm I might say, we were so beat it felt like bedtime. It turns out that even though you are just sitting for most of the time whilst sailing, your body is constantly adjusting to the swing of the boat (hence why I still feel the ground is rocking), like balancing on an exercise ball for hours, tensing muscles and so on. Sailing in high winds is, surprisingly to your present author, physically exhausting. I changed into dry clothes, and the contrast gave rise to a comfort so intense I have rarely felt its equal.[19] The entire interior of the yacht was covered in drying clothes and shedded fowlies. My hurry to shed mine could have proved very costly, since I was the first one in our boat to get out of them and consequently mine were left at the bottom of one of the several piles of heavy-duty waterproof clothing whose interior was nevertheless soaked, and they were no dryer on Sunday as they had been on Saturday afternoon, only colder and more redolend. But thankfully I did not have to even think about wearing them on Sunday.

Because there is very little to say about our sailing on Sunday whose journalistic gist has not been accurately conveyed already, it is perhaps more appropriate to discuss what it is about sailing, or yachting, that conjures up the images of sharp white clothes and rich people, that either made you pick up this piece and spend time reading it, or decide not even to pick up this piece in which case all best wishes to you, you who will never receive these wishes. Because in actual fact, in its core, sailing to me is nothing more than caravanning, but instead of the open roads you have the open seas.

There are people for which sailing is an actually useful and necessary skill. Tom, of the lost eyebrows fame, is one of them. He grew up in the channel islands[20] and had to sail to Portsmouth on a pretty regular basis, I imagine. For the vast majority of people who do sailing, however, it seems to be some kind of entertainment.

The bizarre thing here is of course that sailing is not easy, and its skilled execution resembles something closer to a military drill than a movie or bungee jumping or any other conventional form of what we now consider entertainment. Also, it is still in a pretty fundamental way a method of getting from one place to another – it’s as if simply driving around would be entertainment, as most often you’re not even actually going anywhere when sailing with any schedule or any particular person to visit, but literally sailing around. This is what the allure of the ‘open seas’ is meant to be, that you are free to go anywhere in the world with only you, your trusted and oddly-named yacht and your perseverance against natural forces in the man vs nature bout mentioned in FN15. But most yachters do not actually travel on their yachts, or if they do it is usually on a holiday and the holiday consists mostly of being on the yacht.

Imagine a week-long holiday where you hardly ever left the car. No, more: imagine a holiday where you hardly ever left the car, and it was still romantically considered to be somehow evincing a profound connection with human nature that you went around in the car in the first place; your driving is an impressive fact about you that you like to share stories of with your friends at the Car Club, wearing a special £1,000 double breasted Car Club blazer and cream trousers, and displayed your new £400 driving shoes. You say things like you feel truly at peace when driving, and that your mind rests when you drive, and you can’t wait to go driving again in the fantastic open roads of Greece or the US west coast or Cuba or something. No way.

What is even more odd is that yachting isn’t actually substantially more comfortable than travelling in a caravan. And not in one of those high-end American caravans that are really more like houses on wheels, but in one of those shit European ones that are made of an alloy of plastic foam with an aluminium cover. In fact, if you were beamed across space into a yacht, you might not know the difference: the surfaces are that same imitation wood, the doors have that same lack of heft or substance to them as if they were made of cardboard and then, of course, there is the toilet.

I am a grown up, and have long since let go of the thought that I’d need any help conducting myself in the appropriate manner in a lavatorial situation. Not since I was five have I needed any help in deciding what to do in a loo. Until now. First off, I should note that the bowl was full of water when I got there. This confused me, as it was clear that this was not someone being forgetful in re flushing but rather it was actual, clear (sea?)water. Having conducted my business, trying to make as little noise as possible on the water-filled bowl but likely still being hifi-studio-grade audible on the other side of the 5mm plastic cupboard door where no fewer than 20-25 Oxford students were packed in a tight space, I was stuck looking at the bowl when suddenly memories of feeling helpless and embarrassed in a nursery toilet rushed back into memory. How the fuck do you work this thing?[21]

So really, cruising on a yacht is not luxurious. It is like being on a caravan with 10 people, except you cannot get out of the caravan other than on the roof of the caravan itself, at which there is really nothing to see except a great big plain of wavy mass. So like trecking across great wheat fields or something. And it is not easy – imagine the caravan is not controlled by pedals and a steering wheel but by one of Wallace and Gromit’s Cracking Contraptions, where one of you has to peddle an exercise bike that lights a bulb that another one has to hold up to the right height so that its light hits the magnifying glass that another one of you is using to burn a piece of string that another one of you has to keep replacing, so when the string breaks a bunch of bricks that another one of you has to keep reloading and reattaching to the replaced trigger string falls down on the side of a plank sending another one of you up in the air and it’s actually the angle in which that person falls that determines the direction the caravan is going. Sailing takes concentrated effort of several people working in joint concert, at least if you want to do it properly and not just keep putputting about on the diesel engine (which most yachters we saw out there on the English channel were actually doing). With all this complexity and limited speed and comfort it is hard to resist the conclusion that sailing is clearly just an antiquated, difficult and uncomfortable form of travelling, like horse carriages or something, its need almost entirely replaced by cars and air travel.

Is sailing then just a social class thing? That is, given that it is clearly not necessary for most people and seems unduly difficult to be nakedly pleasurable, do people just do it to show they belong in a certain societal club and want something suitably expensive to exclude all but the richest from entering? Is all of this hopelessly obvious? If so, why? What is obvious about it? Or is the connection between rich exclusivity and sailing just a matter of our wildly inaccurate preconceptions as non-sailors, just as misleading as the preconceptions of white middle-class protestants as non-blacks or non-muslims (or the other way around)? One more question: did you have a certain socioeconomic picture of the other students on board? Were you struck by the fact the Mike was Northern?[22] Am I the only one who had preconceptions about sailing?[23]

Premise: there is something about sailing that seems to scream social inequality. Plus, so many things in England seem to be informed by social class anyway, like fox hunting (stereotypically a posh pastime, banned by the last Labour government by introducing the Fox Hunting Act 2004 – I shit you not). Some basic unarticulated sense of journalistic honesty therefore seems to require, in order fully to discuss what it was like to spend the weekend out at sea with the OUYC, to discuss sailing as a social issue, if only because your present author was forced to confront his own preconceptions about class on average every fifteen minutes during the weekend.

It is true that most of the experienced student sailors, like Bryn, had that weird paralysed lower jaw accent that is generally associated with really posh people.[24] The Blonde Girl with Constantly Bared Teeth told me she was Irish, but her accent had been erased of any trace of Ireland generations ago (if it was ever there, which actually doesn’t seem very likely come to think of it). It is also true that Lizzie sounded like Victoria Coren-Mitchell when she gets a little angry at something and goes on a rant, and had (Lizzie did) that posh huskiness that sounds like it is the result of too many nights out in nightclubs where communications have to be shouted and yelped.[25] She had also brought a friend along, whose name was ‘Treens’,[26] who had done art history[27] in Oxford but now was just ‘sort of not doing anything’.[28] Of course I have no idea of the actual socioeconomic backgrounds of these students, and for all I know they could have gone to state schools in the outskirts of East London. But to save a lot of background characterisation (like sly little verbal nods towards certain high-end living areas in London, country houses and possibly horses), this wasn’t my impression.[29]

However, it also turns out to be true that this small community of what seems to be pretty posh people on boats is not psychologically walled as you might expect. In fact, they were welcoming and warm and, given that we were all covered in salt and bacon fat by Sunday, oddly open and unreserved and naked (personality-wise).

And all the dissociative elements were there, making me a prime target for at least un-inclusion – I do not have their accent or their schooling background, I don’t know the places in London they were talking about, I am older than they are (though apparently I don’t look it, at least when my hair is blown upwards and rubbery and Jedwardesque) and I was an outsider in terms of time spent together with these people. I even have a tattoo, which fact on Sunday’s sunshine was really rather difficult to hide. Dissociative Them and Us bollocks notwithstanding, they openly told me about their lives and yachting club finances, filled me in on the group dynamics and hierarchies, and shared personal anecdotes, hopes and fears.[30] After all the layers of complex prejudices were peeled off, what remains is the fact that these were just a group of quite nice young people.

Of course, none of this diminishes the fact that this trip was with members of the Oxford University Yachting Club, whose very existence suggests a thing or two,[31] and connotations of established entitlement build exponentially with each word one reads of the club’s name itself. One wonders exactly how welcome an outside friend like Treens would have been if she was from a council house in Doncaster, and/or hadn’t gone to Oxford. But never mind – it is actually beside the point.

As with so many things, there is an odd dichotomy here between individual warmth, innocence and impartiality on the one hand, and aggregate culpability on the other. The fact that English society, or just about any other society, is divided into social classes is not a secret to anyone.[32] There are deep-rooted and arbitrary inequalities all around us, and it is our duty as rational human beings to erase such inequalities. The aggregate phenomenon of unequal opportunities vs birthrights has a culpable flavour, a wrong-ness about it. But a phenomenon cannot be guilty of anything – we need to find a person or group of persons before we can assign blame in a meaningful sense. And the fact remains that none of these students had done anything culpable, no matter how different the façades of their homes look to my house.[33]

And this is what a generalisation or stereotype forgets, that even though there might be different groups in any given society, and that these groups are usually separated by money, power and status and that groups with money, power and status might be prone to abuse them (if for no other reason than because they actually have them) these groups still consist of people. People are sometimes nice to each other, and sometimes not, but to assign them blame based on their social class is to dehumanise them. It is to make them into a symbol of certain attributes, be it snobbery, or thievery, or propensity to violence – it is to forget they are actual real people, who are just trying to get through their days as best they can with the knowledge they have and (as is the case with most people though admittedly not all) with the least harm they can cause along the way.[34]

Because striking as it was, I was welcomed into the yachting club by real people, who were warm and kind. Some of them might have been annoying or some funny or some boisterous, but they were all human, and not some abstractions of attributes. They were people who like to be on boats, and to make it into a class issue is to miss something crucial about humanity: that we are all the same, and all human.

So the real, simple point here with many complex branches is this; that we were just a number of different people on the same boat, sometimes clinging on for dear life with wellies full of seawater, in seriously fowl weather when all of a sudden the boat turns without notice – and but sometimes just enjoying ourselves and each other’s company in the sunshine, out at sea. To see this answer to the old problem of Us and Them is to rise with the occasion, to meet the challenge of our lifetime when our interconnectedness lets us see more Thems than ever.

* For DFW.

[1] Fact-checking at editing in mid February 2015 in fact confirms this: Johnny Depp is to star in Pirates of the Caribbean 5 in 2017. Johnny Depp is, at the time of writing, 51, it seems pertinent to add.

[2] 39 knots I am told, though I am not quite sure what a knot is, or how a wind may have one let alone 39.

[3] Seemingly alternating only with Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off and that song about ‘marrying her anyway’, that I am currently too annoyed at to fact-check for name and performing artist out of fear that I might have to listen to it in the process, and that by doing so will have contributed to its by all indicators already overwhelming airtime. I ask also that you resist the prompt to listen to it provided by this piece, if only to save some listeners the deep psychological dissonance I am currently experiencing of having its sound bites float around in my head, occasionally making themselves known through the Cerebral Cortex Media Player. This annoyance was in no small part due to its lyrics alternating between “why you gotta be so cruel/rude”, a lyrical quip that not only shows that its author infantile-sociopathically (or in any case in a way that betrays a grossly underdeveloped moral compass especially as regards wrongs committed to the you or protagonist or speaker or self) confuse two distant and very distinct levels of being unpleasant towards another human being, an example of rudeness being not talking to someone at a dinner party and cruelty being a very very different class of actions indeed that I can only think of examples that though admittedly gruesome are of the nicer end of the cruelty spectrum, but also the lyrical quip exemplifies in crystallised form the hideous uninventiveness of the song’s other lyrics. But nothing against Taylor Swift. You go girl.

By the way I defy anyone to come up with an example that fits the description of both cruel and rude. I consider this to be semantically impossible.

[4] This fantasy took a real dent however with the expensive ‘100 percent waterproof’ gloves I bought, which really only seem to keep water in, and frequently have to be turned inside out to dry properly. As an ill-informed consumer I am once again humbled in a deep and hurting way that seems to somehow summarise the whole capitalist-existentialist catch – that in trying to exercise our capacity to choose virtuously we just get fucked by some faceless, rationally efficient marketing machine and pumped for profit. Or something.

[5] The reason I never caught Mr E’s name properly was nothing personal but only that he was in the ‘Postgrad Boat’, the one ‘cruising’ 43-footer rather than the two ‘racing’ 38-footers like the majority of cruisers (including through some administrative error this article’s author who is decidedly not an undergraduate), a boat with just that crucial extra six to twelve inches of head room which meant you never had to crouch down when standing up, 5 feet of extra lengthwise space meaning the cabins were actual cabins and not just horizontal holes in the walls for sleeping, a shiny imitation-wood dinner table and chart table and panelling and, well, a lot of shiny imitation-wood to go around in general, and a sleek-sounding name – Vantage rather than plain old Talisman, and definitely more sleek than Mighty Max 2 (in Arabic rather than Roman numerals, Roman appearing to be the accepted trend for names of rich and sleek cruising boats), the last being a name which like many boat names must have been a good idea at the time.

As an observational side note, boat names are actually quite similar to tattoos in many weird ways: both are more or less permanent, meant to be seen (at least by somebody), and though there are good ones and bad ones 99% of the ones you see are bad and ill-considered, especially given their (usually) high-level visibility and the fact that 99.99 percent of people who see the tattoo/boat name are not ‘in’ on the story behind the tattoo/boat name, and thus are just left wondering who in blue hell would be stupid enough to get a tattoo/name a boat like that (looping in the high visibility etc that comes with each name/tattoo that actually then becomes factor in the tattoo’s/boat name’s stupidity). The fact that the Venn diagram of people who get to name boats/people who get tattoos would look like two circles, one tiny and one huge, only scratching each other off one periphery or maybe not touching at all is an interesting thought to add to the picture here; are boat names the same badly turned out cry for individuality that tattoos are for most people who get them? If so, isn’t it bizarre that we routinely make assumptions like ‘all rich people are like x’ and ‘all poor people are like y’ (and all black people/white people/people in New York/students in Oxford etc ad infinitum are x/y/z etc.), and thus most of us (your present author probably included, as these assumptions are like all assumptions – mostly subconscious) seem to think of different socioeconomic classes as really being distinct types of human beings? And isn’t drawing this distinction somehow the entire point of sailing? More on this to follow in the main text.

Anyway, The Postgrad Boat was so much more luxurious that the rest of us in our jealousy and tireless search for dry warm comfort not available on our boats – this may come as a surprise, as it did for your present author, but yachts are mostly not very comfortable – commandeered its soft seats on several occasions and maintained possession until wee hours of the night, which must have annoyed its skipper, a charming and majestically silver-haired Italian called Paolo who had, according to apocryphal tales, sailed some leg or other of some famous race or other, or maybe the entire thing. I say ‘must have’ because he never showed his annoyance and would only be very charming about our ‘visit’ and occasionally partake of the rum being passed around, only he drank his rum straight, as can only be expected of a man who looks like and has the general masculine aura of Paolo. But even so I don’t think I ever saw Mr E again. Maybe the stress was too much.

[6] Thank God nobody drank the seawater. Having tasted a research-sufficient sample of it on Saturday I can tell drinking it would be counter-productive in the extreme.

[7] What the packing resembled was 30 people all simultaneously wanting badly to walk through the same door, but all of them also wanting to be the last person to walk through it for some reason. Like if there was a law that the last person to walk through a door gets a prize or something.

[8] Fast and fierce but ultimately uncontrollable until its momentum dies, amusing to observe at a safe distance but dangerous to be involved in too closely.

[9] I was fast asleep at the time, exhausted by a day of sailing and an hour-long wait just to pay for my dinner at Pizza Express where our collective presence must have been the highlight of the week but which in true English fashion didn’t translate to swiftness or quality of service in any way, plus by a tour of Portsmouth during which a Canadian one-year masters’ student said she was sad to see the place so commercialised, which your present author couldn’t help but respond with the fact that this was Portsmouth she was talking about, literally an old and major English port, which though closely connected to the British Navy was still a place where goods and services and money from all over the world had been exchanged in incredible quantities for centuries. The tour also included Portsmouth’s collection of old military ships, during which I may have seen Mr. E taking notes and which really is worth going to see on its own.

Reports of the events at Tiger Tiger were certainly firecrackery, and had there not been such an impressive amount of documented pictorial evidence I would have been inclined towards disbelief. But since I wasn’t actually there and real pictures can be used to back up complete falsehoods, anything from the ‘hard work’ that went into the school art project of which your present author has personal and embarrassingly disingenuous experience, or claims regarding the possession of weapons of mass destruction which should by now be part of the collective experience of us all, I shall not relay here what was passed on to me regarding Saturday evening’s merriments.

[10] So now it’s like 90 people etc. There was definitely some (conscious or subconscious) game theoretical thinking going on in my companions’ heads during the coach loading/unloading procedure that I was blissfully unaware of.

[11] When interviewed Simon declared his legal interest in the boat as ‘well, possession is nine tenths of the law right?’ I didn’t know what to make of this, so I present it here as it is in my notes.

[12] Incidentally, the reason I have no definitive memories or notes of the names of any particular boats, apart from the fact that naming them here would potentially be a violation of someone’s privacy as the name of the boat’s owner could then be checked through some boat register that I hear stories about, is that as I was trying to sneak around the marina looking at names of boats I was shanghaied along to a swiftly-moving undergraduate prank party whereby the two-foot inflatable penis was meant to be fixed on the bow of the other undergraduate boat, this being a plausible story of how the inflatable penis came to be aboard the Talisman in the first place, and therefore could not stop to observe and memorise any of the thoroughly ridiculous boat names I saw. Be advised, however, that more expensive-looking boats do indeed have Roman numerals in their names, and that there is a double-hull boat out there somewhere whose name is ‘Minesadouble’. Because fuck it, whoever owns and has named this boat deserves all consequences of having his identity indirectly shared in this essay.

[13] Too old to be in a naïve sixteen-year-old relationship – that will end in six months but which both parties think will last for all eternity as nobody has ever felt this way before, ever – but too young to need, and to let the other party have, their ‘space’.

[14] Or I might be confusing two distinct games which may have been played simultaneously, as I recall there being the occasional energetic shout of ‘EYEBROWS!’, after an audacious statement. The racing team have spent an awful lot of time together in confined spaces, it quickly became apparent.

[15] Short for ‘fowl weather gear’ or ‘-clothing’, a sharp and triumphant kick in the balls in the perennial man vs nature bout, this one being clearly in favour of the former – the clothing was almost perfectly waterproof, leaving aside the possibility of being actually dipped in the ocean in strong currents, warm and even relatively easy to move around in, the downside being that it was heavy and made everyone look like an exaggerated Japanese cartoon version of someone wrapped up very warmly.

[16] Two points to note here. First, given the size of the so-called cabin, we were really more like bedfellows, sleeping for all intents and purposes in a spooning position with no more than an inch or two of damp air between the S’s of our man-filled sleeping bags. Second, so constant was his smile that I didn’t actually recognise him when I woke up the next morning next to him, Mike still asleep and thus not smiling. The thought later occurred to me that he must have been having nightmares or at least very unpleasant dreams, as if it was the case that every moment of mundane reality was enough to make him grin from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat (actually, Cheshire may well have been where he was from, or somewhere close – I just thought of this), his happy/sad spectrum of facial expressions must have been adjusted dramatically upscale in comparison to everybody else, and thus his not smiling must have been the equivalent of a grimace of pain or disgust for the rest of us. Mike enjoyed bacon, a fact which he seemed to explain by telling me he was ‘Northern’ (the explanatory value of this is a little questionable and part of me thinks he just happened to mention it amidst unrelated odes and later elegies of bacon as in fact most of what he said was so mentioned) and was thrilled about the large quantity the club regulars had bought and brought along, and probably secretly wanted to switch to the other undergraduate boat when it transpired that they had even more bacon than we did, and that the interior of their yacht was essentially covered in fragrant bacon fat by Sunday morning. So actually more than two points to note here, I mean.

[17] British people do not sing along. Remember this, always.

[18] Now, having read two books on the subject, one a skinny introduction and one a ‘Sailing Bible’, I roughly know what he was talking about most of the time. Kind of.

[19] Except during my service in the military, when such contrasts were a so common to be called everyday and which is a whole other can of fish, story-wise.

[20] He is an ‘islander’, a fact he is constantly reminded of at first by the rest of the racing team but pretty soon by everyone in the two non-postgrad boats. The joke here is that people from the channel islands are supposedly inbred, bug-eyed, stupid or whatever – Them instead of Us. As far as I can tell the abuse Tom endures is lighthearted and he takes it in good spirits, but who is to really tell if he cries himself to sleep at night; the insults were of that caliper. A telling bit of dialogue is the following exchange, maybe 20 minutes after Tom had lost his second eyebrow:

“Didn’t you two used to… you know,” Bryn-the-Cooling-Tower-Hair says, insinuating Tom and an experienced female student sailor called Lizzie, who is a rambunctious presence and whom I liked and with whom I shared a tub of ice cream in Cowes on Sunday, have some kind of romantic or at least physically manifested history together.

“What?” Lizzie says. “Me and Tom?”

“What? No no no!” says Tom, shifting his attentions like a metamphetaminic squirrel (Tom does this – he is involved in six different conversations at one time and juggles more or less successfully between them – and I cannot help thinking that this divided surface-attention thing is an enormous part of his sailing prowess).

“He can’t,” says another student, “she’s not related.”

[Uproarious laughter.]

[21] In case you were wondering, the way this tricky situation was finally resolved, after what seemed like at least 10 minutes of being for all practical purposes stuck in a very small and slightly smelly closet and already contemplating a just-leave-it-for-the-next-guy-and-act-like-nothing-happened strategy, was by Mike shouting (or more like gently speaking) through the door that I needed to use ‘the pump and switch’, which was enough search keywords for me to locate something that looked suitably like a pump and a switch, which I then quickly learned to use. Or at least I’m 80 percent sure I learned to use. I’m not sure how the water is supposed to get in there for the next guy though, but it sure as hell was always there when I went.

[22] So far this is the only descriptive detail of anyone’s social class that I’ve given in this essay, I kindly note. (For American readers: the Northern English Accent, which Mike decidedly had, has about the same connotations in England as a Midwest accent has in New York, except with an added flavour of stabbings and housing projects – not to say these connotations are accurate, they usually aren’t; which is sort of the point here.)

[23] Or maybe about Oxford students in general?

[24] These people used to be classified as Rahs, made famous by the internet sensation sketch ‘Gap Yah’ by the comedy group The Unexpected Items. David Cameron, the current UK prime minister, is often considered a former Rah who has since come out of his money-chrysalis to enter the playing field of British politics. Something similar by way of jaw paralysis is fabled to be found in the legacy Americans of Harvard and Yale.

[25] In fact, her accent even caused some ambiguities – at least five minutes of a perfectly good Friday evening were spent verifying whether she had done something unseemly ‘in Nepal’, or ‘in a pool’. This struck me as a clever way to avoid answering the real question, which of course was whether she had done this unseemly thing at all, a question which she managed to dodge brilliantly.

[26] Probably short for Katrina, though I expect this to have an odd spelling like Catroeina or Kotraine. Even a cursory look, say through the popular TV show Made in Chelsea that is like England’s The Hills but with substantially older money, into the lives of English posh people will reveal the strikingly ridiculous names or nicknames that the English Poshery seem to have, particularly the girls. Your guess is as good as mine here, as to its reason. Probably something similar to the tattoo/boat name individuality thing above.

[27] Like Prince William, for example.

[28] Though Treens struck me as a lovely person, and politely sat through my post-cruise ramblings on what I thought art was when I found myself sitting next to her at the Gunwharf Quay bar waiting for the bus home, and thought I should try to say something that she would feel she could chip in with, her having told me she had done art history and all.

It turns out art historians are not always all that interested in definitional questions like ‘what is art’, at least after three days of sailing and being cold and wet.

[29] Rising to the bait and actually asking for details about their schooling would probably had blown my cover, big time – not to mention I would have come across as a dick, to people I was going to spend a weekend on a boat with; sometimes there are social limits to journalistic probes.

[30] Let’s concede here that the openness cuts both ways – it is another stereotype that posh people deliberately act in ways that stun conventional working class moralists (e.g. do drugs, have group sex etc.) and brag about it afterwards. Though neither was this my impression of the group and their behaviour as a whole, the fact that they were so candid about themselves did also mean they shared or at least made references to some pretty outlandish-sounding stuff – perhaps most strikingly, the Legend of Chris.

I am not sure who Chris is (though there is a chance I’ve even met him), and how long ago he was the Racing Team Captain, but the stories I heard of this young man would make the hair stand up on one’s forearms. I have even decided to change the name of Chris, as I worry that mentioning his real name here would somehow get me in legal trouble and even rather feel like insulating myself with as many narrative prose layers between him and me as is stylistically, linguistically and grammatically possible. The truth is the legends and apocryphal tales surrounding this mythical former team captain were so literally incredible, as well as totally unverifiable by any fact-checking or research method or even methodology, that it is probably best not to reproduce them here. In fact, all my invitations for further details or repeats of what was said were politely declined by the entire racing team. I will – as I am haunted by this young man’s fabled Jungian shadow – say this: the images of certain kinds of, shall we say, spillage have proven to be such personally onerous hang-up loops of the Cerebral Cortex Media Player as to be unsettling.

[31] The Club also hosts annual black tie dinners with current and former members in seriously impressive London hotels, where there is very little doubt of the socioeconomic background of a vast majority of the attendees.

[32] ‘Divided’ is a little misleading here, as it suggests some definitive agent who has done the dividing. But you get the point.

[33] I should point out here that I am aware of both (a) that this sounds an awful lot like Bob Nozick’s old riff in Anarchy, State and Utopia about how if the initial acquisition of property is just, and its subsequent assignments (e.g. by sale, inheritance etc.) are just, there should be nothing unjust in the end result even if it means that all property is now held by some ruling elite (this is a simplification I’ll admit – read the book if you’re interested, like tons of tax-dodgers haven’t, not really) and (b) that it’s not as if that book is some unerring fountain of ultimate philosophical truth (though the aforementioned persons interested in limiting state interference particularly in the form of taxes mostly appear to treat it as such) – there are plausible and even devastating counter-arguments to the view it presents. The point here is subtly different though, which I’ll save for the next footnote and accompanying main text…

[34] …So the point here is not that there are no class issues that attach to pastimes like sailing (of fox hunting, for that matter), or that we shouldn’t ever raise these issues, but that to involve these students as individuals in these issues and assigning them personal blame for the background that they were born into is to dehumanise them in the same way that the working class, or women, or black people, or muslim people, or people on benefits are dehumanised by the preconception-based discrimination that liberal values abhor.

Essay: On Fiction, Art and ABBA


On Fiction, Art and ABBA

Finland is not by its nature a dangerous country. It has very little poverty, free health care and education, it is transparent and its income equality is exceptionally level for our age – its head of state shovels his own snow off his own driveway, to give an illustrative example. Finland is stable. It has 0 slums, 0 failed schools or neighbourhoods, 0 truly extreme political parties and 1 annual demonstration where a 1-4 windows are broken. Finland is neither east nor completely west, and tries its utmost to stay neutral in all conflicts. It is full of blonde, pretty people in adorable winter jackets and mittens. In a word, it is very Sweden.

I am in Finland for some book research, looking for grand stories from the Finns’ ancient folklore epic, the Kalevala. It is the hipster epic, far less well-known than the Iliad or the Odyssey of the Greeks or even the Shahnameh of the Persians, it is the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones put together of national epics, complex and vivacious, but also deep and difficult in its poetic form and linguistic trickery. And, through its gatekeeper language and cultural backdrop which takes a very long time to get attuned to, it is tightly safeguarded from the aesthetic breaches and compromises of truly popular appeal. It is as far away from pop culture as one could think, and in coming to delve into it I keep running into the most shallow of basic human problems, the ones where girl meets boy in a sleazy night club and it’s all very dramatic that is the stuff of pop music, and entertainment arts. Ever since ABBA.

I am driving back to the house where I am staying. It is dark, it is -25 celsius outside, the car is handling funny. The break pedal, I have noticed, does not go down properly (or actually, doesn’t go down at all) and the car hardly slows down when I press it. The car also won’t accelerate even when the accelerator is totally floored, and it feels as if the tires aren’t gripping the road very well. This is unsurprising, as the road itself is a horizontally frozen cascade, a natural art work of ice sculpture laid atop the asphalt, with two narrowly-spaced ruts in it that show a bit of wet-looking-but-really-decidedly-permafrost-ground underneath. My tires do not fit these two ruts very comfortably, and the car keeps jumping out of one and into the other. I have 100km to drive. It is a bright full moon, thank God. In this justifiably dire situation, seeking some kind of light relief, I turn on the radio but discover the car’s antenna is broken. I find a CD in a strange-looking case, and put it on.

It turns out it is ABBA GOLD, the legendary greatest hits CD of the legendary Swedish pop band of the 1970s, which if you haven’t heard yet will probably never mean very much to you, but if you have you will know exactly what I am talking about. It is the CD of our mums, the 1990s smash hit compilation that came all from nowhere on the final furlong of ABBA’s fame and topped the selling charts of 1992 in multiple countries; it has sold a total-grand-slam 29 million copies and it is one of the best-selling albums of all time, up there with the White Album and what have you.[1] It has been re-edited, re-released and re-mastered more times than any artist or producer involved would care to admit (at least six different main releases exist, plus two Australian releases, some Spanish releases, a video release and a special edition non-UK version with an additional disk of 11 lesser-known ABBA numbers). It is Capital-P-Pop, and its stylistic influences can still be heard in today’s chart-toppers.

In this life-threatening[2] situation I very much appreciated the distracting pop-appeal of the songs, each of which is its own gay anthem. But I heard more than that. I heard beauty; I heard art, real musicianship and not just machine-automated corporate pop, a conversation between the artist and the observer. I believe the work has not been done as regards ABBA and their juggernaut compilation album, no one has truly done the digging and got into the heart of it, what makes it at once so ravishingly touching and so calculatedly commercially appealing; what is its art, what techne did Björn and Benny weave into the texture of their music, what is their pact with the Gods? Is ABBA capital-A-Art, or even art at all? If not, how can it be so appealing? Why is it beautiful, is it beautiful, what even is beauty? In trying to get to the core of ABBA GOLD one very quickly comes face-to-face with some heavy-duty no-nonsense fire-all-cylinders philosophical questions about aesthetics and art theory, because there is clearly something there, something that speaks and something in us, millions of us, that listens.

Approach by analogy: I submit that what makes great fiction can be reasonably well-illustrated. Take The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s great classic. When I was a young man and spent a lot of time travelling (well, I am still a reasonably young man and spend a lot of time travelling, but anyway), I used to read The Great Gatsby at least four times a year, sometimes six or more. I thought the Great Gatsby was what novel writing was, all there was to it, and I did not think highly of my own abilities as a writer.

One day I noticed something about the book. Every time I’d read it there’d be pauses where the scenery and imagery, the one that floats before one’s eyes as one reads and makes the actual text and book and the physical world fade out in favour of a strong fictitious one, disappeared abruptly as if someone had pulled the plug from your television and I was reminded of the fact that I was holding just a book, and its words were just words. Some lazy end of a sentence, or over-written piece of poetic detail meant to sound pretty as a bunch of words but which didn’t actually mean anything and didn’t convey any message other than maybe ‘look at me, I’m a writer’. It was an interruption, and it alienated me from the writing much more than the fact that the people in the stories were nothing like me, they were rich and beautiful and they had had full and complete lives and childhoods with steady places to live and much money to go to famous schools with frivolously. Some of them had been in the Great War.

This is when the literary critic in me awoke for the first time, and I started coming up with some criteria for what it is for fiction to be good, and what does it mean for something to be called art. The reason, I have since gathered, I enjoy the novel as an art form so much is that it involves, for a reader, surrendering your imagination and letting the writer guide you, to show you something that lies behind the obvious story of a book – the story behind the story. This may be done through symbolism, or allegory, or fucking-animal-characters, stream of consciousness to be followed, or more recently, challenge & enlistment (of which more in a second). The author grabs the reader’s attention and points it in some order at certain things, asks you to connect the dots and share in the little inside story or message of the book. The author gets into your head, and puts you in a position where he can whisper through the words what it is that he wants to say, the thing he considers the complex and delicate capital-T-Truth he is trying to show through weaving the lies necessary for its lived experience.

In order to do this the author must be completely honest and true and accurate in his descriptions, he must write nothing that isn’t absolutely essential, nothing for him, everything for the reader. When I noticed Fitzgerald did not always follow this rule, I did the next logical thing – started reading Hemingway. Once I had this rule in mind, that great fiction is a conversation albeit an oddly one-sided conversation until you start writing your own stuff, the actual story of fiction became less important. You start to hunt for the stuff where the writer enters your head that keeps the book honest, keeps the message intact – the author’s whispered voice from between the lines. I could suddenly appreciate works that had left me cold before – like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where the author talks through challenging the reader to put together the story for himself, and all that fracturing is part of the message itself of the book. It was masterly, once appreciated through my working definition of what art was.

So I posit this: it has to do with the immediacy with which the artist speaks to the observer. Good classical fiction is good because the text is so technically brilliant that you don’t even know you’re reading something as you’re guided towards the author’s message. Avant garde –type fiction like David Foster Wallace gets even closer to the observer’s innermost workings, as it enlists the reader in figuring out the story, doing the work, having to expend mental energy in service of the author’s ends of enlightening his reader. It is very intimate, but it is also very problematic. And this is the stuff that eventually gets us to ABBA.

The problem with getting closer to the reader by making him work for his entertainment or enlightenment or whatever you believe the end message of good fiction ought to be, is that it alienates some readers. There is no more vivid an illustration of this than the on-the-record-statements of a very close acquaintance of mine (whose side I am probably about to misrepresent horribly as I do not understand his/her side, and whom I shall therefore keep nameless as a prophylactic self-defence) about the Thomas Pynchon modern classic, Gravity’s Rainbow.[3]

I am currently reading Pynchon, and I think Gravity’s Rainbow is a tremendously good book. Aforementioned very close acquaintance, let’s call him/her C for convenience, saw my copy resting on a table and proceeded to joke about its heft. I engaged in the jokey banter, until C claimed that C could tell the book sucked because of the way the physical book – including its cover, a non-original vintage reprint – looked. I verified whether C’s argument really was that C could, in C’s own opinion, literally judge a book by its cover without reading a single line, to which C replied that that was absolutely the argument: “Only pretentious tossers read books that are that long and look like that with a name like that. The marketing machine fires books like that directly at the most pretentious readers, and it shows in the look of the physical book.”[4]

My response was that the discussion would not be fruitful and fun, as we came from such different premises that we’d only end up insulting one another if we engaged in this debate fully, C and I. But it did get me thinking: there is definitely something very alienating about demanding the reader to do so much work to figure out what is happening and what the message is and what the writer is directing you towards, that even if it actually brings the author closer to the reader because it enlists the reader in one of the central functions of the author, that of storytelling and weaving together the causal connections between events that we collectively refer to as ‘plot’, what if you don’t feel like working too hard just now? What if your attention is divided between the book, your three kids who all want to show you what they’ve drawn and your wife who is emotionally blackmailing you for organic soy milk from the organic farmers’ market 20 miles away? What about the reader who cannot spend so much time and attention piecing together Infinite Jest, or for whom it is rationally inefficient to do so? What about rational apathy, the idea that the payoff of the book is likely to be so small that it is not worth the reader’s undivided attention, as judged by the reader himself? In that sense, a reader might well just look at the physical size of the book plus its name and decide that it’s probably not worth his time, in a risk/reward kind of way. Isn’t this a very dangerous way for a novel to fail, by alienating its reader in attempting to nestle closer to him, and tragically failing to establish the link between artist and observer that is the essence of art itself?

Enter: ABBA GOLD, which can be considered the opposite of this tragedy of alienation. ABBA’s art is in getting closer to the listener (receiver of art, observer) by getting closer to the listener. ABBA’s songs are, essentially, about the lives of the band’s fans. It is reaching out and directing the listener through identification – it is as if The Great Gatsby could somehow be about you, about your generation and your pastimes, about your problems in a direct and immediate way.

ABBA tells stories. So much so that one wonders if an entire fiction piece could be written using nothing but ABBA songs, but then oh yeah – Mamma Mia!, the musical/movie on stage/screen everywhere, a sloppy creampie of recapitalised capitalisation where the characters appeal to stereotypical viewers/listeners of ABBA and wear white linen clothes in a milieu of sunshine, sandy beaches and turquoise sea water. The plot probably has some element of romance in it, maybe with a dramatic and song-accompanied break-up as its twist, and probably has little else. Maybe an intergenerational thing, with maybe a romance thing but one which doesn’t get all pervy and disgusting. But the ABBA stories are oddly compelling.

The point is, in ABBA it is the story itself that speaks to us. It is not the story behind the story, except in the way that follows: the only story behind the story is that we are supposed to identify with the main story, and because we’re supposed to identify, the whole ABBA project suggests – behind the obvious story – that our normal, every day lives centered around procreation and its epiphenomena are really some kinds of heroic tales worthy of retelling in song form. ABBA elevates what we do, and that is why we love it. That is why it is art – it speaks to us, like some of the novels mentioned above speak to us, and but what is more, it speaks to us. Think about it.

This heavy storyline identification, the root I submit of ABBA’s incredible success, shows up in many of the elements of ABBA songs found on the GOLD record. First, the protagonists are absolutely the worst of us, apart from maybe the protagonist of Fernando. Chiquitita is clearly about an aging prostitute failing at what is possibly her last chance of duping a man into a buy-out, and who has to go back to her pimp, from the narrative viewpoint of the pimp. Take a Chance on Me is the desperate mating call of someone with very little self-appreciation and no sense of dignity. Gimme Gimme Gimme is the voice of a sex addict who wants to drown out her[5] sense of a drab and trivial life of crushing loneliness in naturally-occurring, action-induced opioids. These stories, when really really listened to, are that unique composition of absolutely heartrending and gut-wrenching that lies perhaps at the very root of what makes stories like Les Miserables and Oliver Twist such classics that they can successfully (commercially successfully) be made into musicals. ABBA’s stories are about the lowest of the low. Next to these protagonists, our stupid mistakes of whoring ourselves out,[6] of offering ourselves to someone without regard to how that someone behaves towards us, of just wanting a sexual partner to chase the shadows away, seem not only comparatively less severe barneys, pickles, jimmy-jacks and hairy spots[7]; they seem shimmeringly alive, hauntingly beautiful, full of little sacrifices and devotions to one-another and thus, in a way, to the common human project. They are the glue that keeps the human race stuck together seeking mutually beneficial cooperation, though admittedly with a few kinks along the way every so often. And nobody will ever hear about these sacrifices because they are so ordinary, except in that their generalised versions provide the filling of a juicy daytime TV-shows’ proto-Machiavellian plots of failed self-interested power-trip deceptions. ABBA is the uniquely perfect elaboration of this; ABBA went where no artist had gone before, and reaped enormous rewards of fame and fortune.[8]

And bear in mind, this was a little Swedish group of two musical couples singing showtunes in funny outfits, a group that didn’t even have a name when they first started performing together (hence my spelling of ABBA in all capitals – the name is simply an acronym of the first names of the group’s members: Agneta, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid). Now they are part of our collective consciousness. Some rise.

But there is more to the ABBA recipe than grim subject matter, properly considered. The melodies are beautiful, catchy and a great many are very very sad: pay close attention to the wailing, work-a-lousy-job-and-give-your-all-on-Friday-night intro of Dancing Queen, which your present author[9] had to spend a moment or two even figuring out what the dominant melodic instrument was (my best guess is actually a combination: a soprano saxophone or oboe, together with a shameless-grade-reverb volume-down choir backing – the voice is oddly human but also oddly tinny and thin). This, coupled with the narrative lyrics with a diamond-drill focus on the tests and trials of the insignificant little, gives an ABBA classic their true essence – the intolerability that is perhaps an essential feature of beauty itself.

Thoughts: true beauty is always painful to observe because finding something beautiful entails its desire. We desire beauty’s innermost essence, to have or possess or come close to, but can never truly have it because beauty is something external to the self. In other words, to find something beautiful is to recognise that that something is not me, the observer (though it can be an image of the self – but all images are external, possibly), and to truly have it would be to become merged with it. It is like a kitten we want to squeeze to death because of its cuteness – really having it, forever and ever, would destroy its externality and thus its very essence. Beauty is the great tragedy of art – it is the ultimate problem of coming closer but never reaching. Beauty is so desirable as to be uncomfortable. And so is ABBA GOLD.

Because it is painful to hear about the every-day heroism of a character who appears at first glance to be so post-modernly amoral as to be almost a caricature of our self-focusing culture, a character whom if we saw on the street or in a nightclub we would find despicable for taking what we do too far – making a life of Porn when the rest of us are aiming for Music Video.[10] But to see such heroism, all the more heroic because no songs are made about it and no related fame or even approval accompanies, is also reassuring, and human, and delicate on the finer senses: compassion, understanding, benevolence, childlike connection with another human being. What gives these stories their delicate beauty that so bolsters their identifiability-feature is the melody. Prime examples of this tool in use are Dancing Queen and Winner Takes It All, where the melodies are sadistically touching, Money Money Money where it is devious and Gimme Gimme Gimme whose 1979 desperate and dangerous intro so captivated a generation that it, or a half-arsed version of it, resurfaced 26 years later as the leading creative feature of a Madonna single. These are a few examples of the melodic virtuosity of the album, but of course it is a pretty dominant aspect in the entire record.

But despite all of the above, ABBA is not complex. In fact, it is simple, and that is one of its strengths. Namely ABBA has that ability of making snappy, poppy uncomplicated basics work to their advantage, the ability we look for in a great pop song even today (well, apart from that the singer is pretty and desire-arousing). Consider Mamma Mia, perhaps their most poppy song after the 1974 Eurovision smash hit Waterloo (of which more below). All Mamma Mia has, besides its melodic tricks all of which are simple almost to the point of the well-known Eurovision Modulation, where the song steps up a key towards the end for an uplifting effect,[11] is a one-two rhythm which is drummed into the ears of the listener from the first beat onwards. One-two is not exactly imaginative, but in Mamma Mia it is absolutely, well, drum-tight and very disciplined. Listen particularly for the break in the drum track when the chorus begins (“mamma mia… here I go again…”), and its playful variations and little licks that are not quite drum fills but not far off when it comes back on, including even a neat little accent change and catch-up at the end of the chorus (“why why did I ever let you go?”). It is extremely neat, and the drummer, who is not mentioned in the inside cover, deserves an anonymous award or honourable mention for his part in the meteoric rise of ABBA. Maybe it’s Ringo.

The underlying argument above has so far been essentially that ABBA appeals to us because we identify with the songs – they are about us, our way of life and our choices in an abstract way – and that it also validates parts of our lives as the characters and stories are actually worse than what we do to ourselves. We like ABBA because it understands us, and it is kind to us. What, then, of the more ambitious material, such as Waterloo, ostensibly about the famous battle of the Napoleonic wars, or Fernando, in which the narrator discusses the bittersweet to the point of crushing nostalgia-of-the-defeated?[12] Mind you, these are not insignificant productions in the ABBA canon – it was Waterloo which detonated ABBA’s explosion of musical success in the Eurovision Song Contest of 1974, and Fernando was their first non-album single in 1976. It is also their best-selling single of all time, selling over 6 million copies worldwide in 1976 alone, and it has rightly earned its place on the fabled compilation record. What are these, then, if not a break from the individualistic endeavour that forms the core of ABBA’s art, the close discussion between the artists and their fans?

Of these two, Waterloo offers very little resistance to the main thesis of this review. Although the lyrics are about the battle, it is constantly related to the personal experience of the self as a metaphor, from the first couplet onwards (“My my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender / Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way.”) The song is still about break-ups[13] and love-following-biological-urges, and the references made to the actual battle or its participants are only there to reinforce the artistic idea behind the entire record, that such humbly trivial and personally applicable problems are actually somehow profound, worthy of the history books and akin to the great decisions of old European warlords whose actions decided the fates of entire nations. Waterloo is in fact not an exception to the ABBA-line at all, but its prime example, the key piece which first translated the ABBA-project to the great masses – that ordinary lives are worth something, something big, and that they are what makes up humanity. The prevailing discourse of calling something as pivotally important as being concerned with the entire fate of humanity is, laconically, to call such things ‘historical’. Thus there is nothing strange in the fact that the first great ABBA hit says ‘look at this great battle of history – my own woes of attempting to resist my biological urge to copulate with this subject are akin to that great battle, and have the same outcome as Waterloo did for Napoleon’. In a way it is strangely eloquent.

Fernando is more difficult; it even has some thematic instruments, a wailsome pipe and military drum for crying out loud, and the song is openly about fear of death in the roar of cannons. And actual physical death as well, not a break-up or the loss of a friend, the actual physical death of the self, in service of liberty or some other abstract and distant ideal that is separated from personal experience by at least one logical space.[14] Fernando is a total outlier. It is the Anti-ABBA.

A clue may lie in what Fernando was – it seems that the group itself saw Fernando as somehow different in a fundamental way to all their other songs, as they finally made the decision to release it but only as a non-album single, not a part of any coherent whole in the ABBA corpus. As mentioned, it caught fire, which I admit is bizarre in light of the uniformity of the artistic message of all the other songs on the ABBA GOLD album, and how diametrically opposed to that message Fernando is.

But I submit that the appeal of Fernando is precisely its difference. It is the rare gem, the collector’s edition, the banned book or upside down stamp, the departure from the norm. It is what shows us that ABBA are not only artists with a coherent message, but people who sometimes follow their instincts that fragment the uniform image of their perceived intentions. As such, it is actually Fernando that brings ABBA closest to its listener. Bear in mind that by the time Fernando was published it was to a clamouring populus, an audience which had totally taken ABBA for its own and now demanded more and more, and which elevated ABBA’s members to superhuman status. Part of Fernando’s success as a single is probably due to this alone, but part of it, the story behind the story, is that Fernando’s whisper is simply this: We are people. We are like you. We romanticise heroes and events just as you do us. You are not alone. Releasing Fernando was a fucking great move, and it would not have delivered had it not been a lone single that was not a part of any album (until later, of course).

In Finland, like in any other ultra-stable country, danger mostly comes by surprise. It comes in rapidly dropped temperature, in aging brake discs, in making a small wrong choice a week upstream and having it build up slowly into a catastrophe that strikes when you least expect it. Had there been another element combined into the car situation your present author found himself in, say an elk or heavy holiday traffic, it is likely I would not be here to write this. But danger having struck and I being aware of it, my senses to ABBA’s art could not have been more heightened at the moment of the record’s rediscovery in my car. Imagine this: I am in genuine fear for my life, it is dark and I am alone, I even contemplate calling someone to tell them these might be my last moments if the car in front of me abruptly stops, but chose not to as that would have tied up one of my hands and thus probably caused the accident I was fearing. The house I was going to was in the perfect place to bring the car to a controlled halt, the entire drive was essentially along a straight line through impermeable woodlands and had I stopped in the middle of it I might have suffered severe frostbite before anyone could get to me. The situation was nerve-wracking.

But at the moment I put on the CD and Dancing Queen came on, I could not think about my predicament any further. And this is probably the real no-bullshit reason I am able to write this piece now, that I was able to quiet all doubt and second-guessing, and simply perform, drive, to the best of my ability and without thinking about it or visualising the accident I was going to have. When the CD was sucked in by the automated CD player and the first piano pianoed, my mind was filled with the bright-eyed Finn, who actually had dark hair but who was certainly tall and thin and pretty and who habitually wears mittens, whom I had driven 100km to see and who had a few hours earlier told me she wasn’t particularly interested in seeing me anymore. This trivial problem, and the little sacrifices and divisive exercises of true adult-grade autonomy plus the appreciation of the social rules dictating that such autonomy be absolutely respected – the what-would-people-think -aspect of any truly difficult personal-relations problem, the aspect that children and immature adults have such kick-to-the-balls trouble with – were alive and real to me, and I thought of nothing else. I was totally distracted from the actual higher-grade problem whose bad handling could have cost me life or frostbitten limb. And this, I say, is ABBA’s core-of-core appeal; that it gives our littlest the significance that we always felt it had and thought that nobody else could see. It is art, not for grand ideals, but for the little, and common, and beautiful.

[1] The method of its discovery in my car is probably also telling; that it just was in the centre console of some car somewhere without any comprehensible clue or trace as to how it might have got there.

[2] I shit you not.

[3] In an interestingly personalised or in-the-trenches way this little proto-debate between two private people in a private living room weirdly resembles the great structural literary debate of postmodernism, with points put forth by deconstructionalists like John Barth, whose 1967 Atlantic Monthly essay argues essentially that the techniques of what we regular Joes might call ‘normal books’, like linear narratives and such, can take us no further in developing the novel as an art form, and anti-deconstructionalist (re-constructionalist? pre-postmodernist? Arrière-garde?) critics like B. R. Myers, who still appears to churn out savage book reviews for The Atlantic, essentially arguing that if you like stuff like Pynchon you’re basically a mindless acolyte of critics and academics with no personal integrity or taste but plenty of pretension and snobbery – you get the picture. That both these sides of the same debate can be found in the same publication, albeit decades apart, and thus through the laws of commercial art critique/book reviewing appeal to the same readership is a noteworthy addition to the story. This debate is full of all kinds of complex ironies, some of which may in fact infect this essay.

[4] For my part I may say this sounds if anything like an overly generous interpretation of what was actually said, afforded in my efforts to make sense of what C actually said

[5] I keep thinking of ABBA narrators as female. This, as far as I can tell, is just because the singing voice is the amalgamation of two female voices, apart from a few rare exceptions like Does Your Mother Know, a song that people tend to skip and regard as mostly filling on the GOLD record.

[6] And whoring oneself out, which quite neatly can be considered to be a constant thematic or maybe even analytic or conceptual presence in commercial pop music, one certainly finds in ABBA. See, for example, the smash hit Money Money Money, a song which is essentially about how dreary it is to have to work for one’s upkeep (which most of us find a reasonably agreeable tradeoff) and how much nicer things would be if only the narrator had a rich man who could take care of her “in a rich man’s world” in exchange for her female delights. Further, the song does not appear to be in any way critical of this kind of thinking, which this quick storyline summary might suggest – any such rashly verbalised summary of such intuitive-but-taboo thinking will inevitably end up looking like a parody of something, probably the thinking itself. This, incidentally, is why sometimes a 1000-page book is needed to make a simple point. Stated as an English sentence, the so-called point of a book becomes banal, uninteresting or just not credible or meaningful.

[7] No pun intended. Or, maybe, yeah.

[8] In a peculiar twist, one of the original members of the quartet – Björn Ulvaeus, exactly half of ABBA’s load-bearing songwriting duo and thus one of the few people directly responsible for Money Money Money – is nowadays advocating money-less society. It is perhaps lazy thinking to imagine he does this because of a luxury-skewed viewpoint, or that he is paid so to advocate by a credit card company. Mr Ulvaeus could not be reached for comments, obviously.

[9] Whose background in musical theory is decently solid, I humbly add.

[10] Interestingly, just as an observational side note if nothing else: ABBA is one of the early or at least semi-early pioneers of the music video.

[11] Eurovision, of course, is the spiritual root of ABBA’s fame, so this simple trickery is nothing surprising. Nor is it anything to sneer at – many of the greatest bands rely on very simple tools, and the whole thing as a certain musical Occam’s razor appeal to it: if simple works and works well, why complicate it?

[12] Your present author would place the lost battle in the Texas war of independence of 1835-36, as the narrator recalls retreating over the Rio Grande, but I might be wrong.

[13] Which of course is the express subject of songs like Knowing Me, Knowing You, and absolute dynamite for individual identification/validation purposes – most of us have done it, and most of us have thought it was The Most Important Thing in the World at the time.

[14] Compare ‘freedom’ with ‘liberty’, freedom being the personal feeling of being free to do and go as one pleases and liberty being some summation or aggregate of the phenomenon of freedom, infinitely multiplied. Or possibly two: Free – Freedom – Liberty.