Tag Archives: literary fiction

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?”

“Sure.”

“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.”

“Yes?”

“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.