Quote # 52: DFW defining “Lynchian”

“David Lynch” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon




“A good 65% of the people in metropolitan bus terminals between the hours of midnight and 6:00 A.M. tend to qualify as [David] Lynchian figures–flamboyantly unattractive, enfeebled, grotesque, freighted with a woe out of all proportion to evident circumstances.”

David Foster Wallace defining “Lynchian”as quoted in
David Lynch: The Man from Another Place by David Lim


Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

To be truthful, I was put off by all the hype that surrounded Tenth of December when it was released back in January. Articles about the short stories and their author, George Saunders, were everywhere. All the major papers, magazines and blogs were praising, lavishly, both the collection and Saunders himself. All of sudden I was seeing articles about or by Saunders from years past, all floating to the front, all becoming part of this giant group-hug! He was compared to Twain and Flannery O’Connor, to Vonnegut and Pynchon, to Bartheleme and Welty. Even the late David Foster Wallace was corralled in for a blurb on the inner covers.

And now, I can say, all the hype was legitimate and deserved.  Tenth Of December is something special. 10thdecemberbookcover

The longest story in the book “The Semplica Girl Diaries” begins with a father, in the near future, starting a diary. As he begins, he recounts his fears and worries for his children, fears that they are growing up with so much less, materially, than their classmates. He also reveals his own anxieties about his failure as a provider of these consumer necessities. During the course of his journaling, the family is teased with a windfall and then pushed towards ruin. Oddly enough, strung throughout the story, literally, are third-world women who sell themselves in America as lawn ornaments, putting his own focus on material success in a very skewed light.

Other fathers–or father figures– appear throughout the stories. In the first story, “Victory Lap,” a young boy saves a girl who is being abducted. But he second guesses all of his heroic actions in terms of what his father would say about his getting involved and not completing his chores. At the same time, the perpetrator keeps worrying about his own father–and while carrying out his violent abductions–worries whether his father would be proud of the way he is doing things.

In a very short piece, “Sticks,” an aloof, mean-spirited and inaccessible father dresses a crucifix-like contraption for every holiday: Santa for Christmas, a groundhog for February 2nd, a soldier for Veterans Day, etc. When his wife dies, he dressed the pole as Death and makes a memorial to her. His own–and the sticks’–ending is seemingly inconsequential, but full of pathos nevertheless.

George Saunders

George Saunders

On the whole, Saunders’ stories are full of dysfunctioning families trying to succeed in a world of plastic values and overwrought commercialism. It is filled with simple people having difficulty coping in an increasingly complicated world. This world he describes is a bit off-kilter, but it all seems unnervingly familiar.  And his telling of these tales is enjoyable and unforgettable.

Life and death, hope and despair, pride and self-loathing: these are the topics that Saunders addresses but in a way that is funny as often as it is heart wrenching, a way that is wryly observed, emotional and thought provoking.

All that hype was well deserved after all.

Endings, beginnings, and start-overs

Before I began teaching at the school where I currently teach, I worked in an advertising agency. During the interview process at the school, the headmaster asked me what I thought would be the greatest difference. My answer was “Endings.”

dandraper       mrchips

In the advertising world, it was not unusual for some print ad for which I had written copy  nine, twelve, eighteen months earlier needing to be re-tweaked  later. We are changing our direction, the headline is too “downtown,”  we want to downplay the price, emphasize the sponsor, etc., etc.  Things never were truly complete. They were signed-off on, yes. But they were never done with.

Teaching, however, is one of those professions where there are periodic endings, arbitrary endpoints where the slate is wiped clean, one can review what went right, rue what went wrong, and learn from both.

It is the end of May now, but I know that I and many of my colleagues are already plotting out projects and readings, weighing shifts in focus and shifts in technique, and (always on my part) constructing schemes to stay better organized in the upcoming school year.

And besides a chance to start anew, the end of a quarter, a semester, a school year offers a chance to bury the past and move forward. To begin again.

I used to have the Beckettian quote, Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better, posted on the wall of my office. At the time, it was a personal mantra for me, for my own work. I was not thinking of teaching. This year it has become a buzzword/phrase throughout education.failbetter1

All over in print and on the web there are articles about the value of failing, about the necessity of failing, of the embrace of failing. And we as teachers know that as well as anyone–for ourselves, if not necessarily for our students.  For what is the end of each term but a chance to review our failings and resolve to “fail better” next time.

Now with the end of the school year, there is also the spate of “commencement speeches” that must be heard. Those talks given to graduating seniors in colleges and high-schools around the country that are especially inspiring, especially poignant, especially relevant.

David Foster’s Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon University has become legendary. For a long while it was shot all over the internet, and then capitalism took over and someone decided to release it as a book.  It has been abridged and made into a wonderful short film, This is Water. Like all great commencement speeches, this is wise, humorous, and relevant without falling into clichés. It emphasizes compassion and empathy, warns graduates of the sometimes benumbing world of adulthood, and charges them to make their world better by understanding it more tolerantly.

Lately, Neil Gaiman’s 2012 speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia has been parsed and tweeted, analyzed and blogged about. It has been highly criticized and highly praised. It is about creativity and about personal freedom. And, of course, at this time of year, it is all over the place and referenced almost every time you log on.

And even Jane Lynch, the wonderful actress who has appeared in so many of the Christopher Guest films and now stars in the television show Glee, even Jane Lynch keeps appearing in my in-box and my twitter feeds and blogs that I follow because of the inspiring speech she gave in 2012 to the women of Smith College.  It too is forthright and wise and commanding.

But it is the nature of graduation speeches to address an audience as they START OUT into something new.  One of the joys/perks of teaching is that one gets to START OVER.  My best and frequent companion these days is a 7-year old boy with whom I play a lot of games.  Often when something goes wrong for him in a game we are playing, he is the first to yell, “Start Over” (though just as often he simply  changes the rules!)  Who knew that the gaming-strategy of a 7-year-old is the same spark that keeps good teachers fresh, engaged and effective?

Movie Review: Liberal Arts–Light but Enjoyable

David Foster Wallace famously gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. The speech –Wallace’s only know public speech–had been printed and reprinted, e-mailed and downloaded time and again, and now is published as the book, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.  Wallace, whose magnificent and enormous novel Infinite Jest is perhaps for the millennium generation what Gravity’s Rainbow was for the Viet Nam generation, is known for his intricate plots and subplots, his baroque sentences, his numerous footnotes, and his expansive and enormous intellect.

Well, Kenyon College and Wallace meet up again in the 2012 comedy Liberal Arts.  Actually, Wallace isn’t there physically, but Infinite Jest is, and the novel and its author play a significant part in a poignant subplot about a depressed, genius undergraduate. In fact, towards the end of the film, the hero tells the hospitalized boy to put down Infinite Jest  (he has already read it three times) and pick up one of the Twilight books! 

Kenyon College, on the other hand, is very much visible–and looks torn right out of a college brochure. The leafy campus, the quaint town, the rural surroundings, all make Kenyon look like a movie set for the perfect college.  However, although Kenyon is one of the more illustrious and demanding liberal arts colleges in the U.S., it offers up a pretty “easy-A” with Liberal Arts. Nothing too difficult, too taxing , or too subtle.

The film tells the story of Jesse (Josh Radnor), a bookish and sensitive admissions officer at a New York City college (read NYU) who is dissatisfied with his job and his life. When he is called back to Kenyon to attend the retirement party of one of his favorite professors (Richard Jenkins), he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), an undergraduate studying Improv Theater.

Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor in Liberal Arts

The 35-year old Jesse and the 19-year old Zibby hit it off immediately and enjoy each other’s company as they wander around the bucolic campus. When Jesse returns to New York, he begins a “pen-pal” relationship with “Zibby” that is sweet, literate and full of hope.

However, when he returns to visit her, the differences in their age–and life experience–plays very much on his mind. (To me, since the actors do not seem all that greatly separated in age,  the age difference did not really seem all that jarring.)  Her attempt to bed him on this second visit is the moral center of the movie.

There are some wonderful performances–Allison Janney as an ice-hearted professor of the British Romantics is marvelous and Zac Efron as a chorus-like sprite that pops in and out of the story is charming and enigmatic. And the lead characters are very likeable.  The camera work between Ohio and New York is beautiful and perfectly captures the shift in energy that Jesse feels in moving between the two places. And the subplot with the depressive undergraduate is interesting enough, if rather slight. (It might have made a better movie in itself.)

In all, the film is concerned with life and its trajectory, with love and its various shadings, and with contentment and its frequent elusiveness. It is funny and literate at times, but for the most part it is a simple story, simply told.  Liberal Arts could have been a much weightier film–but that’s not the film the director chose to make.

I can’t imagine David Foster Wallace liking it. There isn’t much layering here, not much that he could footnote.  It would  have made a very slim novel.