I was so cold when I finally got in (Yes! I got in, I got in. Seriously you guys, did you think there would be installments if I didn't?) that I couldn't remember my own name for the first 1/2 hour. All I could do was select my spot, nearish to the front and centerish, and focus on stopping my chattering teeth from chattering and coaxing my frozen block of ice toes to thaw and separate. Once I was able to think of something other than myself, I was pleased to find that there were many, many others who were filing in after me. The early arctic expedition had paid off. I was in, I was seated, and I would even be able to see him at the lecturn when he appeared to grace us with his words.
Of course, even this considerably warmer sitting and waiting was not without previously outlined types flitting about, doing their thing. People were saving seats for people who had not yet arrived (as in, had not even bothered to come and wait in line) and, true to LA function rules, these seemingly-somebodies did get to edge in, before everyone else still outside, to claim these saved seats. Irritating, as a word, does not quite capture the feeling. Loathsome is more to the point. Coffee and hot chocolate were available from somewhere in the back. I knew this because I could see people bringing it forth, balancing four or five cups, to hand out to the already warm friends who had arrived just in time to miss the arctic outside waiting. As I was not with any friends who could do the coffee running and as I was in no frame of mind to risk losing my front-centerish seat, I took myself to a zen-happy-buddha "emptiness is good" place that would protect me from the pain of realizing how much I needed that coffee to warm me up but how impossible it would be for me to secure said coffee.
An announcement was made by someone official. A flattering introduction was made. Some words to the effect of "greatest living writer of our generation" were put out there. And then, poof, he appeared from behind the black curtain. David Foster Wallace in all his long-haired, black-booted, blue jeans, "golly gee am I that smart?" glory. All contingents in the crowd quieted at once. It seemed even they understood the need to stop primping and impressing and air-kissing and talking loudly of their other readerly, writerly, producerly sucesses. A delicious moment of silence followed, pregnant with all the expectation each of us had placed on the words that were about to be spoken. And then, they were.
David began, in his nervous "i don't like public speaking" kind of way, to thank the introducer for such an embarassingly nice introduction and to fumble through some notes about the work he was going to read. Endearing, I must say. If it is a ruse, an act, I don't care. I'm hooked and he's only two minutes into his talk. David explained that he was going to read a piece from his new book of essays Consider the Lobster. The piece was something he was asked to write by Rolling Stone after 9/11and as it was due only a few short days after he was asked to write it, it was created quickly, in a dash of insight and reflection in a still murky time (not having the clarity of a few weeks or months or years perspective on it) -- the result being that he delivered the piece for publication, but he didn't feel it represented good work. As such, he didn't like it for some time and only dusted it off, reconsidered it, and found it worthy when pulling pieces together for Consider the Lobster.
His quick notes were interesting, and perhaps said as much about him and his process and his awe-inpsiring attention to detail as anything else he has written. In particular, he wanted us to know that 1) he would be referring to 9/11 even as The Horror, 2) he refers to a certain convenience store as hideous because it is named: KWIK-N-EZ, and 3) that the piece is arranged in the manner of an early Victorian novel. It was here, at this last point, that he mumbled to himself that perhaps this was not information we would be interested in and laughed a bit at himself. It is here that I became smitten, a sensation that could not be shaken throughout the reading or the ensuing days after the reading. To hell with Considering the Lobster. Consider Me Smitten.
The piece he began reading from was "The View from Mrs. Thompson's" -- a take on the few hours and days during and after the plane attacks when he watched the events unfold on a neighbor's TV in Bloomington, Illinois. At once, you realize that all of your attempts to write something of depth tempered with humor are for naught. You see, quickly, that you are a bit of a fraud. You come to understand that good writers notice every detail and find powerful meaning in them. He just does it so well. Here is an excerpt from early on in the piece:
"Wednesday. Everyone has flags out. Homes, businesses. It's odd: you never see anybody putting out a flag, but by Wednesday morning there they all are. Big flags, small, regular flag-sized flags. A lot of homeowners here have those special angled flag-holders by their front door, the kind whose brace takes four Phillips screws. Plus thousands of the little handheld flags-on-a-stick you normally see at parades -- some yards have dozens of these stuck in the ground all over, as if they'd somehow just sprouted overnight. Rural-road people attach the little flags to their mailboxes out by the street. A good number of vehicles have them wedged in their grille or attached to the antennae. Some upscale people have actual poles; their flags are at half-mast. More than a few large homes around Franklin Park even have enormous multistory flags hanging gonfalon-style down over their facades. It's a total mystery where people can buy flags this big or how they got them up there or when. .... Even a sort of half-collapsed house down the street that everybody thought was abandoned has one of the little flags on a stick in the weeds by the driveway...."
As he continued reading, his ability to make seemingly mundane observations make sense in a wider context is clear. He hits the point home with:
"...on Wednesday here there's a weird accretive pressure to have a flag out. If the purpose of displaying a flag is to make a statement, it seems like at a certain point of density of flags you're making more of a statement if you don't have a flag out. Its not totally clear what statement this would be, though. What if you just don't happen to have a flag?"
He then detailed his own search for a flag after no flag could be found in Bloomington, until he takes the suggestion of the KWIK-N-EZ proprietor who "suggests construction paper and 'Magical Markers', which explains my now-beloved and proudly displayed homemade flag." At this point, all contingents in the audience lovingly chuckled. Regardless of why we came (to be seen, to prance about, or to hear him read his work and be inspired), everyone, in that moment, relaxed into their chairs, warmth in their bellies, slight smiles on their faces. This is the David Foster Wallace we came to see. The man who makes the simple even simpler, then more complex and then simple again, with new meaning attached.
Once the flag fiasco and potential philisophical meanings of the flag fiasco are behind him, he continues his piece about the events of 9/11 unfolding on the television screen at the home of a good friend and fellow churchgoer. Laughter rang out in appropriately funny places. Silence reigned in appropriately sad places. I will not recount for you minute by ever passing minute of the reading -- but please know that were you there (no matter how you feel about 9/11, about Wallace's work, or about reading and writing in general) you could not help but be sucked into the vortex that is DFW. To his minutely observed world and the collective meaning of such small, but important, observations.
As a writer, he reminds me to keep my eye ever open. To see the meaning in those small things. It is the detail -- the flags and the not flags and what about the flags and how did they know to have flags on hand just in case -- that makes his prose come alive. In his hands, the seemingly mundane becomes the stuff of great storytelling. I would do well to remember this in my own writing. Other things that struck me as he continued to read:
- He tells the truth in his work. You hear this phrase bandied about a lot. Writers are frequently told to tell the truth in their fiction (current events to the opposite not withstanding) -- so much so that it is cliche at this point. Yet, he embodies this in his prose and his fiction. For the first time, I understand what this means. The truth of a situation (what it really means to have these flags out and what it means to the people who have put them out) must be captured on the page to make it sing, to make the truth known.
- He is very much about being clear, precise in his words. For so long I saw him as other than this. Infnite Jest and other earlier published work did seem to firmly place him in the verbal gymnastics aren't-I-cleverer-than-you catergory. With a more experienced eye (less cynical? less insecure of my own abilities?), I see that he is very much about clarity of thought.
- I am humbled. That may not mean much because I say it all the time -- but this time its true. (Can you hear me crying wolf? Wolf?)
- It is possible that in my life I will write a book that is published. However, it is rather improbable that he will ever read it. He's that good. (A fact that will become more evident in the third installment.) I can live with this. As long as I can keep reading his work to keep me aware of the finer points of observation. Of seeing the meaning in the mundane. Of telling the truth.
With the reading over, applause rang out and various contingents began to move into action, shuffle about. The Lovelies reapplied lipstick. The Aged Lovlies (thank you Isabella!) adjusted their hats while they considered donating money (only if such donations were made public, in print) to the reading series. The Hollywood Types text-messaged possible offer amounts back to studio heads and The Bookluggers began pulling out their rankmusty books and stacking them on their laps, in order of publication year. The Actual DFW fans sat quietly, secretly hoping for more.
Another Hammer official of some sort, hipply dressed all in black with a funky sweater cap and oversized retro glasses, announced that there would be time for a few questions and answers. The crowd quieted again. We could not believe our luck. It is one thing to hear the man read from his written work. It is quite another to hear him answer questions, off the cuff. With a renewed sense of anticipation, the first arm shot up from somewhere to the left of me. Then another, then another. Which contingents were attached to most of these arms? Vapid lovelies. All of them. I kid you not.
Hold on to your hats folks, this is where it gets interesting...