An Athletic Intelligence: James Wood Talks About David Foster Wallace at the 92Y
New Yorker book critic James Wood recently gave a lecture at the 92nd Street Y on the short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace.
It was the first night of a new series called “First Reads with James Wood,” in which the critic reads a book he has never read before, then discusses it before a live audience at the 92Y Poetry Center.
Audience members received program materials, including obligatory papers announcing upcoming events and several handouts chosen by Wood. The first handout was from “The Depressed Person,” a story in Wallace’s collection (if you’re keeping track at home, Wood provided photocopies of pages 47, 48, 67 and 68). The second handout was a selection from a novella by Samuel Beckett called Company (pages 6 and 7).
All tickets to Wood’s talk had been sold out several days before. The lecture hall soon filled with a range of studious-looking young men and women in sweaters and elderly couples in blazers and conservatively cut dresses.
Around 8:15pm, the listed start time, James Wood emerged from behind the curtain. He was dressed in jeans, a light gray collared shirt and a charcoal-colored blazer. Upon standing at the podium, he immediately took off the blazer and placed it on the floor. He rolled up his shirtsleeves.
To begin his lecture, Wood quoted a line from Brief Interview #30: “Trim and good and good legs—she’d had a kid but wasn’t all blown out and veiny and sagged.”
“It’s not easy reading, not even particularly pleasant reading,” he said. “But he’s onto something.”
Wood then spoke of the “local pleasures of the book,” “similar to Norman Rush,” “the switching of registers,” “the jumbling of languages,” “capturing the movement of speech, and the movement of consciousness.”
He praised David Foster Wallace’s “brilliant manipulation of technological argot.”
“It’s funny,” he said. “And it’s also intolerable.”
He compared Wallace’s work to Thomas Bernhard, whom he characterized as “brilliant at the repetitive hammering.”
He also made mention of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel that Wallace wrote about in an article in Salon, calling it “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.”
Wood talked about Samuel Beckett, going over the section he had photocopied for the audience.
The section he went over was from Beckett’s novella Company, in which a boy is chastised by his mother for asking a difficult question concerning reality and the sky.
“If you’ve ever seen pictures of Beckett’s mother…” He paused. “She was…a tough cookie. Tall, severe-faced, battle-hardened.”
Comparing Wallace to Beckett, Wood said, “Beckett was less of a tummler. Less onrush, more restraint.”
Wood also noted Beckett’s “oddity of registration” and “peculiar automaton-like control of the language.”
Wood stated that his only, or main, reservation about Brief Interviews was that in some instances “Wallace gives you the key, overexplaining the hand, instead of actually being enigmatic, like Beckett.”
Wood wryly described one interview in the book, #20, as “a story about a young man who picks up a woman at a music festival.”
He disagreed with Zadie Smith’s reading of several of the stories. Much of the tension in Wallace’s stories, Wood believed, was, in the end, left unresolved.
Every now and then, when making a particularly strong statement, Wood employed the qualifier “for my taste.”
At one point during the lecture, it occurred to me that witnessing James Wood at the lectern was similar to witnessing a professional athlete in person and how much faster, stronger, and more graceful they are when they are right there in front of you. Wood’s intellectual acuity is sort of like that. His moves are agile and assured, impressively athletic.
At another point during the lecture, during the Q&A session, an older man asked in a heavy Yiddish accent, “I’d like to ask you a question about meta-fiction, and meta-meta-fiction, and how many meta-’s one can tolerate before losing one’s mind.”
In answering this question, Wood used the term “caravan of vileness” to describe the organizing principle behind Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
In answering this question, he also noted that Wallace was “a very moral writer.”
For some reason, a woman asked James Wood how he “felt about audio books.”
Wood appeared briefly confused, then answered with charitable seriousness: “If I didn’t have to read so much, I would listen to them more.”
Another woman asked if “what happened to David Foster Wallace” affected his reading of the book?
James Wood answered that, yes, it did. (How could it not?)
“What happened to him,” someone asked.
“He killed himself,” said Wood solemnly. “He did.”
A younger guy asked about the amount of “tricks” in David Foster Wallace’s fiction and whether there was another Wallace one would prefer to read, “with just the empathy and voice, but stripped of the footnotes, the brackets…”
“I do feel like he’s performing a lot, and wish he’d perform a little less,” admitted Wood. “But he had good, rigorous, and mimetic reasons.” Wood concluded by saying that he wouldn’t want to read it without the experimental elements because it was the play between the more traditional elements, like empathy, and the more experimental elements, like the footnotes, and the sometimes satirical tone, that provided so much of the tension and interest. Without these elements, Wallace’s work, at times, risked sentimentality.
Wood said that, “If there’s a criticism, it’s he’s too much of a realist.” He explained this to mean David Foster Wallace’s tendency to write immense texts that recreate the tangled experience of thought.
Wood quoted Henry James’s theory of a circle: “The job of the artist is to create the illusion of form.”
The last question, or second to last question, was asked by an elegantly-dressed man sitting in the front row. It was Lorin Stein, the new editor of the Paris Review (and former editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
He asked, “How would you describe the shape of the book?”
For perhaps the first time, Wood appeared tentative. He said that, in order to answer, he would need more time to think about it.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 3 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 4 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 5 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 6 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 7 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 8 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 9 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Strartup
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook