What we lost when we lost David Foster Wallace

Posted in Books on September 15, 2008 by rkunzig

Over the weekend, newspapers, wire services, book reviews and top-shelf blogs have all mourned David Foster Wallace, author of the sprawling Infinite Jest, several volumes of short stories, and a manic, unstoppable social critic.  They say we lost a genius, a stylist, a grammarian, a prophet.

I say we lost one hell of a journalist.

Of course “journalism” seems too dusty a label for what Foster Wallace did, and out of respect for both the writer and the profession, I’m going allow that he was less of a journalist than an essayist, or a correspondent, a postmodern Sam Johnson.  But journalism was exactly what he did, covering drug rehab, cruise ships, the porn industry and John McCain’s 2000 campaign for magazines like Esquire, Harper’s and Rolling Stone.  His journalism looked unlike anybody else’s, smirking and recoiling and swooning and holding hands with pages and pages of footnotes, which were in turn footnoted, which were bracketed with interpolations, which were themselves footnoted.  If Gonzo ditched the drugs, had a college degree and didn’t suck, it might come close to what DFW did for the form.

In my more manic moments, reading “Consider the Lobster,” I’m tempted to describe his nonfiction as the only way for an American to look at his/her culture and not throw themselves into traffic.  There’s a moral rigor in his work, a refusal to flinch or look away from the neon lights and the prostitutes and the televised wars and the made-to-order entertainment that is softened by a dry, disarming self-consciousness and an erudite yet informal style. And there’s the hope, too, that one can stand in the middle of the mess and still find the heart to jest.

And he was unsparing.  In “Consider the Lobster,” the title piece of his last book of essays, Foster Wallace explores the moral hazards of a most seemingly benign indulgence: a lobster dinner.  What if, he asks, there’s nothing benign about throwing a creature into a pot of boiling water, and cranking up the volume on the tube so you can’t hear the frantic, pleading tapping of its claws against the pot? I came out of the essay feeling like a war criminal. After more than two years, I haven’t eaten a lobster (though probably twenty bushels of crabs).

He covered McCain’s 2000 bid for president in “Up, Simba,” written for Rolling Stone.  McCain himself lurks in the background, appearing for moments as an impossibly energetic, extremely affable older dude who dishes out shit good-naturedly to the press corps, including the “Twelve Monkeys,” Foster Wallace’s totemic nickname for the pressed-and-starched correspondents from the national news agencies.  Instead of pretending to portray the man, Foster Wallace chronicles life on the two tour busses, “Bullshit 1” and “Bullshit 2” that follow McCain from rally to rally.  Eye for detail doesn’t even begin to cover it – Foster Wallace feels humanity like we smell sewage, and he embraces it, throws it onto the page like primal matter where it glows with truth.

I know I’ve fallen into the trap of maudlin and unconditional praise, like all the other mourners – even the icy Michiko Kakutani bowed her head and acknowledged the void in literature that wasn’t there a few days ago. I urge those rushing to pick up a copy of “Infinite Jest” to please, instead, consider the lobster. Foster’s enduring legacy may indeed be in fiction, but for this writer at least, he will be remembered as Yr. Corresp., smirkingly scoring his marks upon the page.

A Stranger in my own Backyard: Cambridge, Maryland

Posted in Uncategorized on August 26, 2008 by rkunzig

As Editor of Delmarva Quarterly, no small part of my job is to strike out into the Delmarva peninsula, the soggy little morsel of land that hangs between the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, and find our stories in the wild.  For all intents and purposes, I grew up here, on a little spit of sand called Cape Henlopen.  I left for boarding school at 17, taking with me an obligatory disdain for crabbing, duck hunting, pickup trucks and the acres upon acres of soy beans and cornstalks that lined the highway.  At 23, having settled in for my first Delaware autumn in over six years, I find myself in the awkward position of getting to know my homeland again.  Sitting on a deck chair with a gin-and-tonic and a copy of Independence Day in my hands, I think: when did those pines get to be so goddamned huge?  I’m a stranger in my own backyard.

Last Saturday I traveled to Cambridge, Maryland to attend a press preview of Chesapeake Classics, a small storefront cum museum dedicated to the carved duck.  Like Easton, north, and Chrisfield, south, Cambridge is a Chesapeake town that carries itself with pride and majesty.  Crossing over the Choptank River on the Rt. 50 bridge, I see its houses perched on the river with half of their lights on.  I imagine residents brushing aside old lace curtains to peer at the tangled mess of clouds above, giving way in long tears to a violently blue sky, and closer to the horizon, gradients of sunset.  Boats come into the harbor with their running lights on, cutting white v’s in the water.

I walk in and immediately feel overdressed in a blue blazer, khakis and a shirt that seems overenthusiastic among the more muted tartants, checkers and plaids.  I feel alienated and fear that someone will tag me as a resort-town interloper, which I am, and block me out of conversation.

The gallery is plesantly cluttered, feels warm and lived-in rather than confusing and overwhelming.  The blonde wood makes you feel at home, and the high ceilings give you room to breathe.  Older decoys are lovingly mounted and well-lit inside glass cases, while spares – runoff from founder Jeff Pelayo’s personal collection – squat on shelves.  An old railboat divides the room, filled to the gunnels with decoys.  Pelayo is short, of a vaguely Asian extraction, and speaks with an electric haste, clearly thrilled by the crowd.  And he should be.  One man came from Arkansas to see Pelayo’s gallery.

“Our primary purpose is education, definitely,” says Pelayo.  He holds a beer and rocks on his heels.  The gallery’s back room is more carefully arranged, placing choice picks from the famous wooden flocks of Charlie Joiner, Ralph Murphy and Benjamin Dye behind glass.  On one wall, a comically oversized muzzle-loader is mounted on hooks.

“That’s Ralph Murray’s punt gun,” he explains.  “Well, a replica of it, anyway.”  Punt guns, he explains, were basically six-foot smooth-bore barrels crammed with shot and powder, pointed in the general direction of a cluster of waterfowl, and fired.  The resulting explosion would almost topple the hunter’s skiff, but also kill a lot of ducks.  These were the days of market hunting, where the name of the game was not sport, but efficiencey.  Mouths were fed from the barrel of the punt gun.

It wasn’t until after the introduction of Federal preservation acts (which, by the way, damn near saved the Canvasback from extinction) that duck hunting became a sport in its own right, more about the kill than the harvest.  With a dip in demand for decoys – less of them were being blown to spliters by punt guns – their carving and painting became an art.  And Jeff Pelayo became a collector.  And he gave us Chesapeake Classics.

Speeding back across the Rt. 50 bridge, Crambridge had all its lights on behind me.  A few straggling boats were still cutting up the Choptank, running lights bucking against the dark water.  Warm air came in the window in great thumping gusts.  There was that smell, that sharp, sulfurous smell of marsh at low tide; that smell I’ve always called home, no matter where I was.

Welcome to the DMZ. Take your safties off.

Posted in Uncategorized on August 10, 2008 by rkunzig

I like comic books, in a vague way. I’m supposed to, I think–the New York Times Book Review is publishing articles about Robert Kirkman’s (of The Walking Dead fame) ascendancy to partnership at Image Comics, which shows that Ms. Kakutani and her crew are taking comics seriously. Johnathan Letham has always been intrigued by the mystique of the superhero (see The Fortress of Solitude), and Micheal Chabon can’t seem to shut up about it. In a way, giving comic books–excuse me, graphic novels–a nod of respect has become obligatory for American readers. Who wants to haunt that drafty old ivory tower, anyway?

While harboring a collegial respect, I’ve never been a great reader of comics. My friend Shawn, an incredibly articulate and penetrating reader of pulp, shills Marvel’s Ultimate comics on me from time to time, and while I tend to enjoy them, I’m never motivated to read them on my own. The gloss and high-polished glare are offputting, no matter Marvel’s efforts to steep the Ultimate universe in contemporary reality (Captain America, for instance, is dropped into Afghanistan). I wanted something grittier, something I would have to scrub out from underneath my fingernails.

Shawn, via a guru named Kevin Ireland, delivered.

“It’s called DMZ,” said Shawn. “I think you’ll like it.”

In the first panels, a young man with sunken shoulders sits on a bench, plugged into an Mp3 player. He looks like he’s waiting for a train. The ashtray beside him is overflowing, and the walls around him are spangled with grafitti. Above his head, a tattered bill reads:

ATTENTION: IN THE EVENT OF MISSILE, MORTAR ATTACK OR AIRSTRIKE, PLS PROCEED DIRECTLY TO THE DESIGNATED SECURITY AREA AND AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.

Below that, scrawled in marker:

EVERY DAY IS 9/11.

His name is Matthew Roth, and he’s not in Baghdad. He’s on Long Island, waiting to be taken to Manhattan, the DeMilitarized Zone in America’s Second Civil War.

Written by Brian Wood with artwork by Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ is charred black, tightly wound and utterly uncompromising. This is a comic book with a mission often attempted, but only sometimes acheived by comics: to indulge in fantasy while holding a mirror to our reality. Considering DMZ’s premise, the risk of descending to cheap polemics is high, possibly even inevitable. However, Wood and Burchielli have created something that is shrill with indictment, but dense with plot and character. The story, not the message, compells us. The world is intoxicating in its humanity–reading it, the magic of truly good fiction sets in and we get drunk off the lives of others.

But DMZ is a strong and bitter liquor, more of a tonic than a treat. Roth is disappointed and betrayed at every turn. Stuck between two Americas–“America,” pushed back to Long Island, and the “Free States,” which rose in the midwest and pushed east like a tidal wave–he is shuttled back and forth, both pawn and bargaining chip.

There are lighter, almost whimsical notes. The first trade paperback, On the Ground, is essentially a “Welcome to the DMZ” guide, a smattering of shorts that settles both the reader and Roth into the New New York. One of them is the story of an ex-Marine sniper who went AWOL and ensconced himself in a water tower. With his super-sniper rifle, a complicated gun mounted on a tripod with a viewfinder reminiscent of the Virtual Boy, he can survey the surrounding city for miles, reporting on movements or possible threats to his neighborhood. Roth finds him with his barrel pointed into downtown Jersey City. His purpose isn’t lethal–he ran out of ammo months ago. Instead, his scope is fixed on a slender woman with long bangs, a high-powered rifle propped across her shoulders and a whiteboard that reads “WHERE ARE YOU?” The sniper scrawls “SORRY BABY” onto his own whiteboard and sticks it out the window. This is how they talk, one whiteboard at a time, two lovers totally oblivious to the havoc around them. It’a awe dressed as fancy–the reader is charmed, but overwhelmed by the concept of a warzone love affair, lived out through a telescope lens.

When DMZ is dark, it’s pitch black. In the third book, Public Works, Roth is cornered into assisting a suicide bomber. Instead, he stops her from blowing up the Secretary General and his staff. She lives out the rest of the book in a daze, trapped with an inexplicable lease on life that leaves her isolated, cut off from those who see her as a terrorist and those who see her as a failure, a traitor. She ends up a beggar, a spiritual derelict picking her way through trash cans. And the Secretary General is killed anyway, ambushed and executed when Plan A fell through.

At its heart, DMZ is a paean to New York City–its people, its neighborhoods, its singular, sovreign culture. Despite the air strikes, missile strikes, invasions, assassinations, snipers, mortars, and kidnappings, culture flourishes underground. At the end of the second book, Body of a Journalist, Woods and Burchielli added as an appendix a “community newsletter,” highlighting the maverick magazines, novelists, and music clubs that manage to spring up between the explosions.

Caught in the crossfire, a nationless Manhattan has only itself–its backstabbing, sniping, murderous self. And ultimately, that’s better than being on either side. The DMZ’s residents don’t leave because there’s no place to go, because the time for evacuation has passed. Their home is a warzone, but it’s still their home.

In a comic thick with ethical compromises and moral quandaries, Roth clings to one absolute like a shipwrecked sailor–the truth. When his sponsoring news agency hangs him out to dry and warps his stories, Roth goes rouge and freelances for whoever will take the story. His back painted with crosshairs, he is a poster child for ethical, responsible and courageous journalism, a Murrow with a baseball cap and a split lip. It’s surprising how little the reader minds his valiant, crusading truth-seeking; perhaps we’re just thirsty for the kind of journalism he represents.

Oh, and the art is fucking incredible. The lines are clear and precise, allowing the jumble of detail to create a sense of raggedness rather than a loose, pretentious style. Ligne Claire, French for “clear line” is the style I’m talking about here, I think–see Marvano’s work in his adaptation of The Forever War. Of course, I may be totally full of shit.

Thankfully, I still have the fourth and fifth books to enjoy. I expect I’ll be writing more on DMZ. In the meantime, pick it up. If the comi–ahem, graphic novel hasn’t yet made a case for itself as serious literature, DMZ does, and emphatically. It can’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored.

Fahrenheit 1200

Posted in Books, Robots Scare Me on July 27, 2008 by rkunzig

As the Kindle prepares for its second iteration, Luddite bibliophiles are perhaps stoking their blowtorches to a toasty 1200 degrees Fahrenehit–the temperature at which plastic burns.  Take that, Montag.

Seriously, though, hardly a day passes without an, ahem, conflagration on the interwebs over the “death of print media” at the hands of e-book readers like Amazon’s wildly popular Kindle.  These discussions inevitably lead to the general decline in American literacy; a notable example is a recent press conference held by Steve Jobs, who doubted the Kindle would succeed because Americans don’t read anymore.  “The whole conception is flawed at the top,” says Jobs, “because people don’t read anymore.”

Jobs’s very recognition of the Kindle was enough to set speculators and gossipers a-tittering.  With a pronouncement from the father of iCulture, the question no longer became whether or not Apple would produce an e-reader, but whether Steve Jobs could save American literacy.

In the Guardian Book Review, voices sound off on the iLiad (for shame!): Peter Conrad against, Naomi Alderman for.

Kirsten Reach, the progressive bibliophile, pipes up from the back with a few suggestions.  She has, of course, baked cookies for the occasion.

I’m withholding an opinion on e-readers until I can get my hands on one.  The sheer implications of its success make my head spin.  Oprah put Marquez on the bestseller list and made Faulkner summer reading–could a mainstream predilection for expensive, shiny things give reading a jump start in America?

Call the Roller of Big Cigars

Posted in The Real World on July 25, 2008 by rkunzig

On May 17 2008 they handed me a diploma and returned me to the World, blinking and kind of stunned.  Four years of my life had passed like a fold in paper, and the last four months especially felt like no time at all.  I remember waking up in Columbus, Ohio on the 18th to a formation of sprinklers tick-tick-ticking spurts of water across a beautiful backyard.  In my half-sleep delirium, I though the Real World must be some kind of eden, some strange fresh-smelling new life without papers, without exams, without petty, unmerited stress.  It was charming.

For about five minutes.

For those who didn’t catch the last season of The Wire, here’s the moral of the story: print media is taking a swan dive, from the national dailies to the community weeklies.  Sam Zell’s takeover of the Tribune has so far been marked by retreats, causing columnists to openly wonder whether or not the media conglomerate can remain financially solvent.  What isn’t failing is consolidating: Rupert Murdoch marches on, gobbling up The Wall Street Journal without shame (but thankfully, not without protest).

On a practical level, this means a glut of experienced reporters on the job market.  For every job posting on JournalismJobs.com, count on at least forty responses, most of which are embarrassingly overqualified.  For the aspiring reporter–one year’s experience as an intern, a solid GPA and an array of bright, shiny references–spunk and ambition don’t cut the mustard.

You can guess what the past few months have been like for me.  For those who can’t, a visual aid.

Thank god–or chance, luck, whatever–I finally landed a job at a local quarterly.  The diploma was a start, but adulthood can only truly commence with a desk, corkboard, filing cabinet and telephone extension.  In the months to come, the diligent reader can expect plenty of  smirking anecdotes from my professional life, each sodden with irony and choking on self-satisfaction.  Regular content will proceed as if, after January 3 2008, I didn’t drop off the face of the earth.

Oh, dry those eyes.  I missed you too.

Double Entendre

Posted in Uncategorized on January 3, 2008 by rkunzig

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Thanks, B&N.com!  That used copy of Richard Ford’s The Ultimate Good Luck that you sold me for $1.99–it was signed.

Really, folks, it’s the little things.

Stepping Outside the Wire

Posted in Uncategorized on December 31, 2007 by rkunzig

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Think about it: when is the last time you saw an ordinary Iraqi civilian interviewed by American media and couldn’t spot the at least one shadow of a man holding an M-16?

Seldom, if ever.  Due to the suicidal risks of reporting on Iraqi streets, journalists never go outside “the wire”–the defensive perimiter of a military base–without serious heat.  It’s not easy to interview someone coming home from the grocery store when your entourage includes eight to ten heavily armed men.  Consequently, “Iraq” becomes an idea, just a battlefield.  If people live there at all, we don’t hear from them.

In Michael Massings’ second article for The New York Review of Books on The Iraq War in the media, he cracks a window on our musty understanding of the Iraqi people.  Inside Iraq is a blog sponsored by McClatchy Newspapers, written by the Iraqi men and women working for its Baghdad Bureau.  Forget corporate consolidation, censorship, or any of the other cancers in Western media: these guys write from the dirt up, covering everything from weddings to teachers’ strikes.

The Iraq War is unlike any other in that the information distance has closed to a hair’s width.  In WWII it took months for letters to reach the States; now, soldiers can blog from the battlefield, and the Iraqis can reach us without mediation.  It’s our duty to listen.