After reading Infinite Jest two years ago, I didn’t become a DFW fanatic, settling instead for a measured respect for a writer who manages to be incredibly brilliant and hilarious at the same time. I’ve been meaning to get to this collection of essays, especially since I’m not sure when I’ll embark on another epic novel, namely his posthumously published Pale King.
My favorite here by far is “Authority and American Usage” (originally published in Harper’s as “Tense present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage”), which is ostensibly a review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but turns into a sort of treatise on language usage comparing other texts and using personal stories of his family of “SNOOTS” — i.e., language nerds. It’s this sort of writing that I like from him. His un-edited version of the Rolling Stone essay “Up, Simba” covering John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign is entertaining, but in that realm he is an outsider, so you end up too aware of how out of place he feels working as a journalist, but not a real journalist, in a realm he knows little about. His clever ways of describing this world as he’s figuring everything out is just a different thing from this authoritative voice. Of course, I’m not sure how I’d feel reading an authoritative essay by him concerning a topic that I do know a lot about, as this blog entry on Language Hat about this essay may suggest. The entry author highlights usage errors in the essay, and then the comments build for four years, including one from a woman who co-taught with DFW who says, “DFW’s supreme erudition and mesmerizing charm won’t save him from being forever the loneliest man on the planet. He makes it so.”
His footnote-heavy style may feel more appropriate for the non-fiction realm — though the final essay “Host” inserts these notes and asides not at the feet of the pages but amidst the text in a way that I can’t imagine won’t feel like reading acrobatics for nearly any reader at some point. (the web version of this essay on The Atlantic has these notes as hyperlinks that open separate boxes.) There is a point where the footnotes, as well as the frequently long sentences that include minor digressions inside them, start to feel like poor editing. But at the same time, I appreciate the challenge of working through the density of his writing.