Somebody recently wrote an article for Vice about the irony that 85% of his muslim brothers who wholeheartedly called for the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, had never actually read The Satanic Verses. He ended it with the sentence, ‘The Satanic Verses is to Muslim intellectuals what Infinite Jest is to hipsters. It’s on everyone’s shelves, and they all have strong opinions on the author, but most haven’t read past the first 30 pages.’
Bulls–eye my brother.
As you can see from the above copy, I didn’t get past the end of page 2. But like many people rolling around Hackney with no socks and shoes on, I do have a weird interest in the author of the book, David Foster Wallace. In the words of the Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky who followed him around for a week in 1996 at the back end of his book tour:
He was six-feet-two, and on a good day weighed 200 pounds. He wore granny glasses with a head scarf, points knotted at the back, a look that was both pirate-like and housewife-ish. His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination. Wallace was an A student through school, wrote a philosophy thesis and a novel before he graduated, went to writing school, published a thousand-page novel aged 32, received the only award you get in the nation for being a genius, wrote essays providing the best feel anywhere of what it means to be alive in the contemporary world, accepted a special chair at California’s Pomona College to teach writing, married, published another book and, last month, hanged himself at age 46.
They recently made a film about this exact encounter, the week Lipsky spent rolling around with Foster Wallace interviewing him, called The End Of The Tour. It’s totally brilliant. Try and watch it.
Given our generation’s newfound affinity with an attention span most akin to that of a housefly, the following is going to be a long-shot. But save it for a rainy day or a cycle-ride or an especially uneventful afternoon at work. It’s an interview with David Foster Wallace’s sister Amy about her brother, and it’s amazing and heartbreaking and an insight into an incredible mind.
In 2005 he went to Kenyon College to make a speech to the graduating class of 2005. It was recorded, and now known as ‘This Is Water’.
It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard I think. And reverberated around in my brain for weeks afterwards. It touches on many things, and in twenty minutes there doesn’t seem to be a sentence out of keeping with the message of the talk. His voice is so calming that it wraps you up in a blanket and takes you smiling with lids half-closed every step of the way.
About the things staring us in the face, right under our noses, to which we have become so accustomed, we are no longer able to see them. He speaks of the importance of trying to see these things again.
There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys.. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other one and goes ‘What the hell is water?’