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David Foster Wallace (#110 of 23)

Review: Amy Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography

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Review: Amy Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography
Review: Amy Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography

Joss Whedon is one of a handful of writer-directors (along with J.J. Abrams, Peter Jackson, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino) who rule the current age of nerds. Whedon has a notoriously rabid fanbase, especially those who championed his work through cancellations (Firefly) and disappointing box office (Serenity). To these fans, Whedon rarely does wrong. And in Amy Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography, Whedon has never done wrong. He comes across as an impossibly good (and, thus, uninteresting) figure who chirpily learns lessons from banal tribulations. In the foreword by Nathan Fillion, star of many of Whedon’s projects, he calls him “heroic,” which best describes the view of Whedon here. Joss Whedon is a sycophantic enterprise, a serviceable document of his career, well researched, thorough, and topic savvy, but she spends more time tracking the ins and outs of Whedon’s many projects than she does on his actual life. Whedon, here, is more like a composite of all his creations, a Creator, and less like an interesting person deserving of a full-fledged biography.

Pascale is clearly a fan, but in her introduction, she credits “Joss and Buffy” with giving her the “fortitude and bravery” to deal with a heavy, personal “twenty-year burden” in her life, which means Whedon’s art has a deeper, more emotional meaning for her as well. Whedon’s work, she tells us, “is a testament to defeat,” to those who “face every challenge and celebrate every victory along the way, even if they final battle doesn’t go their way. The defeated do not fail, because they keep on fighting.”

Roger Ebert in Illinois: A Tribute to the Man From His Permanent Stomping Grounds

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Roger Ebert in Illinois: A Tribute to the Man From His Permanent Stomping Grounds
Roger Ebert in Illinois: A Tribute to the Man From His Permanent Stomping Grounds

On Monday, April 1, the day after Easter, I was in Chicago with a few hours to kill before getting on an Amtrak train to go back south to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I went out to lunch with a friend, and he brought somebody who runs an AMC theater in the Near North Side, the one that shows the press screenings for critics. I mentioned to my friend’s guest that I had just moved back to Urbana, and was going to write about Ebertfest this year. He interrupted me and said Ebert wouldn’t be there this year—that he wasn’t doing well and had stopped going to his press screenings.

I got on my train and returned to Urbana thinking that what the guy had said about Ebert could probably count as a legitimate (albeit invasive) news item. On Thursday, April 4, I saw that Ebert had announced his “leave of presence,” thus breaking the news himself about a setback, health-wise. On Friday, April 5, in the morning, I saw the news that he had died. A couple of hours later, I walked outside to check the mail. Inside my mailbox was a manila envelope from the University of Illinois’s College of Media, and inside was my press pass to Ebertfest. I then headed toward the library, took a different turn than usual, and saw some flowers on the sidewalk in front of a house. “Somebody must’ve died,” I thought. Then I saw that there was a bag from Steak ’n Shakeamong the flowers, and a plaque that had been set in the concrete.

The Better of What’s Left David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not

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The Better of What’s Left: David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not
The Better of What’s Left: David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not

Now that it’s no longer the next David Foster Wallace book, The Pale King, the unfinished novel that was famously not awarded a Pulitzer in 2012, can settle into a sort of legacy within the author’s career. Published less than three years after Wallace’s death, The Pale King, for all its merits, is a rare glimpse into what it means to be a work in progress in a mind that many readers couldn’t help but idolize, and the timing probably couldn’t have been worse. For years we waited for the author’s next book, only more so after his death, but what we received was a ghost of a story, a reminder equally of Wallace’s tremendous gifts as a writer and the constant challenge of cultivating them over and over again, an artifact both satisfying and incredibly not. Suddenly the intensely weird and almost perfect late-career short stories and the wonder that is Infinite Jest were made to seem that much more worked-on, coming less from the heavens than from spiral notepads not unlike anyone else’s, just when the fervor of Wallace-saint and Wallace-genius had reached its pitch. Reading through the long, dreary hours of tax accounting and made-up IRS administrative history, you could never tell whether the way a certain section was structured pointed to the author’s growing views about the purpose of fiction or if that was just how the ideas happened to occur to him this time. I even found two punctuation errors. In the end it was an appropriate mess for an author who so enjoyed spotting paradoxes in everything he wrote about.

The Two Paths of the Novel Zadie Smith’s NW

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The Two Paths of the Novel: Zadie Smith’s NW
The Two Paths of the Novel: Zadie Smith’s NW

It only makes sense that NW, the fourth novel by Zadie Smith, was anticipated more for its statements than its story. Rarely has an author’s work been so paradigmed so soon, read and discussed less for its characters or memorable scenes than for what certain others had to say about it. Partially this school of career criticism was imposed on her at a very young age by the landslide of press over her debut novel, White Teeth, notably by the reviewer James Wood, who for New Republic made up a stupid name to encompass all of the books in the world he disliked most and declared the author its scion. Partially, however, it’s the author’s own doing, with the clear and many statements of her subsequent efforts: more than one response to the Wood fiasco; a second novel about the effects of fame on the integrity of works of art; a third novel that addressed any and all concerns once voiced about the thing called “hysterical realism”; and the series of high-profile missives on the values and shortcomings of contemporary fiction.

NW arrives in the wake of these ponderous and often pretty essays on Franz Kafka and David Foster Wallace and George Eliot, of a period between novels during which the author grew and grew as a writer of nonfiction and even followed Wood in hijacking one of her reviews for the New York Review of Books into a consideration of the “two paths for the novel,” creating her own name for the problem (“lyrical realism”) and hoping very elegantly for the possibility of “[shaking] the novel out of its complacency.” So it only makes sense that much was expected of NW—at least a glance toward that better path, if not a few actual steps.