“It’s the arm. You wouldn’t think of it as a asset like that would you. But it’s the arm. You want to see it? You won’t get disgusted? Well here it is. Here’s the arm. This is why I go by the name Johnny One-Arm. I made it up, not anybody being, like, hard-hearted—me. I see how you’re trying to be polite and not look at it. Go ahead and look though. It don’t bother me. Inside my head I don’t call it the arm I call it the Asset. How all would you describe it? Go on. You think it’ll hurt my feelings? You want to hear me describe it? It looks like a arm that changed its mind early on in the game when it was in Mama’s stomach with the rest of me. It’s more like a itty tiny little flipper, it’s little and wet-looking and darker than the rest of me is. It looks wet even when it’s dry. It’s not a pretty sight at all. I usually keep it in the sleeve until it’s time to haul it out and use it for the Asset. Notice the shoulder’s normal, it’s just like the other shoulder. It’s just the arm. It’ll only go down to like the titty-nipple of my chest here, see? It’s a little sucker. It ain’t pretty. It moves fine, I can move it around fine. If you look close here at the end there’s these little majiggers you can tell started out wanting to be fingers but didn’t form. When I was in her stomach. The other arm—see? It’s a normal arm, a little muscly on account of using it all the time. It’s normal and long and the right color, that’s the arm I show all the time, most times I keep the other sleeve pinned up so it don’t look to be even anything like a arm in there at all. It’s strong though. The arm is. It’s hard on the eyes but it’s strong, sometimes I’ll try and get them to arm wrestle it to see how strong it is. It’s a strong little flippery sucker. If they think they can stand to touch it. I always say if they don’t think they can stand touching it why that’s O.K., it don’t hurt my feelings. You want to touch it?”
“That’s all right. That is all right.”
“What it is is—well first there’s always some girls around. You know what I mean? At the foundry there, at the Lanes. There’s a tavern right down by the bus stop there. Jackpot—that’s my best friend—Jackpot and Kenny Kirk—Kenny Kirk’s his cousin, Jackpot’s, that are both over me at the foundry cause I finished school and didn’t get in the union till after—they’re real good-looking and normal-looking and Good With The Ladies if you know what I mean, and there’s always girls hanging back around. Like in a group, a bunch or group of all of us, we’ll all just hang back, drink some beers. Jackpot and Kenny’re always going with one of them or the other and then the ones they’re going with got friends. You know. A whole, say, group of us there. You follow the picture here? And I’ll start hanging back with this one or that one, and after a while the first stage is I’ll start in to telling them how I got the name Johnny One-Arm and about the arm. That’s a stage of the thing. Of getting some pussy using the Asset. I’ll describe the arm while it’s still up in the sleeve and make it sound like just about the ugliest thing you ever did see. They’ll get this look on their face like Oh You Poor Little Fella You’re Being Too Hard On Yourself You Shouldn’t Be Shameful Of The Arm. So on. How I’m such a nice young fella and it breaks their heart to see me talk about my own part of me that way especially since it weren’t any fault of mine to get born with the arm. At which time when they start with that stage of it the next stage is I ask them do they want to see it. I say how I’m shameful of the arm but somehow I trust them and they seem real nice and if they want I’ll unpin the sleeve and let the arm out and let them look at the arm if they think they could stand it. I’ll go on about the arm until they can’t hardly stand to hear no more about it. Sometimes it’s a ex of Jackpot’s that’s the one that starts hanging back with me down at Frame Eleven over to the Lanes and saying how I’m such a good listener and sensitive not like Jackpot or Kenny and she can’t believe there’s any way the arm’s as bad as I’m making out and like that. Or we’ll be hanging back at her place in the kitchenette or some such and I’ll go It’s So Hot I Feel Like Taking My Shirt Off But I Don’t Want To On Account Of I’m Shameful Of The Arm. Like that. There’s numerous, like, stages. I never out loud call it the Asset believe you me. Go on and touch it whenever you get a mind to. One of the stages is I know after some time I really am starting to come off creepy to the girl, I can tell, cause all I can talk about is the arm and how wet and flippery it is but how it’s strong but how I’d just about up and die if a girl as nice and pretty and perfect as I think she is saw it and got disgusted, and I can tell all the talk starts creeping them up inside and they start to secretly think I’m kind of a loser but they can’t back out on me cause after all here they been all this time saying all this nice shit about what a sensitive young fella I am and how I shouldn’t be shameful and there’s no way the arm can be that bad. In this stage it’s like they’re committed into a corner and if they quit hanging back with me now why they know I can go It Was Because Of The Arm.”
“Usually long about two weeks, like that. The next is your critical-type stage where I show them the arm. I wait till it’s just her and me alone someplace and I haul the sucker out. I make it seem like they talked me into it and now I trust them and they’re who I finally feel like I can let it out of the sleeve and show it. And I show it to her just like I just did you. There’s some additional things too I can do with it that look even worse, make it look—see that? See this right here? It’s cause there ain’t even really a elbow bone, it’s just a—”
“Or some of your ointments or Vaseline-type jelly on it to make it look even wetter and shinier. The arm’s not a pretty sight at all when I up and haul it out on them I’m telling you right now. It just about makes them puke, the sight of it the way I get it. Oh and a couple run out, some skedoodle right out the door. But your majority? Your majority of them’ll swallow hard a time or two and go Oh It’s It’s It’s Not Too Bad At All but they’re looking over all away and try and not look at my face which I’ve got this totally shy and scared and trusting face on at the time like this one thing I can do where I can make my lip even tremble a little. Ee? Ee anh? And ever time sooner or later within inside, like, five minutes of it they’ll up and start crying. They’re in way over their head, see. They’re, like, committed into a corner of saying how it can’t be that ugly and I shouldn’t be shameful and then they see it and I see to it it is ugly, ugly ugly ugly and now what do they do? Pretend? Shit girl most of these girls around here think Elvis is alive someplace. These are not girl wonders of the brain. It breaks them down ever time. They get even worse if I ask them Oh Golly What’s Wrong, how come they’re crying, Is It The Arm and they have to say It Ain’t The Arm, they have to, they have to try and pretend it ain’t the arm that it’s how they feel so sad for me being so shameful of something that ain’t a big deal at all they have to say. Oftentimes with their face in their hands and crying. Your climactic stage then is then I up and come over to where she’s at and sit down and now I’m the one that’s comforting them. A, like, factor here I found out the hard way is when I go in to hold them and comfort them I hold them with the good side. I don’t give them no more of the Asset. The Asset’s wrapped back up safe out of sight in the sleeve now. They’re broke down crying and I’m the one holding them with the good arm and go It’s O.K. Don’t Cry Don’t Be Sad Being Able To Trust You Not To Get Disgusted By The Arm Means So Very Very Much To Me Don’t You See You Have Set Me Free Of Being Shameful Of The Arm Thank You Thank You and so on while they put their face in my neck and just cry and cry. Sometimes they get me crying too. You following all this?”
Q. . . .
“More pussy than a toilet seat, man. I shit you not. Go on and ask Jackpot and Kenny if you want about it. Kenny Kirk’s the one named it the Asset. You go on.” ♦
David Foster Wallace (February 21, 1962 – September 12, 2008) was an American author of novels, short stories and essays, as well as a professor of English and creative writing. Wallace is widely known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which was cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.
Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin called Wallace "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years". Wallace's last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011 and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A biography of Wallace was published in September 2012, and an extensive critical literature on his work has developed in the past decade.
Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, the son of Sally Jean (née Foster) and James Donald Wallace. In his early childhood, Wallace lived in Champaign, Illinois. In fourth grade, he moved to Urbana and attended Yankee Ridge school and Urbana High School. As an adolescent, Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis player.
James D. Wallace, David's father, was a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is now Emeritus Professor. David's mother, Sally Foster Wallace, attended graduate school in English Composition at the University of Illinois and became a professor of English at Parkland College—a community college in Champaign—where she won a national Professor of the Year award in 1996.
Wallace attended his father's alma mater, Amherst College, and majored in English and philosophy. He participated in several extracurricular activities, including glee club; Wallace's sister recalls that "David had a lovely singing voice." Within philosophy Wallace pursued focuses in modal logic and mathematics. His philosophy senior thesis on modal logic was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize and published posthumously as Fate, Time, and Language. His other honors thesis, written for his English major, would become his first novel, The Broom of the System. Wallace graduated summa cum laude for both theses in 1985. By the end of his undergraduate education, Wallace was committed to fiction; he told David Lipsky, "Writing [Broom], I felt like I was using 97 percent of me, whereas philosophy was using 50 percent". He pursued a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Arizona, completing it in 1987, by which time Broom had been published. Wallace moved to Boston for graduate school in philosophy at Harvard University, but soon abandoned it.
In the early 1990s, Wallace had a relationship with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr. Wallace married painter Karen L. Green on December 27, 2004. Dogs played an important role in Wallace's life: he was very close to his two dogs, Bella and Werner, had spoken of opening a dog shelter, and, according to Jonathan Franzen, "had a predilection for dogs who'd been abused, and [were] unlikely to find other owners who were going to be patient enough for them". Wallace's younger sister, Amy Wallace Havens of Tucson, Arizona, has practiced law since 2005.
Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008, at age 46. Wallace's father reported in an interview that his son had suffered from depression for more than 20 years and that antidepressant medication had allowed him to be productive. When he experienced severe side effects from the medication, he attempted to wean himself from his primary antidepressant, phenelzine. On his doctor's advice, Wallace stopped taking the medication in June 2007, and the depression returned. Wallace received other treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy. When he returned to phenelzine, he found that it had lost its effectiveness. His wife kept a watchful eye on him in the following days, but on September 12, Wallace went into the garage, wrote a two-page note, and arranged part of the manuscript for The Pale King before hanging himself from a patio rafter.
Numerous gatherings were held to honor Wallace after his death, including memorial services at Pomona College, Amherst College, University of Arizona, Illinois State University, and on October 23, 2008, at New York University—the last with speakers including his sister, Amy Wallace Havens; his agent, Bonnie Nadell; Gerry Howard, the editor of his first two books; Colin Harrison, editor at Harper's Magazine; Michael Pietsch, the editor of Infinite Jest and Wallace's later work; Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker; as well as authors Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Mark Costello (Wallace was the godfather of Costello's daughter, Delia), Donald Antrim, and Jonathan Franzen.
Wallace's first novel, 1987's The Broom of the System, garnered national attention and critical praise. Caryn James of The New York Times called it a successful "manic, human, flawed extravaganza", "emerging straight from the excessive tradition of Stanley Elkin's Franchiser, Thomas Pynchon's V., John Irving's World According to Garp".
In 1991 he began teaching literature as an adjunct professor at Emerson College in Boston. The next year, at the behest of colleague and supporter Steven Moore, Wallace obtained a position in the English department at Illinois State University. He had begun work on his second novel, Infinite Jest, in 1991, and submitted a draft to his editor in December 1993. After the publication of excerpts throughout 1995, the book was published in 1996.
In 1997, Wallace received a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, awarded by editors of The Paris Review for one of the stories in Brief Interviews—"Brief Interviews with Hideous Men #6"—which had appeared in the magazine.
In 2002, he moved to Claremont, California, to become the first Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College. He taught one or two undergraduate courses per semester and focused on writing.
Wallace delivered the commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. The speech was published as a book called This Is Water in 2009. In May 2013, portions of the speech were used in a popular online video also titled "This is Water".
Bonnie Nadell was Wallace's literary agent through his entire career. Michael Pietsch was his editor on Infinite Jest.
In March 2009, Little, Brown and Company announced that it would publish the manuscript of an unfinished novel, The Pale King, that Wallace had been working on before his death. The Pale King was pieced together by Pietsch from pages and notes the author left behind. Several excerpts were published in The New Yorker and other magazines. The Pale King was published on April 15, 2011, and received generally positive reviews.
Throughout his career, Wallace published short fiction in periodicals such as The New Yorker, GQ, Harper's Magazine, Playboy, The Paris Review, Mid-American Review, Conjunctions, Esquire, Open City, and Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.
Themes and styles
Wallace's fiction is often concerned with moving beyond the irony and metafiction associated with postmodernism. For example, his essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction", originally published in the small-circulation Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, proposes that television has an ironic influence on fiction, and urges literary authors to eschew TV's shallow rebelliousness: "I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I'm going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems." Wallace used many forms of irony, but focused on individuals' continued longing for earnest, unselfconscious experience and communication in a media-saturated society.
Wallace's novels often combine various writing modes or voices, and incorporate jargon and vocabulary (sometimes invented) from a wide variety of fields. His writing featured self-generated abbreviations and acronyms, long multi-clause sentences, and a notable use of explanatory footnotes and endnotes—often nearly as expansive as the text proper. He used endnotes extensively in Infinite Jest and footnotes in "Octet" as well as in the great majority of his nonfiction after 1996. On the Charlie Rose show in 1997, Wallace claimed that the notes were used to disrupt the linearity of the narrative, to reflect his perception of reality without jumbling the entire structure. He suggested that he could have instead jumbled up the sentences, "but then no one would read it".
D.T. Max describes Wallace's work as an "unusual mixture of the cerebral and the hot-blooded", often spanning a multitude of locations and protagonists within a single novel. It often commented on the fragmentation of thought and the relationship between happiness and boredom. According to Wallace, "fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being", and he expressed a desire to write "morally passionate, passionately moral fiction" that could help readers "become less alone inside". In his Kenyon College commencement address, he describes the human condition of daily crises and chronic disillusionment and warns against solipsism, invoking compassion, mindfulness, and existentialism:
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.... The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.... The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.
Wallace's work has been cited as an influence and inspiration by many writers, including Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Elizabeth Wurtzel, George Saunders, Rivka Galchen, Matthew Gallaway, David Gordon, Darin Strauss, Charles Yu, and Deb Olin Unferth.
Wallace covered Senator John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and the September 11 attacks for Rolling Stone; cruise ships (in what became the title essay of his first nonfiction book), state fairs, and tornadoes for Harper's Magazine; the US Open tournament for TENNIS Magazine; the director David Lynch and the pornography industry for Premiere magazine; the tennis player Michael Joyce for Esquire; the special-effects film industry for Waterstone's magazine; conservative talk radio host John Ziegler for The Atlantic Monthly; and a Maine lobster festival for Gourmet magazine. He also reviewed books in several genres for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic, which commemorated the magazine's 150th anniversary, Wallace was among the authors, artists, politicians and others who wrote short pieces on "the future of the American idea".
In March 2010, it was announced that Wallace's personal papers and archives—drafts of books, stories, essays, poems, letters, and research, including the handwritten notes for Infinite Jest—had been purchased by the University of Texas at Austin. They reside at the University's Harry Ransom Center.
The first annual David Foster Wallace Conference was hosted by the Illinois State University Department of English in May 2014; the second conference is for two days in May, 2015.
Film and television
A filmed adaptation of Brief Interviews, directed by John Krasinski with an ensemble cast, was released in 2009 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It was met with poor reviews.
The Simpsons episode "A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again" (2012) is loosely based on Wallace's essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". The Simpson family takes a cruise, and Wallace appears in the background of a scene, wearing a tuxedo T-shirt while eating in the ship's dining room; Wallace recounts having worn such a T-shirt "at formal suppers".
The End of the Tour is an upcoming film based on David Lipsky's conversations with Wallace in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, with Jason Segel playing Wallace.
"Partridge", a Season 5 episode of NBC's Parks and Recreation, repeatedly references Infinite Jest, of which the show's co-creator, Michael Schur, is a noted fan.
Stage and music
Twelve of the interviews from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men were adapted into a stage play in 2000, the first theatrical adaptation of Wallace's work. The play, Hideous Men, adapted and directed by Dylan McCullough, premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in August 2000.
Brief Interviews was also adapted by director Marc Caellas as a play called Brief Interviews With Hideous Writers, which premiered at Fundación Tomás Eloy Martinez in Buenos Aires on November 4, 2011.
The short story "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko" from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men was adapted by composer Eric Moe into a 50-minute operatic piece, to be performed with accompanying video projections. The piece was described as having "subversively inscribed classical music into pop culture".
Infinite Jest was performed once as a stage play by Germany’s experimental theater Hebbel am Ufer. The play was staged in various locations throughout Berlin, and the action took place over a 24-hour period.
"Good Old Neon", from Oblivion: Stories, was adapted and performed live by Ian Forester at the 2011 Hollywood Fringe Festival, produced by Los Angeles independent theater company Needtheater.
List of works
Main article: David Foster Wallace bibliography
The Broom of the System (1987)
Infinite Jest (1996)
The Pale King (2011) (published posthumously in unfinished form)
Short story collections
Girl with Curious Hair (1989) (published in Europe as Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way)
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999)
Oblivion: Stories (2004)
Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race In the Urban Present (1990), coauthored with Mark Costello
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (essays) (1997)
Up, Simba! (2000)
Everything and More (2003)
Consider the Lobster (essays) (2005)
McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope (paperback reprint of Up, Simba!) (2008)
This Is Water (2009)
Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, Eds. S. Cahn and M. Eckert, Columbia University Press (2011)
Both Flesh and Not (essays) (2012)
Awards and honors
Pulitzer Prize nomination for "The Pale King", 2012 (no Fiction Prize was awarded that year)
Inclusion of "Good Old Neon" in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2002
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 1997–2002
Lannan Foundation Residency Fellow, July–August 2000
Named to Usage Panel, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 4th Edition et seq., 1999
Inclusion of "The Depressed Person" in Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards
Illinois State University, Outstanding University Researcher, 1998 and 1999
Aga Khan Prize for Fiction for the story "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men #6", 1997
Time magazine's Best Books of the Year (Fiction), 1996
Salon Book Award (Fiction), 1996
Lannan Literary Award (Fiction), 1996
Inclusion of "Here and There" in Prize Stories 1989: The O. Henry Awards
Whiting Writers' Award, 1987
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