Review: ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace

This might be a bunch of hooey, but I think that reading Infinite Jest made my brain bigger.

It is so massive, the paragraphs so dense, that a reader has no choice but to slow down and chew every word 30 times. It’s like: Sit back, put your feet up, you’re going to be here awhile, you might as well get real comfy-like. Then the end notes are like these speed bumps for when you’re getting a little cocky, finding a groove, picking up speed.

So I read a little slower and pictured everything a little harder. And, in maybe unrelated news, my memory seems to have improved on all things — not just the stuff that dribbled out of David Foster Wallace’s fingertips.

Anyway, as for this novel:

In a few words, it is about kids at a high-level tennis academy and it is about addicts at a halfway house. It is also about a video, created by an obscure filmmaker slash crazy genius alcoholic who makes a film so entertaining that viewers get addicted to it on impact. But enough stuff happens that it is kind of about everything in the entire world.

There are moments where writer envy will rip your guts apart. The sheer detail, the dialects and voices. But most importantly, the reckless amount of fun that DFW seemed to have writing this novel. He goes from complicated math and philosophy and politics, to satire, into absurd black comedy:

A woman is trapped in the bathroom of a bus on some bumpy terrain. She ends up with her ample ass stuck hanging out the window. For her embarrassment, she wins a large settlement. She hires a round the clock personal baker. She gourmet cakes herself to death.

An illicit love scene, as observed by a teen-aged boy, includes a cheerleader costume, a helmet, and jock strap.

A brotherly phone call in which the older interrupts the younger’s zen-like moment of nailing toenail shards into a garbage can a few meters away.

A young character plans to anonymously attend an AA meeting, and ends up in a room full of men holding teddy bears, talking about their inner infant.

Whatever. DFW does with this book what sci/fi writers have always done, and that is erase the constraints. Why couldn’t people become so addicted to a piece of film that they rotted away in a La-Z Boy, soiling themselves and moaning with withdrawal symptoms while it was rewinding? It’s fiction. You can do whatever the hell you want with it. Throw in the ghost of of an oft-talked about character, zip him into a pair of high-wad chinos. Let him balance a Coke can on your prone character’s head. Why the hell not? Sell the rights to naming years to corporations. Why the hell not? Take a pensive tennis player in the wee hours of the morning. Prop his sweaty head against a cold winter window. Get him stuck there for hours, and then let face debris remain after he has gotten painfully free. Why the hell not?

This is not to say that I loved every moment of Infinite Jest. There are great chunks of gray text that I thought were boring, and usually these involved U.S./Canadian relations. Politicians, and whatnot. Stuff that still reads like DFW is having the time O’his life, but which lags and drags and is just a bit mind numbing — even when it is posed as a puppet show filmed by Mario Incandenza. During these parts, I referred to it as “Infinite Gist.”

There is this Elton John-”Candle-in-the-Wind”-ishness about reading this book A.DFW.D. Now that we have DFW’s biography in its entirety to hold up next to his novel. His dislikes and neurosis. The way he stutters sometimes during televised interviews. The reason for the bandana. These bits of bio crop up in Infinite Jest, as scattered bits among the characters. The entire theme of tennis. The mother as a grammarian. And in more serious cases: People kill themselves, or at least try to: A head in an microwave, arms stuck in the garbage disposal, ODing. It’s that whole writer immortality thing. Kinda awesome.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on January 23, 2011.

Review: ‘An Object of Beauty’ by Steve Martin

The weirdest thing about reading a novel by Steve Martin is hearing his Steve Martin voice narrating. It’s that kind of friend’s smart dad voice, a guy with his own library and couture reading glasses who can also bust out a head band that makes it look like he was shot through the skull with an arrow. That kind of voice. And it is not an unpleasant way to spend nearly 300 pages.

An Object of Beauty is a kind of simple, smoothly written easy reader, the story of Lacey, a sassy young go-getter in the New York City art scene starting in the 1990s — as told by her somewhat mysterious arts writer friend Daniel. There was a brief something between them that eased into a friendship. He starts her story with Lacey stuck in his craw, unable to write anything else until he writes about this irreverent, smart, enigma.

Lacey starts in the basement of Sotheby’s, learning about paintings and the value of paintings, and the business of marrying collectors with these paintings. She whizzes off to a gallery, where she learns more, travels further, flashes more winning smiles. Then she opens her own space in Chelsea just in time to watch people’s art budget’s become absorbed by the tug of necessities. There are men, always men, and there are episodes. But mostly she breezes through the book, a gust of fresh air, a witty side comment, before easing herself into a position to have sex beneath a Matisse.

As much as this story is about Lacey, it is also an art history lesson about the state of the scene during two decades. A period that spans multi-million dollar deals, to newbie artists seeing similar dollar signs as the masters, to galleries with tumbleweeds blowing through them at an opening exhibition. Martin curates this, including color photographs of real-live pieces of art from real-live collections. In some ways it was like Steve Martin was strumming away at his banjo and decided to write a book that incorporated a bunch of art and the story of art existing in a certain time period, and then invented a girl to give it legs.

And to that end, there isn’t a ton of meat here. The story has few peaks and valleys and there are times that would be total danger ranger set ups in other novels. Lacey, with a super expensive art delivery, makes a detour to visit some nearby museums. Most heroines would experience a catastrophe. Losing the painting, or spilling ketchup on it. Lacey has one pulse-increasing moment that quickly dissipates.This is standard fare throughout the story. But it’s kind of nice and the story is pleasant with touches of good humor, usually coming out of Lacey’s mouth.

True story: Last week, before I started reading this book, I had a dream that I met Steve Martin. I touched his arm and said “I really like your book,” then I fumbled. I realized he had more than one, and I couldn’t remember the names of any of them. Then finally I said “Shop Girl. … The book, not the movie. … Well, I liked the movie, too.” And he was nice and all, but just smiled and walked away and I made a vow in that dream to get thee to a book store and read his new book so I would never be in such an embarrassing situation ever again ever.

This review was posted at Minnesota Reads on January 24, 2011.

Review: ‘Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself’ by David Lipsky

As I was reading Infinite Jest, I was simultaneously reading Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, a straight up five-day dialogue between the author David Lipsky and DFW, taken from tapes made while D Lips was interviewing DF-Dubs for a piece in Rolling Stone that was eventually killed.

What a treat, this chance to eavesdrop on these two dudes as they kick it at DF-Dubs’ pad, at airports, diners, long car rides, and a book signing at The Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul. It is smart, it is funny, it is silly, and at times uncomfortable. And there is a part in the afterword where anyone with a duct will shed real-live tears and mourn the loss even harder.

The thing I keep returning to after reading this is this: David Foster Wallace is so … normal. Here he has just published this massive piece of fiction that continues to give people brain spasms in their pleasure centers, and in his first moments with Lipsky he’s lamenting the fact that it hasn’t gotten him laid on the book tour. He expresses envy at Lipsky’s rental car, which hardly sounds like a sexy piece of machinery. He is a man repeating the same refrain to ticket agents and wait staff: When asked if they are together, DFW will respond “Yes, but not on a date.” He is a guy tucked away for years pounding out this Gen X trophy from start to finish. He is a guy in need of a Styrofoam cup that he can dribble chaw into.

He is a guy who can totally geek out over the movie “True Romance” or the works of David Lynch, and at the same time deliver a pretty valid reason for why Alanis Morissette is attractive.

I was left with four thoughts when I finished:

A) I’d love to see what would Lipsky would have done with all of this material. How he would have crafted that into a feature about this rising star literary hot shot. (He says he kind of did this with the DFW obit that ran in Rolling Stone). There are definite moments where you can just see where the piece might take bloom. If it was my story, I’d open at a part where one of DFW’s students asks:

“Done being famous yet?”

B) It would be super cool to see a staged reading of this book. Two men (or two women) on chairs, facing an audience and having this conversation as the backdrop changes.

C) I wonder if DFW did in fact go on to read Lipsky’s novel The Art Fair, (I know I’m gonna) which he says he is going to do and then send him a note. “I’m gonna be very curious to see how — to see what it’s like being inside your head,” DFW tells him.

D) These two Davids seem to have enough in common, get along well enough, to remain in each other’s orbit, yet they never met up ever again. It must be a strange dichotomy, spending five days with a stranger, for both the interviewer and the interviewee, and then to just walk away from it. Also: It must suck very badly to spend five days with a stranger who a) is recording everything you say; b) must record everything the other stranger says.

There is, admittedly, a cute factor to reading this book, which is really adorable in the same way that it is adorable to watch men play shirts versus skins on a playground basketball court. But with their brains.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on January 25, 2011.

News topic: Fecal transplants

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Patricia Shoop had chronic diarrhea, she was dehydrated and she had lost 16 pounds. The self-described glass-half-full woman, a 74-year-old from Minnetonka who teaches English as a Second Language twice a week and regularly swims, could hardly move.

She had been diagnosed with Clostridium difficile, a disruption of the bacteria in the colon that can occur when a patient has been on antibiotics. The drugs kill off both the bad and good bacteria in the colon. The walls of the intestines also can break down. It can be fatal.

“I thought maybe I was dying,” Shoop said. “I wasn’t eating. That’s all I did is have diarrhea. It’s pretty yucky. I thought: ‘I don’t care how much it costs. We’ll mortgage the house, do anything to make it better.’ ”

Her situation was so bad that when a childhood friend mentioned the words “fecal transplant,” the rare and somewhat controversial treatment sounded more like a much-needed solution than the punch-line to school bus humor.

In early December, Shoop had a fecal transplant at Essentia Health Duluth Clinic.

Gastroenterologist Dr. Tim Rubin said that in more than a decade, 109 fecal transplants have been performed at the clinic with an 85 percent success rate. He estimated that just six to 12 other hospitals in the country treat C. difficile in this way. Dr. Johan Bakken and Dr. Johannes Aas, both with roots in Scandinavia where fecal transplants are more prevalent, introduced the procedure into their general practices here in 1999. Rubin began work in this area about five years ago.

THE PROCEDURE

The colon is a natural reservoir for bacteria, and when it is thrown off balance, C. difficile is able to grow, leading to uncomfortable symptoms. With a fecal transplant, doctors introduce a donor’s healthy stool — literally a man-made probiotic — to the patient’s body.

In Shoop’s case, her husband, Bob, was in the hot seat.

The night before the procedure, Patricia Shoop said she was worried about the pressure on her husband to be able to go at “go time.”

“I said: ‘You’re going to have steak, and chocolate and wine,’ ” she said.

Bob Shoop’s donation was mixed up in a lab to a liquid that Rubin describes as the consistency of chocolate milk.

A tube was threaded through Patricia Shoop’s nose and down her throat into her stomach. The doctor used a syringe to send the liquid through the tube and into the upper GI tract. Shoop would eventually push it through her colon.

The entire outpatient procedure took about 20 minutes, during which Shoop was awake. There is no smell and no taste. The mixture is cold, she said. The worst of it is the uncomfortable feeling of the tube in the nose.

Shoop felt better three days after the fecal transplant. Within a week, she was eating normally. Last week she was checked for signs of infection and came out A-OK.

“I’ve been pooping like everyone else ever since,” she said, and laughed. “How’s that for a testimony.”

WHY CONTROVERSIAL

Of course, there is a certain amount of yuck involved with fecal matters. Dr. Charles Gessert, a senior research scientist at Essentia Institute of Rural Health, said these are obviously the concerns of people who have never had C. difficile.

“The people who are well have the luxury of such fastidiousness,” he said.

Last week, a report out of British Columbia featured a hospital where administrators had asked doctors to stop performing fecal transplants at the facility.

“Patient safety is our primary concern. The safety of fecal transplants has not been adequately studied,” according to the statement from Burnaby Hospital of Burnaby, B.C. “There must be strict controls to ensure other serious infections are not passed to the patient inadvertently.”

Gessert said these concerns are addressed by finding a donor from within the same household, who has similar flora because they are exposed to the same conditions, people, pets and hygiene.

There has not been a large enough body of research behind the procedure for Food and Drug Administration approval, he said. And getting that research done could be tricky.

“Human stool is never going to be manufactured by a pharmaceutical company,” Gessert said. “No profit is going to be made.”

This story was in the January 23,2011 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Daily: Theater bonanza on local stages

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

A bloody Shakespeare play. An English feast served with a tale by Charles Dickens. A sketch comedy revue, the story of Don Quixote and a traditional holiday musical by Irving Berlin.

’Tis the season to stuff the stages with epic theatrical productions.

Five shows — holiday themed and decidedly not so — are slated to open this weekend. But is the local theater-going population large enough to support the concentration of arts and entertainment? Those involved with the productions said they are hoping the eclectic mix of material will help fill the seats at a time when everyone wants to perform.

“It’s always a challenge when there are so many things that happen at one time,” said Christine Seitz, the executive director of the Duluth Playhouse, where “White Christmas” opens today. “But Christmas only comes once a year. All performing arts organizations, whether it’s theater or dance, everyone has their holiday specials. That’s part of what we do.”

While the show’s schedules are staggered a bit throughout the next three weeks, on high-traffic Friday and Saturday nights, this means filling about 800 seats between the five venues.

Last year, four shows opened on this same weekend — which is the standard for a busy theater month. October gets like this too, according to Lawrance Bernabo, who reviews plays for the News Tribune.

“White Christmas” has already succeeded, based on advance ticket sales. The 280-plus seat Playhouse is almost sold out for three weeks of performances. As of Wednesday, Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” playing in the 100-seat Dudley Experimental Theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is also close to capacity for its nine-show run.

The diversity of fare is what will work to each theater’s advantage, said Sheryl Jensen, who is directing “Man of La Mancha,” a first-time production for Zeitgeist Arts.

“I’m not sure how this constellation happened at the same time,” she said. “I think it’s a testament to how culturally rich we are that there are that many theatrical opportunities for people. It’s a plus, not a minus. More options for people to see.”

In the past, Renegade Theater Company has presented bawdy seasonal fare from their sketch comedy troupe Dink Tank — shows that draw a young audience. The company was approached by Secret Service Entertainment about trying something different this year. “Fezziwig’s Feast” is a dinner theater-style of production at Clyde Iron Works that includes a retelling of “A Christmas Carol” paired with a five-course meal. It was originally produced by the Twin Cities’ based Actors Theater of Minnesota, including stints in Duluth in 2001 and 2002.

“We definitely tried to find something that is different,” said Katie Helbacka, artistic director for Renegade. “This way you can bring your whole family for entertainment, carols and to eat a unique and different feast.”

A gimmick can be good, said Jensen. While “Man of La Mancha” doesn’t have a holiday theme, they are going thematic. Zeitgeist Arts Café has special menu items that tie in with the play: Gambis pil-pil with escalivada or chicken Marbella, followed by the Spanish Inquisition.

Brian Matuszak of Rubber Chicken Theater has opted for tried and true with his annual sketch comedy revue. The six-person show pokes fun at headlines from the past year — a recipe Matuszak said audiences enjoy.

“It’s like ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Matuszak said. “It’s fun to do the local aspect of people in the news.”

It is possible for a theater die-hard to check out every show in the next three weeks. The total tab for full theater immersion: $125.95.

This story was in the December 2, 2010 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

Feature: Trent Waterman, video maker

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

It wasn’t hard to convince Minneapolis musician Jeremy Messersmith to stroll along a mall alcove and strum his guitar and sing.

All Trent Waterman did was ask the singer-songwriter. And after Messersmith’s show at Beaner’s Central that October night, they shot the impromptu video for “Beautiful Children” in two takes, including a break for Waterman to change the camera’s battery.

The end result was video No. 2 in Waterman’s growing collection of North Shore Sessions, a hobby that pairs the budding filmographer with musicians for quick-hit videos in unlikely settings such as a former railroad tunnel, a friend’s apartment or a barn in Wrenshall. He claims as inspiration Vincent Moon’s “The Take-Away Shows,” in which musicians are recorded playing in the streets and parks, highlighting the quirks, ticks and spontaneity.

“I’ve always kind of been interested in different acoustics and how it affects the way sound travels — spaces that sound interesting and look cool, too,” said Waterman, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth studying graphic design and photography.

It started with Russian Bride, a Minneapolis-based Americana band that includes friends of Waterman. They set up a recording session at the barn in Wrenshall that hosts the annual Free Range Film Festival. Waterman decided to make a video recording of the session just for fun, and ended up making a 4-minute, low-light, at times abstract arty accompaniment for their song “Hundred Dollar Jig.”

Next came the Messersmith shoot, a quickie when the popular singer-songwriter was in town for a concert. Waterman had just one video shoot on his resume, but Messersmith was game.

“He seemed friendly, and he seemed rather earnest,” Messersmith said of Waterman. “I’d rather err on the side of doing something and having it turn out terrible than not doing it.”

“I watched it and I was like, ‘This is really good. Who is this guy? This looks and sounds way better than I thought it would,’” he said, calling it beautiful and well-edited.

The Russian Bride and Messersmith videos were posted on the locally run community website Perfect Duluth Day. This is where Annie Dugan, who owns the Free Range barn with her husband, saw what had come from that video shoot.

“(The videos) capture the Midwest in a modern way, which is always a nice way to do this,” said Dugan, who organizes the film festival and is the curator at the Duluth Art Institute. “It’s not precious or folksy, it’s more just sort of real. It’s always refreshing when filmmakers and visual artists let the work speak for itself. It was a total surprise when this video came out. He just said he was recording stuff. I didn’t realize the end project. It’s neat when that sort of surprise happens.”

Local musician Sarah Krueger approached Waterman about collaborating after she saw the Russian Bride video. She liked the lighting and the simplicity. He chose to shoot her playing in the former railroad tunnel near Ely’s Peak, and told her the acoustics would pair well with her voice. The video, shot in November, includes puffs of breath from the singer.

“I was really impressed,” she said. “We did like pretty much one and a half takes of that song and one other song. He does a really nice job with the quality of his filming. It’s really simple, and it goes with my style.”

Then came a biggie: Cloud Cult, a nationally touring act with local ties. With a few bands now in the bank, Waterman e-mailed frontman Craig Minowa about shooting the band before its show at St. Scholastica in November.

The result: A casual acoustic version of “Bobby’s Spacesuit” shot in a foyer, the band members harmonizing and playing guitar, violin and percussion. The video ended up on Cloud Cult’s Facebook page.

“I’m a huge Cloud Cult fan, so that was a cool experience,” Waterman said.

Now that he’s got a bit of a base, Waterman said he’s getting solicited by bands looking to catch his camera’s eye. He said he has a few things lined up for the next year and plans to keep the North Shore Session going as long as he lives in Minnesota.

This story ran in the December 23, 2010 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Feature: Ernesto Lea Place, aerialist

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

If you didn’t know better, you might think the 30-foot length of red silk hanging from the rafters of Clyde Iron Works is a leftover holiday decoration.

That is, until the noise of the football game playing on the televisions in the bar area is muted in favor of dance music, and Ernesto Lea Place begins his Spider-Manish ascent — bucking and pulling himself up the stretchy fabric.

Lea Place, one of the newer company members at the Minnesota Ballet, has picked up a weekend gig spiraling, posing and twisting in the air.

The aerialist performs two shows, each about the length of two and a half songs, at about 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays, entertaining diners at Clyde Iron Works.

“I’m kind of a daredevil,” he admitted after his first performance Sunday.

Lea Place, barefoot and in a pair of tight pants and a tight shirt, climbed to the upper third of the silks. He flipped upside down. He wrapped the fabric around his body and posed, his toes pointed and his hands sculpted in a way that nodded toward his background in ballet.

He climbed higher, his body itself a sort of wave. His movements created a harness from the fabric from which he could dangle and spin. He wrapped himself up, and performed a few 15-foot drops, like controlled free falls. He posed in the splits, red fabric gathered at his ankle. He also hung from one leg above the cement floor of the lobby of the restaurant.

Lea Place doesn’t fear falling, he said. He does fear getting tied up in a position he cannot get out of.

“It’s making knots with your body that you can get in and out of,” he said.

The restaurant’s kitchen staff wandered out to watch the show on Sunday. They were a handful of white coats on the sidelines.

Zach Moniz, a cook, said he has seen Lea Place’s show about six times, and he always tries to get a peek when he begins performing.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Moniz said. “It takes a lot of upper body strength. I don’t think I could do it.”

Lucy Fabeck had balcony rail side seats for both performance and provided applause.

“It’s something I’ve never seen,” she said. She had come to Clyde Iron Works with her granddaughter specifically to see the show. “It was all so good.”

Mike O’Hara, who helps with events at the restaurant and entertainment space, said he has friends in common with the dancer and thought it would make a nice fit in the restaurant. Lea Place also has a silk hanging in the entertainment venue, where he practices his moves.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for both of us,” O’Hara said. “It’s great for the city. A regular artistic display you wouldn’t seen anywhere else in town. We’re probably the only ones with a high enough ceiling.”

Alex Loch, who also trains with the Minnesota Ballet, is learning to perform with Lea Place. On Sunday, he worked as an assistant, getting the silks ready, watching the performance, and re-grouping with Lea Place after each bit.

Loch, who has a gymnastics background, said he still needs to work on strengthening his hands.

Lea Place moved to the United States from Argentina was he was 14 years old. Back in Buenos Aires, he had been heavily involved in theater. He didn’t know English when his family moved to Florida, and wasn’t able to perform in that same way. Instead, he graduated to dance. He has performed with the Orlando Ballet and Nashville Ballet, and got into the cirque-style performances about two years ago.

“I’ve always loved acrobatics and the flying aspect of it,” he said.

This story ran in the January 10, 2011 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune