On the highway from Kansas City to Des Moines, I am reading a collection of essays, Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. I find DFW touching and thought-provoking for a variety of reasons relating not only to the craft of his writing and its topical matter, but also to the tragic cult of personality surrounding him. Probably one of my more annoying traits is a penchant for artists who have committed suicide–Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Sylvia Plath, DFW, to name a few–but I would venture to say that Wallace is, to me, in a category all his own. The front of my paperback copy reads:
“There is no writer alive more incisive and hilarious, more ruthlessly tender, when it comes to documenting the perversities of modern American life.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Sad irony of the descriptor “alive” aside, I think this perfectly encapsulates what I love about him: “ruthlessly tender”. He exposes oddities of our existence to reveal them in their barest absurdity, and yet he blames no one for the extremity of such bizarre behavior. He is one of us, too, after all. This is, of course, a bit untrue–his novel Infinite Jest tops many lists of the best novel of the century, and its genius is undeniable (if not inextricable from its “pretension” or “high-brow” level of erudition, insert whichever phrase suits you here). He often praises other geniuses in a variety of areas, and I always think, “Yes, but you are every bit as much of a genius as they are!” almost scorning his self-deprecation in light of his subject’s greatness. I realize, by the way, I am almost always referring to DFW in the present tense, which I suppose speaks to the immortality writing seems to give a person. Suppose when I say “him” I actually mean “his writing”, and am too lazy to write the whole thing out every time. Or maybe I like to imagine he is still alive, because the reality is too sad to remember.
Okay, but so, Audrey, you’re writing a travel blog and what does this have to do with your trip? I’m getting there. See, the funny thing about reading DFW is that it makes you–well, me–start to narrate things in my head the way he writes. And so today, when we embarked upon our Kansas adventure, I kept observing in the way (I felt) he might have.
What was our Kansas adventure? Originally it was going to be an art museum, a tour of Kansas City’s sculpture gardens and park fountains, and/or a tour of the Hallmark Factory. But maybe we were tired. Maybe I was cranky. Maybe it was just that we knew it was the end, and/or that the thought of taking in more history through glossy exhibits with plaques telling me why what happened should be relevant to me now made me just utterly exhausted, but none of these sounded appealing as a “last hurrah” for our exhaustive Southern expedition.
Therefore, our Kansas excursion tried to incorporate three things one or both of us love: barbecue (Jay), used books (me, and to a lesser extent Jay), and play (both of us). The barbecue I’m told was indeed good; I ate a lighter meal so that I might eat a bourbon-infused pecan pie slice… Holy cow Golden Ox you can make a pie. The book store, “Spivey’s Old Maps, Fine Art, Prints&Rare Books” [sic], was sadly way out of business; we should have looked it up more closely. It’s a real shame too–the business storefront still had its sign and I think I would have loved the place. But anyway, the play was had at Power Play Entertainment Center. Yep, Jay and I rubbed shoulders (so to speak) with all the YMCA and Bible Campers in their matching neon knee-length tee shirts, scraggly hairdos, and skinned knees at an even more McDonald’s Play Place/Discovery Zone/arcade/amusement park-type location.
…And it was SO much fun. I noticed things I definitely didn’t the last time I visited such a place: the subliminal messages everywhere to “spend more [of your parents’] money!”: the timer pressuring you to put in another token to play again, the “feed me more!” talking ticket-counter, the seductive dim overhead lighting to augment the bright lights of the games. I went in the prize room to cash in my tickets–it turns out I am an all-right Skee-Ball player!–and realized, I could easily pocket any one of these prizes, or indeed purchase them at a Rite Aid anytime I wanted. Not that I want to steal or buy a cheap trinket from a Rite Aid, but the tickets no longer had the magical power they once did for me; I remember once feeling so attached to the sense of possibility in the tickets themselves that I saved some in a jewelry box for years instead of cashing them in. That said, I still was very pleased to see I could “afford” the three metallic swirly blue, green, and purple bouncy balls with the amount of tickets Jay and I had won.
Part of what makes DFW so great (I think) is that he never denies the pleasures of typically conceived “low brow” activities, never implies that he is above such “base” pleasures, or that one should feel shame for enjoying them (see, for example, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”). For my part–and I think why a lot of hipsters also love him–I find him liberating because I am inclined towards a lot of “high brow” tastes. Classical music, the Great Books, Art House films, oh, and I want to go into theater (or worse, “theatre”). Combine that with my general disdain for popular music, and I feel like I might as well have Pretentious tattooed on my face. But reading Wallace–who undoubtedly has his share of intellectual snobbery–reminds me that everybody has their share of “guilty pleasures”, and that there’s really no need to see them as such, or pretend that I don’t have them. So, I try to emulate his attitude and fully embrace the cheesy things I like. (Some) musicals, sitcoms like Friends and Frasier, Disney movies (despite their blatant anti-feminism, the further you go back in time)… and arcades.
I will Tilt-A-Whirl and play Skee-Ball and Whack-A-Mole and Air Hockey and Ropes Course and eat cotton candy and win tickets and exchange them for bouncy balls all. day. long. [picture neon yellow sunglasses magically sliding down over my eyes] Deal with it!
So that was Kansas. Probably should go back to really see the city, but overall it was a lovely last day on the road. Next up is the three week stretch in Des Moines, Iowa, living with Jay’s family before we move to Pasadena.