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Found In Translation
Slow and Fast
One. Welcome to Chestertown, Maryland, Kent County. Just so you don’t get lost, prepare your sextants: 39°13′10″N 76°4′6″W. When the first Made in USA census took place in 1790, Chestertown was, demographically, the center of the nation. Now it is not. According to the last census, in 2000, there are less than 5000 bodies and souls. Chestertown was born in 1705 and it seems that little has changed in these streets since then. The unequivocal feeling of a whole time period petrified in the amber of History. And it isn’t strange that a good part of The Patriot, that Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger independent movie, was filmed here. Today, the cars wander around slowly, everyone says hi to you on the street, ducks chant on the placid shore of the Chester River, and starry flags blaze on the porches where, if you look closely, you can see a few Masonic signs.
And I write all this from a house built a few years after the inauguration of the place, but in a perfect and enviable state of conservation. Three floors, an attic study bedroom, a Primitive American style cradle in one of the rooms from which, just in case, I try to stay away… The perfect place to meet a ghost (I could swear that the cradle moved by itself) or to get the idea for your best book. I suppose that the best thing to happen is the second one. That’s why they invite you: to unplug yourself for a while, to plug your computer into another wall, away from the usual wall, and see what happens. But who knows what’s going to happen first. I’m going to be here for a few more days, and it is comforting to know that the rate of violent crimes and/or murders registered in Chestertown over the past five years, was 0. And 0 is not a number. 0 is the ghost of a number and also a great idea that someone came up with a long time ago.
Two. Chestertown is also home to the prestigious Washington College. My generous host. My temporary Alma Mater. An institution that defines itself as a “private liberal arts college,” which opened its doors in 1782 and tempts its students and future writers with a prize established by benefactor Sophie Kerr: the largest undergraduate literary prize in the entire United States. If the professors like your writing, in your last year, and before you go into the wide world, you walk away with $75,000 and good luck. But even if you’ve won, we warn you that it won’t be easy to survive and don’t rest on your laurels because the remake of Freddy Krueger lies ahead of you out there.
The first thing I do when I get to these places is to locate the bookstores. And there are three really good ones, one with new and two with used books (or, as I like to call them, “read” books) where I stumble into an old volume titled Those Perplexing Argentinians. A great title for the memoirs of some James Bruce, a North American ambassador in the Buenos Aires of the 1940’s. I browse through it, it costs $30. A little expensive, I think. And at this point I’m not going to spend that much money for a foreigner to explain to me how “perplexing” we are. So I decide to get a book–cheaper– that has just come out and that tries and succeeds in explaining how the head of a “perplexing” author worked, an author whose personal greatness is very hard to explain because it is better to read him. The book is titled Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace and its author is David Lipsky. Although Lipsky is not exactly the author, the same way James Boswell is not the author of Life of Samuel Johnson but rather just a privileged witness. Lipsky’s book is thus the textual transcription of some recordings (with minimal interferences from the here and now) throughout a five-day trip in May 1996 in which the phobic Wallace reluctantly promotes his monumental Infinite Jest (“La broma infinita,” a work to which he devoted many years and thousands of pages of his own life) and becomes the hot writer whom everyone wants to see and touch. All of this and much more under the warmly clinical, stunningly admired and sincerely envious look of Lipsky (correspondent of Rolling Stone) for whom things were not going very well at the time but who at least had the chance to become the shadow of a genius. So, conversations in bars and classrooms and hotels and airports and public readings, and Wallace revealing his vision of the world and of his life during times when he was still happy, or better yet, when his medication still worked. Wallace had already tried to commit suicide, yes, but he doesn’t think too much about it (even though he evokes it with chilling precision and profound feeling) in these pages. Here, Wallace–arrogantly humble or humbly arrogant–is someone who knows he has written a great book. And who is happy that he has entered the best-seller list, but is worried about why he has done so. And he cannot stop commenting on the particularities of the place in which he now swims or floats: “Literary New York is like […] great white sharks fighting over a bathtub, you know? There’s so little–the amount of celebrity and money we’re talkin’ about is on the scale of like true entertainment so small. And the formidable intellect marshaled by these egos fighting over this small section of the pie, it’s just… yeah, it seems kind of absurd. […] Writers eye and measure the celebrity world and don’t know how to deal with the portion that falls to them; because what they’re selling is not their features, physique, or their charm: it’s more personal, it’s their brain…” And a little later: “…if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader how smart the reader is.” The vertiginous but so reflexive and mature speed of Wallace’s brain suddenly is in Chestertown and, yes, that is the magic of books: transcending the landscape in which you open them. And Lipsky explains that “Wallace was such a natural writer he could talk in prose.” And I hear and read this book and I cannot stop marking certain sections (that I will probably keep quoting over the next few weeks), and while I underline them, I think that–if a ghost visits this house where I now read the words of a dead writer who signed immortal books–it wouldn’t be so bad if it turns out to be the ghost of David Foster Wallace.
Three. David Foster Wallace wrote much and well about television and he talks a lot about it with David Lipsky. And American television – crystal cube or crystal screen more than crystal ball – is the medium through which the ghost a whole country’s electricity is invoked over and over again. There they are – shaking at the rhythm of the zapping – all of those tele-preachers drinking and chewing the name of God in vain, tele-judges and tele-lawyers willing to sue even their own mothers, tele-meals that accumulate ingredients as if they were geological layers, tele-gymnasts with a tense Barbie-smile, tele-fats who are now tele-thins due to a miraculous and radioactive diet, tele-newscasters who scream and laugh, tele-medicine such as the pill that invites women to menstruate only four times a year, tele-tonics that are infallible against acne and baldness, and tele-spectators watching all of that… And I stop at the local channel and something there –live – catches my attention. I see a group of about fifty students, all men, all of them wearing black jerseys with white letters, all of them leaving the gates of Washington College and all of them walking, with difficulty, on red high heels. I read what the jerseys say: “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” and I listen and find out what’s going on. No, they haven’t gone nuts or been possessed by the spirit of John “Bluto” Belushi in Animal House. They march and protest for a good cause. They walk and suffer–from the campus to Fountain Park, half an hour of orthopedic Via Crucis – to draw attention to and oppose gender violence. I read about it the following day in The Chestertown Spy. Some of the comments in the digital edition range from admiration (“Well done… A great work”) to mockery (“Some of them moved with unexpected grace; which made me wonder, a little disturbed, if that was the first time they had walked on high heels”) to anger (“Honestly, it is one of the stupidest things I have ever witnessed - it is an insult to all women”). The truth is I didn’t know what to think. I went out to the porch and sat on a rocking chair under the cherry trees in full bloom, with my copy of Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself, and I saw them go by, slowly, the same way the patriots once marched through the streets of Chestertown, doing a supposedly fun thing they’ll never do again. Or maybe they will, who knows. And I told myself that David Foster Wallace could have written one of his magnificent essays about all of this. With lots of footnotes wearing red high heels.
Four. One of my nights in Chestertown I attend a public reading by the young pup writers. I am amazed by the good quality, the camaraderie, the willingness to have fun, the humor in what they read. Impossible to notice that there are $75,000 at stake and on the table and that the roulette spins and spins. Following the reading, with lots of XL pizzas, someone caresses his new, glowing iPad as if he were caressing the pet he has always loved, someone says that there is not much time left for the last episode of Lost to come out (it seems like everything is about the Devil and hell and we had to endure six seasons to find out something that The Twilight Zone told you in about twenty minutes) and I ask some of them if – as writers – they feel intimidated by the ghost of David Foster Wallace inhabiting the ancestral haunted house of the forever young new American literature. “No,” some of them say (and they say it with the tone of “why-would-we-have-to-feel-threatened-by-a-good-writer-instead-of-enjoying-and-learning-from-him”) while another guy, sitting on an armchair, takes off his shoes and touches his feet that are full of bright blisters. I ask him if he was at the red high heel march, and he looks at me as if I were a lunatic or a pervert. He looks at me as if he were thinking about whether it would be worth it to sue me and take from me the little that I own, which includes a first edition of Infinite Jest signed by the author, sometime ago, at another college, not so far from Chestertown, when David Foster Wallace was somewhat happy, when he was a fast thinker and a slow writer, and when he still had his whole death ahead of him.