Thursday, February 13, 2014

On Crying

Something has to be done about this perception of crying as some ultimate expression of being human or, perversely, as some ultimate statement of praise for an artwork. It is wrong.

I’m not trying to diminish genuine human pain, which is very real and acutely felt at various times by everyone. And crying can be a natural expression of this pain. But, oftentimes, public crying, or freely telling someone that you cried, has an aspect of performance to it, which makes us feel queasy at first, and then angers us. At some point in our lives, we have had (or continue to have) meaningful bouts of crying, where something has struck us so profoundly that crying is the only option. It’s almost an out-of-body experience, crying for real. It’s sacred. And seeing this done in public can feel like an affront to our own pain, a parody of our own grief. And that angers us.

Again, this is not meant to diminish the pain of others. If someone is hit by awful news in public, an open display of grief might be unavoidable. But oftentimes it’s a choice. Grief is sacred. To do it in public can diminish it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t cry in public out of consideration for the other people. I’m saying you shouldn’t because you should have too much respect for the act of crying. It’s sacred, treat it as such.

Too many people use it as a way to show everyone they are more human than other people, as a way of guilting them into sharing some of their very subjective pain somehow. Take Project Greenlight, season one. Pete Jones frequently threatened to cry in front of the producers of his movie in order to get what he wanted. This calculated way of using crying is all too common, and by the definitions I’ve set forth it is literally profane. Go back and watch everyone around Pete cringe every time he threatens to cry publicly. There was an extreme uneasiness about someone crying over funding for a movie, and this was before 9/11. I’m trying to illustrate that people felt uneasy about calculated crying even even before what most Americans now consider to be the profound sadness in their lives.

I’m not trying to minimize others’ pain. I am a big believer in everyone has pain, whether you’re homeless or Justin Timberlake. Everyone feels their individual pain just as acutely as the next person. But cry about your own pain, not as a way of showing your empathy for something you perceive as a universal sadness. You are not more human because you’re showing everyone you can cry. We all know we live in a universe of omnipresent sadness. There is something to be crushed by every day. If you take the whole world, the top 1% of wealth belongs to the average American ($35,000/year puts you in the top 1% if you consider everyone on the planet). The heat death of the universe hovers like a shroud over everything. The point is, no one is truly and completely empathetic, because if one were, that person would be an incapacitated puddle every day. So to decide to let one thing affect you so traumatically, and to advertise this to others, evokes an uneasiness because it’s like you’ve decided that everything else that’s sad about life doesn’t matter. Public crying is, in a way, minimizing everyone else’s pain. Plus it has an aspect of arrogance to it. It seems to be a way to say “I’m more human than you.” You are not. There is pain everywhere.

I’m not trying to dismiss other people’s individual pain. Pain is real, crying can be unavoidable. Very young people cry too freely, though. They have yet to cry before someone who they want to share their pain, and have that person look back at them impassively, with a dry, hard stare. It is at that point that everyone realizes that their pain is too sacred to be put out where anyone can sneer at it or diminish it. We respect our pain too much to do that.

The other thing people do that is wrong is think that the movement to tears is the ultimate approbation of a work of art. If a work of art makes you cry, it is a great work of art, this line of thinking goes. This is wrong. To be clear: It’s not a directly causal relationship. Some great works of art make you cry, but not all works of art that make you cry are great works of art. We live in a day and age of ultimate manipulation. People don’t even know when they’re watching an advertisement anymore. I posit that you can’t watch The Notebook (and I mean really watch it, not just have it on and be doing something else while it’s on, but watch every single frame of that movie) without being moved and misty-eyed. I’m not even going to rhetorically ask if The Notebook is great art. It will never be considered such by the hipster, film snobbish critics who (currently, but maybe not for long) decide these things for the culture at large. Yet these same critics will cry at some obscure Belgian black-and-white film (or whatever), and fine whatever maybe that Belgian black-and-white film actually is great art, but they will use their tears as evidence of the art’s greatness. Well, I stand before them, dry-eyed and unmoved. Great art is so much more than your public declaration that you are more human than someone who isn’t moved to cry. Great art is more than you. Get over yourself.

I am not minimizing anyone’s pain. Pain is felt by each individual person and no one’s pain is greater than anyone else’s. I respect the freedom of everyone to feel their individual pain and to cry about that pain. This is just a response to those who use a public display of crying, or declaration of such, as a way to position themselves as better or more human than others, because they are not.

DHS

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Failure of Contemporary Criticism

Criticism of the arts is in a dire place right now. Never mind the penury that threatens to befall anyone who wants to do it for a living, or its cultural irrelevance when everyone with an internet connection has become a de facto critic. The truth is that a lot of film/book/music criticism is awful.

It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, in might never have been this way until recently. Criticism used to be a vital, important part of the culture. Think of Pauline Kael and the Cahiers guys before they started the French New Wave. Think of Lester Bangs and Rolling Stone. Think of Kazin and Fiedler and John Leonard.

There was a time when critics had great influence. A front page review in the NYT Book Review could launch a book to bestseller status. Now a glowing front page review of a future National Book Award winner doesn’t even power it to 40,000 copies (see The Good Lord Bird), and sometimes doesn’t even get a book over 13,000 copies (see Beautiful Children by Charles Bock). Awful.

I can’t help thinking this goes back to the main point: the criticism being written these days just isn’t very good. Why is this? Well, movie criticism has shot itself in its own foot in ways I’ve talked about before, mainly due to the cloistered and elitist film critic community. (Plus the way they insist on writing reviews within 12 hours of seeing a movie for the first time.) Music has perhaps become simultaneously a more communal and a more personal medium and is prone to an extreme subjectivity that ceases to be useful to other people. Book criticism, probably the healthiest of the three, suffers from general lack of interest.

But why should it be any surprise that contemporary criticism sucks? Ponder this: Who would become a critic these days anyway? Again, it’s more than just the bleak financial prospects of the enterprise. (Though that should be enough to dissuade anyone with any sense.) It’s also that the means to create the art they are critiquing have been completely democratized; it is easier than ever to make movies, publish books, release albums. Therefore, anyone with any real talent is making art instead of critiquing it. Consider: the most important criterion for being a good critic is being a good writer. But if you’re a good writer, if you have great insight and amazing verbal ability, why would you write criticism?

I respect the field of criticism. I think it deserves better. The same problem afflicts comic books and video games. The best writing talent is, perhaps sensibly, going elsewhere. I don’t see this trend being reversed any time soon.

Critics have to get better if they hope to do honor to their august profession. Here’s a dirty little secret: the criticism is supposed to be better than the art it critiques. This used to be true, but no longer. Think of all the shitty movies Pauline Kael reviewed and the awful bands Lester Bangs wrote about. And yet, even though bad art is forgotten, the good criticism of it lives on because the critics themselves were making art.

So an appeal to all critics: it’s not enough just to give your opinion about something. You have to make art, too. Only then will your profession become relevant in a culture dominated by real artists.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Problem With How Movies Are Released And Its Relation To Why Movie Criticism Sucks These Days

The New York Film Festival wrapped up this past weekend, and it made me realize that the current model of film distribution/presentation is at best antiquated and at worst totally stupid.

Festivals like NYFF play a lot of so-called "art-house films" (an anachronym if I've ever heard one; when's the last time you went to an "art house"?) and the way these get released to the public hasn't changed in decades: Play the festival circuit, then open in 4 theaters in NYC/LA, then maybe open in a few multiplexes, then a few more if the numbers are going in the right direction. Needless to say, unless the film is a hit, most people in the country have to wait until the video release to see these movies, which could happen a year or more after that initial festival screening.

This is dumb.

There are plenty of movies I'd like to see that were at NYFF, but I'll have to wait months for them to be available. Why are movies like this? With what other artistic medium are we prevented from experiencing the finished product for such a long time? Imagine if a novel was released and only people in New York City and LA could read it. Or if an album dropped and you could only listen to it at a certain venue at a certain time. These scenarios are preposterous, but for some reason are accepted when applied to film.


I propose a very simple idea: a movie gets one release date, and on this day it is released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and Blu-ray, and through VOD services like iTunes. This is the omnipresent release strategy every other mainstream artistic medium has adopted in the 21st century, and movies are lagging behind with a severely outdated system.

What are the plausible reasons for keeping movie distribution the way it is now? Let's tackle each one:

"Movies cost so much that a lot of hype has to be built up about its release in order to make its money back."

Ok, assuming this is true, is the "platform" strategy really the best way for films to maximize its intake of money? One of the films I really wanted to see at NYFF this year was THE WIND RISES. Disney (or Disney-owned Miramax) has been in charge of the domestic distribution of all the Miyazaki films since PRINCESS MONONOKE and they’ve always employed a platforming strategy (film festivals, limited release, bigger release). What kind of lucre has this resulted in? Take a look….

Domestic grosses:

PRINCESS MONONOKE: 2.3 million
SPIRITED AWAY: 9.9 mill
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE : 4.7 mill

PONYO actually opened "wide" (927 theaters; SPIRITED AWAY topped out at 714 at its widest) and unsurprisingly grossed the most at 15 million. These are, frankly, piss-poor results. All this strategy has done is withhold the films from Miyazaki fans while Disney desperately tries (and fails) to convince other people to see something they don’t want to see. (Can you even think of another product with a publicity strategy that does everything to entice uninterested people at the expense of its actual fans?) And I’m sorry but you can't tell me that making the movie available to everyone in the US at once—in the form of $10 movie tickets, $20 Blu-rays, $7.99 VOD rentals—wouldn't result in more money. Maybe in the past the platforming strategy was necessary, but in our broadband connected world, this is not the case anymore. The acceptance of online streaming and emphasis on consumer choice has fundamentally changed the way we watch TV, and it's time for the same change to be made for movies.


"Movies were meant to be seen in a theater."

This is another thing that was true once, but no longer. Once theaters switched to digital projectors, they could no longer claim that they were offering a unique experience, or even a "correct" one. Everyone's home set-up now deals with the same pixels as movie theaters, with the same simulated 24fps. There is no more film being run through projectors with its dreamlike shutter clicking away—a moot point anyway since most movies aren't being shot on film. And consider this: The hot tech in movie theater video projection these days is 4K, a resolution that will be standard in consumer TVs within 2 years. Home presentation of movies isn't only "just as good" as theaters these days, it’s better. Besides, think about other media again. Does the music industry demand people listen to new music in optimal conditions, to preserve the “integrity” of the experience or whatever? No, they let people buy it (or stream it) and listen to it however they want, whether it's on vinyl coming out of gorgeous speakers, or hideously compressed mp3s coming out of $5 earbuds. Not only that, but everyone has accepted any of these options as legitimate means of consumption. Only those afflicted with the most distasteful snobbery would insist that someone who had only listened to an album in mp3 form hadn't actually listened to the album yet. And speaking of snobs, we come to a final reason movie distribution is the way it is....

"It allows a bunch of people to feel superior to others and write a bunch of meaningless reviews."

This seems to be the only real reason the current system is in place. (This and each individual festival's vested financial interest in keeping it going.) All these advance screenings allow the press and those in major cities to feel really special for a few months. Having attended a handful of advance screenings, I know this feeling well. There’s no question that if I lived in NYC, I’d have seen those films at NYFF. So, ultimately, I don't hold it against people for doing something I'd partake in given the opportunity.

That is, unless they write reviews immediately afterward.

Reviews of art should be a good-faith interaction between reviewer and reader. The sometimes elusive reason for writing is crystallized when writing a review; it is abundantly clear you are writing for another person, because only a "touched" person opines to nobody, to nothing but air. (Whereas in other forms of writing this distinction is a bit hazier: one might say that writing down the truth is eo ipso "of worth," regardless whether anyone is reading it, cf. Hemingway's definition of good fiction being one true sentence after another....But I seriously digress.)

So when it comes to reviews of a movie that played at a film festival 24 hours ago, it invites the question: who could these early reviews possibly be for? When someone reviews a movie that 99% of the people who want to see the movie won't watch it for months, what's the point? What good is writing a review of HER now? The truth is that that person is writing the review solely for other film critics, trying to impress them and appear cool to everyone else. It's no wonder that film critics these days seem more cloistered and snobby than ever.

Of course, the critic can rebut that people will be able to track down his review after they've seen the movie (in 4+ months).  My response to that is: If the audience for your piece isn't going to read it for 4 months, why not write it 4 months from now? I think we’d all agree that time spent on almost anything—especially writing—makes that thing better. But the fact is your average movie critic places a premium on being first to comment on something and to make some sort of judgment, and this rush to add to the noise comes at the expense of insightful, considered writing.

A concrete example of this: I watched UPSTREAM COLOR on blu-ray, about five months after its premiere at the Sundance film festival. I was struck by the movie and wanted to write something that would contribute to the discussion. I wrote an essayish thing that concentrated on something very narrow: The similarities it shared with Kieslowski’s BLUE. Now, a quick Google search reveals that I wasn’t the first one to notice these similarities. Ray Pride, writing for Movie City News, wrote about it right after he saw the movie at Sundance. The thing is, he briefly mentioned it and moved on. My piece was 1,700 words and offered a far more detailed look.


Now maybe Mr. Pride didn’t have anything else on the subject. If I had to guess, he was just citing all the allusions he could remember as quickly as possible in order to be the first to do so, which is something that all film critics do these days. But here we are, not even a year removed from Sundance, and people looking for more information on this particular connection don’t really care about a brief mention by someone just trying to meet a deadline. My blog post is rightly at the top of the search results on the subject.

I’m not even saying my piece is particularly great. I’m not a film historian or anything. (This is not false modesty; I thought the essay would be a lot better when I first began it but quickly found that I lacked the in-depth knowledge required to make it truly incisive.) But it is a hell of a lot more developed than Mr. Pride’s cursory mention. Of course, I had many advantages that Mr. Pride didn’t: I was able to see the movie more than once, revisit certain scenes, and use screencaps to support my thesis. Having the Blu-ray as a reference was overwhelmingly useful when sitting down to write a critical piece, and I found myself with the same benefits typically afforded those who write critically about other art forms. I had the movie available to me in the same way music critics have the album they’re writing about on hand.

In a way, how silly is it that most movie reviewers watch a movie exactly once and don’t go back over it at all before writing their reviews? Imagine a music critic listening to an album exactly one time, or a book reviewer not having the book around to either quote from or double-check a reference. Put simply: how insightful can we expect film critics to be after only one viewing?

Someone arguing this might point out that critics have been operating this way since time immemorial. And some of them were quite good. Pauline Kael—who notoriously refused to see a movie more than once—wrote some of the best film criticism of all time, dropping insight that is still valuable to read today. And she did it on a weekly basis.

Well, I hate to break it to all you contemporary film critics: None of you are Pauline Kael. She was a one-of-a-kind genius, a brilliant writer who just happened to write film criticism. Kael should not be regarded as just another critic with an innate ability shared with lots of other critics, but rather as an outlier with the uncanny ability to be both perspicacious and illuminating, all under a time crunch. Not everyone can do what she did, in fact she might be the only one who could do what she did. Which is why most critics would be better served waiting a few months and really thinking about a review they will feel a lot more responsibility for, since many more people will be reading it.

The public discourse about film these days reeks of some kind of weird elitism. Upon a worthwhile movie's release, there always seems to be a sharp division between people who have already seen it months ago at some film festival or during a limited release in NYC/LA and those who are getting the opportunity to see it for the first time. For better or worse, any voice can be disseminated as easily as the next, and those who see movies first have the opportunity to not only drive the discussion but exhaust it as well, so that by the time a film is available to 99% of the population, it feels stale and stripped of relevance.


It’s because of this situation that film is no longer a cultural touchstone. For something to be important to a culture, it has to have the participation of the culture. It has to be readily available to be experienced and discussed with other people. Without that wide involvement with the general public, we are left with a small group of self-styled arbiters of taste who do nothing but make facile judgments in an attempt to seem cool to others in their group.

This is a real shame because film criticism is very important. Good criticism shows us the way to great art. The passionate critics of the Cahiers du Cinema made us see Hollywood stalwarts like Hitchcock and Ray in a new light, and critics like Kael explicated the value of the Nouvelle Vague.

With no genius critic in sight, I suppose all we can do is implore the current crop of critics to take more time to write their criticism, in the perhaps futile hope that they get better. It would also help to change the mindset that has made writing about movies nothing more than a way to advertise how cool one is. A lot of critics just need to stop writing, stop talking, and stop thinking about movies altogether. Of course, you won’t be able to tell this to the people who truly love cinema. But it’s also easy to convince yourself you love movies when in reality all you love is the feeling of talking before anyone else can get a word in. If all you care about is when review embargoes are lifted, that's a good indication of where your true interest lies. Also, I would ask all the critics or wannabe critics who attended NYFF this question: If every movie you saw was available to everyone in the country on that day, either in the theater or on a Blu-ray disc or as a download, would you still have seen it? If the answer is “no”—or even if there is the slightest hesitation on your part—then I would say you should get really introspective for a minute and be prepared to confront some truths about yourself you might not like.

DHS

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Some Things I Want To Say About David Foster Wallace

   It was a Sunday like any other. After catching up on some morning chores, I started reading the local paper. It was September 14, 2008. Despite the headlines about Sarah Palin and the escalating financial crisis, I remember being in a good mood.
   My girlfriend called. She was out and about, driving around, and we chatted about this and that as I casually flipped through the newspaper, skimming the articles. My girlfriend pulled up to a drive-thru to get something to eat and asked if I wanted anything. I told her I didn’t, and she said she’d call me back in a minute after she was done ordering. I said “Ok” and we hung up, pleasantly enough.
   I turned what little attention I had back to the newspaper. It really was a lazy Sunday, the kind of day when it’s hard to focus on anything.
   I flipped to the obituaries. Gregory Mcdonald, the writer of Fletch, had died a week earlier and for some reason was given prominent space in that day’s paper. His obit took up half the page, above the fold, and there was even a picture of him. Uninterested, I started to turn the page over. Right before the page disappeared from view, three familiar words caught my eye: “David Foster Wallace.” I stopped. I remember being momentarily confused as to why his name was in my local paper, and I think it was a half second later when I realized it was positioned below Mcdonald’s obituary, this realization hitting me while I was reading the complete headline, which stated in bold typeface: “David Foster Wallace, 46, Found Dead.”
   And then my world went black.
 

 
   It is December of 2006. I’ve made the delightful discovery that the 10th Anniversary Edition of Infinite Jest is a mere $10, cover price. This leads to a no-brainer decision: I’m going to buy this book for everyone I know for Christmas. And just like that I’m going around to all the bookstores in the area (back then there were multiple options) and cleaning them out of all their IJs. At a single Barnes & Noble, I carry an armload of four up to the register. Lugging them back home, I put them in stacks on my table, and the sight of all these IJs gives me great pleasure. I have serious doubts about whether they’ll actually be read, but it amuses me to think that I’m distributing a dangerous samizdat that will sit on people’s shelves, dormant but dangerous, ready to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting reader someday.
  I buy a packet of smiley stickers and put one on the cover of each book.


 

   I didn’t pass out or anything like that. The world went black because I had immediately shut my eyes. It was involuntary. I did not consciously make a decision to close my eyes—it just happened. I had never done anything like that before. In the past, I’d averted my eyes out of embarrassment and anger, but never horror. I think it’s something people do, though I’d never experienced it up until then. Days later, thinking about it, I realized why people shut their eyes when they’ve just seen something horrible. I think they’re trying to stop themselves from seeing what they’ve just seen. If they close their eyes fast enough (the thinking goes), the light reflected from whatever horrible thing they’ve just witnessed won’t reach their corneas, and then it’ll be like the thing never happened. I think that’s what I was attempting. I was trying to remain in a world where he was still alive—at least as far as I knew—if only momentarily.
   This attempt to insulate myself from the truth failed utterly. Water built behind my eyelids and I felt a welling-up inside me of something that started in my stomach and then enlarged like an inflating balloon, and I felt it extend upward through my chest and into my throat until finally I felt it at the back of my tongue, but it felt way too large to exit my body and before I knew it I was gasping for air. In-between taking big gulps of air, I was crying. Thinking about it later, I knew that I was sobbing—crying so hard that it was hard to breathe. This was another thing I’d never done before; I’d never been this physically affected by grief. This push-and-pull continued for many minutes, my body wanting to expel so many things at once while I gasped for enough air to keep breathing. It felt like drowning without water.
   Somewhere in this, I became aware that my phone was ringing. It was my girlfriend. I answered it. The first thing she heard was my sobs, and, instantly alarmed, she asked, frantically, what was wrong. I told her that I had just read something…I think I put it as simply as that: “I just read something.” It was obvious that it was bad, whatever it was. She said What? I told her David Foster Wallace was dead. And saying it aloud like that, of course I just broke down all over again.

 
   It is early 2005. I want to get into reading books. I’m not even sure why; I get in these moods sometimes. Anyways, I like art. I’ve been watching a lot of movies and listening to a lot of music, and now it just seems natural to get into reading books, specifically novels. It’s not that I never read. I read occasionally, a novel here and there (mostly ones that have been made into movies), but now I just really want to give them a shot on their own terms or something. I want to be aware of what is going on in the literary landscape, just like I am for movies and music.
  The problem is I know nothing about contemporary literature. So, as I often do, I turn to my friend, who is inordinately more well-versed than me in all the art forms, but especially literature. The guy devours books. He has books literally spilling out of his room.
   So I ask him, what contemporary authors are doing great stuff these days? I put it to him this way: “What author would you run out and get their book if it came out today?”
   He considers it for a moment, then tells me three names: Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace. I’ve never heard of any of them.
   After doing a little Googling, Wallace captures my attention the most. Powers and Vollmann are exceedingly prolific and it’s hard to tell where to start with them. Wallace, on the other hand, has only written two novels. And one of them, Infinite Jest, is clearly the one. It’s over a thousand pages. Even knowing nothing else about it, it looms over everything else. It is an undeniable monster, beckoning to me during a time when I found undeniability to be one of the most attractive qualities of good art.
   I circle around it a little, unsure whether to take the plunge. I do a little more research. I become fascinated by the fact that Wallace was only 34 when it was published. (He looks even younger in the author photo.) I play coy with my intentions, asking my friend about it the way you ask other people about your crush. I ask my friend one day, “What are the chances you think I could finish Infinite Jest?” (“Does she say anything about me?”) He takes a second, then says the odds are pretty good, once I get into it. (I know now he was lying; the odds of completing IJ are pretty bad for a person like I was at the time, viz. someone who didn’t read much. But the alternative is telling someone to not even bother, and I know I would never say that to anyone.)
   I wait a couple more days, then decide on the spur of the moment that I’m actually going to do it. I’m going to attempt to read Infinite Jest. I’m so caught up in the spirit of embarking on a new adventure that I don’t even want to wait the couple days it would take Amazon to send it to me. Instead, I go right to the nearest bookstore and buy an undiscounted, full-price copy.
   I start reading it that day. Over the course of the next two months, the book never leaves my nightstand and I slowly but surely make my way through it. It’s hard going at least initially, but I reach some sort of hump and get over it and I find myself on the descending side of this mountain of a book.
   My friend asks me periodically how it’s going. When I’m about 600 pages in, I tell him, You know, it doesn’t even matter how Wallace ends it. He’s built such an impressive object up to this point that the last 400 pages can be gobbledygook and it’d still be the most impressive book I’ve ever read. It’s so full and rich. Sure it might be over-stuffed but it’s one of those things that is amazing because of its excesses. You know, like Apocalypse Now. (All my references were movie-related at the time.)
   Of course, the last 400 pages were just as brilliant as the first 600, and many months later, after finding myself constantly thinking about it, I had to admit to myself that IJ was definitely my favorite novel of all time.
 

I wish there were more audio clips of him reading from Infinite Jest.


   She let me cry for a minute before gently saying, “For a second I thought something had happened to your parents.”
   Her comment pierced the grief-infused haze that I’d been mired in and I immediately saw the situation through her eyes. All she knew about David Foster Wallace was what I had told her about him. She knew he was my favorite author, but that was basically it. She’d never read any of his writing, and even if she had she wasn’t the type of person who put artists on some kind of pedestal, and she certainly wouldn’t be moved to such a display of grief as I was now evincing. She came from a tight-knit family and keening was reserved for those with whom one shared blood. (Or at least for very close friends.)
   Although I could not stop my flow of tears, I saw that her (unspoken, merely implied…or rather, inferred (by me)) position was basically correct; it was a little ridiculous that I was carrying on in such histrionic fashion about the passing of someone with whom I had never exchanged even a single word. Only someone with a somewhat charmed life—someone who’d never come within arm’s-length of true disaster, someone with no direct knowledge of tragedy—could be so moved by the death of a stranger.
   But I was that person, one of the lucky few who had never known true loss. I’d never had death enter my life; everyone I loved and cared about was alive and well. My family and friends—all alive and hale and doing well, which is how it’d always been for as long as I could remember. I’d never been shattered by the dreadful news of the passing of a loved one, and my reaction to Wallace’s obituary bespoke not only how important Wallace had been to me, but my emotional innocence as well.
   At my girlfriend’s words, I was confronted with this other subjectivity here in the midst of my anguish, and I became extremely self-conscious—something readers of Wallace know a thing or two about. I saw the blubbering mess she was picturing and I immediately began apologizing to her. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, I know this is ridiculous.” I’m still crying, I can’t help it. But I’m saying “sorry” whenever I can summon up enough breath to do so.
   She assured me that it was ok, that she knew how important he was to me, but I heard the skepticism in her voice. How do I begin to tell her that he was more than just some author I liked? How to describe for her that intensely intimate voice of his that made you feel like you were close friends? His stuff was completely devoid of the pretension and bullshit flattery and condescension that infect almost everyone else’s writing, even award-winning, universally respected writing. Reading his books made you feel like an equal companion of his (though you were still in complete awe of his intimidating mind).
   Added to this, I had listened to enough interviews to know that the mesmerizing voice he used in his books was really just his default setting. He talked exactly like he wrote. Nobody else did that. Even writers of the most gorgeous prose were usually reduced to hollow shells of their writing when they were interviewed. They would pause awkwardly and use stilted language and you would usually see them struggling to find the right word before falling back on safe platitudes and general bromides about writing or whatever they were talking about. Wallace might pause when faced with a particularly tough question (they were all tough for him), but when he opened his mouth out came fully formed and oftentimes revelatory ideas, precisely articulated in a extraordinary string of sentences. You felt like you were getting direct access to his brain when he talked, which was the same feeling you got with his writing. Incredibly, he was able to recreate the intimate voice of his writing in extemporaneous conversation. It just came naturally to him. (I’m positive his first drafts were marvels, better than everyone else’s fifteenth drafts.) So, to me, it was a simple formulation: To love the writing was to love the author, to love his words was to love the man, or so it seemed in Wallace’s case.
   This was why I was so affected by his passing, but I couldn’t find a way to express this to my girlfriend, so I just said “I’m sorry,” over and over again.   


I wish I wrote to him because it’s clear now that there was a pretty good chance I would’ve gotten some sort of response.
 

   It’s summer of 2007. With IJ still inhabiting my mind, I decide to tackle the rest of Wallace’s oeuvre. I’m going to read everything. The short story collections, the essays, even his textbook-like thing on the subject of infinity. All the in-print stuff is a given, but I also get Signifying Rappers for $6 on the Amazon marketplace. I also want to read peripheral stuff like interviews and profiles, so I buy the 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction that features his long interview with Larry McCaffery. I get curious about how IJ was presented to the world when it first came out in 1996, so I buy a hardcover. (It has a tiny bit of iridescent foil on the cover like a special edition comic book.) I see a pristine first edition hardcover of The Broom of the System for sale, but decide $300 is too much to spend (Me in 2013: Argh).
   As I plow through the books all summer long, I find myself becoming more and more enthralled. I start tracking down audio interviews, video clips of him on Charlie Rose (I actually buy the DVD ($25)). I listen to the Bookworm interviews over and over again, absolute treasures. I listen to muddy recordings of readings and Q&As he did (one of which is so staticky that he can barely be heard, but I still get through it once).
   This is not enough, so I turn to the internet and find uncollected short stories, book reviews, essays. Also print interviews, profiles, analyses of his writing. I don’t want to read all this stuff on my computer monitor so I use my roommate’s printer to create hard copies. It takes multiple days and many hours to print out everything using the good ole inkjet. My roommate shakes his head. “So you’ve decided to print out the internet?” he asks.
   I end up with hundreds of printed pages. I put it all into the biggest binder I can find and separate them by subject with multi-colored tabs: Short Stories, Interviews, Nonfiction, etc. (A year later I will add another tab: Tributes.)
   I had a blast reading that summer. The best summer of reading I’ve ever had, and probably ever will.

 
I wish he did a Bookworm interview for Oblivion (instead of doing that shallower Connection interview).

 
   “How did he die?” she asked. I looked down at the crumpled newspaper in front of me—another involuntary action, crumpling the newspaper into a ball (Get rid of the evidence, it never happened)—flattened it out and read the rest of the obituary, even though it was unnecessary because I was pretty sure I knew how it happened. “Found Dead” is ambiguous and could mean many things: maybe something health-related (not likely for a still youngish former athlete) or maybe something more lurid like a homicide. But those possibilities are so out-there I didn’t even entertain them. “Wallace’s wife found her husband had hanged himself,” I read to my girlfriend, confirming what I already knew.
   In the following days, much was made of the occurrence of suicide in Wallace’s books, and it’s a point with which it’s hard to argue. There is a lot of suicide in his books. And Wallace was never particularly subtle about its inclusion. (He once wrote a story called “Suicide as a Sort of Present.”) The morbid subject matter is always front and center, never in the background, and it is sometimes a key plot element in his fiction. And so of course that’s all everyone fixated on for a while.
   I, on the other hand, in the first moments after learning of his death, thought immediately of a story he did called “Octet.”
  In this story, Wallace sets up a series of short scenarios he calls “Pop Quizzes” designed to “interrogate” the reader’s reactions to various heartbreaking set-ups, usually involving a double-bind of some sort. In one of the stories, a mother gives up custody of her child to her vindictive but wealthy former husband so that the child will grow up provided for and taken care of, and the text literally asks, right there on the page, whether the reader thinks she’s a good mother or not. Another (longer) scenario involves a man who’s on the outs with his dying father-in-law, but who decides to bury any animosity he feels and give at least the appearance of being present and supportive of his wife and her whole side of the family during this ordeal, and this support extends to his father-in-law who—make no mistake about it—detests his son-in-law just as fiercely if not even more than his son-in-law does him, and by doing the “right thing” the man is placed in an extremely uncomfortable and dishonest position by the end of the story when the old father-in-law has passed and the man, who alone knows his true feelings, is now expected to issue words of praise in the father-in-law’s name during some intimate post-funeral service with the father-in-law’s entire family looking at him expectantly. And the questions at the end of this “Pop Quiz” make clear the alienation and helplessness and loneliness the man feels at being put in this situation.
   About halfway through the story, Wallace breaks some kind of fourth wall and starts talking to the reader. It’s set up as another “Pop Quiz” (“You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer. You are attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces…”), but it’s clear that he’s talking about himself and “interrogating” you, the reader, directly. He explains that he’s in a swivet because this piece of fiction he’s working on—the thing you are reading now—just isn’t working. In fact it’s crumbling before his very eyes. He had intended to write eight short pieces that “demonstrate some sort of weird ambient sameness in different kinds of human relationships, some nameless but inescapable ‘price’ that all human beings are faced with having to pay at some point if they ever want truly ‘to be with’ another person instead of just using that person somehow” but that “five of the eight pieces don’t work at all—meaning they don’t interrogate or palpate what you want them to, plus are too contrived or too cartoonish or too annoying or all three” and he had to throw them out. (The skeletal outlines of a couple of these “failures” are described in a long footnote.) And now he’s faced with the last resort of just coming right out and asking the reader if she feels anything like what he feels, a feeling that he considers “urgent, truly urgent, something almost worth shimmying up chimneys and shouting from roofs about.” (In a footnote he acknowledges that this sounds pious and melodramatic.) And he’s also worried that coming right out and addressing the reader like this is going to look “pathetic and desperate” in the eyes of the reader and that he’ll look like “just another manipulative pseudopomo bullshit artist who’s trying to salvage a fiasco by dropping back to a meta-dimension and commenting on the fiasco itself.” It’s framed as a hypothetical course of action, but in actuality it’s one of those hypotheticals that are actually real propositions (“Suppose I were to ask you out…”), and it’s clear that Wallace is trying to see “whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way [he does].”
   Or rather, it’s clear that that’s what he was trying to get at now. Back then, in 1999 when the story came out, all evidence points to people taking that story as an amusing little bit of “S.O.P. metatext,” even though he expressly tells you in the story that that is not what he is trying to do. But, y’know, nobody took him seriously because…well, irony, man.
   In fact, there always seemed to be some unbridgeable gap between what Wallace intended to convey with his fiction and what a lot of readers took away from it. For example, he said over and over that he considered IJ to be a sad book, and yet wave after wave of admirers extolled the book’s humor. Discussing his book of stories Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (in which “Octet” appears), he went so far to say that “everybody thought [Infinite Jest] was very funny, which was of course nice, but it was also kind of frustrating, and I designed this one so that nobody is going to escape the fact that this is sad.” Taking that into account, there is a certain sadness in reading the blurbs for BIWHM that call the book “bitingly funny” and “often funny,” with other critics proclaiming “it is fun, and often very funny” and “outrageously funny” and that it’s “damn funny stuff,” etc. There always seemed to be some misunderstanding or misinterpretation of his work, even by those who praised them.
   This is what I thought of moments after learning he had died. He was a writer who always took sadness as his subject. Always, even when people thought he was trying to be funny. But as sad and horrifying as this is to admit, it was like you couldn’t really see what he was saying until he killed himself. It was only then that you knew for sure that he really wasn’t kidding around with what he was writing about. He wasn’t doing that thing that so many other inferior writers do, trading on some general sense of “sadness” that often gets turned into cloying sentimentality in an attempt to extract a few tears from the reader, but only in the service of a crowd-pleasing redemptive ending. Sadness is also commonly deployed to elevate one’s opinion of the author: “Oh look how clever he is, pointing out all the ways the world is shit.” Both methods flatter the reader’s idea of “oh, there’s something wrong with the world, how sad,” and both end with the author and reader going their separate ways, basically happy and content, leaving the book behind, forgotten, as they go merrily on being consumers or well-adjusted citizens or whatever. Basically, it’s really easy to pay lip service to an idea of intrinsic human sadness and that’s why it’s really hard to take seriously sometimes. But Wallace was utterly serious about it. When he was making every attempt to get at an almost indefinable sadness in “Octet” and desperately querying the reader about her take on it, he wasn’t playing games. He was truly trying to describe a sadness he honestly felt. This wasn’t just some literary construction for him. And it’s impolitic to say this, and the implications are truly horrific, but we know he genuinely felt this sadness because he killed himself. We later found out about his clinical depression, the previous suicide attempts, the decades-long battle with his own biochemistry, but I know at the moment I found out about his death, it appeared that he had finally succumbed to the ineluctable sadness he had been trying to describe with nearly every word he wrote. It pained me to think of how acutely he must have felt this sadness, and it also shattered me to think of how his attempts to convey this sadness he knew so intimately had often been misconstrued, even by his most careful readers. As I sat there sobbing at news of his death, I felt all his themes of sadness and loneliness crystallize and take the form of a sharp point that proceeded to stab me in the heart.
   How could his fans not know he was suicidal? an outside observer might ask today. Considering all those stories about suicide? How could you not realize he was dangerously depressed? After all, he wrote a story called “The Depressed Person” that casually name-dropped dozens of antidepressants. How could you not see it?
   We didn’t see it. We had no idea. I don’t know why. It’s not that we didn’t believe him when he wrote about the sadness…that was something he enabled us to recognize all too clearly. Perhaps conditioned by the way other writers operate, we just didn’t think it was so firmly entrenched inside of him. Maybe we figured his books were having the same palliative effect on him that they were having on us. For those who loved his books, his prose perfectly limned the despairing sadness that was an intrinsic part of life while at the same time acting as a shield against it; by being so erudite, so insightful, so good, his books made us feel less alone and better equipped to navigate our own “skull-sized kingdoms.” But apparently, it was not enough for him.
    If we knew the ordeal he was going through, I guarantee we would’ve done something. I can picture a large contingent of his fans descending on his house in Claremont, putting themselves at his service, trying to give him some measure of comfort, holding candlelight vigils outside his home. I’m being 100% serious. Wallace fans are some of the most com-/passionate people in the world. You think we would’ve just sat back and done nothing if we knew he was in such constant pain? There’s no chance. We would’ve gone to California based on nothing more than the slim hope that we could do something for him, repay him in some small way for all he had given us. And there’s no doubt he would’ve hated it, he would’ve fucking hated it, all of us showing up unannounced like that. All that attention on him when he so eloquently made the case against solipsism and the cult of “me-me-me.” God, he would’ve hated a crowd of adoring and concerned fans outside his house. (Probably anyone would, actually.) But we wouldn’t have been able to help ourselves. Of that I am sure.

 
I wish he had felt well enough to write that piece on Obama and rhetoric.

 
   It is 2010. I am in a bus terminal, waiting for a friend due to arrive any minute. I’m passing the time by reading Understanding David Foster Wallace, recently rereleased by South Carolina Press in a new, updated edition.
   I’m sitting on one of those long benches. On the other end of the bench is a guy around my age. He’s also reading a book. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the blue cover first. I look up and see the unmistakable cinder block heft, and I recognize those all-too-familiar one thousand, seventy-nine pages.
   I must admit, I’m more than a little excited. It’s the first time I’ve seen an IJ “out in the wild.” (I live in a rural area and I hear they’re usually indigenous to NYC subways.) I don’t even consider not talking to the guy.
   I make that half-reaching gesture people use to get someone’s attention and softly say, “Hey.” The guy looks up. I nod at the book in his hands and grin. “Infinite Jest.” I hold up my own book, cementing our solidarity.
   For his part, he doesn’t look too taken aback. He asks to see my book and flips through it, gauging his own interest. I look at his copy and notice the first bookmark (there are two, of course) is about 150 pages in. I ask him if this is his first time reading it and he says it is. I tell him it’s my favorite novel by far, gushing a little. He nods soberly and hands back my book. I ask him how he’s enjoying it and he says he likes it so far. He’s obviously not yet at the evangelical stage I am about Wallace and IJ. He has not really smiled during this interaction and I get the impression he’s one of those people who takes himself way too seriously, but I don’t care because I’m just happy to finally meet a random stranger who is reading the book.
   My friend’s bus arrives and I see him disembark. I gather my things and stand up. Before I leave, I say goodbye to the guy and tell him that I hope he enjoys the rest of the book. The last image I have is of him reading IJ on that bench. I wonder whether he finished it, and, if so, what his thoughts were.

 
Some things I’ve hated about the last five years: I hate how DFW has been used as a punchline for stupid jokes or as a sort of shorthand for describing a certain kind of highly self-aware writing but in a really reductive and usually sneery way. I hate how people who haven’t read IJ think it’s just some repetitive, too-clever-by-half, overly cerebral commentary on addiction and entertainment and whatever. I’m mildly annoyed at how people have glommed onto This Is Water and seem to know little else of Wallace’s work. I’m even more annoyed that people stay away from Infinite Jest and that other fans recommend reading “around it” or “building up to it.” (Would you have someone listen to Dirty Work, Steel Wheels, and A Bigger Bang before finally giving them Exile on Main St.? Just give them the best stuff immediately, I say.) I hate the jokes (“How do you know someone’s read Infinite Jest? Don’t worry, he’ll tell you”). I hate that he’s gone.

 
Some things I’ve loved about the last five years: I love seeing all the stuff we might never have been able to see: letters, manuscript pages, syllabi. I loved getting The Pale King, even if it wasn’t quite in the form we would’ve liked. All the audio interviews that were released because of the more widespread interest. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Infinite Summer. But mainly all the posthumous writing. Though I will state what to me is the obvious: I would trade every bit of Wallace’s writing we got post-’08 for him just to still be alive and healthy again. And not necessarily because I want new work. Even if he didn’t write another word, even if no more books were published, I think I’d still derive some measure of comfort knowing that he was out in the world, just living his life.


   It’s hard to know how to end something like this. I have a strong suspicion these last few paragraphs will just trail off at some point. I’d feel uncomfortable making some grand final statement like “David Foster Wallace meant ______ to me, and always will” or something like that. It’s hard to even encapsulate how important he and his works are to me in under 6,000 words. A simple way of putting it is that he’s changed my life for the better. That’s a zero-BS declaration. Just reading Infinite Jest is like getting a solid liberal arts education. If you look up every word you don’t know and wikipedia every reference or concept you don’t understand, then Eggers is right: You will come out of it a better person. I’m not particularly intelligent, but if I hadn’t read IJ, I would be a lot dumber than I am now, that’s for sure.
   While it’s true that he’s fundamentally changed the way I look at the world, some of the ways he’s affected my life aren’t what you would call Profound or Earth-shattering. I don’t eat lobster anymore. And I’ve turned into somewhat of an amateur SNOOT. Inspired by Wallace’s passion for language, I’ve hit the books and now know much more about grammar than I used to. I mean, take a gander at that paragraph supra where I’m writing about preparing to tackle IJ. You can see how my writing was infected with solecisms and general carelessness before I read that book. There are dangling participles (“After doing a little Googling, Wallace captures my attention”), super casualisms (“Anyways”), careless placement of modifiers (“Wallace, on the other hand, has only written two novels”), noun-pronoun agreement problems (“What author would you run out and get their book if it came out today?”), s-v a.p. (“but it’s one of those things that is amazing because of its excesses”), wrongness coupled with awkwardness (“who is inordinately more well-versed than me in all the art forms”), etc. While this new-found awareness can sometimes result in a kind of writerly paralysis, I like to think that ultimately I’m better for it.
   There were some things I wanted to talk about earlier but wasn’t able to blend them into the piece in a natural way. I wanted to say how grateful I was that I read the bulk of his work—especially IJ—before 2008. Everyone reading his stuff now for the first time probably can’t stop the alarm bells going off every time suicide is mentioned, and I really don’t think that’s the ideal way to read the books. I also wanted to talk a little about the weirdness of learning about his death from a newspaper of all things, a local paper no less. This was 2008, not 1908. The internet was up and running. I guess everyone found out Saturday night…it must have been reported by various outlets. How did I miss it?
   I really don’t know how to end this. I will say I’m constantly reminded of him. I’ll see an unusual word and remember that I first encountered it in one of his books. Pynchon’s book comes out next week and I only got into Pynchon because of him. Hardly a week goes by when he isn’t mentioned in some book review or another. Nadal just won the U.S. Open, which set off an explosion of associations.
   I think I’m done for now.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Funeral Girl

I.

    Mary Fields’s meteoric rise leading to her insinuation into public consciousness was as thorough and wide-ranging as it was inadvertent. It all started with a low-key and unpublicized post of a video on the internet of a funeral service. All the details of the alfresco ceremony attested to the verisimilitude of the event—the passel of attendees of various ages, the rococo flower arrangements, the burnished casket and velvet-draped bier on which it lay, the uniformly black raiment differing enough in the particulars that it was obvious that each person had picked out his or her own wardrobe and accoutrements, the dolorous ambiance that suffused the scene juxtaposed with the incongruous blue sky filled with painterly tufts of cumulus which somehow seemed right, gorgeous meteorology seeming always to be the backdrop of truly sad events (q.v. the Challenger disaster, the assassination of JFK, 9/11) (but n.b.: when it’s not a pluvial mess, cf. Katrina)—so that only the most staunch skeptics could doubt that they were seeing an unstaged, genuine, real-life event. The camera was locked on a girl who looked to be in her early twenties standing at a lectern facing most of the bereaved. The impression most people had on their first viewing of the 55-second video was an inappropriate one considering the tableau, but still one could not help thinking that s/he was looking at a very beautiful girl. Not even a “hot” one or an “attractive” one, but just a beauty that blindsides you on occasion, regardless of your gender. It was not just because of her unblemished, softly tanned skin, and perfect face, and lustrous hair, and doe eyes. It was more than her elegant posture, which connoted an inner strength. It was that the beauty she possessed seemed inviolable. This wasn’t a beauty subordinate to emotion, nor one that needed perfect lighting or perfect makeup or a good night’s sleep or other sets of circumstances conducive to looking one’s best in order to shine. Some girls are only pretty when they smile, some girls turn ugly when any flicker of emotion distracts them from trying to look pretty, so essentially they are only beautiful when consciously posing for others. This girl was not one of those girls. This girl had a beauty that was ever-present, always there in any situation, even one as heart-wrenching as a funeral, so that even though the girl was clearly sad and had clearly been crying and feeling those basement-level feelings for at least that entire day, her indelible beauty was still present, whether she wanted it to be or not, and it was not outshining or trumping her grief but existing hand-in-hand, contemporaneously with whatever she was feeling, and both her beauty and grief seemed more sublime in each other’s presence. You felt something like that when you first saw the video, something that was similarly convolved and recondite, at least. And you found yourself wondering why you didn’t see more beautiful girls in internet videos, truly beautiful girls, as opposed to those who possessed a sort of brummagem type of beauty which required from them effort to maintain, with that effort attenuating any attractiveness they might have possessed. And coming on the heels of this wondering was the first spark of the realization that most girls who put themselves in front of cameras possess that inferior kind of beauty (if they are in possession of any at all), unlike the girl in this video you’d just stumbled upon, this effortlessly beautiful girl standing at a podium at a funeral, who was now clearing her throat, bending forward a bit, and saying into the microphone, clearly and resolutely, “I want a Latino to lick my clitoris.” And suddenly you weren’t thinking about much at all. You were just watching, very very intently.


II.

  There is a tense pause. People are customarily pretty still during obsequies—especially in this video since most of the attendees exist (from the perspective of the camera) only as the backs of their heads, so you can’t see their facial expressions or what their hands are doing—and yet still, a lot of these occiputs seem to get downright statuesque. The eyes of a priest standing off to the side narrow and focus but don’t seem to comprehend what they are taking in. The girl takes a deep breath and continues, even more firmly than before, reading from a notebook in front of her: “I want to come on a man’s face. I want two men to come on my face at the same time. I want to jerk off two guys at once. I want to feel a penis slide against my toes. I want to get my ass tongue-plunged by a lesbian. I want my hot cousin Michael to corner me and ravage me against the wall.” Murmurs have been building among the bewildered audience and, at this last asseveration, gasps are audible. There’s a jump cut and a couple of people are now at the lectern, one of them trying to drag the girl away from the mic; she’s wriggling out of his grasp and shouting “No, get away! Stop!” Another jump cut: others approaching her, beseeching her Mary please stop this craziness. Another splice in the video and she’s snapping at the people around her: “I’m not finished! I’m reading the whole thing!” There’s an almost hysterical tone to her voice. After a final jump cut, she’s calm again, stolidly continuing to read her list of sexual desiderata, now surrounded on both sides by a bunch of people including a bearded man who glares at her viciously and a woman who’s so distraught she’s shaking. Her oration ends with: “And finally: I want to take part in an orgy, and be penetrated in four orifices at once.” The distraught woman yelps as if struck and crumples to the ground, sobbing. The video abruptly fades out. 


III.

   The video quickly went pandemic, becoming one of those things that are endlessly linked to, mentioned in blogs, and watched millions of times, presumably by different people. There was a sudden across-the-board awareness of the thing; every type of site from networking communities to sports news outlets was willing to give it exposure. Discussions proliferated on who this girl was and what in the world she could have been thinking. Armchair MDs spread out a buffet selection of diagnoses (Tourette’s, amentia, vascular occlusion to the brain, typical Young American Girl incorrigibleness, etc.), and, in case she happened to be trolling the v-mess boards, public forums were deluged with offers to fulfill her wishes. FUNURAL GIRL SEX RANT (along with other iterations of the same video with similarly tortured spellings) became unavoidable, taking its place alongside the most well-known internet sensations. Whatever your home page was, chances are it mentioned the video in some way. It was an in-joke one realized everyone was in on when conversation about it could be overheard while waiting in line at the grocery. Within a week, it broke out of the internet’s ambit and became actual news, getting snarky write-ups in USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, People, Time, The New York Times, and other print media. Soon even your grandmother was emailing you a link.
   But those people were behind the curve because within twenty hours of the initial post, some guy with a moderately successful vlog—successful enough to have paying sponsors—took the apparent nympho’s funeral rant and mixed it with the beats of Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go To Work,” which, due to the mixer’s skills or sheer serendipity, complemented each other surprisingly well. This audio track—with accompanying video featuring the cut-and-pasted girl on a makeshift platform in a dingy, squalid basement surrounded by a crowd of thugs cheering her on, i.e. all the components of the stereotypical “rap battle” setting—this what was basically a music video, in turn, went ubiquitous and by the end of the week was seen/heard more than the original video it was parodying. For a while, it spawned a whole cottage industry of amateur MCs making homemade remixes of the girl’s rant set to different songs, mostly long-forgotten hits of the ‘80s. It also provoked the first major case of an entertainer trying to get a slice of the pecuniary pie from the parodies/mash-ups/remixes people were making and posting on the internet using what was indisputably the entertainer’s property, with Kool Moe Dee suing the admin of J-Dawg’s V-log for using his song on that first remix, seeking monetary compensation on the basis that the video brought his (the admin’s) site more hits and therefore presumably more ad money, a case that actually went to trial, though the jury ultimately found Moe Dee’s charges meritless and the making/posting of the video not actionable due to all the laws that protect parody in this country (see Mohandas Dewese v. Jeremiah Dogerson, 11 ne.2d 457 (ca. MMXIX)).
   What was interesting and bizarre was that despite universal interest in the video and subsequent epigonic parodies, no one could with any veracity shed any light on who this dust-raising girl at the funeral was. This was especially frustrating to those trying to reconcile the existence of such a tabula rasa girl with the extensive and continually expanding power of the internet to catalog information about pretty much everyone. Not a few people felt a low-level angst and metaphysical tension at this stonewalling, the kind of tummy-sick feeling one gets when a presumed verity of life fails to conform to expectations. And it didn’t help that the ever-reliable internet, the de facto haven of solace for millions, the foundation on which so many had erected complex dependencies, the 21st century teddy bear, was the cause of this angst and distress, how it was just flat-out not doing what it was supposed to, the internet’s whole raison d’etre for most people being its singular capability to find info on anyone you’ve ever known or not known or merely just seen or just anyone at all (that and access to the world’s most prodigious outlet of porn ever). People had grown used to these internet celebrities’ identities being uncovered and their actions explicated satisfactorily (vide Mahir Cagri, Ghyslain Raza, Davis Elsewhere, Libby Hoeller, et al.), and when days passed without comment from a verifiable firsthand source—either someone at the funeral or the girl herself—the fabulists took over. Outright lies competed with one another for purchase on the bedrock of perceived truth. Depending on which site you went to, the girl was either a transsexual epileptic or a daredevil prankster pulling the ultimate stunt. A few maintained that it was all an elaborate and meticulously produced advertisement for some future movie, TV show, web venture, or iPhone app. A flashpoint of sorts occurred when someone claimed that the cemetery in the video was in a town in Utah and another guy purported that the priest was wearing medallions that designated affiliation with the Mormon faith. Both claims were later debunked, but not before the insinuations spread like wildfire and firmly entrenched themselves in the collective imagination to such an extent that even today a search for “mormen sex gurl” will turn up hits of the video (+ parodies). While the spurious Mormon connection didn’t provide any of the rock-solid dossieric information people craved, it did have the unanticipated side effect of causing a spate of homemade videos featuring supposed Mormon girls doing things that didn’t square with the values real Mormons espouse, things like swearing, drinking, getting into fights, vandalizing public buildings, and, on certain cloistered sites, masturbating (Adult PassKey® required). Some of the more popular “Mormons Gone Wild!”-type videos were posted on the just started-up vidiary.com by a girl who was totally upfront about not being Mormon but, as a lark, dressed up as a missionary and pretended to be one, accosting people and surreptitiously recording video of the interactions with one of those gēniphones with wide-apertured camera lens clipped to her belt which she then posted for the enjoyment of her “vidiary”’s subscribers. Her videos were among the most frequently viewed and/or requested for automatic download on the iPhone 14G or equivalent all-in-one Uni-Fi device every week and received the most video message (“v-mess”) feedback, video messaging/production being the preferred method of communication for the under-30 set, a whole generation brought up on slickly produced films, TV shows, and web videos, and who unconsciously absorbed the rudimentary techniques and “rules” for making perspicuous videos while letting written language acuity fall by the wayside, Eisenstein and Kuleshov being these people’s Strunk and White, most of these vidiary.com users belonging to this video-obsessed demographic, a group that will be labeled “Geniration [sic]” (intentional sic), a whole generation of kids for whom “crossing the line” is as technically incorrect (and—in a way that the old stodgies not of their generation will fail to recognize, in the way most generations don’t see eye to eye about all sorts of things—as personally expressive) as saying or inditing “I be,” the first class of kids to submit more video essays than written ones with college applications, and it was this demographic who was insatiably viewing the girl’s faux-missionary videos, videos that were massively popular even though no one could mistake the girl for a genuine Mormon and this wasn’t just because of her nametag (“Sister Cherrypie”) or her livery, which was embellished by such tasteless touches as a half-unbuttoned blouse tied up above the navel and a skirt that, while the correct shade of slate grey, was the length of a mini and showed infinitely more leg than the long a-line skirts traditionally worn by true Latter-Day Saints, or the way she would approach old ladies or teenage boys or people eating at burger joints or whomever and talk about how the Mormons were “the shit yo” and refer to Jesus Christ as her “homey” and describe the naked jell-o fights they regularly had in Utah and pull out fake tracts tucked inside the elastic of her underwear that resembled more the advertisements for prostitutes than the standard exhortations for salvation. No, it was more the girl herself who ruined the dissembling in ways it seemed she couldn’t help, viz. the way she brought her shoulders back to an almost comical degree in an effort to showcase her bust, with her hips jutting out at such sharp and licentious angles that the skeletal structure underneath looked permanently luxated. Not to mention her face, which—while pretty enough—was always heavily made-up with thick eyeliner, opaque blush, and deeply hued lipstick, and its default expression, which could most aptly be described as a kind of sneer, though one done with her entire face so that all her features seemed to be sneering: her eyes, her eyebrows, her nose, her cheeks, her mouth, her chin—all sneering or like smirking, her whole face slanted and awry as if half the muscles on her face were dead, a mien peculiar to a certain type of girl, typically mimicked by those especially influenced by a media-saturated culture where one is always both spectator and spectated, the sneer directed toward what is being seen as well as anyone who is watching, this sort of deadening, dismaying look endemic to certain kinds of girls 15-25, the accretive effect of this face-wide hemiplegic sneering or smirking of this particular vidiary.com girl, aetat. around 18, not redounding well to her, aesthetically speaking. In short: her expression was basically what made this pretty girl ugly. This quality of hers, which resonated with such bromides as “It’s what’s inside that counts” and “Beauty is only skin-deep,” also inadvertently made it lucite-clear (to the few people who made the connection) why so many people were willing to buy that the funeral girl was a Mormon. Her profanity-laced, sexually perverse hortatory address at a funeral notwithstanding, she projected a kind of earnestness that is characteristic of the religiously devout, as weird as that sounds. Her face registered a conviction, a calm rectitude, a persistence not born out of personal gain. This contrasted profoundly with the sneery, canted face of the other girl. This might also explain why even though there was a fair amount of snide and sardonic comments about the funeral girl on the internet, one could detect an undercurrent of sympathy and an aroused compassion with no place to go, and how some of the armchair diagnoses seemed to be made in good faith, as if people were genuinely trying to figure out what was going on here, nobody really believing that the girl was just flat-out psychotic except for maybe a handful of girls who were most likely resentful of all the attention vectored away from them and onto another girl. Strangely, there existed a true caring about that girl at the funeral. Needless to say, nobody felt anything of the sort while watching videos of the other girl pretending to be a Mormon, or, for that matter, most of the videos on vidiary.com. To be honest, most of the popularity of the sneering girl’s videos probably stemmed from the notoriety her vidiary got when she went to the house of a man in his mid-50s who invited her in so she could share with him her love of Jesus and the guy ended up sitting very close to her on the couch and leering at her with unbridled lechery, which spooked even the usually dismissively carefree girl and she bolted out of the place when the man went to get her something to drink. She posted the video when she got home, having recorded every second of the encounter, and the man got wind of it and got hopping and litigiously mad. Even though he had done nothing illegal (luckily for him), he felt his reputation had been categorically smeared, which was hard to argue with. The lawsuit he brought up was notable for going after the owner and CEO of vidiary.com instead of the girl, who obviously lacked the funds to cover the punitive retribution he was seeking (see Kevin Collins v. Steve Chen, 33 ne.2d 102 (nm. MMXX)).
   So anyway, a good four weeks after the initial post, pretty much everyone had seen the funeral girl video, though no one knew any more about the circumstances behind it than they did on day 1, which is why “flabbergasted” doesn’t even begin to describe the reaction most people had when it was announced that the girl, the one who had described all her sexual desires from a podium in front of a mourning crowd, that that very same girl would be on Letterman, live and in the flesh, the following week. 


 IV.

“That night’s broadcast was nothing less than the final nail in the coffin of someone most had buried long before in the bloated graveyard of pop culture irrelevancy. While Letterman’s publicists insisted that it had always been his intention to retire at the end of the year, he would not have been able to come back and do his shtick with any credibility even if he had wanted to. After that show, there was nothing for him to do but plan for an ignominious exit from the late night stage, for he found himself suddenly exposed in a most dramatic fashion as the hopelessly out of touch dinosaur everyone suspected he had been for quite some time.”
—from The History of Late Night Television: From Allen to Fallon by Handl Petrowski, ©2023 by Handl Petrowski, available for $1.99 US at HandlGeraldPetrowski.pwp in a comprehensive variety of text formats 

   The show was publicized by ABCBS as a major broadcast event, one sorely needed by a show that had been hemorrhaging DAA viewers for a couple of years, The Late Show not exactly being everyone’s idea of required viewing. Letterman, while still relatively spry and ambulatory, was getting undeniably senescent, into his 70’s for godsakes, and it was getting hard to maintain the illusion that he was on the cutting edge of anything but geriatric RXs. This on top of an ill-conceived behavioral shift in Letterman’s demeanor toward his guests starting about 6 months prior when he started to adopt this louche and dissipated sort of persona, especially when interviewing female guests, with whom he had always slyly flirted in the past but now his smarmy blandishments gamboled dangerously close to the threshold of good taste while being as lewd as the FCC would allow. He deployed comments about every bit of bare flesh that could be seen, comments about faces and necks and arms and legs and ankles, open speculation about make and model of undergarments, and long, silent oglings that verged on being prosecutable, punctuated by heavy sighs and slurping noises, with most of these starlets playing along, coquettishly swatting his shoulder or batting their eyes demurely, though there was a fairly noticeable tinge of discomfort and nervousness on the faces of some, understandably, even Paul Shaffer getting (seemingly) weirded out at times. Though most assumed Letterman was just losing his grip a little as he got indisputably old (World Wide Pants official line at the time: “Dave’s just getting a little frisky in his old age”), there was some speculation that this new personality (which was really just a more distilled and barebones and direct version of his old personality) was a calculated move by Letterman and his handlers to present America with a clear alternative to the harmless and endearing avuncularity embodied by Carson. Maybe some sort of maybe cherry-on-top in his ongoing disgruntlement with having been spurned by the Tonight Show overseers in the way he seemed to be completely repudiating the type of warm, cuddly personality required for that T. Show gig, a type of personality internalized by previous hosts Carson, Leno, and O’Brien which allowed them to be welcomed into Middle Americans’ homes and be as easily digested as a smooth milkshake, Letterman seeming to decide suddenly to be really truly not that. That is, The Late Show was offering a new, contrary kind of aging late night host: depraved, perverted, possibly dangerous. Uncouth, unrestrained. A patriarchal figure with sex on the brain who was totally clear of conscience. An unpredictable rogue not burdened by the threat of having to live decades with whatever consequences might result from his actions. Yet still an institution, still a de rigueur stop on the promotional trail for entertainers of virtually every stripe, and so always the unceasing flow of guests.
   This incarnation of Letterman posed a nasty problem for guests who didn’t want to play along, especially the women. Even if a female guest wanted to take Letterman to task, the venue sort of prevented her from doing so, what with the millions of viewers watching at home and studio audience and the crew standing around; according to some guests, if they had taken vocal exception to Letterman’s debauched comments during the interview it would have felt like airing out one’s dirty laundry in public. So the ones who were so totally against what he was doing had to just sit there with a hopefully not too frozen smile on their faces and try to defuse or manage a tension that felt like the tension that exists when there’s a family gathering and the now-adult daughter has to somehow get through it despite her vivid memories of the abusive relationship she had had with her father when she was little, and every time she sees his mouth curl it sickens her a little and she has to put on a congenial face which she knows some of her relatives know is also a brave face because they know of this sad and horrible history she and her father have but no one, including herself and especially her dad, will say anything about it in public and everyone’ll just keep smiling and saying the correct things while trying to keep certain dark thoughts covered under a blanket of amity.
   In this way, the show became even more about Dave than it had previously been, with the audience for the most part cheering him on and the guests forced to grin and bear the come-ons and soldier through the crude comments and even become part of the routine by tossing back their own suggestive comments and thereby actively encouraging the lascivious raillery or else risk offending a legend and institution of TV who might legitimately be losing some of his mental capabilities, or, worse, being exposed as so hopelessly square and humorless and un-“with it” that some old fogey’s practical joke/intentional farce/harmless play-acting totally befuddles them (assuming it was a joke/farce/[instance of] play-acting to begin with, which the intelligible parts of Letterman’s autobiography will eventually confirm it in fact was (so he will say, almost literally since his autobiography will be rather obviously dictated, although no mention of an amanuensis will be on the cover or within the flap copy or indicia)). Hence, the guests were basically subjugated by Team Letterman—led by paterfamilias Dave—and made to assume almost otiose positions of audience/playthings to Mr Letterman’s antics to the point where being called a “guest” seemed like a cruel joke, not to mention that it was getting hard for those guests/victims to shoehorn in a mention of whatever they were supposed to be promoting. That ABCBS was allowing these shenanigans to occur was a lot less bold and edgy of them than it appeared at first glance; their acceptance of the New Dave closer to a nonchalance or disinterestedness rooted in the realities of what a dead zone the 11:30 PM timeslot was, how it was usually impossible to fill with anything that would lure people away from their DVRs, late night becoming the de facto time to watch the programming one had missed during the day. Real risk-taking would have been putting on an original scripted program, which would have been drastically more expensive than the basically nothing they paid for the Worldwide Pants-produced show. And considering that Letterman’s company was willing to pay incrementally more every year for leasing that late night timeslot, canceling the show would’ve been much more of a threat to ABCBS’s revenue streams. So, with nothing else to air, they stuck with Dave.

“Woo, hoo, yes. Ahead of my time. Biggest star of the time, and soon to be the biggest, eventually. Both gone now though, aren’t they? Yessir. Ate all the caviar too. There should be a long pause here. How do you do pauses? A bunch of spaces? How do you ’read’ that? Like that one Paul? Paul’s not here. Another long pause needed. Dammit, how the hell do you do them?” 
—from In Firmly Behind the Desk with Jokes: A Memoir by David Letterman, ©2027 by David Letterman, available for $15.99 (!) US at DavidMichaelLetterman.pwp in PDF format only(!!) and barely more comprehensible (but much funnier) audiobook in mp3 format read by Alec Baldwin (!!!) 

   She wasn’t even the top-slotted guest that night, or even the runner-up guest. No, she was scheduled in the spot usually reserved for bands or musicians but was sometimes filled by comedians or C-list celebrities when booking options were limited. These third-tier guests were in constant danger of not making it onto the show due to time constraints: that their segments abutted and oftentimes overlapped the credits was totally not in their favor. This girl—whose real name, Mary Fields, a lot of people were still coming to grips with, most of them only knowing her through net-created monikers, with even some ABCBS memos referring to her as “The Web Sensation At The Funerel” (sic), causing the programming heads to argue right up to airtime about how to introduce her, her name obviously not being adequate for most of the viewing public—she was repeatedly warned that she could very well be bumped that night, as a lot of 3rd guests who aren’t holding an instrument or howling into a mic often are, and it didn’t help that she wasn’t even promoting anything really, and on top of all this there was not only the prestige of headlining guest Percival Aztoben to consider but also the time-consuming, labor-intensive logistics of what they wanted to pull off for that night’s extravaganza. Not to mention that as a pièce de résistence the whole thing was going to be live, which would prevent the fine-tuning necessary to edit the show into a nice and smooth and compact 32 minutes of content, a process that usually took a few hours and would have probably been a last guest’s best chance for a brief appearance to be spliced into a time-crunched show. The producers resisted telling her what they really wanted to: that there was no way she was getting on that night’s show, that the thought of trying to squeeze her in was causing migraines among the staff, and could she please go back to her hotel room with some comped Broadway tickets and if she really felt up to it she could come back tomorrow when the odds of getting facetime with Big Dave would be dramatically increased under the normal, much less stressful conditions of a tape-delayed show. Alas, she stayed in her dressing room, placid and unperturbed, as everyone else ran around her, engaged in all the busywork the show required.
   Even Letterman, who usually made time to hang out with guests (esp. the women) to work out generally what would be discussed on air, spent most of his pre-show preparatory time on the Late Show set anxiously seeking confirmation from the production crew that everything was a go, that the never-before-attempted physical manipulations of the set were not only possible but able to be done without major snags or hiccups. Even after the production designer told him that Yes, everything had been checked and re-checked and signed off on and rehearsed to the nth degree over the weekend and all the technical bumps and wrinkles had been smoothed and ironed out, Letterman assiduously sought out similar reassurances from the art director, construction coordinator, DP, and key grip. There was no question that Letterman was a little more amped up than usual, perhaps sensing that this particular show had a unique make-or-break quality about it and that perhaps his future was hanging in the balance. Or maybe the show had grown so stagnant that anything novel immediately captured his attention. When Percival Aztoben showed up, Dave glommed onto his VIP guest and took him on a tour of the set, enthusiastically pointing out all the intricate workings of the things in store for the show that night. Mr Aztoben was shown the stage’s ingress and path to his seat. He was shown the way the stage would be laid out, the position of the band and the introductory music they would be playing, and the way Dave would greet him, the way he would get up from behind his desk with welcoming hand extended. The way the desk would be swiveled around 160°. The way both he and Mr Aztoben would be sitting in chairs whose backs were to the audience, the way they would be for all intents and purposes facing away from the audience. How the audience would only be able to see their (slightly askew) profiles, basically. The way the New York skyline typically behind the desk (now in front) would be draped with 80’ of thin beige cloth, slightly slanted so as to be pretty much parallel with the desk and guest chair. How video of a studio audience—not the one actually in studio—would be rear projected by a high-powered half-million lumen video projector onto this IMAX-sized makeshift screen. How the video would output from a technician’s laptop and be craftily edited on the spot so that the audience up on the screen would react to what Mr Aztoben and he were saying; the way this video audience would laugh, clap, and cheer at appropriate times in the interview. How the real life studio audience would be basically watching another audience watching the interview as if they (the real life audience) were sitting backstage. The way the video screen (and so the second audience) would be off-center to the real audience and how unsettling the video audience’s angle of incidence, so to speak, of approx. 20 degrees would be to the real audience. How he and Mr Aztoben would only acknowledge the projected audience, as if the actual people in the studio were not even there. And also the way the TV camera would be positioned to the dextral side of the set, equipped with a slightly fisheyed lens and taping the show laterally so as to capture all the elements in the tableau vivant: Letterman and guest, audiences real and projected. And but also with this planned layout, the way the TV audience would see way more of Dave than the guest, the way Dave would be talking to his guest most of the time and therefore facing at least toward the general direction of the camera when doing so. The way folks at home would be pretty much hosed out of a glimpse of Mr Aztoben’s countenance, how even when he would address the video audience his face would be almost completely obscured due to the angle. The way the home audience would be essentially watching an audience watch an audience watching the interview they thought they were tuning in to see. The way it wouldn’t seem like a fourth wall being shattered so much as the home audience themselves becoming the fourth wall. Or rather maybe a different kind of third wall, part of a right triangle formed by the hypotenuse of Dave’s desk/projection screen with the real audience and the TV camera’s POV being the two legs. How the real studio audience would not be apprised of the gag beforehand, and how mindbending the non-symmetricalness of it would be, especially considering the way people have come to expect a sort of order to even the bizarre things they encounter. How even more confused the TV viewers would be. The way a bird’s eye view of the set would seem like a performance artist’s demonstration of the Pythagorean theorem. The way the whole thing would be the most warped thing seen on television since . . . well since the last episode of Mr Aztoben’s show. The way this setup would complement Mr Aztoben’s show, a sort of transposition of his show’s anarchic spirit to the late night interview format. How glorious it would all be. All this relayed to Percival Aztoben by David Letterman. And all this chest-puffing from Big Dave without him once realizing that Aztoben’s eyes were glazing over, that Mr Aztoben spent his daily professional life mired in these kinds of pseudo-clever entanglements and the last thing he wanted when clocked-out and off company time was to have some pale imitation of something he considered not all that compelling to begin with foisted on his own uninterested self. Besides, if pressed, Mr Aztoben would say that what the Late Show was doing had little to do with his hit show, which specialized more in confusing genre signals than the reflexive, nested-audience metagames Dave and crew were attempting to pull off here. But he nodded soberly at the torsions of the Late Show set and praised Dave’s inventiveness and allowed the appearance of a complicit smirk to play across his lips—anything to keep Letterman in good humor, knowing that if his host was appeased it would make the next couple of hours a lot more bearable than they would’ve been otherwise.
    And meanwhile Mary Fields was waiting patiently in her dressing room, sitting on the sofa next to an untouched catering spread, hands in her lap, looking toward the floor, ignoring the pendent flatscreen TV positioned overhead in the far corner of the room which was playing a loop of the greatest moments in Late Show history, alone in the room but little did she know not unwatched. In fact, only a few people knew that the guests’ dressing rooms were outfitted with hidden hi-def cameras mounted on gimbals which allowed joystick-controlled movement with zooming capability. Installed in multiple locations within the ceiling and walls, the cameras could capture any part of the room, though their default positioning focused on the sofa. Letterman was, of course, one of the people who knew of the cameras’ existence and he was the one who made the most use of them. Every guest was unknowingly recorded and Dave would oftentimes go into the closet-sized room connected to his own personal dressing room where direct feeds from the hidden cameras were patched through on 50-inch monitors. He would move the cameras, panning and scanning over the oblivious guests, switching viewpoints as they moved around the room. Dave would arrange for them to be left alone—instructing their handlers to make pointed though not overly suspicious mentions of how the door could be deadbolted to ensure their total privacy—so he could observe those who presumed to be unobserved. Needless to say, only women received this sub rosa attention from Big Dave. Most managed not to do anything overly mortifying; most of the time nothing would happen or maybe they would just do the small bits of grooming one does when alone: there were a few cases of eyebrow tweezing, some made absurd-looking expressions in the mirror to check for particles wedged between their teeth, at most there would maybe be a bit of nose-picking. Or they might do the things people do to make themselves comfortable in their own skin like sing to themselves or take off their shoes (which Letterman—who obviously had something for women’s feet—didn’t mind in the least; when his personal collection of recorded hidden camera footage is unearthed, most of it will seem like a promotional video for the world’s most expensive pedicures). If Dave was lucky, there would be some sort of necessary wardrobe change, though this was rare and almost never happened with the A-list guests. And then there was the one very notable occasion when a young, imprudent starlet stripped off her clothes and masturbated. It was likely Dave couldn’t believe his luck that day, though the prevailing opinion will be that one of Dave’s assistants probably gave her a substantial gratuity to put on a show for Mr Letterman, her performance—replete with guttural moans and salacious looks at the wall—being a little too over the top to convince most that she had really considered herself unwatched. The general public will be allowed to arrive at their own conclusions about the video when it is leaked to the internet along with other choice selections from Letterman’s library of skeevy hidden cam footage. Regardless of popular sentiment, the woman—no longer young or a star—will sue immediately and without quarter; she will appear on TV for the first time in years with unappeasable vengeance in her eyes, armed with supernova-levels of indignation fueled by the frustration of being unable to confront the perpetrator himself, forced instead to pursue monetary compensation from his estate, as Letterman, by this time, will have been interred in Indianapolis soil for some years (eventually see Marabelle Pelling v. World Wide Pants, Inc., 23 ne.2d 84 (ny. MMXL1)). 

 “He seemed really busy.” 
 —Mary Fields giving her impression of David Letterman on the night of her appearance on the Late Show, from My Life Thus Far, a vidbook by Mary Fields, ©2029 by Glen Taglio, available for $2.49 US at MaryHelenFields.pwp in mpeg-8 format 

   By the time Mary Fields was ready to make her first television appearance, Letterman’s mood had soured considerably. The interview with Percival Aztoben hadn’t gone over with the audience as well as everyone had hoped, and the stage’s flipped around setup was more discomfiting than the producers had anticipated. Exacerbating the situation was Aztoben’s lackadaisical behavior, the way he came off as bored and coolly contemptuous of the proceedings, the way his responses were both prefaced and capped off with implicit sighs, with some real ones thrown in occasionally. His laconic and curt manner resulted in a limp, lifeless interview made even more soporific by being conducted backwards. Added to this, Dave couldn’t defuse the tension as he had so often done in the past by looking straight at the audience with mock-incredulity on his face. Since he was unable to see the studio audience due to the gag’s conceit, he instead focused that ironic expression on the video-projected audience before him which caused the people on the screen to laugh as the real audience normally would have, but now the people in the real audience weren’t able to see the faces Dave was making so it seemed as though the video audience were laughing, unprompted, at what they were facing, viz. the real audience. That the real audience found themselves confronted by another audience that seemed to be laughing at them did not sit well with the real-life actual people in the studio. One can imagine the home audience watching this on TV being not all that amused, either. This might not have been such a big deal if there hadn’t been a technical glitch with getting the set back to its standard orientation during the first commercial break, forcing Dave to improvise another monologue on the spot in front of rolling cameras to keep the audiences both in studio and at home appeased while the construction guys struggled with getting down the giant screen, for the moment stuck there like a big blank buff arras. This allowed the studio audience to vocalize their displeasure in an immediate and direct way to the person who they felt needlessly subjected them to an ill-willed prank; needless to say, there was a fair amount of heckling and jeers and imprecations. Dave, who wasn’t counting on a vis-à-vis with the audience so soon after they had been antagonized, was caught off guard by the audience’s hostility and was in no mood to issue mea culpas; instead he quickly got snide and belligerent, threatening to leave the screen up for the entire week and perform for “the more appreciative audience,” which set off another chorus of boo’s from the people who had actually waited in line for tickets.
   Adding to Dave’s struggles that evening was the pathetic failure of the segment between Aztoben and Ms Fields, a new, unfortunately-titled skit called “Dangerously Stupid Pet Tricks!” (sic). If it can be assumed that the pets themselves were supposed to be dangerous, these putatively vicious animals were disappointingly limp and almost laughably innocuous. The snake handler got things off to a rocky start by waiting until after the cameras were rolling to inform everyone that a mistake had been made and instead of bringing a highly-venomous species of coral snake, he had with him the most harmless kind of benign milk snake, dangerous to only frogs, lizards, and maybe certain birds. (Ignoring Dave’s glower, he used the snafu to instruct the audience on how to distinguish between the two, using a rhyming couplet having to do with which of their aposematic colors were contiguous.) Next was a tank full of box jellyfish, which was a lot less exciting than had been envisioned during the planning phase, the billowy spectral things looking anything but fierce just floating there in the water. The jellyfish people demurred when Dave suggested they toss the milk snake in the tank, and it was a very bad sign indeed that this classic display of Dave’s trademark irreverence elicited barely a few chuckles from the crowd, still so aggressively pissed were they. A lion, of course, also was brought out but was too lazy to jump through the hoops the tamer held out for it; instead it just plopped down on the stage and stretched out lifelessly. Dave, oozing desperation, tried to quickly move on to the main attraction. Unfortunately, the planned zenith of the segment imploded in on itself when the wranglers responsible for what was supposed to be the climactic polar bear turned out to be pranksters who had somehow failed to be identified as such before getting on the stage with Letterman, and when their crate was open to drumrolls a man in a polar bear costume jumped out and ran around the stage, waving around a banner which had the address of a networking website printed on it. While the audience hooted and hollered, Letterman was nearly apoplectic, his frustration evident as he snapped at the buffoons in a humorlessly peremptory tone to get the hell off his stage. The audience reveled in seeing Dave lose his cool and the sound of jeers overwhelmed anything else Dave had to say. Security personnel went into the audience and started to forcibly extract the most vociferous taunters, and in the confusion the guy in the polar bear costume took the opportunity to do a few more laps around Dave’s desk. The obstreperous pitch of the whole debacle was kicked up a few notches when the lion picked up its head and eyed the mummer-like polar bear with sly interest. First couchant, then up and snarling, the lion took a few swipes at the polar bear as he gamboled past and had to be quickly reined in by the tamers. The crowd oo’ed and ah’ed as the skit seemed to be finally living up to what one could only assume to be its point. The polar bear-costumed guy, with a showman’s flair, continued to entice the lion, prancing just out of its reach and mugging for the cameras and audience, drawing the biggest laughs of the evening. Exhortations were shouted out to Dave for him to get in there and separate the two, the audience unable to contain its glee at the prospect of the host getting mauled on live TV. Letterman just stood fuming off to the side, glaring alternately at the shenanigans on stage and the heckling audience with equal disgust. The show’s producers cut to a commercial break and needed the full four minutes to restore order to the Late Show.
   When they came back from the break, everyone was ready to just go home, especially Letterman. But there was still six more minutes that needed to be filled with content before the end credits rolled, so Dave, with zero enthusiasm, introduced the last guest, Mary Fields, star of “some internet thing.” Before she had taken three steps onto the stage, she was scrutinized and judged by the hundreds of eyes in the studio and millions at home. Her broadcast television debut couldn’t help being more muted than the splash she had made on the web, and people quickly steeled themselves for what was looking like a disheartening anticlimax. She was dressed simply, wearing jeans, sneakers, and a pale pink shirt with a silkscreened black and white image of a teenage girl on the front. She was still undeniably beautiful, even in HD, although her looks weren’t as striking as they were in the funeral video since everyone was accustomed to seeing the most attractive people in the world walk out onto the late night stage. If anything, she was significantly less glamorous than the typical starlet guest, with her reserved wardrobe, simple jewelry, and tasteful maquillage, so a lot of the people who had been expecting a knock-out gorgeous stunner experienced twinges of disappointment. What took everyone aback, however, was that she was smiling as she walked toward Letterman, it being the first time anyone had seen her do so. This was a girl everyone associated with funerals and it had been easy to imagine her perpetually afflicted with cafard or anger or both, so it was a revelation to many that this girl was even capable of smiling. And after the initial surprise wore off, pretty much everyone noticed that while she may not be more beautiful than big-deal movie stars, her smile was very different from the smiles they were used to seeing on the Late Show, much better in some way most couldn’t put their finger on. Rewatching video of her entrance a few times made the difference obvious: her smile was positively understated when compared to the kinds of smiles most guests walked out with. It didn’t seem too big for her face, or show off precise rows of unnaturally white teeth, or get wider as people applauded her entrance as if everyone in the audience had a camera and she were saying “cheese” for each and every one of them—any or all of which qualities were symptomatic of most celebrities’ smiles. Most of all, her smile didn’t seem insincere in the way smiles intended to be seen by multitudes of people usually seem to be; her smile was for one person only, the person whose hand she shook before taking a seat next to him. Another scarcely noticed fact, at least during that first, live viewing, was that she never acknowledged the studio audience or the TV cameras the whole time, her attention solely and exclusively on Letterman, her host.
   Dave wasted no time signaling to an intern offstage, who rolled out a lectern on casters. With an arched eyebrow, he nodded to it and asked her, “Would you care to continue where you left off?”
   The audience chuckled. She good-naturedly shook her head, her brow wrinkling attractively. “No thank you,” she said.
   “For those that don’t know,” Dave addressed the cameras and audience, “this young lady was recently featured in a video on the internet saying some pretty . . . things of a sexual nature that we unfortunately can’t repeat on this show. But check it out, on your local internet sometime.” (As if everyone hadn’t already seen it. Letterman himself had seen it for the first time that morning.) Dave grabbed his index cards and made a show of intensely studying them, then eyed her dubiously. “I’ll start this easy,” he said. “Are you married?”
   “No,” she said, somewhat hesitantly.
   “Well, that’s a surprise . . . and a relief.”
   There were scattered guffaws and she just sat, looking at Letterman pleasantly enough but uncertain of what to say.
   Dave continued: “Well was this like an open call for suitors or . . . what, you just can’t get a date or something?”
   “No,” she said, a little edge in her voice.
   “No, I don’t think that’d be the case. After all,” straightening his tie, “You’re a very attractive woman.”
   “Thank you,” she said, though it was clear she didn’t take much joy from the compliment.
   “No, thank you,” he countered, then went back to his cards, hunched over them slightly. He said nothing for a second, letting the awkward silence distend. A few people chortled. Her smile now had a helpless tinge to it as she got more confused by Dave’s actions. He ran his tongue over his lips and grimaced a little. Finally, he looked up and nonchalantly tossed out, “So what did the Mormons think?”
   “Mormons?” she asked, now pretty thoroughly confused.
   “Yeah. Your group, your brethren, whatever. Didn’t they object to the . . . speech?”
   “I’m not Mormon,” she said, chuckling.
   “No?” he said, somewhat surprised; his assistants had fed him some of the more pervasive rumors. “Well, even if you don’t subscribe to that particular religion, which by the way is pretty great, I think we’d all agree.” He paused for sparse laughter and clapping. “Um, so even if you aren’t Mormon per se, you must be part of something that has some sorta moral code and whatnot. I mean, you believe in God, yeah?”
   She was silent a couple of seconds before saying, “Yes.” She was no longer smiling.
   “So,” exhaling expansively, “you believe in . . . well, I mean what do you think God would think of, of all those things you said. In that video.”
   Flustered, she could only murmur, “I don’t . . . I’m not sure what you mean.”
   “I mean,” Letterman said testily, “what the hell is wrong with you anyway?” There were audible gasps in the audience. She sat there, stone-still, caught in the headlights of something she didn’t know the size of yet. Dave swiftly pressed on. “Who is that?” he asked, motioning to the picture of the girl on her shirt. “Is that some lesbian lover of yours? A little young, isn’t she? Some little young thing you did all that nasty stuff you were telling everyone about?”
   “No,” she said quietly, her eyes narrowing. “It’s my sister.”
   “Oh, your sister,” Dave said, leering at her. “Well that brings up an interesting question. So what does your family think of what you did, making a spectacle of yourself like that.” It was clear Dave was channeling all the frustration he had felt all evening into this final acerbic interview. “Does your little sister approve of what you did up there?”
   She allowed herself a small, sad smile. “I would think so,” she said softly.
   Dave shook his head, full of disdain. “Well miss, if that’s the case I think you have one messed up family.” There was almost complete silence for a few moments. Dave grunted and said, “You know, I don’t believe you. I think anyone would be embarrassed to be related to you. Can we call this sister of yours, maybe get her on the show so we can get straight from her how proud she is of you?”
   “No, you can’t,” she said.
   “Oh we can’t,” Dave said smugly. “And might that be because you’re lying about what she thinks of you, that she’s really ashamed of you?”
   “No.”
   “Then why not?”
   Her head dipped a little as she said, “Because she’s passed.”
   Dave tapped his fingers on the desk. The audience was raptly watching her, practically holding their collective breath. Dave, allergic to any silence not of his creation, filled the dead air with, “I’m sorry.” Even he sensed how hollow the sentiment was. With nothing else to say, he asked, “How did it happen?”
   She looked at him and told him about how her sister, for the first 12 years of her life, was the most wonderful, joyous sister anyone could have. How she had been amazed by the world from birth, and determined to stake her place in it. How she had been loud and brash even as an infant, which had been by turns obnoxious, then endearing, and then admirable. Her boldness was the best kind, always in service of correcting some injustice she had witnessed, mostly against other people. How she was the kind of girl who was as likely to defend someone against a bully at the playground as she was to intelligently argue for moving her bedtime to a later hour. Her ambition matched her candor; she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be a Broadway star, kindergarten teacher, or the first female president, and later decided that there was no reason she couldn’t be all three. There was the day she came home from school, crying, after finding a mangled cat in the road. Between sobs, she demanded that they sell their house and open an animal hospital, and it was heartbreaking to see how serious she was. How she had once told her big sister, at the top of a Ferris wheel, how wonderful it was to breathe fall air so high up. And then came the summer when nothing should have been on her mind except how exciting it was to go to a new school, the final passage to adulthood when grades get names instead of numbers, but how a diagnosis changed all that, how the doctor came in and said the words “acute myelogenous leukemia,” and then they all weren’t able to think of anything else. How she took the news as stoically as the rest of her family did, everyone planning to spare one another a display of tearful sorrow. After the initial sharp stab of pain had passed, they found that the pamphlets the doctor had given them provided no comfort. They collectively turned to the scientific journals; she was the only one who didn’t throw the books at the wall in frustration at not understanding a single word. How she went immediately into intensive chemotherapy. How she spent the momentous first day of school at home in bed, pale and wiped out. How, one restless night, her big sister found her jotting in a notebook, as sad as she ever allowed anyone to see her. Nothing but brave until this point, she couldn’t help dissolving into tears against her sister, telling her that there was so much she wanted to do, to see, to be. She was writing it all down, vicariously living the rest of her life through written words. She didn’t share what she was scribbling with anyone other than her big sister, whom she looked up to and admired, hardly suspecting that the feeling was mutual. How a couple of days later, she off-handedly suggested that, at her funeral, Mary read her list of all the things she wished she could’ve done. Before the request could be passed off as a morbid joke, she grabbed her sister’s wrist and looked at her with steel eyes to let her know that she was completely serious, as if Mary didn’t already know that, as if she hadn’t been her entire life. How the end came soon after. At the funeral, Mary took the podium to remember her sister to the congregated mourners and pulled out the notebook nobody knew existed. She told everyone what her sister, in her own words, would have wanted to do if she had had a few more decades. Some of her wishes were simple, some were grand, some made you think you’d never stop crying. But the section that riled everyone up was the list of all the sensual pleasures she regretted missing out on, inscrutable feelings she had no first-hand knowledge of, titillating adventures she could only guess at and try to piece together from what she had seen in movies, read in books, heard on the playground, all expressed in the grandiose terms of a naïve girl who had barely reached first base. A ruckus ensued and, unbeknownst to Mary, was caught on videotape by a cousin going to film school, the recorded ceremony nothing more to him than a class assignment. On a lark, the cousin took the most seemingly salacious bits of her recitation and edited them into an easily digestible fifty-five seconds and posted the clip for the world to see. It became one of those videos that made up for its lack of context by being easily ridiculed.
   She never looked away from Letterman while relaying all of this. He stopped looking at her about halfway through. After she was done, there was a long stretch of silence that seemed as if it could last forever. By complete happenstance, both Mary and Letterman broke the silence at the same time by clearing their throats. Letterman’s was a fake gesture, a fake cough he used to fill silences; hers was like a sticky, tangled ball of pain that was lodged in her throat with no hope of ever being extracted. The two noises they made couldn’t have sounded more different. 

   [Blue Black Red Magenta Orange Green]
—The general consensus on what order to take which psychotropic drugs that will allow one to experience the feelings Aztoben had about his Letterman appearance, from Yours Is Mine Too And There, a db by Percival Aztoben composed of 39 different colored/sized spansules each containing 10-25mg of various cognition-altering substances, ©2031 by Percival Aztoben, available for mail order w/ optional expedited shipping at PercivalJenshoAztoben.pwp
 
 
V.

   A few days later, a video was posted of Mary at the funeral, at the podium, reading her sister’s notes. This time the clip was unexpurgated and ran almost fourteen minutes. Along with the well-known phrases, Mary averred such things as, “I want to see Niagara Falls,” and “I want to go to prom,” and “I want to see my best friend Lindsay become homecoming queen, because I just know she will be,” and “I want to see Dad cry at my wedding when he gives me away, the big crybaby,” and “I want to have four, no five kids,” and “I want to be the first to congratulate my daughter when she gets accepted to Harvard and I want to be the proudest parent at her graduation,” and “I want to look over at my husband on our 50th anniversary and smile to myself, knowing that I couldn’t have found anyone more perfect to spend my life with,” and “I want to live a full life, knowing that I loved as much as I was loved.” The video was posted to multiple sites, but, for any number of reasons, not the least of which had to do with its comparably interminable running time, after a year the aggregate number of views it had gotten from the top five video hosting sites was about 1/1000th of the number of views the videos of the Letterman appearance got. It got even fewer views than a video posted by a Late Show PA who had surreptitiously filmed Mary with his phone when she arrived at the studio two hours before airtime, wearing the now infamous t-shirt, as she got out of her car, gave him a tentative smile, and asked him whether this was an appropriate place to park.


DHS