What if you took two of the most beautiful minds known to man, sat them down in a room together, told them to talk about your favorite topic (language & writing), recorded the whole thing, and then turned it into a book. Basically, that is exactly what has happened in Quack This Way. I have had the distinct pleasure of reading several of Garner’s books and seeing him present in person. I have read just about everything David Foster Wallace ever wrote. The very idea of this book made me ecstatic with hope and excitement. I was not disappointed.
It starts with a working definition, provided by DFW, of what writing well means (and he would know):
In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader–even though it’s mediated by a kind of text–there’s an electricity about it. (pp. 25-26).
He proceeds to basically apologize for how simple that definition is. But that’s so him. He’s so brilliant, he makes the complex seem simple, and even the super complex comprehensible.
They discuss hypercorrection. “Snoots,” which in a separate essay Wallace casually defined as:
SNOOT (n) (highly colloq) is this reviewer’s nuclear family’s nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to hunt for mistakes in the very prose of [William] Safire’s column [in The New York Times Magazine].
Garner and DFW are both alike in this way. Good-natured literary snobs. Sometimes pedantic. But it comes from such a pure place, from an unfettered love of language, and they are both so gosh darn genius, you can’t even take offense or get upset. Some people deserve to be arrogant, and these two definitely fall in that category.
Wallace talks about writers he likes, mentioning Cormac McCarthy, and Blood Meridian specifically. (p. 60). Have we talked about McCarthy/Blood Meridian here before? Kidding! But I love that Wallace loves McCarthy. And I love how unapologetic he is about it. Lately I have felt like there is a lot of pressure to only like what we are supposed to like (i.e. diverse writers from outside the “old white guy” canon). But DFW likes what he likes, and loves what he loves, and doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks about it.
Together, they come up with the concept that writing well and speaking well and reading well is not a destination or the result of a certain fixed quantity of education. It is, rather, a “lifelong apprenticeship.” (p. 92). I like this, but also find it humbling. If these guys haven’t arrived their yet, I don’t know if I ever well. But like life at large, I think the real point of it all is finding joy in the journey.
Bryan Garner, and I think he would even admit it himself, is kind of a nerd. But one of my favorite parts in the book was where DFW told him that, because of how smart and talented Garner is, there were some ladies in Manhattan that Wallace could introduce Garner to for whom he would seem like Mick Jagger. (p. 119). (I’m pretty sure one or both of them would take grammatical issue with the previous sentence; so be it!) (but I, too, would like to meet these ladies).
Garner writes an introduction to the book that is, in and of itself, worth the price of purchase. Describing their relationship and the interactions leading up to the making of the book. It’s hard not to get sad, thinking about what other great things the two of them could have done together. But we have this book. And we have a great body of work from both of them. We should consider ourselves lucky.
This interview was conducted on February 3, 2006. It claims to be the last or one of the last interviews or big interviews or formal interviews with Wallace. There are at least a couple of other interviews claiming to be the last. I’ve read them all. I’m not too worried about specifics. I’m just happy this book/interview is out there. And if more come out claiming to be the actual last, I will relish those as well. I mourn the loss of David Foster Wallace. Sometimes every day.
O Captain! My Captain!