This post is going to be a little scatterbrained. The inspiration for it, more or less, came from a TV show – specifically from a female actor on a TV show that I have developed a mild crush on – but as I began mentally composing it, thoughts regarding various authors (including one that my latest celebrity crush is apparently a fan of) started to creep their way into the mix, so anyways I decided to just start typing and see what ends up on the screen.
I would first like to state that I agree, there is indeed something rather loser-ly about a 36-year-old single male writing blog posts about female celebrities he has crushes on. If you feel the need to point that out in further detail, feel free. Nonetheless, well, loser though it may make me seem to be, I am going to write a little about the latest female celebrity I have developed a mild crush on (eat your hearts out, Sarah Silverman, Norah Jones, et al.), and then hopefully smoothly transition into writing about an author she likes – this author is one of my personal favorite authors, incidentally – and compare this author to a couple other authors I also like.
Without further blathering, the celebrity I have recently developed a mild crush on is Constance Wu, one of the stars of the hit ABC sitcom “Fresh Off The Boat.” In case you aren’t familiar with the show, it’s centered around the Huang family – dad Louis, mom Jessica (Wu’s character), sons Eddie, Emery, and Evan, and also Louis’ wheelchair-bound, Chinese-speaking but English-understanding mother – a Taiwanese-American family who live in Orlando, Florida. The sitcom is loosely based on the memoir “Fresh Off The Boat” written by celebrity chef Eddie Huang (the “Eddie” character is based on him) and I haven’t read that book yet but I intend to, simply because I am a huge fan of the sitcom it inspired.
Louis and Jessica moved to the USA – where they met each other – from Taiwan when they were either in their late teens or early 20s, I think. I am not certain…I am just going by information given on a couple episodes, like the one where Evan isn’t sure if he should use his American name or his Chinese name to open a checking account, and the one where Louis’ brother (played by Ken Jeong) comes to visit. In that episode, it’s revealed that Louis’ father told him and his brother that he could afford to send one of them to America but not the other, and Louis jumped at the opportunity, something his brother never really forgave him for. In the first episode I mentioned, Jessica tells Evan that she used to go only by her Chinese name, but that no Americans could pronounce it properly. Incidentally, I don’t have any idea how to spell her Chinese name, so…yeah.
The show is significant to many Asian-American people for the simple reason that it’s only the second (I think) prime-time network TV sitcom in the USA to center around an Asian-American family. The other one – I can’t remember the name of it off the top of my head – was about Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho and her family, and it was on the air way back in the 1990s. “Fresh Off The Boat” is set in the 1990s, incidentally, and the Margaret Cho sitcom (“All-American Girl”?) is referenced – and there’s a short clip from it – in one episode, after (I think) Jessica mentions something about how there aren’t any Asian people on American TV.
And above and beyond the fact that I find Constance Wu to be pretty – this may not make any sense to anyone but me, but she is pretty in the same way that Shelley Long (Diane on “Cheers”) is pretty, in my opinion – I also think she’s really funny in her portrayal of tiger mom Jessica Huang.
And above and beyond both of those things, Constance Wu has been quite outspoken on social media and in interviews regarding the phenomenon of “whitewashing” in Hollywood. “Whitewashing” is the phenomenon of white people being cast in roles written for nonwhite people. More recently, she spoke out quite passionately (and compellingly) about “white saviors” in Hollywood movies, such as a new movie (I don’t remember the title) that’s set in China I think…and Matt Damon is the film’s hero.
Being that I am white, things like “whitewashing” and “white saviors” and things like that aren’t things that I might notice, even though they’re right out in the open for everyone to see. I mean, for example, in the movie “The Last Samurai,” there’s only one samurai left in all of Japan…and it’s Tom Cruise?
That’s just one of the most apparent examples, there have been many others. And though I try to be as socially conscious as I can be, I don’t always see everything like that.
And going back to the FOTB episode where Jessica talks about why she chose to start going by “Jessica” instead of her Chinese name (she went by “Bob” for a while because she liked the “bob” haircut and didn’t realize “Bob” was a man’s name), that’s something that I as a white person with a pretty generic Anglo-American sort of name have never experienced. Nobody I have ever met in my entire life has ever had a problem pronouncing “Michael.” As a matter of fact, when I lived in South Korea for two years, no Korean person ever had a problem pronouncing it, because it can be phonetically written in Korean (마이클, ma ee keul, say it three times fast) in such a way that sounds pretty much exactly like it does in English.
And yeah, most every ESL student I taught over there had an English name, because many Westerners (and non-Koreans in general) have a hard time pronouncing Korean names. I mention that because I already knew that many Asian people prefer to go by English names when they are around English speakers, it’s just that I had never seen this phenomenon be the central plot point of an episode of a sitcom.
So anyways, getting back to my loser-ly, schoolboy-ish crush on a female celebrity, not only do I find Constance Wu to be pretty in a wholesome, all-American girl next door who is way the hell out of your league but nice to you anyway sort of way – she’s got a pet bunny rabbit, which oh my God how adorable is that – not only is she a talented comedic actor on quite possibly the funniest TV show currently in production (is there gonna be a third season of “Black Jesus”?), she is also raising my level of social consciousness.
And quite possibly most importantly, with regard to what prompted me to risk public embarrassment and write all this down, just recently, Ms. Wu wrote a tweet that made my sad, loser-ly little heart just absolutely flutter:
She told her followers on Twitter – she called them struggling little fishes, if memory serves – to think about the David Foster Wallace essay “This Is Water” to help them get through their daily lives.
I think I saw that Tweet on Facebook after a Facebook friend shared it. I pretty much immediately followed Ms. Wu on Twitter…which is when I saw her selfie with her pet rabbit, and the rabbit sticker on the back of her phone, and that is the cutest damn selfie on the internet, I don’t care what anybody says.
“This Is Water” was a commencement speech DFW gave, I think, I guess maybe at Amherst, his alma mater. I didn’t know for sure what that particular essay/speech was about when I saw the Tweet, but the fact that somebody I already thought highly of for various reasons is also a fan of one of my favorite authors, well, it is a fact I like, loser though it may make me seem to be.
And anyways, it turns out that I had read “This Is Water” before, and I actually have a PDF of it here on my phone. A while back, somebody on Facebook – somebody from a secular humanist Facebook page I no longer follow, if memory serves – was up in arms over the fact that in “This Is Water,” DFW makes the claim that there is really no atheism, because everybody worships something, be it money, or power, or themselves, or any number of things.
I have gotten in countless arguments online over the issue of whether “atheism” can be a sort of religion. I maintain that it most certainly can be a whole lot like a religion: for example there’s a lot of in-group/out-group behavior in atheist circles. Tons of it. And don’t even get me started on how the political views of many atheists in America line up almost perfectly with those of the religious right in America.
But I don’t want to waste any more of my time arguing that point. At any rate, I understand exactly what DFW meant, and I agree with him.
The main idea behind “This Is Water” is that people, by default, are selfish creatures. This is due to the fact that every one of us experiences life from our own point of view. We are, in fact, at the exact center of every experience we have ever had. Therefore it’s natural for us to perceive our own lives and our own experiences as being more relevant and more “real” than the experiences of others. But, as DFW wrote in the essay/commencement speech, we can choose to “adjust our default settings” to be more aware of our surroundings and of others.
DFW says, quite correctly, that this sort of awareness is very difficult to achieve and maintain. But also that it’s quite worth the effort it requires.
The thing about “everybody worships” is also true. If you’re an atheist who derives a smug sort of satisfaction from the (absurd) notion that your being an atheist makes you by default “smarter” than every religious person on the planet, well, DFW might say (and I would agree) that you worship your own intellect, and you therefore feel the need to constantly prove to everyone how smart you are.
Such as, for example, by throwing a fit when somebody writes a damn good essay with a damn good point about waking up and learning to see the world outside of your own skull because of a minor semantic point about “atheism,” which even though such a reaction requires selective reading and irrationality and anger and all sorts of things that really religious people do when somebody questions their religion, atheism is still not a “religion” to you, and DFW was crazy for questioning you, and so on.
At any rate, DFW’s making the conscious choice (and effort) to be (or at least try his best to be) aware of other people and their concerns – he wrote about this in the nonfiction essay “E Unibus Pluram,” sort of – led to his being one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, in my opinion as well as the opinion of many others.
Reading his fiction is like being put inside the brain and body of the characters he creates. There is an incredible amount of detail put into descriptions of their thoughts and motivations and obsessions and idiosyncrasies (and addictions), and one thing that I think set DFW apart from most other fiction writers was that he was able to write about all these things clearly and non-judgmentally – there isn’t a lot of “moralizing” in his writing, I mean – and even if the reader and the character have nothing whatsoever in common other than the fact that they are both members of the same species, the reader empathizes with that character. With those characters.
DFW’s fictional characters were sometimes seemingly superhuman in their abilities – Hal Incandenza in “Infinite Jest” has an eidetic memory and can quote dictionary definitions (including not only the etymology of any given word but also how different dictionaries and different editions of dictionaries defined words differently) off the top of his head at age 11, for example, and on top of that Hal is one heck of a junior tennis player – but they were also flawed and vulnerable and, well, human.
There isn’t a lot of “moralizing,” as such, but there are philosophical questions that are raised from time to time. It may even be said that certain of these questions – I regret I can’t list which philosopher/s are being referenced with these questions off the top of my head – are in fact the central theme in DFW’s writing, whether we’re talking about his fiction or his nonfiction.
As a matter of fact, the very same philosophical issue brought up in “This Is Water” – the idea that “everyone worships,” that people have to consciously force themselves out of their own heads and be aware of other people – is brought up within the first hundred pages (including quite a few pages in the “NOTES AND ERRATA” section in the back) of “Infinite Jest,” both when Remy Marathe and Hugh Steeply are discussing this issue in more or less explicitly philosophical terms and also in the corresponding locker room/“little buddy” sections from Enfield Tennis Academy.
Marathe (a wheelchair-bound assassin/triple agent [he’s pretending to pretend to be an informant]; Marathe is a Quebecois Separatist, i.e. he wants Quebec to secede from the fictional Organization of North American Nations, the acronym of which [O.N.A.N.] being a reference to a story in the Bible about a fellow named Onan who chose to “spill his seed upon the ground” rather than impregnate his dead brother’s wife: large dumpsters filled with toxic waste that the USA fires through the air across the [slightly altered] Canadian border that spill upon the ground [as it were] being a rather ham-fisted [and intentionally so, I would venture] sort of visual aid to this reference) criticizes the American way of thinking – or at least his interpretation of it – as being incredibly self-centered and ultimately nihilistic. Americans, Marathe says, care only about their immediate gratification, while Canadians (or at least Quebecois separatist agents/terrorists such as himself) devote themselves to higher causes, in his case the “liberation” of Quebec from O.N.A.N.
Steeply mocks Marathe, and also points out that Marathe’s motivation for being a triple agent is pretty much exactly what he describes the American philosophy to be: Marathe, you see, is risking both his own life and the success of the agency he works for (“Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents,” or in English “The Wheelchair Assassins;” I had to look the French term up in the book; I took a total of six semesters’ worth of French in high school and college but I am terrible at it) in order to help his wife get medical treatment from the USA. Marathe had just gone on something of a tear (in English, but using French syntax) on how romantic love – the end-all, be-all for most Americans, as he saw it – was ultimately only love of the sensation that the “loved” person gives the person who loves them, and therefore it was a hollow and solipsistic sort of “love;” i.e. really only self-love. Steeply disagrees, and points out Marathe’s hypocrisy.
The corresponding scenes at Enfield Tennis Academy mirror this exchange: the ETA kids (the guys, anyway) discuss philosophical aspects of the ways they are being subtly manipulated by their coaches and “prorectors” at ETA. Tennis is an individual sport, and all the kids at ETA are – at all times – vying for a higher rank; that is to say they are always competing with each other, always trying to defeat each other on the court. But the ETA staff – by pushing each ETA kid to his/her absolute individual physical and mental limits – provides the ETA kids a sense of community by being their common enemy. It’s basically the same “interests of the individual vs. interests of the group” question that Marathe and Steeply are discussing on a mountainside near Tuscon, AZ. (The fictional Enfield Tennis Academy is in the metro Boston, MA area, FYI.)
It’s worth noting that I began re-re-reading “Infinite Jest” after I typed the paragraph beginning with “DFW’s characters” and also the first sentence of the next paragraph. I wanted to refresh my memory, I guess, and since I have “Infinite Jest” on my phone’s Kindle app, I figured what the heck.
The first two times I read “Infinite Jest” – yes, it’s 1079 pages long, and yes, I intend to read the whole thing again this third time – I actually found these sections rather tedious. The thing about “Infinite Jest” is that the plot – in addition to not being anywhere close to being linear (the conversation between Marathe and Steeply occurs in late April, and the interspersed ETA scenes occur the following November, for example) – has several pretty big holes in it.
And those “holes in the plot” are not like “plot holes” as in the sense of “Indiana Jones does not actually make any difference whatsoever in the outcome of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’” or “there’s no way in hell that one blonde kid in the original ‘Karate Kid’ movie would just walk into Daniel-san’s crane kick at the end” plot holes, they are “holes in the plot” that were (at the risk of being florid) “dug” intentionally. The reader has to piece everything together, and even then it can’t be determined one way or the other if the reader is correct.
Although I am reasonably sure about what happens to Hal. It’s hinted at pretty heavily in the first hundred pages, and sorry if anyone considers this a spoiler, but it has to do (in my opinion) with the fact that Hal enjoys being secretive about his marijuana use as much (if not more) than the actual marijuana use itself. He likes sneaking around and getting high, and it’s mentioned several times that he likes the sneaking around as much as he likes the getting high.
I have read interpretations that involve ghosts, and, well, even though the ghost of Hal’s dad does appear to a (hospitalized and on the edge of death and probably hallucinating) character near the end of the book, well, I don’t think ghosts had anything to do with it. Unless by “ghosts” you mean “memories” and “psychological traumas” and that sort of thing.
This transition is a bit abrupt, I admit (I happened upon the word “discursive” in “Infinite Jest” the other day and had to look it up, coincidentally), but when I first envisioned this blog post, I wanted to mention Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction as well. I recently read “The Remains of the Day” by him, and I read “A Pale View Of Hills” a few years back.
My link to DFW was orignally intended to be something about how Ishiguro’s writing goes so deep into the psyches of his protagonists that he doesn’t seem to leave much (if any) trace of himself in his fiction. Many authors employ distinct styles and idiosyncrasies in their writing – Kurt Vonnegut, for example (a major plot point in “Infinite Jest” may or may not have been inspired by the KV short story “The Euphio Question,” actually) – to the point that anyone who has read anything by them can recognize their writing within a few sentences or paragraphs.
Ishiguro – and admittedly I have only read two of his novels – does not seem to have idiosyncrasies like this, unless you can count “clarity” and “lucidity” as “idiosyncrasies.” The two aforementioned novels are deeply engaging on an emotional and psychological level, they tell their stories with a level of depth and nuance that is pretty much unparalleled by pretty much any other author I have ever read…except for maybe DFW, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or George Eliot, maybe.
I was going to try to draw a connection between Ishiguro and DFW by way of a “the author is invisible” sort of approach, I mean that their respective fiction is so clearly written and lucid that they – the authors – are nowhere to be found, so to speak, but after re-re-reading the first hundred pages of “Infinite Jest,” well, anybody who reads that novel and claims it isn’t chock full of idiosyncrasies is, well, full of crap. The same guy that wrote that – with all the “and but so”s and the foot/endnotes and the extremely long and detailed scene and character descriptions – is easily identifiable as the same guy that wrote “This Is Water” and “The Pale King” and pretty much all (or at least most) of DFW’s other stuff. Not that this is a bad thing, you understand.
And now that I think about it, a recurring theme in both “The Remains of the Day” – a novel about an English butler thinking back over his life – and “A Pale View Of Hills” – a novel about a Japanese woman whose adult daughter committed suicide who is reminiscing about when she was pregnant with that daughter – is how memory is not always as perfect as we would like it to be, and how when we look back on our lives so far, we (at least many of us) question if we made the right decisions in our lives, things like that.
I suppose Ishiguro actually did “write himself into” both “A Pale View Of Hills” and “The Remains of the Day,” at least to a degree: he was born in Japan, and he moved to England. The protagonist of “A Pale View Of Hills” is Japanese, and she moves to England, after marrying an Englishman. And perhaps – just perhaps – the pretty much self-imposed alienation from most of British society of the butler in “The Remains of the Day” is also Ishiguro peeking through the pages at us. Maybe. The butler is completely detached from everyone else in the novel, at any rate, and sees this as his own form of “dignity.”
At any rate, I think the thing that actually made Ishiguro remind me of DFW (and vice-versa), on top of their prose being among the highest-quality prose I have ever personally read, “A Pale View Of Hills” also has quite a few quirky interpretations of it floating around online, interpretations that require the reader to, well, make stuff up.
For example, in the parts of “A Pale View Of Hills” that are set in post-WWII Japan, the protagonist befriends a single Japanese mother and her young daughter. The protagonist is pregnant with the daughter that kills herself many years later in England, remember.
The woman she befriends (sorry for not remembering any names; I don’t remember the butler’s name off the top of my head, either) is a horrible mother. She neglects her daughter throughout the novel, and at the end she drowns the little girl’s kittens because they are moving to either America or England, I can’t remember, with the mother’s boyfriend.
I have read theories online that claim the pregnant mother and the neglectful mother are actually the same person, and the person telling the story is crazy, and so on and so forth. And sure, a person could read the novel that way – just like a person could read “Infinite Jest” as ending with a ghost of a dead father breaking into a stash of drugs and force-feeding his son drugs which would fry the son’s brain and render him incapable of communicating with anyone but his ghostly father – but doing so ignores what’s actually in the actual text itself, and to my view diminishes the text itself. But what do I know, and so on.
At any rate, if anyone reads all this, I hope they don’t insert things from their own imaginations into it. But at the same time, I recognize that to some degree, they are going to have to do just that, otherwise this whole post is just a bunch of words strung together, just a bunch of phonetic symbols arranged on a screen.
(Does that make any sense?)
I don’t know how to wrap this up – I said from the beginning it would be “scatterbrained” – but as I mentioned at the beginning, I am a fan of Constance Wu. And it gives me some sort of a weird, kindred feeling to know that a person from TV I like reads at least one of the same authors I do and (at least presumably) shares the same sort of philosophy that author expressed in his writing, because for the most part, I share it, too.
And please understand that I am fully aware that Constance Wu does not need or necessarily even want my “approval” or “admiration” or whatever, and that on the one-in-a-million chance she actually happened to see and read this blog post and read it, she might even explicitly feel compelled to say that she doesn’t need or want my “approval” or “admiration” or whatever.
Please understand that that would be fine with me.
I just hope she wouldn’t be weirded out by it. By this blog post, I mean. Though I understand completely if she were.
It’s sort of like – writing is sort of like, I mean – the “philosophy of tennis” idea expressed several times in “Infinite Jest”: the goal is to send something away from you which does not come back. In tennis it’s the tennis ball that you don’t want to come back, in writing it’s, well, the things you write. You want people to understand your thoughts, and you want them to interpret your thoughts the way you think you think them. You don’t want them to take something like the fact that you have a mild crush on a famous person and twist it into something nasty or bad.
So you try your best to explain what you mean, and what you mean by what you mean, and how you’d still think that famous person was really awesome and cool even if she wasn’t Diane-from-“Cheers” pretty, and even if she didn’t have a pet bunny rabbit, and so on.
And you hope – like a tennis player who has just successfully whacked the ball over the net to his/her opponent’s side of the court – that what you have written will not come back to you, or at least that it won’t come back to you in such a way that you can’t deflect.
Or, at least, I do.
Thank you for reading.
(Whoever you are.)