The New York Times on David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review had two mentions of David Foster Wallace’s book Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. The book was discussed in both in their Inside the List feature and in James Ryerson’s excellent article The Philosophical Novel.

For those wanting a longer discussion of the book there is Daniel Menaker’s very thoughtful assessment in The Barnes & Noble Review. While recognizing the difficulty of some of Wallace’s essay, Menaker places it in its philosophical context and outlines some of its basic arguments. He concludes by writing:

Fate, Time, and Language reminded me of how fond philosophers are of extreme situations in creating their thought experiments. In this book alone we find a naval battle, the gallows, a shotgun, poison, an accident that leads to paraplegia, somebody stabbed and killed, and so on. Why not say “I have a pretzel in my hand today. Tomorrow I will have eaten it or not eaten it” instead of “I have a gun in my hand and I will either shoot you through the heart and feast on your flesh or I won’t”? Well, OK—the answer is easy: the extreme and violent scenarios catch our attention more forcefully than pretzels do. Also, philosophers, sequestered and meditative as they must be, may long for real action—beyond beekeeping.

Wallace, in his essay, at the very center of trying to show that we can indeed make meaningful choices, places a terrorist in the middle of Amherst’s campus with his finger on the trigger mechanism of a nuclear weapon. It is by far the most narratively arresting moment in all of this material, and it says far more about the author’s approaching anti-establishment explosions of prose and his extreme emotional makeup than it does about tweedy-elbowed profs fantasizing about ordering their ships into battle. For, after all, who, besides everyone around him, would the terrorist have killed?

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