Sunday, September 21, 2008


Yesterday afternoon, while browsing in a used bookstore here in Baguio, a young Filipino man in his late twenties approached me. He seemed to be around my age -- am I still qualified as a young man? -- and normal-looking enough. (I didn't notice until later that he was clutching a small purple pillow to his chest.)

"Can I ask you a question?" he asked.

"Okay," I said.

"Do you know anything about...brain...taps?"

Slight pause on my behalf.

"Sorry?" I said.

"Do you the brain?"

Suddenly Dan Rather flashed in front of my eyes. Or an image of him, or a memory of him, ten, fifteen years ago, when a mentally disturbed person accosted him outside of the CBS studios and repeatedly asked him: "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" (This incident was later immortalized in a song by R.E.M. titled with that very phrase.)

I thought to myself: This guy's not all there.

It was then that I noticed the pillow, and the slightly dazed, somewhat placid smile stuck to his face.

"Sorry," I said, walking away, despite his polite protestations.

I could be wrong. That nice young man might not have been slightly psychotic, but I didn't want to take the risk. Playing the incident over again in my head, I wondered if somehow I was the one who was out of line, refusing to answer a stranger's simple request.

However, he didn't ask me about brain research, or books on the brain, or anything remotely rational. He inquired as to my knowledge of brain taps and wires in the brain. You know. The usual stuff you ask strangers in a bookstore.

Let's assume that that man was mentally ill.

What is it like to look through the world wielding those thoughts? Does he know that he's a crackpot? Is he aware of his problem? Somewhere in the hard-to-reach inroads of his imagination, is he conscious of the fact that his words and gestures and actions and intent are nonsensical to the rest of society?

Or is he further gone than that, I wonder. Has he reached a point where the illogical becomes logical, where simple thoughts and benign propositions have somehow become skewed and off-kilter. Every thought is an avenue leading to a dead-end, though he's always able to spin himself around and head off in another direction, searching for alternate routes.

All of us are inevitably stuck inside of ourselves, so that everything has to be made to somehow seem to make sense to us, even when we're not entirely sure what we're doing with our lives. We can thus rationalize everything on a daily basis and clumsily make the enormous puzzle pieces of our erratic live into a larger, coherent picture. It's what we need to do, if only to make it through this day before waiting for the next.

What happens when the puzzle pieces don't fit anymore? When you're stopping random people in shopping mall outlets and asking about wires-in-the-brain?

If there is a soul, an essence of ourselves, trapped inside our lonely, damaged minds, in such a case is it silently shrieking, embarrassed by its outward manifestation?

Or is it content, this soul, to sit back and allow the brain and the mind and the tongue and the lips to say whatever needs to be said, no matter how foolish or insane.

I would like to think that it's only the outer part of our human form that can lose touch with the world around us. I want to believe that there's an essence, a wisp of ourselves, that cannot be damaged or frayed. That lies in wait, knowing that other, more interesting realms lie just around the corner, where brains are never tapped, and remain free from wires, forever.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Last week I found my copy of David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel Infinite Jest in a closet in my parents' house in Oxford Station, Canada, and this morning here in the Philippines I read that the celebrated author had committed suicide by hanging himself in his home in Claremont, California. He was 46 years old.

Wallace was one of those writers who made you want to quit writing. Meaning, he was so good, so sharp, so compassionate, so bizarre, so perceptive, that anything you tried to write not only paled in comparison but seemed downright pathetic in comparison. I read him at the age of twenty and wondered who the hell this guy was, and how the hell he managed to write a 1200 page novel with dozens of pages of fictional footnotes that nonetheless remained absolutely riveting. The book was about a tennis academy, a halfway house for recovering addicts, and a film so entertaining that people literally laughed themselves to death. The notion that we are competing against ourselves to death, medicating ourselves to death, entertaining ourselves to death -- this was what Wallace was getting at. He never wrote another novel after this, but his short fiction and lengthy journalistic pieces are a worthy continuation of his singular, eclectic mind.

He was a satirist with a heart, alongside a mind that thought things that nobody else thought, or, if they did, they never said. His journalism on such diverse topics as the 100th ranked tennis player in the world, the films of David Lynch, the absurdities of modern-day cruise ships, the genius of Roger Federer, the wonders of Illinois State fairs, amongst others, made you think not only about how mundane most non-fiction writing was, but how life itself could be viewed from an alternate perspective. If you looked close enough, like Wallace did.

I got the chance to meet him when he gave a reading in Toronto in the mid-nineties. He signed my book, and I asked him for some advice on writing. He recommended taking writing workshops, which I was already doing, and really listening to my teachers, which I probably wasn't. In recent years Wallace himself taught creative writing in California. He was, by all accounts, a vigorous, inspiring teacher. As the school semester is undoubtedly just beginning, I can't imagine what his students are feeling right now.

And for all of his mathematical logic, brilliant, withering sarcasm and convoluted, meta-fictional plots, Wallace was chiefly concerned with feeling. How to feel in a synthetic world. How to not allow ourselves to be numbed to death by the corporate mendacity of modern society. How to connect to others, if only through prose.

This is the subject of a commencement speech he gave, the best commencement speech I've ever heard, or read, the type of speech that acknowledges to young people how bloody hard life is, but how there is a way to retain a smidgen of humanity, if we try very hard and stay wide awake:

Last week I was flipping through my old copy of his book. He was alive then. He's not now. That disconnect doesn't make sense to me. How we are here then, and can be gone now.

And I keep thinking: What would Wallace have made of that?