Lessons in Language from David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner: A Review of “Quack This Way”


Quack this Way: David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing
by Brian Andrew Garner

Penrose; 146 p.

By the looks of it, the book, Quack this Way: David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing, a new offering from the DFW legacy should serve as a footnote, at best, on the acclaimed author’s life. In 2001, The New Republic commissioned a book review from Wallace on Bryan Garner’s then little-known book on modern American usage. As with all of his nonfiction, Wallace turned into it a monster, taking a 3000 word assignment and turning it into a 100-page adventure into the political, philosophical and linguistic background to a battle brewing for the heart of the English language and identity. The essay, finally printed at less than half the original length, landed in Harper’s under the title “Tense Present” to widespread acclaim. It was then published in full as the centerpiece of Consider the Lobster. After Wallace wrote the essay, it changed Garner’s literary life, and consequently, they became friends, which culminated in a 67-minute-long interview between the two. (Which is now published in the form of this book.) Here, in this interview, Garner and Wallace speak at length about writing, the uses of language and grammar. Yet, despite its slight appearance and unedited style, this interview is a lost gem, one of the more interesting, insightful and undiluted look into Wallace’s mind and opinions about writing, other people, and communication.

There are many great and now legendary DFW interviews, but three published in his lifetime standout. Laura Miller, for Salon, found Wallace at the pitch of his voice-of-a generation shtick, and while it’s a great interview, you can feel the artifice of it all. The literary theorist, Larry McCaffery, engaged Wallace in a highly intellectual conversation that provides the perfect addendum to Wallace’s essay on TV, but again, you not only feel the artifice, but you can feel Wallace’s insecurity throughout, his uncertainty when he can and cannot be smart. Later in life, Wallace gave a lesser known, but insightful, honest video interview to a German TV station in which he worries about the future of America. However, again, even in this older stage interview, you can feel him balk at the implicit hero worship the interviewer was sending his way. Posthumously,  David Lipsky’s interview, published in a full length book, while interesting, and while it tries for a home run on every swing, ultimately feels flat and parasitic. All of these interviews display the strange aggressive dance that Wallace felt necessary to engage in between himself and the interviewer. The interviews often end up less about a specific topic and more about the dynamics between the two human beings.

But here, given the curious nature of their relationship and friendship (Wallace sought out a relationship with Garner), many of those more self-conscious and artificial elements are gone, or well hidden. This needs some explanation. You can tell that Wallace respected Garner, even felt a little awe and perhaps jealousy towards his talents, talents that so contrasted to the talents of Wallace. Not only does Wallace treat and allow himself to be treated by Garner as an equal but you get the distinct feeling that Wallace and Garner understood that they came from different social circles, even cliques, and Wallace therefore felt considerably less worried about worrying about his desire to look cool. Both of these factors, and perhaps the relative age and maturity of Wallace allow to talk largely without as many qualifications, or reservations, or diversions from his actual intelligence. We all know that friend that belongs in a different social circle so you could speak more honestly with them, and for Wallace, Garner was that friend.

Consequently, he never appears to feel threatened; he doesn’t believe that Garner wants something from him more than friendship, more than a discussion of a shared passionate love: language, grammar, and the uses and abuses of our greatest tool of communication. For writers, this will stand as an invaluable conversation between two great, but very different types of writers. Garner serves as that brilliant but often frustrating English teacher who stubbornly insists on traditional notions of grammar, of etiquette, and the canon, unabashedly. He believes in right and wrong usage and an often linear notion of tradition. Wallace, as you would expect, feels considerably more ambivalent about these questions than Garner and that’s what works so well. Time and again, you will see this throughout the interview. Garner will make some pointed, though somewhat simplistic statement about people, about language that comes off as traditional and conservative, privileged in his male-white-status. Wallace will consequently evince some cringeworthy discomfort at Garner’s simplicity or evident dislike of certain people and Wallace will then soften the blow. You can see the gears of his brain working unfettered, navigating his evident enjoyment of this person with his inclination towards empathy and complexity, his elitism with humane desire to help other people, to understand even the most annoying of people as endlessly worthy of empathy.

Of course, this being a David Foster Wallace interview, an unedited one at that, we receive some gems and experience the frustration in a brain that just won’t stop, ever. Numerous times, Wallace worries that he needs to constantly sharpen his statements, and numerous times he notes that this will likely be cut, and should be cut because he didn’t say it right. This tic is at turns endearing and frustrating, but ultimately a nice conduit into what it felt like to think as Wallace. For him, all statements required essays given the complexity of simple words.

Given the perceived equality in the friendship, Wallace feels at relative ease and at home in making considerably more drastic statements than we normally see from his more polished and edited work. His intense diatribes against President Bush are way overdue and only hinted at in other interviews. His takedowns of pretentious people are filled with more barbs than usual, and his discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of his writing is some of the most honest I’ve ever read from him. He doesn’t speak openly only out of rage, but out of generosity as well. allow. His discussion of the often horrendous and annoying writing of academia is more balanced than the explanation of pretentiousness Wallace himself once ascribed to:

There’s the kind of boneheaded explanation, which is that a lot of people with PhDs are stupid, and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be. I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities— where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency, and being able to speak the language of the discipline— pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning.

There’s an evident maturity in the way he talks, what he thinks about, and how he communicates, a greater sense of control, direction and purpose, than in the earlier interview. A lot of this comes from Garner, a person, unlike many other interviewers, who did not cower before Wallace. Garner treats them both like peers, and doesn’t mind pushing Wallace for clarity or for clarification. When Wallace is clear he’s as good as he’s ever been in an interview:

If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers— not all of whom are modern . . . I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this— becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

For the general populace — apathetic to grammar, writing and Wallace — this book still retains its importance as a very contemporary understanding of the way we use language and the effects thereof. Wallace opines pointedly, on how advertising affects us, insinuating its often twisted and powerful jargon into our minds, and colors the way we think and interact. From there, with ease, he shifts to discuss the nature of officalese, something like the phrase “how can we be of assistance” that is unnecessarily wordy and full of strange constructions,  as purposefully cold and distant. He finishes with discussing the nature of political rhetoric, or what it means/meant to have a president who could clearly not speak well in public but still chose to embrace that simplicity when he could clearly just rely instead on well-spoken advisers. Wallace forces and teaches us how to think deeply and purposefully about how and why and when we use language. In his answers, and his devotion to language, to communication, he models a responsibility and devotion towards the real power of language.

Some of the joy of the interview and introduction comes from the unknown little tidbits about Wallace. For instance, Garner set up a date between the Scalias and the Wallaces, to which Wallace, after the dinner the couples had together, left this message with Garner:

This is David Wallace. I’m a friend of Mr. Garner’s — I really am. You can ask him. Anyway, I just wanted to thank him for arranging the introduction with Justice Scalia and to say hello. I don’t know who’s going to get this message, but it’s for real. I really am a friend of Bryan Garner. Again, it’s David Wallace. Thanks.

As with all of this emerging lost interviews and essays, they tend to engender a sense of sadness, of all the potential essays and writings from DFW that will remain forever lost. His shock at Bush stands in stark contrast to the rhetorical eloquence of Obama, a topic that apparently Wallace wanted to write about before his suicide. He describes a book he would love to read or help write about the countless distinct uses of English in America and how it reflects and creates distinct American experiences and you can’t help but sigh, but the honesty of this interview helps.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.