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November 06, 2004

Comments

Dan Green

In the spirit of friendly disputation, and at the risk of sounding simplistic, I'd just like to suggest that to expect in Wallace's fiction--especially the short fiction--"character" of the sort you clearly want to find in fiction is to be forcing a square peg, etc. At some point it even becomes unfair. To take the "Fierce Infant" (which obviously I haven't read) for example: it sounds like what might be called a "conceit story"--it's built around a conceit--the one named in the title and which you describe--and fleshing out the conceit in a compelliing way seems to be the purpose. Indeed, if you found it "quite funny," it may have succeeded in what Wallace set out to do. Don't get me wrong: You're as completely justified in your preference for a different kind of fiction than anyone else is in his/her own tastes. But criticizing Wallace because his characters are "cold" may be like criticizing, say, Graham Greene for not writing metafiction--it's not what he had in mind.

Almost forgot: This was a very informative and useful post, nonetheless.

TEV

Thanks as always, Dan, for your comments and thoughts. Disputation always welcome at TEV.

You know, as I wrote this post, the one thought that flitted across my mind but didn't survive the typing was, "Well, of course, clearly he's writing exactly what he wants to write" which is a variation on your theme, a tangent cousin perhaps.

But I still don't entirely agree with the notion of forcing the square peg for a few reasons, not the least of which includes Wallace's on thoughts on the subject, which do appear at a minimum inconsistent with his output.

But the larger point for is that even in the case of the conceit story, I still don't think that executing the conceit and instilling somethign recognizably human is mutually exclusive. Yes, I did say I was amused but I also said that it also became tedious. An example that leaps to mind is a Barthelme story that I love called, I think, The Balloon. It also is built around a fairly outlandish conceit but there's something penetrating about it that lingers with me years after having read it, whereas I'm pretty confident that the welter of tax forms and other jargon that typifies Fierce Infant will drop from my memory within the month.

All of which is terribly subjective, none of which is a particularly rigorous critical approach, hence my bit of waffling at the end - clearly, there's an audience for what he does (and he does appear to be doing more or less what he intends to do) but I find it unnecessarily hermetic, and thus I'm unlikely to read on.

I believe Carrie is also working up her own thoughts on the DFW conundrum.

Andie

As playwright Steven Dietz put it (much more succinctly; I think that's also part of DFW's problem): "...the only way to battle that sort of irony is to risk going too far... That's the only shocking thing left -- it's not nudity, it's not language -- the only shocking thing left, frankly, is sentiment, to use our talents to tell the stories that we feel."

Jenny D

Hmmm. Interesting. Haven't really read enough DFW to say. I have tried several times, never find myself quite immersed--but then I am a relatively intolerant reader of fiction that's more about language than character or plot. So I say two things (before going back to work on my novel revisions): (1) I wish DFW would try something like Richard Powers' "The Time of Our Singing," which seems to me a huge leap forward in terms of Powers' art. He moves in this from an impressive and interesting but somewhat sterile approach (a-la-DFW) to something that is really impassioned and wonderful like a Dickens novel. (I love Dickens.) (2) The footnote thing is maddening. I was HORRIFIED by the NYT Borges review this week. And I feel qualified to speak on this, since I'm an academic and like footnotes very much in their proper place. As a one-off device, I suppose it might be occasionally funny to play with the footnote in fiction. But it is inherently self-indulgent to rely on it again and again! It's a really, really bad habit. I loved Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell," but the one thing I would have changed if I was the editor was to TAKE OUT ALL THE FOOTNOTES. Lovely in themselves, but the whole thing is stronger without it. And the ones in DFW's Borges review are not lovely in themselves. They just come across as self-indulgence. Either you put it in the text or you cut it, as I say to my students....

TEV

To add to Jenny's footnote comment, I'd say it also bespeaks a certain amount of laziness as in, for example, my overreliance on parenthesis. Some of the footnoted points were worth making, and it would have required very little effort to integrate them seamlessly into the whole. But instead, he clearly feels the need to employ this tic, sort of like his certificate of authenticity to assure readers it's genuine DFW.

Ed

Okay, I love DFW. I love his use of language and his phrasing, and I suspect this whole "character" business has much to do with an earlier discussion we have here about what kind of things we all look for in a novel. Me? I don't mind an acrobatic performance on the page. Far from it.

I am DOWN with that shit, baby. And not just that, but it's very interesting to see how these so-called stylists (for lack of a better term) develop in their later novels. We see Barth's "The Floating Opera" transform his style into such masterpieces as "The Sot-Weed Factor" (which is dripping with character and schtick) and "Chimera." Thomas Pynchon embraces humanity with "Mason & Dixon" (while still retaining his Borges-like playfulness). William Gaddis starts confining his characters as shut-ins in "Carpenter's Gothic" and "A Frolic of His Own," and begins a surprising thematic development (alas, there's also the subpar "Agape Agape," which is little more than an old man's amusing rant, but why quibble with a master?).

DFW is on the cusp of making a development something along these lines. His infamous lobster essay in "Gourmet," which lays off the references and technical language and actually EXAMINES the goddam human predicament, hinted at this alone. But I suspect that in order to make this leap, DFW needs to get it all out in another novel, rather than continue to offer more of the same in his short fiction. I fear that DFW will transform into another Martin Amis: a clearly talented writer who collapses under his stubborn refusal to stop offering more of the same.

I'm in agreement with Mark that the footnote schtick has got to go. I think Jenny D's right on the money about the Powers comparison. (And if you haven't read "The Time of Our Singing," do read it, PARTICULARLY if you've read anything else by the man. If you take the comparative route, you'll be shocked by just how much Powers' heart comes alive in this criminally overlooked novel.) And I suspect that what galvanized DFW with the lobster essay was getting his ass out there in the real world. DFW's eye for detail is incredible. And about the best thing Wallace (or an encouraging smart editor) could do at this point for himself is to immerse himself somewhere and set some deliberate restrictions on himself (no footnotes, limitations on ten-cent words, direct description without metaphors).

Ed

Also, add David Mitchell to the Developing Authors Who Are Really Fucking Exciting to Watch list.

CAAF

Ed, I agree with you completely: I think "Consider the Lobster" was symptomatic of change, of a progression. I enjoyed the Borge review immensely; it was thoughtful and opinionated and involved with fiction in a way that I'd love to see happen more often in the NYTBR pages. However, the footnotes were dispiriting as they felt like atrophied limbs: A stylistic tic the writer didn't need. In almost all cases it was easy to see how the footnotes' contents could easily be folded into the text.

Where I respectfully disagree with Jenny D. is the worthiness of footnotes in general. I adored the footnotes of Jonathan Strange and thought they were doing important work in creating the library-like climate of the book. Likewise, it's impossible to think of Infinite Jest and the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing without the footnotes. There DFW was using the text to map out the way we think, the different curlicues of thought that make up our consciousness. In Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress this map of consciousness is created by the insertion of the non sequiter. In Wallace it's a footnote. And where this technique paralleled the subject matter (the fracture of our consciousness through media stimuli, addiction, consumerism, the fact of consciousness itself, etc.) it felt okay and, more than that, vital to the meaning.

That said, my own sense is that that experiment has played out and the author has lost interest in it. And that he is now doing the footnotes helplessly. I may be reacting here to Wallace's own interviews where he says basically, "I've had enough of the footnote thing. The next thing I'm going to write will have NO footnotes." And lo, there they are again. So to see him return to it is like seeing someone who wants to quit smoking walking around with a butt hanging out of his mouth.

Likewise, like Ed, I thought "Consider the Lobster", part. the latter half, heralded some new readiness to "EXAMINE the goddam human predicament" (impossible to improve on that). But that's a tall order, and I wouldn't be surprised if he hung back a little. I worry that, like the footnotes, he will hang on to exploring the things that interested him in his 20s and 30s (hollowness, evasiveness, selfish acts, callowness, mindbending anxiety) and not move forward to the preoccupations that come with the 40s and 50s, which, not to be all pat and psychobabble, tends to widen and deepen things up a bit.

Finally: This discussion of footnotes (and parentheses) reminds me of J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country. Apparently Carr's early work was marred by an overuse of both, and the critical opinion seems to be that he got the balance right with this later work. They're still there but they're beautifully deployed.

Really, I hate writing that's been overly plucked and cleaned of all its flourishes. It's like licking glass.


Dan Green

Something like "The Balloon" is exactly what I had in mind in referring to a "conceit story"--perhaps also "Indian Uprising," or, for that matter, much of Barthelme's short fiction. But I doubt that the difference between these and "Fierce Infant" is one of character. Perhaps it's just that, ultimately, Barthelme is a better writer than Wallace.

I surely hope that Wallace does not decide it's now time for him to "examine the human predicament." The result is likely to be godawful. Whenever writers consciously decide they're going to put "passion" or "heart" into their work, or they're going to illuminate the human condition, it usually turns out to be just treacle. He should keep doing what he knows how to do.

Also: I wonder if Tanenhaus and Co. put Wallace up to the footnoted review. Their idea of a joke?

CAAF

Dan, I agree with you up to the point, in that a writer putting "heart" in on purpose is dreadful. But to tell a person to stick with what he knows how to do is dreadful too. I don't think a writer with a mind like Wallace is interested in treading the same ground again and again.

Also, I think it's misrepresenting both Ed and me to think we conflate "examining the human experience" with "heart" and "passion. This ain't comments by Oprah. Have you read "Consider the Lobster" to know what we're referring to? It's latter half involves more philosophical grappling, less reflexive "gee whiz! I'm soaking up a lot of facts" observation than his earlier essays. Just to get us all talking about the same thing here.


Dan Green

I was mostly referring to the use of the word "impassioned" in an earlier comment. (Although Ed did also speak of Richard Powers's "heart" coming alive, etc.)

For Wallace to continue doing what he knows how to do is precisely to "experiment" with language and form--he'll only stand still if he lets these experiments become mannerisms, which perhaps he is in danger of doing. I'd be surprised if he were to suddenly produce fiction with conventional character interest; all of his remarks about his work convey great discomfort with this approach.

"Consider the Lobster" is nonfiction, so you really can't easily connect what he's doing there with what he might do in fiction.

Ed

Okay, to clarify my position on a few things:

1. "Jonathan Strange" and footnotes. I'm almost finished reading this and actually it's not the footnotes that I take umbrage with. Rather, it is the humdrum story that annoys me. The plotting is so safe and pedestrian that it comes across more as a benign and banal book to be read to your kids. I long for Mervyn Peake or China Mieville -- anything really that has a bit of bite. And I'm astonished that Neil Gaiman proclaimed this so-so book to be the best fantasy novel in seventy years. But no matter. If anything, "Strange"'s footnotes are a nice flourish that helps create the illusion of a scholarly world devoted to magic. They are a device that helps the reader BELIEVE in the world and work delightfully to be interested in the two eponymous egos. I don't think a writer should be limited with the tools at her disposal, but when they become an obligatory and unjustified tic (as they are in DFW's work), then the potential development of a writer falls by the wayside. And that is the tragic thing.

2. The human predicament. Dan, you completely misunderstand me. I'm not calling for Harlquein melodrama. I'm calling for something that grabs the reader's heart, whether literally or through context. It's a mystery to me why it's so unfashionable these days to express even quasi-passion in this cynical age of irony. Earlier this year, there was some debate here and elsewhere over the sentimentalism of "The Confessions of Max Tivoli." As if the idea of expressing feelings so openly was some kind of literary crime. Now, more than ever, the human condition demands to be expressed in art, even when there are no concrete answers. Perhaps these concerns are a vestige from the pomo stigma, but the current unspoken mandate on books that involve this sense of feeling strikes me as unwarranted. There are plenty of novels out there that are prepared to meet grim events with an almost stoically impassive approach. (Rachel Seiffert's "The Dark Room" comes to mind, as does early Ian McEwan.) This is all good, but what happened to the Romantics? Why is it so wrong to pursue good old-fashioned feelings in the present day? (Well, if you do, you get creamed like Jonathan Franzen or Tom Wolfe did for "A Man in Full." Because this is the "popular" thing to do, rather than the sophisticated "literary" thing to do.)

I think what Carrie and I are suggesting is that it may be worth DFW's time to attempt an unabashedly Romantic novel. Whether he inhabits his current niche because it sells or because it wears like a comfortable dinner jacket, I suppose only DFW knows the answer. But it does seem to suggest a LACK of ambition on DFW's part, which is disappointing given how subversively probing his lobster essay was -- which does connect, goddammit, to his fiction, or are you one of those silly people who believes that an author's voice is lessened or invalid in nonfiction form? I've got two words for you pal. Several pairs, in fact: George Orwell, William Styron, Vladimir Nabakov, Richard Wright, and even (heaven help me) Dave Eggers. It would be unthinkable to seriously examine these novelists without taking into account their nonfictional offerings.

And as for Powers' heart coming alive, you again misrepresent me, sweetheart. Having read every book in the Powers catalog, I can certainly tell you that Powers' heart has ALWAYS been there. It just took his own determination to write a novel that deliberately confronted his weaknesses (dialogue and plotting) to enhance what was already there. And we are all the better for it. (Let me guess, Dan, you're just being polemical for the hell of it. You and I know that you're a better man than that. Hell, you're coming across like an unnecessary footnote. Let me buy you a beer.)

Kit Stolz

"The shock value of a baby scalded by a pot of hot water" reminds me not of Kafka but of Chekhov. One of his stories has that exact shocking twist, I swear, although I'm having trouble finding it...and no, it's not "Sleepy"...

Dan Green

Ed, If Wallace wants to bring more "passion," or whatever you want to call it, to his nonfiction, that's fine by me. Given the restraints he's put on his fiction for aesthetic reasons, using nonfiction for this purpose only makes sense. I, for one, think such a move would ruin his fiction.

I agree with you entirely about Powers. It puzzles me that anyone would find more "heart" in his last book than in the earlier ones. There's plenty of feeling in such books as The Gold Bug Variations and Gain.

Jon Baskin

I think you're missing the point if you think Wallace hasn't "taken his own advice" about irony. The point he makes in his essay about television is that irony is a pervasive force in our culture - he obviously recognizes the need to get past it in his fiction. And he does. I'm not sure how you read various parts of Broom of the System, Infinite Jest (especially those dealing with Hal's family and illness), Brief Interviews, and, in fact, Incarnations of Burned Children - which is many things but none of them are "ironic" - without seeing that Wallace's fiction at its best is considerably more than hip, linguistic acrobatics.

But implicit in Wallace's own point about irony is that you can't ignore it altogether if you want to write at and about our culture. Thus, his characters largely undergo the same frustrating quest to find some authentic way of expressing themselves as he does. This is the fundamental connection between author and character in his work, and, when it works, completely justifies the footnotes and endnotes and inbent tortured sentences, which mimic his characters' own chaotic attempts to communicate meaningfully with each other.

I don't think it excuses everything Wallace does. A lot of his short stories in the new book, Oblivion, are childish and, yes, tedious. And I agree that sometimes he exhausts a conceit to death. But I think it's important to recognize what he's trying to do. I for one think he's been enormously successful, for the most part, in talking about the human condition, or at least the contemporary human condition. And I think it shows laziness on the part of readers or critics to simply dismiss his style as empty pretention and insinuate he just does what he does because he wants to hold on to some kind of "market share." I mean, is there any writer who comes off more genuinely tortured about how he should write and what he should write about?

And he has written romantic stuff. Check out, e.g. Little, Expressionless Animals, the first story in Girl With Curious Hair. You may be surprised.

Scott

I'm late to this party, but I'll still toss in my two cents.

First off, after 600 pages of Infinite Jest, it's clear Wallace avoids sentimentality like the plague. I'd even say he's killed off some minor characters gratituously and done some unnecessarily harsh things to some of his creations.

With that said, I find a lot of empathy in this book. Wallace may be unable to reach emotions like dislocation, depression, fear, and resignation in the typical ways, but I think all of those emotions do come through in Jest.

After all, half of Infinite Jest is about alcoholics and drug addicts with serious problems, and Wallace wouldn't be able to write these people realistically if readers couldn't empathize with their suffering. Wallace may use exaggeration or cruel humor to reveal exactly how poor his addicts' lives are, but I've still grimaced in pain at the suffering of these characters. And I'm not talking about cartoonish suffering that is gone by the next frame, but real suffering that feels genuine and sticks with me.

Furthermore, I don't think I'd want to read Wallace doing a sentimental novel. Part of his appeal is that he writes in an utterly hilarious, lively voice. This voice may aggrivate some readers, but I find it far better than the other extreme--dripping sentimentality. Some writers, Byatt or David Mitchell, for ianstance, have an uncanny ability for occupying 6 or more voices in a single novel. Other writers, including Wallace, don't. But I think that saying that Byatt is better than Wallace simply because she can embody more voices is about as nonsensical as saying that Wallace is better than Byatt because he writes about screwy corporations and wacky people.

I guess what I'm saying is take Wallace for what he is and evaluate him on his own grounds. If Wallace's territory isn't your thing, then fine. We all have certain authors we just don't like. But I think in his own way he does portray a convincing portrait of his characters and the world they live in.

Michael

A great, informative discussion here. I'd like to offer some thoughts relating to what Jenny and CAAF say about Wallace's use of footnotes. I tend to agree with CAAF, at least in terms of how footnotes work in Infinite Jest. On a purely conceptual level, it's a brilliant idea because those notes alter the reading experience, the nature of (as CAAF says) how we think. Now, whether or not this makes the novel more engaging in the long run or more conducive to understanding humanity is a different question -- but, conceptually, it's great.

Of course, the use of footnotes has its limits. Used too often, the technique becomes more of a gimic and less of an innovation. Also, when notes become a problem, I don't see them as a form of self-indulgence, but, rather, as a form of self-validation. There's no need, however, for such self-validation if the text is substantive enough.

TEV

Minor point but Nicholson Baker did the footnotes thing (The Mezzanine - 1988) way before Infinte Jest (1996). And it was tiresome even then.

Dan Green

Actually, for an even earlier example of the use of footnotes as a literary device, see the subject of Wallace's review--Borges. ("Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"; "The Library of Babel"; "The Garden of Forking Paths"; "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." Etc.)

Michael

Of course, the fact that the practice of footnotes in fiction has a history doesn't mean that, at least conceptually, it doesn't hold value; after all, a novel published today that uses a non-linear structure can still have value even though it has clear antecedents. Having said that, would I prefer fiction without those footnotes? Yes, by all means, yes.

CAAF

And again, J.L. Carr, born 1912.

CAAF

In defense of footnotes in fiction: Footnotes can have a mock-solemnity, an artifice that can be very appealing. When used a certain way, it's like fiction is aping nonfiction, dressing up in nonfiction's clothes and swanning around a little in drag. They can work as both a loving tribute to the tradition of learned text (of libraries, of big books, of scholarship, etc.) and a turning of its conventions on its head.

Along with all his other stuff, DFW majored in philosophy and has a bad-ass academic bent. So it's no surprise that he would be using his fiction with academic conventions.

CAAF

Oops. That last sentence should read "So it's no surprise that he would be using his ficiton *to play with* academic conventions."

Dan Green

Playing with academic conventions is exactly what Borges was doing. Sixty years ago. Does this mean Borges is too arty and ironic, charges so frequently leveled at Wallace?
His high reputation among even those who profess to hate postmodernism suggests not.

I'd further suggest there might be a relationship between Borges the annotator and the use of footnotes in Wallace's review of the Borges biography.

CAAF

Ooh, Dan! What an excellent point that is (I'm referring to the use of footnotes in the Borges review).

I think that's far more likely than the hypothesis that Sam T. put him up to it in order to have "authentic DFW" on display: As Ruth Reichl of Gourmet found, it's difficult to put DFW up to anything.

Excellent thought.

I'll just add that as a rule I dislike the practice of criticizing writers for using techniques and forms that have been used before, which is often as a subtext to criticizing DFW's use of footnotes. I think it creates a weird sort of copyright over ideas that shouldn't be there, as long as the author (and his or her audience) is aware that s/he's mining a tradition, why not sample and riff? It works in music. Why not fiction?

TEV

Carrie, I do agree with you on your overall point; what I recoil against is the oft-repeated notion that DFW has "revolutionized the use of footnotes"; that smacks a bit of the cult, n'est-pas?

CAAF

Oui oui, mon ami. Mais (my French just petered out) I would only caution against -- consciously or unconsciously -- blaming the author for the foolishnesses perpretrated by his cult. (I can't help but flash on Jesus here, but that has more to do with recent elections and decisions in Texas, than DFW's long golden locks.)

More seriously: In my observation, DFW is a generous reader and enthusiast of other's work. I would guess he's aware that he's working in a tradition, even if a goodly portion of his hipster legions are not.

Just Some Random Guy

I've just been turned on to this blog and in the interset of full disclosure will let you know that I'm a big fan of DFW.

Moving the discussion of technique, footnotes and other mechanics of writing aside, I'd argue that in Infinite Jest, DFW does a pretty decent job of addressing the human condition. (Granted, at around 1300 pages, one would hope at least SOMETHING was adequately addressed.) I found the sections about AA, addiction and recovery to be some of the best writing I've ever read -- or even claimed to have read.

Wallace's strength is his ability to depict the conflicting thoughts and urges that we all try to work though day by day. And even if one hasn't necessarily battled with chemical hunger and dependency, I think many of us can relate to the pain of the struggle itself, whether it be from relationships, religion or real estate. Yeah, he can be wordy. Yeah, he goes around in circles. And yeah, sometimes it might seem that he's swallowing his own tale (weird slip, I meant to type tail -- choose whichever works best for you). But for me it strikes home because I find myself choking on the same old circular thoughts every day. It's the rut that he depicts so well and the panic we begin to feel as we trod the same path again and again.

Maybe that's not The Much-Vaunted Human Condition, but it's not an uncommon one either.

Anyway, great site, great thread. Rock on!

Jim

One of DFW's as-yet-unmentioned strengths is his astonishing (to me) imagination. The Filmology footnote in Jest, a work in itself, never fails to make me wonder how DFW does it. His imagination alone has made me a lifelong fan; add the linguistic acrobatics and the top-shelf humor, and I am more than willing to accept the "lack of feeling" that others have pointed out.

Besides: the emotional shallowness many have complained about seems to be a theme of his work anyway (see Hal Incandenza, the main character of "Mr. Squishy," and plenty of other characters).

Yes, a great site and a great thread.

The comments to this entry are closed.

TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

    Bs

    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe

    Rider_4

    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."