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'This Is Water' by David Foster Wallace; 'The Twin' by Gerbrand Bakker

March 29, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds

This Is Water

Some Thoughts, Delivered on a

Significant Occasion, About Living

a Compassionate Life

David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown: 144 pp., $14.99

I can't believe he died. That's how vivid his words seem. This commencement address, the only one David Foster Wallace ever wrote, was delivered to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005. In this small book, the words are laid out like thought-poems, a few lines to a page. This gives the reader time to digest them.

He begins with a fish story, followed by a two men-at-a-bar story. Wallace approached big ideas this way, from a distance, like a prodigal son sneaking up on the old homestead, the idea he wants to get across presented under cover of darkness.

In this case, Wallace approaches the true value of a liberal arts education, the truism that such an education will teach you how to think. It's a cliche, he writes, and an insulting one at that, but it's true. A liberal arts, or any education, helps us to recognize and avoid the default settings in our existence -- the idea that we are the center of the universe; the tendency to worship things like money, our own bodies, intelligence or power. Education helps us to avoid "[a]rrogance, blind certainty, a close-mindedness that's like an imprisonment so complete that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up."

You have to carve your life out, exercise choices, he tells the students, because "if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

Education gives you the tools to carve an existence out of the day-in-day-outness of life, which is full of opportunities for selfish rage. "The so-called 'real world' will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called 'real world' of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self." The alternative, he warns, is what amounts to a kind of unconsciousness. "None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death," he writes. It's about life "before death," or, as he puts it, "simple awareness."

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The Twin

A Novel

Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Archipelago: 250 pp., $25

The story is eerily familiar, whether you are rural or urban, male or female, happy or unhappy. Twin brothers grow up on the family farm with their domineering, harsh father and their quiet, subservient mother

One is the father's favorite, destined to inherit the farm. When he dies in a car accident, the other brother is left to run it, care for his dying father -- and narrate the story.

All his life he feels like half of a person, going through his daily routine, not knowing how it was that he got here but aware that his life is slipping away, habit by habit.

One day, many years later, he gets a letter from his dead brother's fiancee, who was responsible for the accident. She wants to send her disaffected 18-year-old son to live with him and work on the farm.

In the course of the novel, the still subconscious of the twin left behind is revealed to us, memory by memory. As these memories slash the surface of his life, they cannot help but erode his calloused exterior.

Gerbrand Bakker's writing is fabulously clear, so clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake.

--

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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