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Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A Garner Talk Language and Writing - book review

Talk this way: a writer as inventive in speech as on paper

Here are a few phrases David Foster Wallace tosses out in the conversation that comprises this book: writers he admires possess "crackling with voltage prose"; Cormac McCarthy's writing can "blow your hair back"; "caviar work" describes endeavours important to him; "you need to quack this way" is some guidance to students.

There's a sensory fizz to these turns: they're enjoyable to read and, presumably, they were nice to say when they popped into DFW's head. The man knew his way around a well-tuned sentence, we all know that. That he spoke in a manner as meticulous and inventive as he wrote is edifying to find in the publication of this conversation with lexicographer Bryan A Garner.

“You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips,” Wallace explains. “Even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.”

Garner, a Texas-based author, theorist and much else, published A Dictionary of Modern American Usage which Wallace wrote about in Harper's magazine in 2001. The pair became friends and in 2006 sat down for an extended interview on "language and writing". The book features a transcript of the talk and a brief introduction by Garner. It purports to be DFW's "last long interview" before his death in 2008 and the "only one of its kind in subject matter".

The death of a talented artist at a young age always leaves those left behind scouring the debris for what can be salvaged. With DFW, we've already had numerous posthumous publications. Moreover, the late publication of "This is Water", his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, offers a sense that there should be some insulating, life-lesson cloak draped around such books.

There is heft here, though. On a practical level, the royalties are going to the Wallace archive in the University of Texas at Austin. Inside there is enlightening discussion on language, writing and craft.

Those scraping for biographical snippets will get little – though discussion of his mom's grammarian ways offers insight into the mother character of Infinite Jest. Usage hounds and DFW buffs will find plenty; future theses will be nourished. A casual reader might get the howling fantods.

Throughout there is eloquent discussion and explanation of such issues as bureaucratic officialese, vogue words, argumentative writing, advertising and legal dialects, communication with the reader and George W Bush's mangling of the language.

Wallace, too, offers up a poignant invocation of the power of reading – and art in general:

“You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers … becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

“And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day. But it’s also true that my father can listen to classical music and be nourished in ways I’ll never understand...

“So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”