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Josh Roiland is a writer and journalism professor. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Saint Louis University, and he teaches and writes about the role of the American news media in public life.

The Speaking Length

Illustration by Fabio Consoli

Josh Roiland | Longreads | November, 2019 | 10 minutes (2,622 words)

I once lived in Delaware for two days. I had moved there under the pretext of graduate school, but soon fled back to Minnesota amidst the clanging static of a panic attack.

The morning of the move my car had a flat. Once the tire was patched, I headed east with an atlas and not much of a plan. After 15 hours, I stopped in a Walmart parking lot in Columbus, Ohio, and tried to sleep in my overstuffed car. At dawn, I pushed through the Ohio River Valley and emerged in Newark, Delaware, seven hours later.

It was my first time outside the Midwest.

I had booked my apartment online, and when I arrived, I saw that it sat next to a fire station. Inside, there was a woman painting my walls and singing songs from The Wizard of Oz. I unloaded my car as she packed up and left. My only furniture was an air mattress with a hand pump whose nozzle was too small for its opening.

Once my car was empty, and my apartment slightly less so, I stood surrounded by wet paint and cried. I scared myself by the force of everything pouring from me. I didn’t know where it was coming from, and I didn’t know how to stop it.

I tried to stay busy, distract myself from everything that was to come — whatever that may be. I went to Kmart. Because I was traveling, I thought I needed traveler’s checks. I paid for my home supplies with 15 10-dollar notes. The cashier had to call an 800-number to verify each one. The line grew while his patience shrank. My chest tightened. I fled back to my apartment where I plugged a random coaxial cable into my 13” television. I watched the Food Network until I passed out. In the morning, I awoke on the floor with the air mattress folded up around me.

***

There are, today, mornings when I wake up and my body vibrates like a piano string struck by a hammer. The musical term for the section of string that experiences these tremors is the “speaking length.” Preconscious, my feet knock together like boxers’ gloves. I lay there shimmering as pulses push me up off the bed, where I hover and tremble. Stretched tight across the bridge, I glint and wink like a snap of sunlight.

There are, today, mornings when I wake up and my body vibrates like a piano string struck by a hammer. The musical term for the section of string that experiences these tremors is the ‘speaking length.’

Or at least that’s what it feels like to wake up in the thrall of anxiety. I crackle and can’t communicate what’s going on, where these vibrations are coming from.

***

Day two in Delaware began with the rounded whine of fire trucks. I showered behind my new vinyl shower curtain then left for the grocery store where the briny stench of fresh seafood shocked my Midwestern sensitivity. I found a bank and set up an account. I went to the post office and bought stamps.

But the truth is that I was already plotting my escape.

That afternoon I went to campus and stood in front of my English department mailbox. Having seen what I would leave, I left. I went back to my apartment, which had transmogrified from alien to comforting. Everything was shape-shifting.


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The evening stretched and sprinted. I circled through my apartment, too afraid to leave but desperate not to stay. With everything unfamiliar and nothing certain, I didn’t know what to do. What were my options? Once again, I stood with my arms wrapped around myself, digging my fingernails into my triceps.

I called my dad. My sobs scared him, and he wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Well,” he finally said. “You can always come home.”

My car was packed before I hung up the phone.

Then, just before I left Delaware forever, my phone rang. A returning grad student called to welcome me and invite me out for a beer. I stood there in my again-empty living room, holding the phone, not knowing what to say.

***

The stories we tell are never wholly our own. Words, and the stories they create, have their own history, and we all work within their limits. Writers and speakers, all of us, constantly reorder and encode new meaning in what has already been said. Our words, as the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin put it, are always “half someone else’s.” This phenomenon came to be known as “metadiscourse.”

One reason we tell stories is so others can understand what we are seeing, thinking, and feeling. But often we misunderstand a basic premise, believing that the communicative norm is transparency when, in fact, it’s opacity. What is meant never fully transmits into what is understood. Linguists call this false belief the myth of perfect understanding.

The stories we tell are never wholly our own.

As much as we may desire to control both the narrative and its reception, meaning is always contingent and never inherent. There is no such thing, Bahktin says, as “neutral and impersonal language.” We merely offer, in the words of Bahktin scholars, “endless redescriptions of the world.”

***

I first saw a therapist early in my second bout with a Ph.D. There’d been break-ups, and I once again felt dislodged from everything I thought I knew. But the counselor and I had a great rapport to the point where he questioned why I was even there. He thought my hyperventilating about certain regrets and uncertainties was overmuch. Though I shared and shared, I could not get him to understand exactly what was going on inside of me.

Nearly every session, in an effort to make me feel better, he’d joke: “So what’s wrong with you again?”

Nonetheless, I went on to see a psychiatrist, and then another, in an effort to better explain myself. Or have myself explained to me. OCD? Bipolar? Plain old depression? Who could tell? Regardless, medications were prescribed and ingested. Klonopin for acute anxiety. Zoloft for depression. Then Effexor when the Zoloft didn’t work.

There was little oversight with these scripts, and I experienced all the ignominious side effects without much psychic relief. When I told the doctor that the Klonopin didn’t seem to quell any sudden panic, she said it was because of my high metabolism and urged me to up the dosage until I felt OK.

Then one night, I was carried out of a bar.

***

A few years ago, I gave a public talk about my mental health. Its title, “Almost Aloud,” was a line clipped from the short story “Good Old Neon,” by David Foster Wallace. For years I had researched and written about the history of Wallace’s nonfiction, and the talk’s nominal hook was describing what it was like to work in his archive.

My first-ever publication argued that Wallace’s journalism lacked what Nietzsche called “oblivion” — the psychic ability to filter good self-consciousness from bad. The piece somehow ended up wedged between some famous authors in an anthology. Essentially, though, I just mapped my own experience onto Wallace’s work, and it happened they overlapped.

And so it was that six months into a tenure-track job, I nervously told an audience of colleagues, neighbors, and friends how working on Wallace activated my own anxiety. Or was it that my already-activated anxiety was an a priori factor in my interest in Wallace’s work? How to tell?

I began the talk:

For me the sound of anxiety is silence. It’s an empty room where I sit, alone, and all I can hear are my thoughts, which quietly insist themselves upon me, both unbidden and unwanted. And after a time, a time when I get up and walk through other empty rooms, only to return, and get up and return, those thoughts begin to take the same shape as that recursive path through my apartment. Looping endlessly, relentlessly.

For six minutes I guided the audience through these seemingly overlapping maps. When I mentioned Wallace’s suicide — an act he himself described in Infinite Jest as “eliminating your map” — there was an audible gasp, then dead silence for several minutes.

I ended the talk darkly. I wanted to convey a desperation, even a resignation at the whole intellectual endeavor. At the absurdity of speaking and writing and teaching. Where did all that thinking, all those words get you anyhow? I closed with the last sentence from “Good Old Neon” — the only way, it seemed to me, to control a feral mind: “Not another word.”

Looking back, I misread that story completely.

***

I haven’t slept through the night in decades. Melatonin, meditation, booze, Benadryl — they’ve all pulled me under, but invariably my mind burns through the restraints and I surface. When I’m marooned in the middle of the night, legs scissoring and feet belting back and forth, I turn to all manner of sleep apps and ambient music. The song I come back to over and over again is “DLP 3,” by the avant-garde musician William Basinski. It is one of nine songs on his five-hour, four-record album The Disintegration Loops.

Writing in Pitchfork, Mark Richardson tells the album’s origin story:

In the 1980s, [Basinski] constructed a series of tape loops consisting of processed snatches of music captured from an easy listening station. When going through his archives in 2001, he decided to digitize the decades-old loops to preserve them. He started a loop on his digital recorder and left it running, and when he returned a short while later, he noticed that the tape was gradually crumbling as it played. The fine coating of magnetized metal was slivering off, and the music was decaying slightly with each pass through the spindle.

The Disintegration Loops are literally disintegrating loops. They erode as you listen to them. The change from one revolution to the next is imperceptible, but the tape is falling apart. Each pass, a redescription of the past.

“DLP 3” is 42 minutes long. The loop, a three-note horn fugue that pushes forward over a ghost march before sucking back in on itself, is only eight seconds long. It repeats 310 times. My fibrillating mind trains on its respiratory rhythm.

Turning and turning, the song softly transforms from hypnotic to unsettling. The gradations are subtle, but the crackles widen and a buzzy silence fills the perforations. If I don’t fall asleep during its first half, I’m worse off than when I laid down. My mind catches on the crepitates and recollects all that I tried to cast off, like a needle dredging dust with each revolution of a record.

The longer I listen, the harder it is to hear.

***

A decade after my first foray into therapy, I tried it again. Academia had drawn me back to the East Coast and all of its familiar dislocations. Soon, a much more substantial break-up left me unmoored. My therapist gave me language to understand these upheavals, but when those words miscarried, she suggested medication.

The longer I listen, the harder it is to hear.

I met with a psych nurse and explained how meds hadn’t worked for me in the past. She suggested a genetic test. While I awaited the results of my cheek swabs, I started Lexapro. It did nothing. Six weeks later my GeneSight results came in. It sorted drugs into three categories: 1. Use As Directed; 2. Moderate Gene-Drug Interaction; and 3. Significant Gene-Drug Interaction. Many of my previously prescribed psychotropic medications were listed under the third category — meaning they were essentially incompatible. Below the drug columns were numbered notes headlined, “Clinical Considerations.” One referenced a high metabolic rate; another read: “Serum level may be too low, higher doses may be required.”

I was encouraged by these explanations.

My university health insurance, however, wouldn’t cover the test. The American Psychiatric Association says the science behind using biomarkers as a diagnostic tool is inconclusive. GeneSight’s website itself acknowledges these interpretive limits: “Psychiatric pharmacogenomics does not have an individual genetic marker or causative gene like is often typical in molecular diagnostic testing. … Instead of diagnosing the bimodal presence or absence of a disease state, the GeneSight test predicts patient response to medication.”

A year after starting Cymbalta, I finally felt I had a floor when I fell. But it did not eliminate the worry and doubt. I tried explaining to a friend the difference between my outward appearance and inward feeling; the incongruity between medication and the persistence of depressive symptoms.

“I guess that’s what makes it difficult to understand,” she said. “Because you have so many relationships and people to lean on and care about, and who care for you. But it’s so deeply seeded inside of you. I’m very sad about that, Josh.”

***

My life has nearly doubled since Delaware. The tenure track job’s gone. As are those colleagues and friends. Health insurance, medication, my retirement — none of it’s left. All stories too difficult to tell, yet harder still not to explain.

I now live in a small camper, parked in the same driveway I departed two decades ago. The future feels weightier today than then, carrying everything that once was and the understanding of what can never again be. The strings still vibrate, louder sometimes than others, but I’ve learned, if not wholly accepted, that this is life, or my life anyway.

A few weeks after I came home again, my dad nearly died in front of me. He’d recently been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and one day after lunch I followed him as he walked to his bedroom to take a nap. Climbing into bed he looked at me and said, “Here it comes.” His heart slowed to a near-stop, and he began gasping for breath.

Since then, my dad, sister, and I have spent countless hours in hospital rooms genuflecting to doctors as they dispense diagnoses, which stirs complicated feelings for an unemployed Ph.D. whose own work never resonated with his father.

I’ve filled my reporter’s notebook with words I never thought I’d know: Ejection fraction. Asystole. Metoprolol. Amiodarone. Cardioversion. As I sit there asking questions and taking notes — grasping for agency — I worry that someone is going to ask me what I do for a living.

No one, of course, does, preferring instead to lightly fill in the blanks themselves. During our third visit to the heart clinic, a two-hour drive away, my dad’s cardiologist again observed my constant scribbling and said, “Josh is writing a novel over here with all his notes.” Everyone laughed. Then he doubled down: “Josh is like a historian!”

As misbegotten as faith ever is, hospitals can engender hope with their clear-eyed promise of science to diagnose, explain, and treat. They can offer a map. In my dad’s case, recovery has meant a CRT-D implant, a suite of medication, and cardiac rehabilitation.

Three days a week I drive him, in his pickup, to a rehab clinic where he pedals on an elliptical bike for 40 minutes, while I sit in the back of the room and record his weight and blood pressures. The nurses and other patients regard me benignly. They think I’m a college student, home for the summer.

It takes us a half hour to get to the clinic, and we don’t really say much on the way there or back. Sometimes, on the way home, we stop for ice cream.

My dad is months removed from the fainting spells and physical restrictions that catalyzed my chauffeuring in the first place. He’s returned to his routine drives by himself every afternoon and evening to look at crops, talk to friends, and go fishing. But every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8:50 a.m. we head out to the truck, and he climbs into the passenger seat.

Sometimes I want to ask him why he still has me drive him to these sessions. But then, what really could he say?

* * *

Josh Roiland is a writer living in western Minnesota. He last wrote about Jonathan Richman’s mid-career hiatus to Maine for Popula.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Steven Cohen
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Derivative Sport: The Journalistic Legacy of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace in New York City's East Village, circa 2002. (Janette Beckman/Redferns)

By Josh Roiland

Longreads | December 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)

At a hip Manhattan book launch for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead, David Rees, the event’s emcee, asked the two-time National Magazine Award winner, “So John…are you the next David Foster Wallace?” The exchange is startling for its absurdity, and Sullivan shakes his head in disbelief before finally answering, “No, that’s—I’m embarrassed by that.” But the comparison has attached itself to Sullivan and a host of other young literary journalists whom critics have noted bear resemblance to Wallace in style, subject matter, and voice.

When Leslie Jamison published The Empathy Exams, her 2014 collection of essays and journalism, a Slate review said “her writing often recalls the work of David Foster Wallace.” Similarly, when Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life appeared a year earlier, a review in the L.A. Review of Books proclaimed: “If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.”

Wallace was, himself, a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, winning once, in 2001; yet he compulsively identified himself as “not a journalist” both in his interactions with sources and reflexively as a character in his own stories. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow in the world of literary journalism—a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. To give better shape to that penumbra of influence, I spoke with Sullivan, Jamison, and Orange, along with Maria Bustillos, Jeff Sharlet, Joel Lovell, and Colin Harrison about Wallace’s impact on today’s narrative nonfiction writers. They spoke about comparisons to Wallace, what they love (and hate) about his work, what it was like to edit him, their favorite stories, posthumous controversies, and his influence and legacy.

Joel Lovell only worked with Wallace on one brief essay. Despite that singular experience, Lovell’s editorial time at Harper’s and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s put him in great position to witness Wallace’s rising status in the world of magazine journalism. He was unequivocal when I asked him which nonfiction writer today most reminds him of Wallace.

Joel Lovell: The clear descendant is John Jeremiah Sullivan, of course. For all sorts of reasons (the ability to move authoritatively between high and low culture and diction; the freakishly perceptive humor on the page) but mostly just because there’s no one else writing narrative nonfiction or essays right now whose brain is so flexible and powerful, and whose brainpower is so evident, sentence by sentence, in the way that Wallace’s was. No one who’s read so widely and deeply and can therefore “read” American culture (literature, television, music) so incisively. No one who can make language come alive in quite the same way. He’s an undeniable linguistic genius, like Dave, who happens to enjoy exercising that genius through magazine journalism. Read more…

It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now

Photo by Steve Photo by (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Josh Roiland | The Digital Press | May 9th 2017 | 19 minutes (5,354 words)

This essay first appeared in Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Our thanks to Josh Roiland and editor David Haeselin for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

* * *

On a still summer night in the last year of last century an overweight woman in a wheelchair appeared, as if an apparition, under a street lamp in a parking lot on the west end of campus. I had not seen her when I pulled my car in. It was an hour till midnight, and I was covered in sand.

I’d spent the night playing volleyball and had returned home to married student housing where I was summering with a friend’s wife, while he interned in Minneapolis. She was a nurse who worked nights, and I was an English major lazing between my junior and senior year. We rarely saw each other; the only complication in our cohabitation resulted from my inability to lift the toilet seat when I got up to pee in the middle of the night. In the mornings we’d cross paths and she’d tell me, again, that it was no fun to come home and sit in piss.

That night in the dark parking lot, the woman rolled her heavy body from behind a street-lamp. “Excuse me,” she said, coming closer.

“Hi!” she said cheerfully. “Can you, uh—would you be able to give me a ride home?”

She worked at a telemarketing place near the corner of University Ave. and 42nd St. Work had let out, but the buses had stopped running, and she needed a way home. She crossed the busy intersection and wheeled into the expansive parking lot waiting for someone to help her. I was tired and dirty. I just wanted to slink into the stuffy efficiency, shower, and distract myself to sleep with PlayStation. But here she sat.

“Sure,” I said. “Sure, I’ll give you a ride home.”

Read more…

A Shot in the Arm

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Josh Roiland | Longreads | February 2017 | 14 minutes (3,710 words)

 

“Who’s sticking today?” the man asked.

He wore tan work boots and rough jeans. He told a friend in the waiting room that he had a couple hours off work and thought he’d stop in for some extra cash. The receptionist told him the names of that day’s phlebotomists. He paused. Sliding a 16-gauge needle into someone’s arm is tricky, and the man reconsidered. Instead of signing in, he announced to the room that he’d come back tomorrow and try his luck.

I’d driven 107 miles from my home in Bangor, Maine to the BPL Plasma Center in Lewiston to collect $50 for having my arm punctured and a liter of my plasma sucked out. The actual donation takes about 35 minutes, but the drive and its attendant wait makes for an eight-hour day. I clocked in for that trip five times this summer.

I’m a professor at the University of Maine. My salary is $52,000, and I am a year away from tenure. But like everyone else in that room, I was desperate for money. Read more…

David Foster Wallace and the Nature of Fact

Josh Roiland | Literary Journalism Studies | Fall 2013 | 23 minutes (5,690 words)

Josh Roiland is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication & Journalism and a CLAS-Honors Preceptor in the Honors College at the University of Maine. Roiland is a cultural historian of the American news media, who researches and teaches classes on the cultural, political, and literary significance of American journalism. This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Literary Journalism Studies. Our thanks to Roiland for allowing us to reprint it here, and for adding this introduction:

David Foster Wallace saw clear lines between journalists and novelists who write nonfiction, and he wrestled throughout his career with whether a different set of rules applied to the latter category. In the years after his death, he has faced charges of embellishment and exaggeration by his close friend Jonathan Franzen and repeated by his biographer D.T. Max. Their criticisms, however, do not adequately address the intricate philosophy Wallace formulated about genre classification and the fact/fiction divide. This article explores those nuances and argues that Wallace’s thinking about genre was complex, multifaceted, and that it evolved during his writing life.

* * *

Before he sat down with the best tennis player on the planet for a noonday interview in the middle of the 2006 Wimbledon fortnight, David Foster Wallace prepared a script. Atop a notebook page he wrote, “R.Federer Interview Qs.” and below he jotted in very fine print 13 questions. After three innocuous ice breakers, Wallace turned his attention to perhaps the most prominent theme in all his writing: consciousness. Acknowledging the abnormal interview approach, Wallace prefaced these next nine inquires with a printed subhead: “Non-Journalist Questions.” Each interrogation is a paragraph long, filled with digressions, asides, and qualifications; several contain superscripted addendums.  In short, they read like they’re written by David Foster Wallace. He asks Roger Federer if he’s aware of his own greatness, aware of the unceasing media microscope he operates under, aware of his uncommon elevation of athletics to the level of aesthetics, aware of how great his great shots really are. Wallace even wrote, “How aware are you of the ballboys?” before crossing the question out.

Read more…