This is Water: Remembering David Foster Wallace

Chris Osmond and Will Layman

Nicholson Baker. Bill Murray. Mark Leyner. David Byrne. Steve Martin. The Coen Brothers. And in the middle of it all, David Foster Wallace.

Infinite Jest

Publisher: Back Bay
ISBN: 9780316066525
Author: David Foster Wallace
Price: $17.99
Length: 1,104
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2006-11


Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 9780641859038
Author: David Foster Wallace
Price: $25.95
Length: 336
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2004-06

The Broom of the System

Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780142002421
Author: David Foster Wallace
Price: $16.00
Length: 480
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2004-05

As is well known by now, last Friday night David Foster Wallace hung himself in his Claremont, California home. His wife found him, and news spread quickly by Internet, cell phone, shaky hands touching shoulders. To readers who loved his work, the loss overshadowed the election, the financial crisis, even a hurricane, even Tina Fey.

The hemorrhagic online texts flowed almost immediately. First the bad and even horrible tributes, fueled by deadline and cloudy with grief, aping of footnote-preponderance. Then some really lovely and thoughtful work (Salon, Slate, and The Chicago Tribune), and even some horribly mistimed career assessment (we are looking at you, Kakutani.) ’s posted PDFs of everything they ever published about Wallace -- even scans of pre-digital print issues with the ripped edges visible, as if an intern had been dispatched to the archives and told not to miss anything, and to be quick about it.

Some of the most gorgeous tributes have already been and left -- McSweeney’s blank page, and maybe most appropriately, the yammering, heartbroken discussion board at the A.V. Club, which chastened and hustled out of the room anyone looking for a cheap laugh. Amazon sold out of his stuff; we couldn’t find any of the four copies of Oblivion at the university library. We knew he was important, but we didn’t know how many loved him. We thought he was ours.

Now several days have passed, and the news cycle grinds on. Late to the service, we offer this: a love letter, we guess, and a remembrance. A back-and-forth between two fans, maybe in small tribute to his great dialogues, his willingness to note the caesuras as well as the torrent of articulations, his early collaborations.

Wallace's greatest work was his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, a book that he repeatedly said was intended to be very sad. Wallace reported frequently how hard it was for him, therefore, that so many readers found the book funny or entertaining or -- in many cases, because the book was over 1,000 pages, with hundreds of endnotes and weighed something like four pounds -- too much of a strain. We strain now against the weight he leaves us.

Chris: Our mourning feels selfish – rooted in a desire to protect him from fanboys and imitators, from all of those who name-check him but never really got him, not like we did. Not like us.

In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace warned us against precisely this hardwired tendency to see the world as revolving wholly around ourselves. He called us out for our ultimate self-indulgence, our desire to believe that our experience of the world is so different, so all consuming, that it should blot out yours.

But in the face of the vacuum, we are giving in to our lizard-brain willingness to go directly to our lowest watermark, emotionally, and embrace the false conviction of our complete uniqueness. We knew him as only we could know him. First, us. Then, you.

Will: I met him for the first time in 1983, before he had published a lick of work. He was just some kid -- a year younger than me, in fact -- who had written something. A friend of mine read the manuscript for the agent she worked for, and now she was with him in New York to meet his editor. "It's Pynchon-esque", she said about what would be published as The Broom of the System. And so one association that would haunt him -- his "post-modern-ness”, his slapstick difficulty, his smartest-guy-on-the-planet-ness.

We met at V&Ts for pizza on the Upper West Side, and we retired to the Hungarian pastry place next door afterward. There were four of us, and my blabbermouth was fully charged. The quiet kid who had written a book mostly listened, and I would later find out exactly how carefully. He was serene or withdrawn, it was hard to tell which. In my solipsism, I didn't think about him nearly as much as I just enjoyed myself. I think I asked him some questions about Gravity's Rainbow and Pynchon because I thought maybe that was a common topic we could share, something that might exist between us.

But what is there really to say about a huge book that changes your life? Pynchon was just an idol of sorts, and Gravity's Rainbow was the Holy Grail. It was, as always, easier to make with the jokes, which at least in that moment, left this kid, Dave Wallace, looking like little more than a pair of eyeballs across the table.

Chris: I first read his work in Harper’s in 1994 -- the Harper’s subscription that my dad bought me upon graduating from college, figuring correctly that I would enjoy a window into the world of thoughtful grownups. I consumed Wallace’s state fair article with amazement and recognition.

Here he was: the guy who sounded like the geeks I had learned to befriend in high school, with whom I had snuck Breakfast of Champions back and forth in chemistry class like it was Penthouse. The kind of guys I would seek as friends throughout my life. The wisenheimers, the ones smarter and faster than me from whom I drew strength. Wallace said the things I thought but hadn’t realized I thought; he called out my own voice, made me hear it clearer in my head, by being the only writer I knew whose typing actually seemed to keep up with his thoughts.

Will: Shortly after his first novel came out, my assistant-to-the-agent friend called one day to tell me that she had a new story from David Wallace in hand, destined for publication in a magazine.

"You're in it," she explained.

Not me, it turns out, but Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy, saying something that I had said, word-for-word, in the Hungarian pastry shop while high on Manhattan night air. I'd said this: "My favorite word is the word 'moist'. And I particularly like it when I is used in combination with my second favorite word, 'loincloth'." I thought I was utterly hilarious.

"But," my friend explained, "the lawyers think Trebek might sue, so they're making him change it.

When the story came out ("Girl with Curious Hair"), the second word was "induce". Which was that much better, of course. In my hands the whole thing had been schtick or babble, and this kid -- quiet in the corner of the pastry shop and with ears the size of Frisbees -- was spinning it into something I wasn't even sure I understood.

Chris: Two year after first reading him in Harper's, I was teaching ninth grade literature in DC when Will – my latest wisenheimer -- dragged me down to Dupont Circle at lunch and prodded me into dropping $25 on the first edition of this colossal novel, Infinite Jest.

"I kind of know this guy", Will explained. "Met him once."

Advance word was that this book was like no other. And advance word also mentioned the 1,079 pages and 388 endnotes. It was a book best read with a friend.

Will: By 1996, Wallace's writing had started to seem less like Pynchon Lite (or Pynchon, period) and more like a bracing voice of eerie seriousness. Even when Wallace was writing essays touching on modern-day absurdities, he started to let his voice burn with a sincere sadness. His new book was rumored to be something unusually brilliant.

Chris seemed open to it, so we stepped out of the bookstore that day into a brisk DC afternoon, and started reading.

Chris: In English class, the first book we read together that year was C.S. Lewis’ retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, with its deep and troubling question of “What consumes you?” as completely as a God consumes a sacrificial maiden. In no time it all it was clear what consumed me. I was consumed by the all-saturating experience of my first Big Book.

All I did was read Infinite Jest and talk about what I was reading. I was consumed by the text -- as were my students, who were treated to several periods of my uninterrupted reading aloud of the chapter from “The Book” I had finished last night.

Reading and talking about it every day -- "IDing" with it and desperately wishing it would never end -- Will and I called it “The Book”, to the outrage of my friend the Melville fan, and my other friend who loved Tolkien. What dilettantes we were, they thought, squandering the definite article on some mewling youngster.

Will: If reading a thousand-page book is an intense (and intensely lonely and personal) experience, then it is also a playground of the most elaborate and ornate sort. For Chris and me, who read the book in-step like a pair of synchronized swimmers (including days playing hooky from our teaching jobs during which all we did was hole up somewhere and read), it was a set of monkey bars as imagined by Salvador Dali.

Monkey bars are the most fun with someone else cajoling you to climb higher and join you at the top. We read, we argued, we laughed, we posted some of the first missives (still amazingly) on the wallace-l listserv, archived over at waste.org. We faced the fact that The Jest was making us look in a gargantuan mirror that we'd been avoiding for the better part of our tentative and clearly provisional adulthoods.

We learned that Dave would be giving a reading one Friday evening, just a mile from the school. Of course we attended, and waited in the surprisingly long line to get our books signed.

Clutching my Girl with Curious Hair, I approached the one-time quiet kid in the corner. Still quiet, it turned out. "Hey," Dave Wallace said to me, "you're the moist loincloth guy."

Chris: I took from DFW a desire to write as I heard myself speak and think. The power of his alternating erudition and devastating stutters and neologisms pervaded my own writing, as did the love of footnotes and their ability to intimate that -- holy shit -- there is just so much to say about this thing I am typing about, can’t you see? I find that energy and joy in all his stories, all his essays, all the ways in which he dumped his own intelligence and engagement out into the world that he thankfully catalogued and annotated.

I came to imagine a sort of salon -- or listserv, probably, in this typiest of ages -- that I might convene, if only in my head, of those voices that could help me know and endure the world, that could help me see and love its minutiae and sublimity and obscenity and roll the whole thing into a ball to bash against the wall again and again. Nicholson Baker. Bill Murray. Mark Leyner. David Byrne. Steve Martin. The Coen Brothers. And in the middle of it all, David Foster Wallace.

And now one of my handball gang – one of my boys, and the coolest one at that – has decided that he does not want to bash it around anymore. How to move on?

Will: Since reading The Book with Chris and then rereading it again on my own and then re-rereading it again with a group of dazzled students that may be off today on their own hearing the news of Wallace's death, I've read everything that Wallace has written. It's not that he became "my favorite writer" as much as that he became the writer I most trusted not lie to me -- or to himself.

In his essays, even the most delightful of them, you cannot miss the palpable sense of frustration Wallace felt in trying to communicate his ideas as honestly and precisely as possible. He might explain things three, four, five times, and the swinging rhythm of his sentences would get more and more syncopated as he tried to be not only honest and clear, but also grammatically precise, in the shadow his Moms, the usage professor. The guy was possibly the finest and most spectacularly talented writer of his era, and yet the language seemed to frustrate him. If so, what hope was there for the rest of us?

I remember watching him in one of two appearances on The Charlie Rose Show, his bandanna tied around his skull and his every response followed with physical symptoms of embarrassment and self-deprecation. Rose, glib as always, could not understand how this brilliant guy could be so unsure of himself.

But Wallace saw The Tube as the worst kind of trap, a tool for eliding the necessary details, for making an artist into a self-congratulator. Wallace could write a 1,079-page book in three years, he could pluck and remember a goofy comment about a moist loincloth and spin it into art, but he could not pat himself on the back. And when others did the patting, he winced.

By all accounts the nicest of guys, David Wallace wasn't easy on himself.

Chris: When it's time to move on…

I guess first and foremost with the realization -- also affirmed in the Kenyon commencement address (Have you read it? If you haven’t then you may want to read it here) -- that each of us is ultimately, utterly alone, and therefore that whatever we think we can piece together from his writing about the why of his choice is the profoundest kind of bullshit. That’s why I hate how every mention DFW made of suicide (the Kenyon speech, “The Depressed Person,” Mildred Bonk, Eric Clipperton) is even now being lobbed through the intertubes as some sort of insight into or premonition of his suicide.

I don’t know the real estate between his ears today any more than I knew it when I met him and he signed my book in DC, when I actually looked at his head -- his physical head -- and wondered how Ennet House and Enfield Tennis Academy and Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulants and the O.N.A.N.ite reconfiguration and the whole megamegillah of the thing had come from inside that skull.

I do remember that -- before there were critical treatments of the Jest and its legacy had really gelled, as it is finally beginning to -- my first reading perceived the leitmotif of a shapeless head within a frame. Here’s the woman born without a skull and her impossible wheeled prosthesis; there’s that little guy, what was his name, upside down on the Eschaton court with his head buried in a computer monitor; here’s a therapist framing his analysand’s face with a cage made from his fingers; there’s Himself slumped in the kitchen with his head immolated in a microwave.

I took all this to suggest our ultimate paucity of intrinsic fiber or substance as humans, that we are only as strong or rigid or resistant as that against or within which we have decided to buttress ourselves. That we make ourselves, in other words, in terms of the things against which we choose to strain -- and, of course, that we pull to us weight that exceeds our own weight at our great peril. That humble and sane proposition remains about the truest thing I know after my near-40 years. It helps me choose the weights against which to pull. And it is no less true because the one who taught it to me has elected to leave.

Will: Teaching a writing class of 18-year-old students last spring, I distributed Wallace's essay "The View from Mrs. Thompson's". It begins as the story of the author watching the twin towers fall from the living room of a neighbor in Normal, Indiana. Wallace meditates on the nature of small Midwestern towns, and he riffs on the sudden appearance and then commercial unavailability of American flags in the aftermath, and he dissects the paradox of watching an event -- a real-time, actual tragedy -- transpire through a televised image of a place that most people understand only from television.

What Wallace most clearly writes about in this essay, however, is not 9/11 or politics or even culture. He writes, slowly and painfully, about how keenly he wanted to get out of his own head as he sat in a living room full of people who did not share his education, his associations, or his perspective. He writes about the effort he had to make to not see the tragedy of it only in relation to himself, and how that isolated feeling activates his smarty-pants and egocentric, skull-wired default setting about how to think about such things. He strains to listen to the other voices around him with some genuine degree of receptivity.

I feel now that through his work he gave me advice about how to, among other things, react to the news of his demise. As much as I want his loss to be only my own story, it most certainly is not. I can write down my slim strand of a tale as it once wound around his, but what is left now for me to understand is not David Foster Wallace's life or even the words he leaves behind. The best I can do is to keep working hard to be aware of the water around me, the other people whose experiences and feelings -- about this death as much as about anything -- are as valid as my own.

Is that a weight worth pulling against?

Chris & Will: So we mourn him, and we're thankful for the work he did, especially the thousand-page book against which we strained, a text which frames and illuminates our lives. We try to stay quiet for once, and in so doing, wish peace to those who knew and loved David Foster Wallace.

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

69. Arcade Fire - "Creature Comfort"

This is a big, bold statement of intent from Arcade Fire. There is a clear and admirable desire for the band not to spend too long in the same space and to mine their DNA to reinvigorate themselves. The big synths and angular new wave of early '80s the Cure sound fresh and like nothing the band has done before. Despite the retro stylings, the subject matter is refreshingly current as the group deal with the quest for personal validation from family, friends, and strangers, the anxieties of negative body image and the relentless pursuit of fame at the expense of everything else. The band cleverly offer a metaphorical panacea for all of these ills in the form of "Creature Comfort". Something to numb the pain. This is a song that leaves you anything but anesthetized. - Paul Carr

68. Alt-J - "In Cold Blood"

As far as songs about murders at pool parties go, "In Cold Blood" is actually pretty heady. In true alt-J fashion, it's hard to tell what's a red herring and what's actually relevant to the song, but as with the best songs, it doesn't particularly matter when it's this catchy. The random snippets of binary code, the allusion to C.S. Lewis' Caspian, the extended coda of "La la la"s, these are diversions from the subject at hand, perhaps because the gravity of the matter would make for too heavy a song, perhaps because alt-J delights in being obtuse. Still, with imagery as vivid as "Hair the way the sun really wants it to be" and "Lifeless back slaps the surface of the pool", it is still appropriately shocking, and yet morbidly catchy, particularly once the horns kick in. It makes you feel guilty for enjoying it, which is probably just perfect as far as alt-J is concerned. - Mike Schiller

67. The Mynabirds - "Golden Age"

The transition from 2016 to 2017 needed an elegy, an understated anthem of disillusionment and sorrow, and this is it. With its staid piano melody and Laura Burhenn's velvet vocals, the song taps into the sucker-punch trauma of feeling like social progress's trajectory was a bait-and-switch that made the eventual collapse that more crushing. The lyrics read as a litany of topical grief — the deaths of Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, worsening climate change, rampant police brutality, the severing of family ties amid political lines, and, presciently considering when it was written, the emboldening of American Nazism by Donald Trump's presidential election. Dour stuff, to be sure, yet Burhenn isn't ready to seal the mausoleum. Rather, "Golden Age" is the sound of an ideal beaten but unbroken, its swollen eye still focused on the future. It's a rail against complacency and surrender and offers needed comfort and warmth, while still being goosebumps-inducing in its call to arms. It might be a lofty comparison, but "Golden Age" is a spiritual successor to Lennon's "Imagine" in the current climate. - Cole Waterman

66. Sir Sly - "High"

The premise isn't too groundbreaking: a group of young indie poppers with hip haircuts singing about getting high. What sets Sir Sly's take on getting high apart from many others is how current it is. Sir Sly's "High" nails the mindset of many a millennial as the group sings about "wondering what peace would be like" - drugs as a means of escape from this very specific wave of global turmoil. On top of that, the chorus is mind-blowingly catchy, the beats enticing. This is a social statement you can dance to, an escapist earworm and a party anthem for our times. - Adriane Pontecorvo

65. Taylor Swift - "...Ready For It?"

The essence of pop music is saying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. This is how life works too. We settle into routines and measure our lives by the degree to which those routines shift or are disrupted over time. Most of Taylor Swift's songs are about what happens when you think about romance the way songs and movies tell us to, but she never seems to run out of new ways to frame that experience.

Usually, it's a matter of melodies or words, but sometimes, it's also a matter of sound, of putting her compositions in an environment that's a little unstable. She does this on "...Ready for It?," which is the most sonically mischievous and audacious song she's released. Over a harsh, sneering rhythm track, Swift covers familiar ground--the rush of new love, the relationship between reality and fantasy--but it doesn't feel that way because the song has a few clever ideas it gets just right: a trio of distorted bass notes that begin and repeat throughout the song; and low-pitched, synthetic brass notes that hit during the pre-chorus. Both signal that something is different, that no matter how many times we fall in love, it will always feel new. - Mark Matousek

64. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Cut to the Feeling"

Nobody has cornered the effervescent side of North American pop music quite like Carly Rae Jepsen has in the past couple years. Arriving on the heels of 2015's triumphant Emotion, "Cut to the Feeling" continues that soaring momentum. Not a whit of the song is particularly groundbreaking; instead it is a classic formula executed to perfection, building from tense verses to a chorus that explodes like fireworks. Nolan Lambroza's production is shimmering and radiant, the perfect backdrop for Ms. Jepsen, who conveys the song's feeling of euphoria with her trademark charisma. It's the type of pop music that puts a smile on your face. - Adrien Begrand

63. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - "Continental Breakfast"

At one point in "Continental Breakfast", Courtney holds up a video of "Kurt and Courtney", the chronicling of the relationship of lead singers Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, two of rock's greatest misfits. The synergy between Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett is less fraught; it's downright amicable. It's not difficult to fall in love with both songwriters as they bounce around their domestic lives, interacting with babies, children, and elders alike, with smiles the whole way through. If you don't find this video endearing, you probably don't have a soul. - Tristan Kneschke

62. Animal Collective - "Kinda Bonkers"

Animal Collective follow up last year's Painting With album with more of the same on new EP The Painters. Like much of their best work, "Kinda Bonkers" is bursting with ideas. Built on tabla percussion, see-saw keyboards and parallel vocals that bounce, ping and collide, the band throw everything they can in to see what cooks. All of these different ingredients are whipped up into a customary, trippy, psychedelic sponge. The whole thing is as irrepressible and energetic as you would expect, but it somehow feels more rounded. More straightforward and undemanding, never feeling like it might collapse under the weight of the hooks and melodies the band has crammed on every tier. - Paul Carr

61. ANOHNI - "Paradise"

ANOHNI's inimitable vocals are like a fixed quantity in her music, ensuring that most anything she sings retains an element of pained, graceful beauty no matter how harrowing or grisly the topic. "Paradise", another collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never following last year's HOPELESSNESS, pushes this principle to its limit. The track is a tortured dirge barely disguised as bass-heavy synthpop, a veil disintegrating at the seams. ANOHNI sings as one caught between global concerns and her own personal, particular pain, lamenting the solipsistic confines of being but a single "point of consciousness". Perhaps the paradise she evokes, a "world without end", is one where the boundaries of the self are dissolved altogether, opening the way for empathy. And yet any clear vision of that utopia is clouded amid the wailing electronics, making it clear that we'll have to contend with our own kaleidoscopes of pain for some time to come. - Andrew Dorsett

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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