One year ago today, David Foster Wallace killed himself.
I can remember where I was and how I found out, but not any real emotional impact. I was of course disappointed that a writer I had read and enjoyed was dead, but it was an abstract sense of disappointment; I mainly remember feeling surprised.
Now, however, it doesn’t seem weird or surprising at all: Reading Wallace’s fiction, pretty much any of it, is to become intimately acquainted with a mind that contemplates death and dread and depression on a fairly regular basis. This, of course, is in addition to the public knowledge that Wallace battled depression for twenty years. Wallace was, it turns out, a prime candidate for suicide.
Instead of surprise, I now feel intense and profound sadness about the death of David Foster Wallace, the kind of sadness that borders on anger. Almost every time I read or re-read one of his pieces now, I think about how terrible it is that the mind that wrote these words is no longer with us. I think about how many more years, and consequently how many more books, he should have had. I think about the things he might have written about the world as it has changed just in the last year, and would have written in the coming years. I think about the implications of a man that brilliant being so hopelessly depressed.
The only things that can make us feel so angry and upset, however, are the things that make us proportionally happy. And the truth is that these emotions make up only a small fraction of those I feel while reading Wallace: What I feel most of all is happy.
“Happy” is one of those prosaic and overused words that are hard to properly define, but it seems quintessentially appropriate here. The feeling I have while reading Wallace is akin to that of listening to the climax of your favorite song, or being in the company of a really good friend. It is the feeling of being completely and utterly at peace with the world.
Wallace’s writing is intelligent and complex, and engaging on an intellectual level in a unique way; it is funny and clever and insightful—but all of this was clear to me from reading his first book of essays. What his fiction showed me, though, was a narrative voice that is all of these things, but also transcends them. His writing is not just intended to be funny and smart and insightful, but also to make us happy (in a way that is also funny, smart and insightful). His writing is good because it inspires the morally good, nonhedonistic kind of pleasure (more on this to come).
At the time of his death, I called Wallace my “second favorite living writer.” In hindsight this feels absurd. Not only had I read far too little of his work to make that kind of judgment, but upon reading more I would realize that he is, for me, the best writer who has ever lived.
I. The All-Seeing Eye of David Foster Wallace
“Welcome to my mind for 20 pages, see through my eyes, here’s pretty much all the French curls and crazy circles. The trick was to have it be honest but also interesting — because most of our thoughts aren’t all that interesting. To be honest with a motive… There’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am.”—Wallace on his Harper’s essays
Two years ago today I had only a vague sense of who David Foster Wallace was. Tim likes to take credit for “introducing” me to him, but that is a little self-congratulatory on his part: Not only was I already familiar with him in the general sense that I was familiar with Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen and the rest of the current literati, but I already had Wallace on my “must-read” list. This was based largely on the knowledge that he had written “E Unibus Pluram,” a supposedly seminal work on television.
Nevertheless, I didn’t really know much about him, and a lot of what I presumed to know turned out to be wrong. For some reason—likely because I knew his TV essay had an anti-irony message… plus, you know, the three names thing—I pictured Wallace as a very straight-laced, urbane and polished older gentleman.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled across his Charlie Rose interview, in which he is wearing his trademark bandanna and comes across as unsure of himself and nervous—Rose even implores him at one point to “quit worrying about how you’re going to look and just be.” He also comes off as mildly arrogant or pretentious.* He uses a bunch of big words (often when smaller words will do) and does the traditional complaining-about-his-success thing that lots of famous writers do, and claims that Infinite Jest has endnotes because jumbling the sentences up would have been the other option, “but then nobody’s going to read it.”**
*I also bear him some resentment because his discussion with Rose, combined with his essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing about David Lynch inspired me to go out and rent and actually watch the dull and overrated film Blue Velvet.
**Although, to be fair to him, he does preface this statement by saying, “This is going to sound pretentious.”
Despite all this, though, the interview showcased the brilliance, charm and disarming honesty of Wallace’s personality: At one point Rose, for some reason, asks for Wallace’s thoughts on The English Patient, to which Wallace replies somewhat incredulously, “You’re seriously asking me what I thought of The English Patient?” When Rose tries to get him to stop worrying about how he’s coming off, Wallace politely and frankly tells him that, “I have got news for you: Coming on a television show stimulates your ‘What Am I Going to Look Like?’ gland like no other experience.” He says some stupid things, but cringes after he says them, and he treats Rose’s more befuddling questions like they are befuddling, instead of acting like they are perfectly natural.
The essays are probably the best place to start with Wallace—they are shorter, more manageable, and less abstruse—but “E Unibus Pluram” is not the best one to kick off your Wallace experience. This is not a criticism of that essay—I personally think it is his second best—but it is his most dense and least illustrative.
His concern is the way television’s omnipresent influence shapes the way individuals interact with fiction… and pretty much everything else. The essay is about TV, but it’s more about the culture that has grown up and been shaped by TV. It was written in 1990, but it is hard to read that essay and not see technological trends like Twitter and text messaging as mere extensions of TV’s cultural influence.
Most of the rest of his essays, both in this book and in Consider the Lobster, are more reporting-driven; Wallace was never really a journalist, but he was an excellent observer. He would look at things like television, tennis, the movies of David Lynch (even though the movies themselves aren’t very good, the essay is great), the State Fair, the dictionary, John McCain, talk radio, a Caribbean cruise, etc., and see them not just for what they are, but for what they mean to the culture.
It wasn’t simply that Wallace could look at something and explain why it was important—all good essayists do this (and it’s not much of a challenge defending the significance of a presidential candidate or the language we all use). What separated Wallace as an essayist, though, was the persona he created. Wallace forged this identity with some combination of his good ol’ Midwestern values, dry and blunt sense of humor, unchecked pensiveness, earnestness and humility. Wallace sells that persona a little short by calling it “stupid and schmucky,” although there are certainly elements of abrasiveness and simple-mindedness.
Take, for example, this passage from “Authority and American Usage,” in which Wallace internally debates all the social meanings and implications of different ways to finish a conversation:
“In real life I always seem to have a hard time winding up a conversation or asking somebody to leave, and sometimes the moment becomes so delicate and fraught with social complexity that I’ll get overwhelmed trying to sort out all the different possible ways of saying it and all the different implications of each option and will just sort of blank out and do it totally straight—‘I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore’—which evidently makes me look either as if I’m very rude and abrupt or as if I’m semi-autistic and have no sense of how to wind up a conversation gracefully. Somehow, in other words, my reducing the statement to its bare propositional content ‘sends a message’ that is itself scanned, sifted, interpreted and judged by my auditor, who then sometimes never comes back. I’ve actually lost friends this way.”
This digression illustrates the point that language can never be objective or devoid of social and subjective significance; it highlights the importance of understanding these meanings in everyday scenarios; it demonstrates just how vast the possible constructions of sentiments are with the English language, and how each one has a long list of possible interpretations; it is very funny; and it presents the narrator as someone who both thinks seriously and critically about the issues at stake and is self-deprecating and forthcoming about his social shortcomings. In other words, it’s a pretty classic example of great essay writing (not to mention the fact that this amusing anecdote is presented in a fucking footnote).
These footnotes, what Wallace called the “second voice” in his head, became a somewhat polarizing trademark of his writing. There are plenty of explanations and justifications for Wallace’s use of footnotes in both his fiction and nonfiction, but perhaps the simplest is this: This is how people talk. This is how they interact with each other and the world. As Wallace told Rose, “[T]ext is very linear. It’s very unified.” By contrast, when people tell stories, they tell them with tangents, or pauses, or they forget necessary background information until halfway through the story. When people experience an event, they don’t experience it all at once, but with interruptions and other things on their mind or in their reality. Real life is full of irrelevant details and distractions and snide quips about whatever is going on; footnotes are just one of many stylistic ways by which Wallace captures this aspect of modernity.
Wallace’s eye for the details, and for the profound within the quotidian, is never better showcased than it is in the title essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In this essay, originally published in Harper’s as “Shipping Out,” Wallace takes a vacation with Celebrity Cruises and is unwittingly confronted with the despair of the experience.
In the summer of 2004, I went on a cruise with my family. Now, my cruise was run by Royal Caribbean, and it was a cruise of the Mediterranean, as opposed to Wallace’s Caribbean cruise, but I recall being slightly put off by the whole experience. Everyone else in my family enjoyed the experience, but I found something vaguely repellent about the endeavor. My reasons, at the time, were not as coherent, philosophically sound or eloquently put as Wallace’s critique of his cruise—my issues were mainly that cruising emphasized the worst aspects of tourism—but the experience allowed me to see something of a kindred spirit in Wallace’s essay persona.
It wasn’t simply the fact that Wallace captured what it was like to eat in a ship’s Five-Star Restaurant, or have essentially an entire crew waiting on you hand and foot, or the almost threateningly violent sound of nautical toilets; it was also that the perspective he brought to these events was both refreshing and familiar.
There is a guilt that comes with demanding leisure and relaxation, even on a vacation. A cruise offers you the opportunity to outsource every need, to rely on a staff to provide you with food, entertainment, laundry, organized activities and excursions, towels, cleaning service, and virtually anything else you could want—in fact, Wallace points out that the cruise even provides you with an interpretation of your experience, with employees constantly telling you that you are having a good time, and brochures that even tell you what to say.
Naturally, people feel guilty for demanding all this from other people. In order to overcome this guilt, we convince ourselves that we deserve this treatment, that we are entitled to good service. This is why so many people rationalize vacations as a reward for hard work during the rest of the year. We view vacations as a validation of our selves and our accomplishments.
Of course, this whole expectation is an illusion: There is no connection between us as individuals and the service we receive. You don’t get good service because you are a good person, and getting bad service doesn’t make you a bad person. While this realization may be comforting (if you are the one getting bad service), it can also be profoundly disturbing, as Wallace highlights in his description of his cabin maid Petra, on whom he has developed a crush:
“It’s been particularly traumatic for me to realize that Petra is cleaning Cabin 1009 so phenomenally well simply because she’s under orders to do so, and thus (obviously) that she’s not doing it for me or because she likes me or thinks I’m No Problem or A Funny Thing—in fact she’d clean my cabin just as phenomenally well even if I were a dork—and maybe conceivably behind the smile does consider me a dork, in which case what if in fact I really am a dork?—I mean, if pampering and radical kindness don’t seem motivated by a strong affection and thus don’t somehow affirm one or help assure one that one is not, finally, a dork, of what final and significant value is all this indulgence and cleaning?”
At first glance, this kind of logic is often dismissed as “thinking too much” but Wallace allows his unchecked introspection to get at a very real sense of dread that comes with leisure and indulgence.
Now, obviously, most people generally like luxury and convenience; not everyone feels the sense of dread that affects Wallace as intensely as he does. It seems highly unlikely, though, that anyone who has experienced luxury and indulgence, whether it be in the form of a lavish cruise or something as simple as dining out, would have a problem relating to the sense of disappointment that often comes with getting all of your needs and wants met. It can be tremendously satisfying and simultaneously unfulfilling.
There is a point in the essay during which Wallace’s ship pulls up alongside another cruise ship in port. From his own deck, Wallace can see this other ship, and he can’t help but realize that it has more pools, its paint is a brighter white, etc. Intense envy creeps over him as he can’t help but think that, despite all the excessive pampering he has received on his ship, that this other ship probably has even more amenities and even better service.
Of course the point Wallace is trying to make with this is that this infantile craving for more luxury and better treatment doesn’t go away in even the most extreme of indulgent situations; getting what you want often just inspires us to want more. But Wallace isn’t lecturing, because he actually feels jealous: “I am suffering here from a delusion, and I know it’s a delusion, this envy of another ship, and still it’s painful.” In other words, Wallace knows that simply pointing this out doesn’t make getting past this envy any easier. He respects his readers enough to treat this problem as something more than academic.
There are plenty of arguments in this essay—anti-commercialism, anti-consumerism, anti-capitalism, etc.—but you never get the sense that Wallace is trying to persuade you of something. He knows that his readers are wary of bromides about “the grass is always greener” mentalities and commercialism; he does not pretend to be the first person to realize this. What distinguishes this essay, and most of Wallace’s great ones, is not just his argumentative force or illustrative style; he captures the meaning and impact of experiences so well that it inspires readers to think more about their own lives. This is what I mean when I say that reading Wallace is like hanging out with the best kind of friend—he is not trying to convert us or impress us with his arguments; he is merely trying to capture the experience of being human, with all its intellectual and emotional nuance.
II. The Freedom to Choose Not to Listen
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”—David Foster Wallace, from Commencement speech to Kenyon College Class of 2005
One year ago today, I hadn’t read Infinite Jest. In fact, one year ago today I thought I’d probably never read Infinite Jest. I generally have a fear of long books, and 1,079 pages seemed way too long for me.
If I’m trying to see the “silver lining” in David Foster Wallace’s death, it was that his suicide inspired me to read his novel. Before I had even finished, it became my favorite book of all-time.
Infinite Jest is the kind of favorite book that comes with a lot of baggage. For one, it’s a very difficult book to recommend; if you’ve ever had trouble convincing friends to see any movie over 90 minutes, then try getting them to commit to a book over a thousand pages long. And while the strength and elegance of Wallace’s writing are evident on the first page, Infinite Jest is still not a very easy book to get into: It has endnotes, an entirely different socio-political backdrop, and it introduces about 400 characters in the first 100 pages without giving much indication as to which of these characters are the most important.
Another drawback that comes with claiming Infinite Jest as your “favorite book” is that it signals a lot of things about you that aren’t necessarily true: It seems like a choice that is intentionally erudite and esoteric, or something that is chosen because it’s trendy. At this point, Wallace, due to his unusual style and respect in certain literary and avant-garde circles, has gained enough of a cult following to become something of the literary Kurt Cobain (as someone who only read Infinite Jest after he died, and largely because he died, I am particularly defensive about this).
But I’m not trying to say anything about myself other than that I really, really liked reading Infinite Jest. I became addicted to it: I would get excited when trains were late or planes were delayed so I could read more. I would back out of social engagements to read more. At one point in the middle of the book, I actually got sad due to the realization that eventually I would finish the book and not be reading it anymore.
This is an odd emotion to have while reading, I concede, but it is particularly relevant to Infinite Jest. For one, it indicates the book’s lack of plot. Normally, we want to get to the end of a book because we want to see what happens. With Infinite Jest, though, this isn’t really a concern.
A lot is going on in Infinite Jest, but not a lot actually happens in the book. The book follows an alcohol and drug recovery clinic, a private tennis academy, a Canadian terrorist plot against the new Organization of North American Nations (or O.N.A.N. for short), a government agent who goes undercover in drag and a scientist/avant-garde film-maker who makes a film so entertaining that anyone who watches it cannot stop watching it until they die of starvation. But most of Wallace’s time is spent developing back-story, or sitting in on A.A. meetings, or providing odd connections between peripheral characters. A reader realizes pretty early on that he isn’t going to get any traditional ending.
This might seem like a flaw, but it isn’t at all. For one, Wallace’s conversational writing style and flare for invention make things that seem like they ought to be classified as “exposition” or “tangents” riveting: It may not seem interesting or relevant for Wallace to depict a character watching a movie, but I would gladly read hundreds of descriptions of James O. Incandenza films.
This also speaks to one of Infinite Jest’s primary themes: the purpose of art.
One thing I’ve never understood about individuals’ relationship to art is their invoking of ‘need’: Did Dickens “need” to make his novel so long, or was it just because he was paid by the word?, Does Apocalypse Now Redux “need” to be three hours long, or was Coppola just self-indulgent?, etc. The answer to all of these questions, of course, is “no,” because no book or movie “needs” to exist at all. One of the defining features of art is its apparent superfluity. Books and movies are not there to serve a “need”: they are there to entertain.
Now, Infinite Jest certainly embraces this philosophy at times—there are many sections of the book that invite skeptical (or even just reasonable) readers to wonder if these sections “need” to be there and how they are connected to the plot—but it also questions what the value is of “mere entertainment.”
James O. Incandenza, the deceased father of the novel’s protagonist, Hal, has produced a film (also called “Infinite Jest”) that is so entertaining that it reduces its viewers to an essentially vegetative, catatonic state. If the purpose of art is solely to entertain or amuse us, then this film is an utmost success—it is, as several characters in the novel refer to it, “the Entertainment.” But those who watch this film are its victims, and a group of handicapped Quebecois terrorists (called the Wheelchair Assassins) try and find the film’s Master Copy to use as a weapon.
Although the film “Infinite Jest” is a toxic threat to human autonomy, Wallace presents it in a context in which it would be greeted as a success: He illustrates a society that craves pleasure to the point of addiction.
The two main characters of Infinite Jest, Hal Incandenza and Don Gately, are each suffering from an addiction: Hal cannot stop smoking pot, or, as it is nicknamed in Wallace’s northeastern parlance, “Bob Hope” (Wallace loves alternating between esoteric subtlety and in-your-face obviousness. It’s great.), and Don Gately is a recovering Demerol addict.
These addictions, however, are just stand-ins for something else, for cravings for some kind of pleasure, just as “the Entertainment” is just a stand-in for entertainment.
What Hal and Don are facing is not really a physical or chemical or even emotional addictions; they are trying rather to cope with the existential loneliness that comes from an insatiable desire for pleasure.
Infinite Jest is essentially about this loneliness: By the end of the novel, both Hal and Don are more or less catatonic, just like the viewers of “the Entertainment.” They are not dead, but they are totally incapable of conveying their thoughts and feelings to those around them, even those they love the most. They are, as we all are, alone.
But Infinite Jest is not a lonely book, and despite this lachrymose description, and Wallace’s own professed intentions, it’s not even a particularly sad book.
It’s not lonely because Wallace never condemns or judges Hal or Don; we get to know them, and there is something heroic in their earnest perseverance. And it’s not sad because Wallace provides us with hope for nonhedonistic sources of pleasure.
In Wallace’s commencement speech, he mentions “the really important type of freedom,” and the really important type of freedom that is stressed in Infinite Jest is the freedom to choose your own addiction. Gately spends a lot of time in A.A., and the irony of sacrificing his addiction to oral narcotics for one to the support group is not lost on him. What makes the trade worthwhile, though, is that A.A. is not an addiction to the self-indulgent, egotistical pleasure that only leads to suffering and isolation.
The emotional climax of Gately’s story comes while he is in the hospital, having to refuse medication for a gunshot wound because, well, he’s an addict. The realization that pain is inherent to life, and that it is not as unbearable as the quest to eliminate it, however, opens his eyes:
“No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought that of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering….But none of it’s as of now real. What’s real is the tube and Noxzema and pain….He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen.”
While reading Infinite Jest, what kept me so—for lack of a better word—addicted to the narrative wasn’t just the brilliant writing, inventive stories, clever jokes and new vocabulary words: What made me so eager to come back were moments like Gately’s epiphany. In the face of such intense loneliness and isolation, Wallace’s characters remain committed to trying to find a way to connect with people, to use the really important kinds of freedom to find a way to be happy.
III. A Culture of Irreverence, A Culture of Depression
“I think postmodernism has to a large extent run its course….Burger King now sells hamburgers with ‘You gotta break the rules.’”
—David Foster Wallace, Charlie Rose Interview
One year ago today, I was a big fan of irony.
I guess I’m still a fan of irony, but now it’s more in the way liberals are fans of Obama, or Mets fans are fans of Francisco Rodriguez: It’s there and I’m happy about that, but I’m wary of the extent to which it can be relied on.
As I indicated before, Wallace’s anti-irony stance was one of the first things I really knew about him, and “E Unibus Pluram” is his most clear-cut argument against it. But calling Wallace “anti-irony” isn’t really fair; it’s kind of like calling him “anti-air.” Irony is only the most obvious of a host of tools of postmodernism, and it can be very appealing.
Defining postmodernism is always a tricky task—when Rose presses Wallace for an answer, Wallace just laughs and says “after modernism.” Perhaps the defining aspect of postmodernism, however, is self-awareness: Music, movies, literature, etc. that are conscious of the fact that it is art meant for consumption is postmodern. This has led to a proliferation of what we now call “meta,” as well as the glorification of aloofness and detachment.
I, like many people, really like stuff like this: I like it when Arrested Development makes jokes about the fact that it is going to be cancelled, and has Tobias eat at Burger King and proclaim, “It’s a wonderful restaurant!” I like it when a show like The O.C. introduces a fake show called The Valley into the narrative to comment on itself. I like it when characters in Kill Bill refer to movie advertisements for a “roaring rampage of bloody revenge.” I like it when Philip Roth creates a character like Nathan Zuckerman who is basically Roth himself. I even like it when commercials and advertisements employ the self-aware “soft sell” techniques. I would even venture to say that I like this stuff more than most people.
Wallace, it seems, liked this stuff too. He read Pynchon and Barth, and was often described by critics as postmodern himself. His love of footnotes and endnotes can even be seen as his own way of “breaking the fourth wall,” and there are times in his fiction when he seems to drop all narrative pretense at all and personally inject himself into the story to make things clear.
The appeal of these tools, originally, was their apparent honesty. If the narrative voice pretends that fiction is truth, then it is, essentially, lying, but if it frequently makes known to the reader its own self-awareness, then it seems refreshing. Similarly, they also allow postmodern works to comment on fictional narratives that have become such an important part of modernity. In other words, when the The O.C. has characters discuss The Valley, it can comment on its own cultural phenomenon, which is often as relevant to the viewers watching as the show itself; similarly, Arrested Development can mock its own reception and lack of popularity, which was of course on the minds of viewers who watched the show.
What Wallace knew, though, is how incredibly alienating these techniques can be, while at the same time being almost necessary to maintain credibility. Products of culture that don’t seem somehow cleverly self-conscious often come off as staid and outdated, like a Head On commercial (which, of course, had to release its own self-parody commercial so it could seem hip and ironically awful).
The pervasiveness of irony, sarcasm and irreverence, however, maintains a distance between individuals and their opinions and beliefs. Put crudely, it is often hard to tell if and when people are being serious. When The O.C.* had a character make fun of the declining quality of The Valley, it was commenting on its own apparent slip in quality. But this raised some odd questions for viewers: If the show’s writers were aware of their own declining quality, why didn’t they just make the show better? Or were they commenting on only the perceived dip in quality? And did they think joking about bad episodes somehow redeemed them? Were they making the show bad on purpose?
*I understand that using so many examples from The O.C. in a discussion of David Foster Wallace may seem incongruously unerudite, but deal with it.
In other words, techniques and tools that developed as a way to make fiction more honest and broader in scope now actually make art more duplicitous and confusing and alienating to the audience.
What differentiates Wallace’s fiction from traditional postmodernists is that he is writing about a world in which self-consciousness, irony and cynicism are not clever tricks for artists, but ubiquitous and oppressive phenomena that pervade everyday life. The irony in Wallace’s stories is necessary for realism, but it’s often the source of the characters’ troubles.
So many of Wallace’s stories deal with the seeming impossibility of ever actually saying what you truly mean. “The Depressed Person” (from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) begins with, “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.”
Similarly, “Mister Squishy” (from Oblivion) depicts Terry Schmidt conducting a Focus Group—the product in question is, fittingly, a dessert cake called Felonies! that is trying to ironically hype the fact that it is unhealthy and bad for consumers—in which he is employing upfront honesty, but is aware that he is employing the honesty as a sales tactic, and is even upfront about that fact, but this in turn comes off as a sales tactic and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, Schmidt contemplates how even in his personal life, brutal honesty now only comes off as some sort of trick or act of manipulation.
Perhaps the best example of this comes from Infinite Jest itself, in which Orin Incandenza, Hal’s older brother, likes to use as a pick up line, “Tell me what sort of man you prefer, and I’ll affect the demeanor of that man,” which, as one character puts it:
“is being almost pathologically open and sincere about the whole picking-up enterprise, but also has this quality of Look-At-Me-Being-So-Totally-Open-And-Sincere-I-Rise-Above-The-Whole-Disningenuous-Posing-Process-Of-Attracting-Someone-,-And-I-Transcend-The-Common-Disingenuity-In-A-Bar-Herd-In-A-Particularly-Hip-And-Witty-Self-Aware-Way-,-And-If-You-Will-Let-Me-Pick-You-Up-I-Will-Not-Only-Keep-Being-This-Wittily-,-Transcendently-Open-,-But-Will-Bring-You-Into-This-World-Of Social-Falsehood-Transcendence, which of course he cannot do because the whole openness-demeanor thing is itself a purposive social falsehood; it is a pose of poselessness.”
This epidemic even afflicts Wallace-the-narrator himself. Twice in Brief Interviews he literally interrupts and calls off the narrative to give the reader an account of the story’s development. “Octet,” supposedly a suite of eight interrogative vignettes, actually only contains three and a half, with an addendum that explains why the others were discarded, but worries that it will seem like “the now-tired S.O.P. ‘meta’-stuff [that’s] more the dramatist himself coming onstage from the wings and reminding you that what’s going on is artificial and that the artificer is him (the dramatist) and but that he’s at least respectful enough of you as reader/audience to be honest about the fact that he’s back there pulling the strings, an ‘honesty’ which personally you’ve always had the feeling is actually a highly rhetorical sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like him and approve of him (i.e., of the ‘meta’-type writer) and feel flattered that he apparently thinks you’re enough of a grownup to handle being reminded that what you’re in the middle of is artificial (like you didn’t know that already, like you needed to be reminded of it over and over again as if you were a myopic child who couldn’t see what was right in front of you)”.
In other words, Wallace himself is suffering from the same confusions about honesty and openness and communication as everyone who is daily confronted by irony and irreverence is. There is a sense, when reading Wallace’s fiction, of someone anxiously trying to work out the problems of existence for himself.
Now, it would be a lie for me to say that part of this sense didn’t come from the knowledge that Wallace ultimately took his own life. It is an odd phenomenon to read the works of someone who committed suicide almost immediately after that suicide took place—in a way that reading, say, Sylvia Plath, is not. It’s hard not to read his short stories as some sort of surreal suicide notes, particularly when he writes things with names like “The Depressed Person” and “Suicide as a Sort of Present.”
I do not wish to psychoanalyze Wallace ex post facto—there is certainly a way to read suicidal thoughts into every word he ever wrote, but that seems crass and demeaning. His works are not about his own depression or his own troubles; they are about a sense of depression the he sees pervading the culture at large. His death, however, does strike me as something of a validation of his honesty: He clearly knew what it was like to suffer.
And yet his work is not, on the whole, morose or macabre. His work is sad, but there is vitality and honesty and depth to the characters he creates—characters that as a result come off like companions to us living, breathing readers, even if they themselves are desperately alone.
IV. Really Great Writers
So he — we, fiction writers — won’t (can’t) dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies. The project would be like Menard’s Quixote. People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us. Given this (and it is a given), who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that? How—for a writer today, even a talented writer today—to get up the guts to even try?
—David Foster Wallace, from “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”
One year ago today, I hadn’t read much Dostoevsky (I still haven’t), but I’d read enough to say that either Dostoevsky or William Shakespeare were probably the greatest writers to ever live (real original choices, I know).
Wallace himself seems to have agreed with that sentiment. His review of Joseph Frank’s series of Dostoevsky biographies is incredibly laudatory of the Russian, to the point where the reader gets the sense that the inevitable comparisons of the writer writing and the writer being written about are making Wallace feel inadequate.
It seems likely Wallace hanged himself without ever really being sure if he had produced great literature. This is not unusual; even great artists (maybe especially great artists) go to their graves never knowing if they’ve been truly successful.
With Wallace, though, this doesn’t just refer to the self-doubt that inevitably plagues creative minds. One of Wallace’s primary themes was the failure of communication, and his doubts must have been over whether or not he ever really made himself clear or understood, or whether he ever really had anything to say in the first place. Truly Great Artists, like Dostoevsky or Shakespeare or whoever you want to list, communicate something really important; they are not just stylistic innovators or self-aware cynics.
But Wallace is wrong if he thinks that he never wrote fiction that was really, About Something. The word “ideology” is misleading: Great art is never about ideology. Nobody reads fiction because it can be reduced to a broad, philosophical axiom (well, unless maybe you’re reading Ayn Rand or something). Wallace himself knew that what made Dostoevsky great wasn’t that he knew a lot about rational egoism or Christian mysticism or European postivism. Dostoevsky was a Great Artist because he
“wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual v. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts. His concern was always what it was to be a human being—that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.”
Well, guess what: Wallace did exactly the same thing. He cannot be reduced to a stylistic camp or technical genre. His fiction was about tennis, television, films, entertainment, drugs, alcohol, junk food, sex, puberty, art…but it was really about what it is to be a human being, which sounds like a nonstatement, but isn’t at all.
At a certain point, choosing who is the greatest artist of all the Great Artists is like some kind of Rorschach test: What you say ends up saying way more about you than about the artists in question.
So what does the fact that David Foster Wallace is my favorite writer of all-time say about me? Well, I probably couldn’t tell you all of it, but it says that I’m a person living in 2009, who is trying to figure how to be a good person, and who’s not really affiliated or concerned with any particular religious dogma or political ideology, but who really cares about television and movies and books. It says that I spend a considerable amount of time wondering if I really like The Hills, or if I just want people to think I like The Hills, and if it’s the latter, why I would ever want people to think that about me. It says that I’m the kind of cynic who prides himself on knowing precisely which emotions and desires advertisers and marketers are trying to manipulate, and yet still buys things like David Foster Wallace T-shirts because I think consumerism is a viable avenue for expressing individuality.
It probably says a lot of other things as well, but it also says that I really like great fiction. I like fiction that reminds me of what it’s like to live in the world I live in, and reminds me that this a problem that literally everyone has to worry about. I like fiction that makes me happy, not for any self-involved or hedonistic reasons, but for actually, honest-to-God moral reasons, that makes me find pleasure in the process of understanding “how to be an actual person.” Basically, I like fiction like the kind David Foster Wallace writes.
So today, one year after Wallace took his own life, I’m sad that Wallace is no longer alive. I’m sad that he’s not writing more fiction and more essays. I’m sad that he may never have realized just how happy he makes his readers (me, in particular). I’m sad that he was so sad.
But more than all of that, I’m happy that someone like him even got to exist in the first place.