We could not possibly be happier to bring you the following essay from Daniel Matthew Varley on one of our absolute favorite subjects. Please note: If you don’t feel like wading through the whole thing but would like to garner some nuggets about David Foster Wallace not found in the biography or elsewhere on the Internet nor probably anywhere else other than in DT Max’s head, skip to section three.
1. There were a handful of “David Foster Wallace moments” (DFWm) at the discussion of DT Max’s biography of said deceased author held on January 23rd at the 92Y Tribeca, which (the moments) I’m defining as a flash of instant realization that you’ve come upon a David Foster Wallace-related subject that you think David himself would have strong feelings about, and you wonder at that juncture of your David Foster Wallace moment how David would weigh in on what you just said and would he be critical or accepting of it and now you realize it’s very funny to imagine that your opinion of a certain issue could be swayed by your projected hypothetical opinions of an author who has been dead since 2008, which then leads to like some literary version of quantum mechanics’ uncertainty principle where no stance on a David Foster Wallace issue can be stated without the opinion susceptible to your hypothesizing thoughts of the subject to your original thought. In other words, it’s not just thinking about DFW, but rather thinking about what DFW might think about what you’re thinking about, which is interesting because I’ve never once had a “F. Scott Fitzgerald moment,” even though I love that author just as much as he loved Zelda, alcohol and Princeton (in that order). For example, a David Foster Wallace moment for me would be the realization that I’m worried about David’s take on my grammar because I’m writing about an author who was not just deeply concerned about grammar but so embedded in the frontlines of the prescriptivist/descriptivist grammar war, which I know of, interestingly enough, through an essay of Wallace’s on the publication of Gardner’s Dictionary of American Usage in which Wallace explains for the lay audience the decades old battle waged between the Sharks and the Jets of the grammar world, a war in which the Wallace family found themselves so entrenched that both David and his mom are thanked in the acknowledgments of Gardner’s book. So now I’m having a second DFW moment, which is the realization that I’m self conscious of having one (a DFWm), talking to you, since I’m aware of my awareness he would also be aware of his own awareness in a similar essay, too, and I wonder if he would approach the whole self awareness internal kerfuffle thing in a different manner. It can lead to so much recursive thinking that I suggest you stay away from it all but if you find yourself in this recursive bind I suggest you put on the Allman Brothers’ Live at Fillmore East (“Whipping Post” works for me) since that seems to be an auditory CNS depressant and good for situations like these.
DT Max, the author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery and contributor to The New Yorker, among other fancy-pants magazines, has penned the first biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace and read sections of that biography on 23 January 2013 in New York City. I read the biography immediately when it came out on 30 August 2012 (I have a poster of the author, so….not surprising right?) and found the biography to be the treatment that Wallace deserved as an author, but also needed, too. Pump the brakes, let me explain. Highly regarded authors “deserve” the whole biographical treatment, I suppose, and a cottage industry grows amongst scattered journals, uncollected letters and haikus written on the back of fortune cookies and whatever else literary biographers can dig up.
Wallace, I think, desperately “needed” a biography more than most, since in the wake of his 2008 suicide his reputation grew almost parabolically, and most importantly, his works seemed to take on a canonical aspect to many readers slavishly devoted to a (mis)perception of Wallace as somewhat holy, perhaps even a god-like writer.
The healthy, well-researched biography can be the pin that pricks the sort of overinflated ideas grown over time, like these. And certainly, that’s why DT Max’s biography of Wallace was a welcome sight for someone like myself, who has (admittedly) indulged in the canonization, though in somewhat of a self-conscious way (David Foster Wallace moment here). So I imagined that by attending a reading of a healthy, well-researched literary biography of Wallace I would… well, actually I no idea what I was walking into. I just knew there were a lot of things about Wallace I was still enthralled about, and a few things I still had to come to terms with.
2. First, let’s take a quick at the biography that was the subject of the 92Y talk. DT Max is a very nice gentleman and can be described (positively) as “jaunty,” with a smile that seems to suggest a bouncy walk (though I cannot confirm the actual zip of his skip.) He’s a good foil to DFW, or at the very least, DFW’s writing style. Max the biographer is balanced, objective and succinct when necessary (no one in history would ever call David succinct.)
Interestingly enough, despite these seemingly judicious qualities, Max admitted at the reading that he describes himself as a “David Foster Wallace enabler,” someone who could forgive any researched transgression committed by Wallace in his lifetime. A DFW fan first, you could say, before he became a biographer of the writer. This is an interesting admission because his biography of Wallace does not contain a whiff of fan-boy authorship at all. It’s a work that gives plenty of airtime and analysis to Wallace’s literary works, highlights all the positive attributes of the writer without glossing over his faults (of which there were many), including his drug and alcohol addiction, vanity (if he was to be hospitalized, he wanted it to be the “Harvard of nuthouses”), duplicitousness, his propensity to drop/abandon certain friends and even his uneven relationship with his sister, Amy. Max’s unflinching look at Wallace helps deflate the romanticization of Wallace that has developed in the wake of his suicide, a romanticization to which your essayist has already admitted his susceptibility.
This may be a wildly awkward and morbid transition, but bear with me for a second. I’ve always thought that Max’s description of the final days of Wallace leading up to the suicide is representative of the entire balanced approach Max takes in the biography. It respectfully treats its subject without falling into the all too easy indulgence of narrating the event with inappropriate sentimentality that other biographers could have found themselves in. Some readers may have felt that the ending came to an abrupt stop, but Max smartly resists the impulse to drag this out further, perpetuating the supposed martyrdom of Wallace. The biography ends succinctly, “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen,” and without the usual gooey sentimental, “David Foster Wallace now casts a large shadow upon contemporary literary fiction…” type of ending.
Max’s own David Foster Wallace moment was that he admitted he could “hear” David on his shoulder calling out any potential “bullshit” ending penned by him. Interestingly enough at the reading Max said the final chapter became final by happenstance, as the other final chapter was lost somehow and unrecoverable. Though upon reading the current final lines Max decided that in fact this was the way the biography should end, and said that in hindsight he was, “thrilled the other pages were gone,” and was probably the way David wanted it (DFWm).
3. Let’s be honest: literary biography readings are a pretty dry affair. The most you can hope for are hearing little tidbits about the subject that aren’t contained in the book. There are a few additional ones that I haven’t already sprinkled into the above already and will provide in list form since their disjointedness makes genuine transitions awkward:
- A) Max never figured out how tall Wallace was because everyone close to Wallace gave a different height, a statement that is such a schmaltzy layup for this essayist (i.e. “David Foster Wallace represented many different things to his readers that it is not hard to understand that his physical stature was open to speculation too”) that I’ll pass and move on to point B.
- B) Max began the research of David Foster Wallace two weeks after his Wallace’s death for an article at the request of David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, at said magazine. At the time, Max remembers that Wallace was respected as an author, but the critics were still ambivalent on him (some color on this in point “D”). When he concluded the New Yorker essay, Max admitted he had portrayed David as “too sad,” and “wanted to spend more time with David.” The biography became a way to rectify this, showing the funny side of David, among other facets of his personality.
- C) Max wrote the bulk of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story at the Montclair, NJ public library, describing each day as “going to work with David,” which, while not a David Foster Wallace moment in its purest sense, does, again, speak to the deeply personal connection readers have of an author they have never, nor will ever, meet.
- D) At the reading Max alluded to the new direction of (literary) biography in the twenty-first century. In this age of easily accessible, infinitely available information (I mean, Salmon Rushdie is on Twitter, jeez) Max found the research it to be an “open ended system,” (sounds vaguely Wittgenstein-ish), as compared to his example of a Brontë sister, who has a “finite” amount of material available to the biographer. In the case of Max, with the information at his disposal, said that he “knew David’s patterns,” so well that he could probably predict the contents of a Wallace-penned breakup letter sent to an ex without ever having to go through the trouble of opening the envelope.
- E) Wallace described himself to others as a realist writer, a statement that would probably make the literary critic James Wood spit out his Fresca. “A Henry James lost in post-modernism,” as was said at the Tribeca reading.
4. “My David wouldn’t fail.” That’s what Max said when he realized in the researching process that Wallace continued to write even when Wallace was in the drug and alcohol recovery facility, Grenada House. It was proof that at the depths of his struggles with addiction Wallace was still gleaning that teaming brain of his with a Bic pen and Max swelled with pride like a parent for that victory of Wallace’s.
The interesting part about Max’s statement isn’t necessarily the revelation that Wallace continued to write just shortly after a major hospitalization, but rather his wording, “my David.” I’m not going to sink my canines in the nuances of Max’s grammar here. It’s just that Max’s statement is representative of a whole swath of people (including yours truly, and and at the admission of its editor, this esteemed publication too) who claim not just an enjoyment of Wallace’s work, but a deep and personal and practically religious connection to the deceased author.
Those knee deep in the cranberry bogs of the literary circles call it the “St. Dave,” phenomenon, the idea that this Wallace was an artist who was just too good and too bright for this sullied world and thus exited stage left at his own hand (while we can only genuflect amidst the flickering votives now.) Max’s biography certainly pushed back against this idea, but his words at the reading at times indicated that at times he slips on this slope, too.
The noted author (and lesser noted amateur ornithologist) Jonathan Franzen, in his 2011 New Yorker essay discussing his trip to the unpopulated island of Alejandro Selkirk to recoup from his promotional book tour (the trip also serving as an opportunity to finally reflect on the death of his friend, Wallace), put the whole St. Dave phenomenon underneath his Nikon 7296 Monarch ATB 12×42 birding binoculars:
The curious thing about David’s fiction, though, is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it. To the extent that each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island—and I think it’s approximately correct to say that his most susceptible readers are ones familiar with the socially and spiritually isolating effects of addiction or compulsion or depression—we gratefully seized on each new dispatch from that farthest-away island which was David.
Franzen is somewhat critical of the whole veneration idea, though he at least recognizes readers have some above-and-beyond connection to the author. But that still doesn’t satisfy whole why question for me. Why do we care so much about this man, David Foster Wallace, willingly pouring ourselves into his myth even when one of his major themes was the danger of willingly giving ourselves away? Why accept this cognitive dissonance? Why does our search for relics of St. Dave get to the point where the syllabus of his Pomona College English 67: Literary Interpretation class gets slung around the internet? Why do David Foster Wallace moments occur when you’re trying to state your own independent ideas?
5. I have rabidly intense reservations with the territory I’m about to enter FYI as I have an inherent skepticism with any statement along the lines of “Sunny Day Real Estate’s album Diary TOTALLY saved my life.” Plug any musician, writer, x-treme activity like wake-boarding, KISS band member, &c. into the sentence and you’ll pick up what I’m putting down. Because the stuff that REALLY saves/redeems us is a little bigger than a bunch of dudes who eventually joined the Foo Fighters. It just is. But I can’t escape the fact that there’s this totally intense rabid fascination/obsession with Wallace after his death which has been remarked upon but not really fully examined or unpacked or given the proper treatment as to its origins or reasons and now my fascination/obsession with the fascination/obsession has been turned up to 11 since I was at the Tribeca talk and observed those DFWm and realized whether unconsciously or not, others have DFWm too and that indicates more than just an enjoyment of the author’s work. And (David Foster Wallace moment here), I know Wallace would have smoke blowing out of his ears with the analysis I’m about to jump into, so cautious of the temptations of literary lionization was he, or so I understand.
I always thought it was interesting to compare Wallace’s descriptions of despair and suffering with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Styron, who in addition to his novels like Sophie’s Choice also penned a novella-length memoir of his battle with Depression, Darkness Visible. The memoir is well regarded, has a nice 4.3 out of 5 rating on Amazon and has blurbs from all the important people and outlets. But despite his epigraph from the book of Job and the allusion to Milton, the memoir fails to connect the reader in any meaningful way about the heavy subject at hand. (fn 1) Darkness Visible’s first sentence starts off with, “In Paris on a chilly evening in October….” and then goes on to describe Stryon’s realization that something was wrong, “…came as the car in which I was riding moved down a rain-slick street not far from the Champs-Élysées and slid past a dully glowing neon sign that read HôTEL WASHINGTON.” These are the first two sentences. You an get a sense of where this goes, getting a whiff of mortality while swishing around a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It’s not just that Styron writes about an alien land (to his defense, arguably a good metaphor for depression), but that he writes it in such a way that we the readers are alien to the alien experience. Here’s another:
One bright day on a walk through the woods with my dog I heard a flock of canada geese honking high above trees ablaze with foliage; ordinarily a sight and sound that would have exhilarated me, the flight of birds caused me to stop, riveted with fear, and I stood stranded there, helpless, shivering, aware for the first time that I had been stricken by no mere pangs of withdrawal but by a serious illness whose name and actuality I was able, for the first time, to acknowledge.
Geese. Honking. Foliage ablaze. It’s like disaffected sixteen year old trying to write like John Cheever. I guess that’s the issue, though. Styron writes like an East Coast Novelist, and sounds like an East Coast Novelist even when he’s trying to relate a condition that cuts across all groups (no matter how you slice it: gender, socioeconomic, age, etc.) Geese “honking,” is great if you’re intent on filling out some novelistic mise-en-scene for a marriage breakdown in Darien, Connecticut, but less so when trying to relate a rock bottom part of the human condition. Styron’s writing (I must add – excellent elsewhere) in Darkness Visible is like those glass flowers in the Ware collection at Harvard: beautiful, delicate, but the last thing you’d want to clutch onto in a crisis.
Compare now to Dave’s aside in the essay on his seven night cruise in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again:
The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.
I don’t know, Wallace just seems to have a better hold on the whole situation. The passage is raw, honest, unflinching, accessible (“Weird,” “Maybe,”) It’s abstract yet personalized. It’s got The Stuff that assists the author in tapping an intravenous needle into the reader’s Soul. It doesn’t use any alienating details to the common reader and therefore invites that person to witness and relate to his pain.
Wallace leaves himself vulnerable on the page in the process, too, by using these techniques to connect to the reader. You could say that weakens him, but I believe that vulnerability, when the authorial Wounded Surgeon plies the steel on the human condition, is an asset. As Dave said in his CRF interview to be referenced more in depth shortly, “…if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own.”
With Styron, we got the sense that he went through something terrible, came out of it and then wrote about it a head-scratching way as if describing some alien spaceship that fell in his backyard. Wallace comes off as someone going through it, describing something that was and always be inside of him. Wallace writes because he needs our support just as much as we need his. We identify with Wallace’s pain, and it enables us to conceive of others identifying with our own. That is powerful and full of beautiful incandescent meaning and creates a crazy-glue bond between an author and reader.
It also comes back to human nature, I guess. Who wants to hang out with the know-it-all who’s got his life together, writing his perfected prose on the back of a doily? Or would you rather be with the the guy who’s a lot more like you, still figuring things out, having moments of brilliance interspersed with royal fuck-ups but still searching for grace? If you answered the latter, you’re probably like a lot of other people who feel a strong bond to Wallace.
6. I did a little Ctrl-F experiment with DFW’s 1993 interview in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1993, Vol. 13.2 with Larry McCafferty. I searched for the word ‘human’ and found that Wallace says the word basically 20 times and McCafferty says it one to four times (four if you include variations like ‘dehumanizing,’ though I’m sure his utterances were primed by Wallace’s usage, nudging the number higher). I don’t have an army of undergraduate researchers at my disposal so I can’t compare the amount of David’s utterances of the word ‘human’ compared to other writers in the RCF, but I’ll take the over/under that he’s skewing to the high end on this hypothetical scatterplot. Here’s a good sample:
I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.
Over the years I think a lot of us have have sorta internalized/accepted the whole quote about fiction’s role is to make us feel, “less alone,” as put forth by Wallace and a few others in the camp. But now that that full quote is put into fancy HTML blockquotes I’m reading it fresh and it seems like a real kick in the nuts to the previous generation of novelists and to the culture at large, where irony seemed to have had been painted over itself so many times it resembled a cheap tenement’s thick bedroom walls.
There’s a certain bravery at work here, not the type we associate with six-pack ribbed action movies where things get blow’d up but the intellectual kind which seeks to not only blow up the previous intellectual generation but to blow them up in a return to a sense of morality, a sense of morality that is definitely not cool or cutting-edge or other things that get easy smiles and appreciative nods. It’s a bravery to point out what’s wrong with not just with “them,” but with “us,” and even “me.” It’s easy enough to lob grenades from the safety of your ivory’d tower, but it’s something else to read the x-ray’s and perform the human condition surgery on yourself. And when you see it in action, it’s shockingly admirable.
As far as I can tell (i.e. by quantifying the amount of times the guy says ‘human’ in a Contemporary Review of Fiction interview), Wallace pounded the table more times than just about anyone else re: the importance of human connection. It’s not hard to see how, as Franzen picks up, that people feel drawn to that literary lighthouse in the storm that was David.
7. I suppose this is a neat segue into describing my “connection” with Wallace, though I still have a lot of reservations about doing so since it forces you to walk through minefield of self-indulgence while simultaneously navel-gazing. But if Jon Franzen is entitled to give his take on the whole “What’s It’s Really Like to Be a Friend of Dave and Not Merely a Reader Because I Know Him Better,” then I guess it’s appropriate that I volley back with the “What’s Like to Be a Reader But Not a Friend of Dave But That Gives Me Valuable Insight too,” perspective. It’s dangerous territory, but with that C.Y.A. caveat in place I guess I can tell you I read Infinite Jest at a critical point of my life (mid to late 20s), when I really needed to find a piece of redeeming art like it. It was time when I went all-in behind a bet that was doomed to fold. And man, is a 1,079 page novel one hunk of debris to hold onto after surviving a personal shipwreck. So with that single brick of a book I started doing a whole Matthew 16:18 rebuilding project on myself which continues now that I’m 30.
Dave said that Infinite Jest was supposed to be conversational, as if someone was talking right at you, but I had a different take on the experience. It felt like I wasn’t just talking to my best friend but actually just sitting on the same couch with my him, not really saying anything to each other but feeling totally content and happy in each other’s presence without saying a word. It felt that comfortably intimate. Reading it (finding it! knowing it existed!) was a simultaneous intellectual and emotional high and I felt a very tangible person on the other end of the novel, someone with whom I could Identify.
James Wood (he of the Fresca-spitting mentioned in section 4) railed against Wallace, Zadie Smith and the other “hysterical realists” (his coinage) in the early 2000s, damning them for, “know[ing] a thousand things but not know[ing] a single human being.” Wood meant this from a development of character perspective, but I always found his statement funny, since I had a pretty good grasp and knowledge of a human being after reading a book like Infinite Jest and that person’s name was Dave Wallace. Maybe that doesn’t fit James’ definition of How Fiction Works, but that fiction worked for me at a time when I needed something, anything, to work for me. And like that stranger who pulls you off the subway tracks before the train comes, you have a perpetual sense of indebtedness to them even though you hardly know them, personally.
One of Wallace’s major projects, the takedown of irony in mass media and its infiltration in art, is a big deal for me because I grew up in a time of irony’s ubiquitousness (or even more utter ubiquitousness, whatever). Wes Craven’s Scream came out when I was fourteen and the idea of a self-referential horror movie seemed completely natural to me. In high school The Onion was just as an important news source as whatever was peddled on cable TV. It also took me a really, really embarrassingly long time to even know what irony was because I lived a life that was so saturated in it.
One of the better definitions of irony (seriously, try to definite it yourself, it’s not that easy) is when someone says something they don’t really mean. The definition isn’t perfect, but for something that is less than ten words and for someone who hasn’t darkened the door of a single graduate school classroom in his life it does a pretty bang-up job for me. Anyway, awhile ago irony was a default position, something hard-wired into me. Infinite Jest showed me this was wrong and debilitating (how it specifically achieved that would require me to write another 10,000 word essay on the mechanics of the whole thing). But the takeaway from it, for me (young/male/literary/writer), was that it gave me a wet-finger-in-electrical-socket jolt of realization that something was deeply wrong with how I consumed media and art. I realized that the ONE place where I tried to find solace – where I tried to understand how we situate and understand ourselves within the human condition – was a place that had been corrupted and that the understanding of what I desperately needed instead (the ability to reach out and connect with others) had been obfuscated through knee-deep layers of irony and other alienating devices.
8. There’s a scene in Austin Powers where A.P. is driving a go-kart of sorts through the corridors of an industrial plant with Elizabeth Hurley and he drives himself into a dead end. A.P. has to turn around so he does what any human being would do in that situation: about 3,173 successive K-turns.
I think about this scene a lot because it’s really funny, but also because in my head it serves as a simple description of what happened to post-modern literature in its waning days and the difficulty faced by the individual who tried to move past it.
The post-modern clan used devices like irony and meta-fiction in service of once noble goals but the devices took them down some corridors that over time trapped themselves within them. Their writing, cold and calculated and ironic stopped being a force of liberation and instead became a project of insulated detachment.
Irony and meta-fiction, some of the devices used by the post-modernists, are really useful at (forgive my eloquence here) blowing shit up (fn 2), like our conceptions of a benevolent/logical government state or just showing the limitations and artificiality of fiction itself. Used too long though, (and when the tools get in the hands of the enemy itself – television and advertising as Wallace pointed out) we arrive at a dead end. Blowing shit up serves a really useful purpose but it’s a destructive act, not a creative one, and after awhile your inexhaustible supply of ammo finds a limited range of targets. Enter Despair.
And in my head this is where I see DFW doing the K-turns in and whatnot in the tiny hallway and then realizing maybe he should just use dynamite (say, irony) to blow a hole through the wall irony had constructed itself so we could get back to a place were fiction can be about connection and redemption.
A good example of this comes from a chapter in his posthumously released novel, The Pale King, which starts off with the single sentence of “Author here.” Just like that, “Author here,” though it took 66 pages to get there first. The para goes on to assert that while the book is labeled as fiction it really is a work of non-fiction, and the only fictitious part of the novel is the disclaimer in the copyright page that says the novel is a work of fiction. While in the chapter Wallace insists that this is not a case of “titty-pinching” post-modern technique, it is in fact one hell of a post-modern construct. YET it still draws you in, makes you smile in its inventiveness. Here’s a bit more:
But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no.975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Bldvd.,Claremont 91711 CA. on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true.
It’s humorous because we know Wallace isn’t trying to REALLY trick us (maybe he’s just being a little coy) and we’re in on the obvious joke. But once this “channel” has been flipped on, this interesting unguarded space between author and reader that’s been established through a little wink/wink nudge/nudge joke, Wallace uses it to deliver a message of vital importance that it comes through with lapel-shaking fervor: this book is really true. All of this is really true.
This isn’t the “truth” of his SSN but the capital-t Truth that we crave the way a drowning man craves air. Yet to come to this, to remind us with some remark like WCW’s “Asphode, That Green Flower” where the poet says, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there” would, to the early twenty-first century reader, be seen as too pious. Laughable, mawkish. (fn 3)
So he uses our own language, that distorted language of recursive half-truths, smoke and mirrors, to deliver us truth in a way we know how to consume. The beautiful and tragic thing is that his experiment works. It really works. It fuses into an empty socket I didn’t even know I had.
“He had come to the conclusion that from now on he was going to read only “writings by men who have been executed.” Strange as it sounds, it is nonetheless based on the truth that there is something to be learned only from those who have offered their lives for their convictions.” (C.W. Smith to his mother, 1845) (fn 4)
That quote describes the Danish philosopher (fn 5) Soren Kierkegaard, and I’m referencing because, well, it’s really an interesting quote about Kierkegaard (someone whom I believe held more sway over Wallace later in life than did his early influence of Wittgenstein – but that’s just me spitballing (fn 6)). But also because it sets the tone for how we view Wallace in the wake of his death.
Basically everything I’ve described so far in this essay indicates that Wallace was probably the greatest writer ever and perhaps even the greatest human who ever lived. He had mythic status, even physically. A very talented writer I’m friends with went to a reading of his once and described the process of meeting him as such: “He was big. Like he was tall, the mane, his presence. He was big.” With a startlingly vocabulary at her disposal I always thought that was an interesting way of kicking off the description: “big.” Then there’s this anecdote via DT Max, who told the Tribeca audience that one witness at the University of Arizona (where Wallace got his MFA) saw him early on in the semester step out into a frisbee game and snatched the frisbee from the air, “like a god.” Clearly he doth bestride the literary world like a Colossus.
He writes 1,000 page novels, beds lots of girls, wears a bandana, is really Big and to borrow from the Kierkegaard quote, “offered [his] li[fe] for [his] conviction.” With that in mind, the whole apotheosis/deification trap is pretty easy to fall into, especially for those bearing the emotional scars that usually correlated with an intense love of Wallace or an intense love of anything that stands a chance of loving them back. It’s funny – what made his prose great, purely from a technical standpoint (witty, inventive, empathetic, vulnerable, challenging and at times manic and depressive) are qualities we are especially drawn to, emotionally, as human beings. It’s an ever strengthening process: the person we got to know through the writing gets reinforced by what little bits of biographical information we could pick up which then illuminates his writing just a little bit more which feeds the desire to learn more, and so on and so forth.
But the whole deal with apotheosis has some major deal-breaking ramifications when it comes to art. The stranger you’re mailing yourself to in hope of a response isn’t a fellow traveler but now a god-like creature. In the apotheosis we lose the human-to-human connection so crucial in Wallace’s work. The writer, in this case, is now different. He has a shiny halo and flowing robes. The ideas (or shall we now say, ideals) are air-tight, untouchable. He isn’t a fellow sufferer, he or she has transcended that.
Interestingly enough, one of the best escape hatches from this destructive St. Dave thinking comes from – wouldn’t you know it – Wallace himself. In his commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005 (a transcript of which became a popular way to eulogize him after his death and its trips around the internet number somewhere near Gangham Style digits), Wallace railed against his arch-foe, solipsism, in an amazing address that is wonderfully free of academic jargon and philosophical name dropping. In a poignant section, Wallace cautions the graduates against the kinds of worship:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
The “Kenyon Address” is perhaps one of my favorite pieces of writing Wallace has ever produced. I find a good deal of the themes in his life’s work concatenated into a few thousand, palatable words. The fact that it can reach a mass audience in the way that The Pale King cannot makes it all the more valuable as a piece of art. It is, though, the “gateway drug” to St. Dave: all the feel-good stuff is on display, none of the conscience-bending of Brief Interviews of Hideous Men, no horrifically inventive deaths and suicides played out by his fictional characters, no mind-numbingly difficult passages on tennis ball trajectories that drag on for tens of pages.
Dave’s not someone to worship though. If anything, it’s a cautionary tale. To borrow from the poet CK Williams, “He tried so hard, then he was tired of trying… it was the chemicals in his brain.” It’s a little harder to romanticize a mismatch with whatever chemicals they’re telling us regulate our moods these days… serotonin, dopamine, butter. Put in those stark terms, it’s hard to justify the apotheosis angle. Regardless, when you worship an author, you lose your perspective on her, and at the very worse you lose yourself.
10. Those David Foster Wallace moments at the Tribeca reading are endearing, but also a little troubling as well. It means Dave is certainly with us, but the flip-side of this means that for many, we haven’t let him go, either. Admittedly, I went to the Tribeca reading to find some little kindling of Wallace I could claim as my own, still burning in the pyre. It’s hard, because there is so much in his oeuvre to hold onto, and so much that speaks to us, directly, as readers and human beings that it is hard not to romanticize him, to feel like we know him, to elevate his genius to the point where we let our projected hypothetical opinions of a man invade our own thought.
DT Max has done a stellar job in painting the literary life of Wallace in such a way that we now have an accurate portrayal of, yes, “one of the most influential writers of his generation,” but also a pretty flawed human being, someone who sinned often and then clawed his way to sobriety and mindfulness only to succumb to the effects of depression. That said, Dave and his suicide wasn’t part of martyrdom or simply something larger than the awful act itself. Depression is a mismatch of chemistry, so blame his synapses and not the world that wasn’t “good enough” for him.
Max has done his part to reveal the features of this often secretive man and it is now up to me, and others, to respect but not to adore, to agree with Dave but to challenge him and finally, to view him as a deeply flawed man and not a savior.
These thoughts were coursing through my head as I left the 92Y Tribeca hall, as I looked for some anecdotal artifice on which to hang the concluding lines of my yet-to-be-written essay. Perhaps I’d dig through my notes to find a quote from Max that neatly wrapped it all together. Then I opened the doors to a cold January Manhattan night and realized there was nothing to conclude; the conclusion was really five years ago.
Daniel Matthew Varley (email@example.com) lives and works in Manhattan. His essay on the band Spiritualized was published on Mockingbird in December 2012. He recently finished his first co-written screenplay, Uncomfortability, an examination of reality television. At Bowdoin College his poetry won several prizes, including the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2005. In New York he plays guitar in a band, Inherent Vice, and blogs at Disaffected Prep. Many of his friends politely nod and smile at him as he talks David Foster Wallace ad nauseum so he is thankful towards for Mockingbird publishing his thoughts on the author, which probably won’t be the last; fair warning.
D.M.V. would also like to thank Ms. Bree Sposato (firstname.lastname@example.org) for her readings of this essay and thoughtful suggestions, without which this essay would be an incoherent train wreak (twitter: @BreeSposato.
(fn 1.) When I originally wrote this section about Stryon I gleefully trashed Darkness Visible and I guess Stryon by extension. Weeks later I reread the section and realized I need to put a restrictor plate on the prose so it didn’t get too overheated. What you’re reading now is heavily toned down. While I suppose a better writer wouldn’t need to “explain” things in a footnote (the writing should explain itself), I’m not that person, so let me just outright say I don’t mean to demean what Bill Stryon went through. As the saying goes, I don’t wish that on my worst enemy. The point at hand is how do we describe, in a memoir, the notion of grief, depression and other sorrowful aspects of the human condition and how does that register (or not) with the reader? And how does it ir does it not provide solace? To give Stryon credit, he wrote Darkness Visible in 1990, a time when the vocabulary and mores around this kind admission had not yet been developed. (Keep in mind though that Wallace wrote that section from the essay about five years later and yet it seems light years away in comparison.) Overall I think my disappointment with Stryon was that he whiffed on what could have been a phenomenal memoir, given his skill and writerly prowess to elucidate such a subject.
(fn 2) The idea of irony being a “explosive” device comes from a great book, Understanding David Foster Wallace by Marshall Boswell. The context it provides is priceless.
(fn 3) Cf. DFW on religion and fiction: “It’s very hard to talk about people’s relationship with any kind of God, in any book later than like Dostoyevsky. I mean the culture, it’s all wrong for it now. You know? No, no. Plausibly realistic characters don’t sit around talking about this stuff.”
(fn 4) Quote from Encounters with Kierkegaard: A Life As Seen By His Contemporaries by Bruce Kirmmse
(fn 5) Whenever I introduce Kierkegaard like that and say, “The Danish philosopher,” or if we want to get all techno-weenie with it, “The Proto-Existentialist Danish Philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard,” I always think that it would be a really good name of a special danish at Dunkin’ Donuts that would play out reasonably well in high intellectual capital areas like Cambridge, downtown NYC, etc. “I’ll have the Danish Philosopher, please.” Fear and trembling would be hopefully optional.
(fn 6) Don Gately (and specifically his rejection of morphine while in the hospital) seems to be some sort of Kierkegaardian hero in the mold of Either/Or. He is a Kantian ethical hero by defending the denizens of Ennet House but he also becomes a post-ethical (the highest stage in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or) hero when he rejects the hospital’s drugs (that within the ethics/mores of society would be permissible to ease the pain of surgery) because that choice would violate his accord with his Higher Power.