16.6.09

It Should Not Have Taken 9 Months for Me to Read David Foster Wallace

Last September, Dan Gibson texted me: "David Foster Wallace killed himself."

I am ashamed to admit this, but my response was "Who?"

Maybe it's the milquetoast name, which could be the moniker of any white male, from serial killer to land baron. I'm sure, at some point, I'd heard of him. The title of his most famous novel, "The Infinite Jest," was familiar.

As more and more news stories hailed his literary genius cut short, I didn't know what to think. People had good things to say, sure, but people usually have good things to say when someone dies. There's often a litany of hyperbolic praise, claims of "genius". Reality gets blown out of proportion.

What if Eddie Vedder had blown his own head off at a home on Lake Washington? What if Paul McCartney had been gunned down on a street in New York. Would "Evenflow" be the anthem of a decade? Would "Maybe I'm Amazed" be considered the greatest rock tune of all-time?

(No and no. But it's enough to wonder.)

The point is, I hardly wanted to become one of those people who jumps on the dead-artist bandwagon.

Then Dan handed me DFW's book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. The collection's first essay, on Midwestern winds and youth tennis, was interesting but wordy. I bogged down on the next one, which alarmed me because it was a piece on television (one of my favorite subjects). I respected the writing. It was obvious both that Wallace was a brilliant thinker and wordsmith, and that he somehow managed to avoid pretension. But I couldn't get into it.

Then, for some reason, I skipped to the back and read his essay on a Carribean cruise, the essay the collection is named after. It took three paragraphs, the third of which was only one sentence long...
"I have (very briefly) joined a Conga Line."
...and I was sucked in. I've blown through every other essay in the book. I now cannot imagine a world without the writing of David Foster Wallace, which is painful because what is out there now is all we'll ever have.

From all accounts, Wallace's essay writing is more light-hearted than his fiction, so I'm not sure A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is emblematic of his writing as a whole. I know it's a good place to start, though.

I'm a bit obsessed now (Dan claims the same tendency). I've been reading through every article I can find on him, from an excellent remembrance in Rolling Stone to an essay on Roger Federer in Play Magazine to the best graduation speech you'll ever read. I can't get enough of his writing.

It's not just Wallace's ability to spin words and phrases (though he does those things as well as anyone I've ever read). Anyone can write well with practice.

It's Wallace's insight that made him so unbelievably great. In some ways, he's the perfect writer: a nearly holy amalgamation of intellect, aesthetic sense, and empathy. It's almost not surprising, given his unnatural insight and mind, he would take his own life. The tortured artist archetype is cliche, but like all cliches, it is rooted in reality. From the RS piece, it seems clear Wallace was dealing with the same insecurities many artists feel: reality in opposition to idealism; authenticity in opposition to feeling like a fraud. You can also see times where he was healthy, where he distanced himself from self-obsession.
(Wallace) said one interviewer had devoted tons of energy to the genius question. "That was his whole thing, 'Are you normal?' 'Are you normal?' I think one of the true ways I've gotten smarter is that I've realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I'm pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die."
His best essays are written from this perspective, like when he marvels as a mere mortal at the craft of professional tennis players, or writes of his fellow cruisers with affection and solidarity. I wish he could've stayed in that frame of mind.

All that's to say, if you're blissfully unaware of David Foster Wallace the way I was, pick up A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Start at page 256. I swear you will be glad you did.

(Dan wrote a lovely blogpost about Wallace two days after he died. Here's that.)

5 comments:

  1. I had Wallace as a professor at Illinois State University, and will never forget him. I learned more in his class than any other class at ISU, and am so grateful that I got to learn from him. That Rolling Stone article is so good. I must say that I can't get into his fiction as much as his essays, but what I appreciate about him was his teaching. He would pour over your work and break it apart. He was so passionate about literature, writing, and learning, it made everyone in the class want to be that way.
    (Also, on a side note, he often drank Tab in class. Always found that funny.)
    Thank you for sharing about him. It makes me so sad that it is hard to read his work sometime.

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  2. I was so sad that he passed, but not at all surprised by his suicide. A few years before his death I watched an interview with him on The Charlie Rose Show from 1997. The neuroticism is staggering. ( http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/5639 )

    I've read many of his essays from Consider the Lobster, his graduation speech, and attempted to read Infinite Jest before giving up.

    What an amazing mind. So sad.

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  3. In my senior seminar in college, we read Wallace's essays as "a model form."

    It was about a lobster festival in New England. Everything in me screamed "BORING!" at the title and the first 3 times I skimmed it. But when I took the time to read the piece--you're right-- Wallace's insight came through strongly.

    Also, the day after he died, we had an uncomfortable moment of silence in my creative writing non-fiction class. Half of the students had already written pieces about their life as tortured artist.
    It felt like a pop culture warning of our own fate if we continue to let ourselves be such troubled souls.

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  4. I'm so glad that I wasn't the only one who had that reaction; it did make me want to read his work, but like you I still haven't gotten around to it... I'll have to look into the essays you mentioned... and soon!

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  5. I did the same thing and felt the same way getting through the essay on television. I blogged about it here. http://boodoggy.blogspot.com/2009/01/in-over-my-head.html

    I never met him and like many, didn't know who he was until he ended his life but I absolutely feel the same way.

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