But my faith in love is still devout
This is my hundredth blog post. I wanted to do something special for #100 and so I’ve tried to write a little about my feelings about David Foster Wallace, whose passing I mentioned briefly in a previous entry called “Words Fail, Sometimes”. Please understand that the following was written through the blurry lens of grief. Grief has a scattering rather than sharpening effect upon me; so caveat emptor.
I’m a fan of David Foster Wallace.
At heart, even though I’m a professional writer, I am foremost a fan. I’ll have my photo taken with musicians and writers I admire. Typically I’ll have something I’d like them to sign, a CD insert, a record jacket, a book. The books I tend to have signed usually bear the scars of our relationship, with their spines bent, their covers creased, and pages marked with margin notes and bright yellow highlighter ink. When I'm at a book conference and supposed to be promoting my own work I'm usually looking for the opportunity to go meet or listen to other writers. I’ve always thought it was important to seek out people whose work has meant something to me, thank them for their creation, and let them know I look forward to their next creation.
For the record, I don’t believe I’m confessing to a character flaw when I write that I’m a fan (I have plenty of those that I can cop to in later blogs), although many of my friends are completely uninterested—and may even be embarrassed by—the sort of fandom I exhibit. It works out for me, because these friends dutifully will hold my gear and snap the photos at the concerts or signings or whatever, but I can’t help but feeling sad for them. I don’t know if they feel we are too old (is there something absurd having a CD signed by someone half your age?), too cool (unlikely) or that we should be too jaded and world weary for such activity. I hope, sincerely hope, that their lack of fan-response hasn’t anything to do with an inability to get truly excited, and truly appreciative for, anything other than ourselves, which is a condition I fear afflicts people in my generation (although better to be world-weary than to intrude on dinner, scream shrilly, or rend clothes and hair).
I’ve never really thought about meeting an author and having them sign a book as purely about “me”, any more than I thought it was about “them”. I always try to conceptualize the exchange as being about “us”—you created something that meant something to me, I let you know (briefly, there are fifteen other people in line) that your creation meant something to me, and for that moment in time, at least, there is a shared link of communication. Maybe that link leads to something else—I’ve gotten all fannish with people who are now friends of mine.
I set goals for myself and my writing career every New Years’ Eve, committing them to paper. It is how I set some boundaries around the playground that is my life, my way of imposing at least a modicum of order on something that my personality would quickly let fly into chaos. Over the past few years I’ve done pretty well with the goal list, managing to hit upwards of ninety percent of them. I’ll never achieve one of them for this year. The third goal on my list reads “to meet David Foster Wallace”.
At the time I wrote “to meet David Foster Wallace”, the goal seemed to have all the characteristics of a good goal, being achievable, realistic, and measurable. This year, thanks to some book touring, I’ve been able to meet a few (albeit unlisted) literary heroes of mine like Tobias Wolff and Ethan Canin, and have formed Internet relationships with a few others. I felt reasonably sure that I’d find a way to meet him this year.
I’m struggling, as I’m sure many people are, with expressing myself regarding how deeply his death is affecting me—I certainly have never taken the death of someone I didn’t know as hard as I am his (although when Joe Strummer died I was blue for days). Losing DFW is like losing Jimi Hendrix; there’s this sense that one of the earth’s true geniuses, with so much beautiful work left ahead, is gone, just when they were beginning to bloom as artists.
I was managing a bookstore and writing at night when I first read Infinite Jest (unlike at least 90% of the eulogists, who, against all reason, seem to make a point of saying they “could not get through it”, I finished it and have gone back to the fountain many times. I’ve read almost everything he published; I feel like a poser for not having read what others refer to as “the math book”, Elegant Complexities: A Complex History of Infinity). Sometimes in life, the readers among us—especially the readers who want to write—are fortunate enough to stumble across the right book at the right time, and that book will continue to act as a sort of literary bellwether throughout our entire lives. Infinite Jest was and is that book for me, in the same way that The Catcher in the Rye (and soon after, the rest of Salinger) was when I read a few years earlier. When I finished the book I immediately started reading it again, and then reached into the past to read his preceding work and then waited somewhat impatiently for more work to follow. He was, for a time, one of only three authors whose name alone on its table of contents could persuade me to buy a magazine.
I saw—and here I’m relying on personal impression rather than actual scholarship—threads running between the works of Salinger and Infinite Jest. Hal’s last name, “Incandenza”, I took as serving a similar function as Salinger’s “Glass” family—“incandescent” having among it’s definitions “strikingly bright, radiant, or clear”. The Incandenza family, like the Glasses, are chock full of geniuses. Without attempting to turn this into a half-baked senior thesis, I saw many points of intersection among the smaller details of IJ and Salinger—tennis, cigarettes, boarding schools, etc.
In my blind, grasping way, I imagined IJ as an expansion and modernization (or post modernization, if you prefer) of some of Salinger’s pet themes. Whereas Holden and Seymour Glass are overwhelmed emotionally by seemingly insignificant details they pick up, details that appear to be outside the “plots” of the stories but are actually integral to them—a girl on the sidewalk, the color yellow—my sense of things was always that Hal feels these types of emotions just as intensely, instead suppresses them—for a time—through chemicals.
Another connection I’d always made between Wallace’s work and Salinger’s was with the title essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing I Would Never Do Again and the story “Teddy” from Salinger’s 9 Stories. The first is Wallace’s brilliant, hilarious account of a trip he took on a cruise ship, the second, a story about a child genius—a spiritual as well as intellectual genius—who also happens to find himself on a cruise ship. Beyond the cruise ship/genius points of intersection, I connected the two because I believed there to be a shared sensibility in terms of world-view and literary values between the two authors (although I should mention Salinger’s conceit that “Teddy”, along with The Catcher in the Rye, was actually written by Buddy Glass, the second oldest of Salinger’s fictional Glass family. Wouldn’t you love to know what old J.D. thinks of all of Himself’s films?). Teddy’s intelligence is such that he can predict the future, which one gathers is the end result of his being in tune with the universe, a sort of spiritual savant. From the first page of his essay, DFW establishes himself as truly “one upon whom nothing is lost”. There is such detail, technical and human detail, in the writing that I could well imagine DFW predicting tourist deaths, hijackings, shuffleboard winners, you name it.
I reread these two works after DFW’s death, and then came across, among literally hundreds of anecdotes, quotes, and outpourings of grief, a passage in an interview with DFW that I received a link to from a DFW list group that I’d joined, available on the Amherst college website. The interviewer, Stacey Schmeidel, asks DFW “What writers move you?”
His response is characteristically thoughtful; he begins by saying “The question’s verb is tricky,” and then differentiates the “moving” capabilities of works like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bridges of Madison County versus more “top-shelf literary fiction”, and closes by saying that he’s never found anything as purely moving as The Velveteen Rabbit when he first read it.”
His answer reminded me of this exchange in Teddy, where Teddy is being questioned by a man he meets on the ship, Bob Nicholson, who has read accounts of Teddy’s interactions with various institutions that want to study him. Teddy uses the moment to drop some knowledge on Bob, and discusses his thoughts on the nature of God and love. After Teddy defines how he loves God, Bob asks him if he loves his parents. His answer:
“Yes, I do—very much,” Teddy said, “but you want to make me use that word to mean what you want it to mean—I can tell.”
Later in the story, Teddy and Bob discuss Teddy’s apparent ability to predict “how and where and when” someone will die. Teddy says (again, clarifying terms and definitions) that isn’t true, and that he was able to ascertain when someone should be careful, and that the deaths were not “inevitable”. Then he gives an example where he could be killed going to his swimming lesson.
“What would be so tragic about it, though? What’s there to be afraid of, I mean? I’d just be doing what I was supposed to do, that’s all, wouldn’t I?”
The story ends with Teddy dying in the very manner—(or so we imagine, the event occurs off camera)—that he’d just described. This death, regardless of whether or not you buy the implied metaphysical preordination that Teddy alludes to, always struck me as a sort of suicide. A few paragraphs prior Teddy says that the deaths he could predict were not “inevitable”, so why toddle off to his own?
But DFW was not a fictional character, he was a real human being, one, as “the truth” unfolds, had lived with a great deal of emotional pain and depression his entire life. With so many people rushing back to his work to seek “the evidence” of his pain, there are, undoubtedly, tons of lines and paragraphs he wrote that might be interpreted to give insight to his mental state, perhaps even some that could be taken as a plea for help, or evidence of a suicidal nature. But I think it is a mistake to think it possible that “we” could have “saved” DFW through a closer reading of his work, much as we all would have liked to. There’s a line in “Teddy”, where Teddy quotes a line of Japanese poetry that reads “Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die”. Reading this days after DFW’s death was like a psychic rabbit-punch, one that left me dazed and incoherent (more so than usual) for hours.
Unlike in real life, where a person is defined primarily by their actions, in fiction an author is defined less by his character’s actions than by how those actions influence, change, and reinterpret their fictional world. An author can write about a psychopath without having actual psychopathic tendencies, but watch closely how the fictional world that the author has created reacts, responds to, and assimilates the psychotic behaviors, because the author could certainly be a psychopath. In Infinite Jest, there are addicts (recovering and otherwise), terrorists, phobics, and yes, suicides—but despite all this, and despite the downbeat beginning/end of the book, I come away from the book feeling positive about life, no matter what section of it I read, because Wallace’s was able to write so expansively, so insightfully, so authoritatively on the difficulty of human communication.
How difficult it is—how increasingly difficult it is—for humans to communicate! Much as Salinger’s work is concerned with the difficulty of true communication, understanding and being understood, Hal literally is unintelligible at the beginning (and chronological end) of IJ. In the essay “Greatly Exaggerated”, also from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Never Do Again (which, along with “E. Unibus Pluram:Television and U.S. Fiction" from the same book, are among the few essays I can point to that I believe shaped my “operant aesthetic” as a writer), there’s a line where DFW writes, in a critique of a book regarding the “existence of the author” (a subject which he warns might be of interest only to “professional critics and hardcore theory-wienies"), he writes “For those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems sort of arcane.” Infinite Jest, for various reasons and traumas I was experiencing and had experienced, was an act of communication that I sorely needed at the time I read it (each time I’ve read it, actually). There is so much in the book worthy of commentary, but Wallace’s ability to communicate about communication is the one that really continues to draw me in, the one shining gift that actually made me feel less alone in the world.
Which is why, of course, it is hard for me not to feel utterly devastated. I’m saddened that there won’t be any more of his work, no more beautiful novels, no more trenchant essays, no more sharp stories, no more communication. I’m saddened that I never took the chance to say thank you, that I never communicated what his communication meant to me. But mostly I’m just sad he’s gone.
Although I’ve written as much about Salinger and DFW’s essays as Infinite Jest, it is really that book that is more the life-changer, the life enhancer, the life preserver for me. I’m kind of afraid to write about it, really, not because I might be wrong (as, I freely admit, I might be in the “insights” of this blog) but because what I write could sap someone else’s joy to read it for the first time. Criticism, even well intentioned criticism, can sometimes calcify hearts against subjects where the critic meant only to celebrate. So instead I’ll make a recommendation for readers of my blog, many of whom are much younger than I was when I first read IJ, with the “college experience” still ahead of them. Read Infinite Jest the summer before you go to college, and read it again the summer after you graduate. Um, and also you need to have read all of Salinger first (don’t worry, this will actually take less time than reading IJ).
I promise you will find the experience life enhancing in so many ways. I actually envy you.