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September 14, 2008

CAAF: I don't know anyone who doesn't feel socked in the stomach today

I haven't allowed myself to read David Foster Wallace's work for the past few years. He's one of the writers I love best, but I found that whenever I read him, I inevitably started to ape his voice in my own writing, and if you've ever written in that style (intentionally or unintentionally) or read a story or essay by someone in the grip of his or her own DFW enthrallment, you know how impossible it is to do what he does as well as he does it, how in lesser hands those crazy sentences -- stilted, stacked, lurching and clanking along on their ugly-beautiful legs before suddenly lapsing forward in some improbable, graceful glissade -- become just messy, neurotic, overly footnoted whorls. Because the classic DFW sentence, tic-ish as it may be, is when broken down a wonder of precision: The object (person, thing) is observed fully, describing exactingly. The $10 vocabulary words are slotted into place not to be grandiose but because that word is the precise word, the only word, to describe that particular object or action.

The news of Wallace's death is heartbreaking, and the circumstances make one grieve for him and his family and friends. When speaking about books, I was trained to stick close to the text, to revere it and leave the poor writer alone. And yet with DFW I can't. I hold him in such great affection (who, among his fans, doesn't?) -- and I feel ... well, a terrible sense of loss and sorrow tonight. I have looked to him for so long (forgive the homeliness here but I've thought of him more than once as like a favorite quarterback: someone who you look to to see how the game is going), I always thought I'd know him some day, or if I didn't, that I would at the very least get to see him grow old.

In formulating my sense of DFW character over the years, I've enjoyed picking out what points in it seemed the most Midwestern. In interviews and the "The Charlie Rose" appearances, it amused me to see deep Midwestern-ness - e.g., the earnestness, the homely collegial good manners, the clear desire to keep things on an even social footing (rather than to shock and awe), the occasional terrible haircut -- commingled with such great genius. And yet these same Midwestern qualities also seemed part and parcel of the writing, manifesting there not as quaintness or some godawful aw-shucksiness, but in a palpable belief in the reader and the reader's ability to keep up, to get it -- that is, to place the reader on an equal footing with himself. Read him and he never panders, he never condescends (even if he does show off). To write and experiment so boldly, to choose to bring home the whole pig whenever you go to market and invite the reader to the table with you as an equal, is to show the greatest respect and generosity. Bless him for that, and bless him as he moves on ahead.

Posted September 14, 2008 9:00 PM

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