September 19, 2008
OGIC: A friend remembers Wallace
It seems only fair to start a few words about David Foster Wallace by talking about myself. No other writer was as deeply invested in individual consciousness--and its ridiculously messy, digressive, splintering course--as DFW. The individual consciousness that is me received so many condolence calls about Wallace's suicide on Saturday and Sunday that I began to feel I had some sort of friendship with him, though I never met him.
I was an early proponent of Infinite Jest, probably gifting it over the years to at least 20 people. As a former coworker wrote to remind me, I made familiarity with IJ a condition of employment in my department. I believed--and still believe--that no other novel comes close to engaging with the welter of sights, sounds, fears, smells, absurdities, and beauty of our time. It's a sprawling, sickening, hilarious mess, and many people have taken it to be DFW's definite work. And why wouldn't they? At nearly 1100 pages, the last leg of them footnotes, it is a magnum opus. Others have pointed to his essays--on tennis, cruise ships, television, language, state fairs--where DFW seemingly harnessed his impulses to overwhelm and emerged with biting, incisive, and yet sympathetic views of contemporary life. They were essays in the truest sense, essais, attempts, tries to explain, to elucidate arcane sports skills or how vacation alienation points to a fundamental human pathos.
But I always found DFW most in his short stories. I should say immediately that I am not a natural fan of the genre. Even the best short stories seem to me too short. They don't allow a reader an immersive experience, which is the kind of experience I am always looking for. DFW's story collections--particularly Brief Interviews with Hideous Men--remain for me the epitome of the genre. They push the story form to its limits, though with mixed results. There are stories that are two sentences or two paragraphs long, stories that are answers to unvoiced questions, stories that include their own scaffolding of craft, stories in the second and third person, stories that are pure dialogue. They are stories of nearly unspeakable tragedy and horror, and stories of unbearable beauty. Sentences I first read in these stories--"Metal flowers bloom on your tongue" ("Forever Overhead"), "All this according to Dirk of Fresno" (which always makes me laugh, from "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko"), "His own forehead snaps clear" ("Think")--are still with me.
I could say that I think Wallace loved language and detail and work, prolific work, all of which are clear in everything he did. But it is in his stories that his ethical agenda is clear. He's not racking up these gruesome details to disgust us; he is empathetically portraying the worst that humans can offer to each other. He's not using footnotes because it's clever; he's using footnotes because it they are the closest approximations in a literary form to the mass of nonlinear parenthetical thoughts that is the monkey brain of all of us doing its job. He's not using that vocabulary of his to show off; he's using it because the world is bursting to be described fully. I think I once heard him say that literature teaches us how to be human. By this I think he meant that the role of literature is to stretch our understanding of the hideous and the glorious; embrace the ambivalence, the mess; be attentive even when the stimuli are too much to bear; and understand that beneath all of this--these words, these betrayals and misdeeds, this ugliness and absurdity--lies the essentially human.
Maybe I didn't hear him say this, but he probably wouldn't care. I'm a reader, not a writer, so many more people will have a lot more intelligent things to say about him. But I cried when I heard the news. It was only then that I realized I was looking forward to growing old with him, hearing what he had to say about aging, Obama, the millennium, California, Rafael Nadal, cookies, anxiety, reality television, love, hybrid cars--everything under his sun. I am so grateful that he shared what he had, that he suffered through his struggles long enough to gift us with what he did.
Posted September 19, 2008 9:26 AM