This is Water: Remembering David Foster Wallace
Nicholson Baker. Bill Murray. Mark Leyner. David Byrne. Steve Martin. The Coen Brothers. And in the middle of it all, David Foster Wallace.
Infinite JestPublisher: Back Bay
Author: David Foster Wallace
US publication date: 2006-11
OblivionPublisher: Little, Brown & Company
Author: David Foster Wallace
US publication date: 2004-06
The Broom of the SystemPublisher: Viking
Author: David Foster Wallace
US publication date: 2004-05
As is well known by now, last Friday night David Foster Wallace hung himself in his Claremont, California home. His wife found him, and news spread quickly by Internet, cell phone, shaky hands touching shoulders. To readers who loved his work, the loss overshadowed the election, the financial crisis, even a hurricane, even Tina Fey.
The hemorrhagic online texts flowed almost immediately. First the bad and even horrible tributes, fueled by deadline and cloudy with grief, aping of footnote-preponderance. Then some really lovely and thoughtful work (Salon, Slate, and The Chicago Tribune), and even some horribly mistimed career assessment (we are looking at you, Kakutani.)
Some of the most gorgeous tributes have already been and left -- McSweeney’s blank page, and maybe most appropriately, the yammering, heartbroken discussion board at the A.V. Club, which chastened and hustled out of the room anyone looking for a cheap laugh. Amazon sold out of his stuff; we couldn’t find any of the four copies of Oblivion at the university library. We knew he was important, but we didn’t know how many loved him. We thought he was ours.
Now several days have passed, and the news cycle grinds on. Late to the service, we offer this: a love letter, we guess, and a remembrance. A back-and-forth between two fans, maybe in small tribute to his great dialogues, his willingness to note the caesuras as well as the torrent of articulations, his early collaborations.
Wallace's greatest work was his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, a book that he repeatedly said was intended to be very sad. Wallace reported frequently how hard it was for him, therefore, that so many readers found the book funny or entertaining or -- in many cases, because the book was over 1,000 pages, with hundreds of endnotes and weighed something like four pounds -- too much of a strain. We strain now against the weight he leaves us.
Chris: Our mourning feels selfish – rooted in a desire to protect him from fanboys and imitators, from all of those who name-check him but never really got him, not like we did. Not like us.
In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace warned us against precisely this hardwired tendency to see the world as revolving wholly around ourselves. He called us out for our ultimate self-indulgence, our desire to believe that our experience of the world is so different, so all consuming, that it should blot out yours.
But in the face of the vacuum, we are giving in to our lizard-brain willingness to go directly to our lowest watermark, emotionally, and embrace the false conviction of our complete uniqueness. We knew him as only we could know him. First, us. Then, you.
Will: I met him for the first time in 1983, before he had published a lick of work. He was just some kid -- a year younger than me, in fact -- who had written something. A friend of mine read the manuscript for the agent she worked for, and now she was with him in New York to meet his editor. "It's Pynchon-esque", she said about what would be published as The Broom of the System. And so one association that would haunt him -- his "post-modern-ness”, his slapstick difficulty, his smartest-guy-on-the-planet-ness.
We met at V&Ts for pizza on the Upper West Side, and we retired to the Hungarian pastry place next door afterward. There were four of us, and my blabbermouth was fully charged. The quiet kid who had written a book mostly listened, and I would later find out exactly how carefully. He was serene or withdrawn, it was hard to tell which. In my solipsism, I didn't think about him nearly as much as I just enjoyed myself. I think I asked him some questions about Gravity's Rainbow and Pynchon because I thought maybe that was a common topic we could share, something that might exist between us.
But what is there really to say about a huge book that changes your life? Pynchon was just an idol of sorts, and Gravity's Rainbow was the Holy Grail. It was, as always, easier to make with the jokes, which at least in that moment, left this kid, Dave Wallace, looking like little more than a pair of eyeballs across the table.
Chris: I first read his work in Harper’s in 1994 -- the Harper’s subscription that my dad bought me upon graduating from college, figuring correctly that I would enjoy a window into the world of thoughtful grownups. I consumed Wallace’s state fair article with amazement and recognition.
Here he was: the guy who sounded like the geeks I had learned to befriend in high school, with whom I had snuck Breakfast of Champions back and forth in chemistry class like it was Penthouse. The kind of guys I would seek as friends throughout my life. The wisenheimers, the ones smarter and faster than me from whom I drew strength. Wallace said the things I thought but hadn’t realized I thought; he called out my own voice, made me hear it clearer in my head, by being the only writer I knew whose typing actually seemed to keep up with his thoughts.
Will: Shortly after his first novel came out, my assistant-to-the-agent friend called one day to tell me that she had a new story from David Wallace in hand, destined for publication in a magazine.
"You're in it," she explained.
Not me, it turns out, but Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy, saying something that I had said, word-for-word, in the Hungarian pastry shop while high on Manhattan night air. I'd said this: "My favorite word is the word 'moist'. And I particularly like it when I is used in combination with my second favorite word, 'loincloth'." I thought I was utterly hilarious.
"But," my friend explained, "the lawyers think Trebek might sue, so they're making him change it.
When the story came out ("Girl with Curious Hair"), the second word was "induce". Which was that much better, of course. In my hands the whole thing had been schtick or babble, and this kid -- quiet in the corner of the pastry shop and with ears the size of Frisbees -- was spinning it into something I wasn't even sure I understood.
Chris: Two year after first reading him in Harper's, I was teaching ninth grade literature in DC when Will – my latest wisenheimer -- dragged me down to Dupont Circle at lunch and prodded me into dropping $25 on the first edition of this colossal novel, Infinite Jest.
"I kind of know this guy", Will explained. "Met him once."
Advance word was that this book was like no other. And advance word also mentioned the 1,079 pages and 388 endnotes. It was a book best read with a friend.
Will: By 1996, Wallace's writing had started to seem less like Pynchon Lite (or Pynchon, period) and more like a bracing voice of eerie seriousness. Even when Wallace was writing essays touching on modern-day absurdities, he started to let his voice burn with a sincere sadness. His new book was rumored to be something unusually brilliant.
Chris seemed open to it, so we stepped out of the bookstore that day into a brisk DC afternoon, and started reading.
Chris: In English class, the first book we read together that year was C.S. Lewis’ retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, with its deep and troubling question of “What consumes you?” as completely as a God consumes a sacrificial maiden. In no time it all it was clear what consumed me. I was consumed by the all-saturating experience of my first Big Book.
All I did was read Infinite Jest and talk about what I was reading. I was consumed by the text -- as were my students, who were treated to several periods of my uninterrupted reading aloud of the chapter from “The Book” I had finished last night.
Reading and talking about it every day -- "IDing" with it and desperately wishing it would never end -- Will and I called it “The Book”, to the outrage of my friend the Melville fan, and my other friend who loved Tolkien. What dilettantes we were, they thought, squandering the definite article on some mewling youngster.
Will: If reading a thousand-page book is an intense (and intensely lonely and personal) experience, then it is also a playground of the most elaborate and ornate sort. For Chris and me, who read the book in-step like a pair of synchronized swimmers (including days playing hooky from our teaching jobs during which all we did was hole up somewhere and read), it was a set of monkey bars as imagined by Salvador Dali.
Monkey bars are the most fun with someone else cajoling you to climb higher and join you at the top. We read, we argued, we laughed, we posted some of the first missives (still amazingly) on the wallace-l listserv, archived over at waste.org. We faced the fact that The Jest was making us look in a gargantuan mirror that we'd been avoiding for the better part of our tentative and clearly provisional adulthoods.
We learned that Dave would be giving a reading one Friday evening, just a mile from the school. Of course we attended, and waited in the surprisingly long line to get our books signed.
Clutching my Girl with Curious Hair, I approached the one-time quiet kid in the corner. Still quiet, it turned out. "Hey," Dave Wallace said to me, "you're the moist loincloth guy."
Chris: I took from DFW a desire to write as I heard myself speak and think. The power of his alternating erudition and devastating stutters and neologisms pervaded my own writing, as did the love of footnotes and their ability to intimate that -- holy shit -- there is just so much to say about this thing I am typing about, can’t you see? I find that energy and joy in all his stories, all his essays, all the ways in which he dumped his own intelligence and engagement out into the world that he thankfully catalogued and annotated.
I came to imagine a sort of salon -- or listserv, probably, in this typiest of ages -- that I might convene, if only in my head, of those voices that could help me know and endure the world, that could help me see and love its minutiae and sublimity and obscenity and roll the whole thing into a ball to bash against the wall again and again. Nicholson Baker. Bill Murray. Mark Leyner. David Byrne. Steve Martin. The Coen Brothers. And in the middle of it all, David Foster Wallace.
And now one of my handball gang – one of my boys, and the coolest one at that – has decided that he does not want to bash it around anymore. How to move on?
Will: Since reading The Book with Chris and then rereading it again on my own and then re-rereading it again with a group of dazzled students that may be off today on their own hearing the news of Wallace's death, I've read everything that Wallace has written. It's not that he became "my favorite writer" as much as that he became the writer I most trusted not lie to me -- or to himself.
In his essays, even the most delightful of them, you cannot miss the palpable sense of frustration Wallace felt in trying to communicate his ideas as honestly and precisely as possible. He might explain things three, four, five times, and the swinging rhythm of his sentences would get more and more syncopated as he tried to be not only honest and clear, but also grammatically precise, in the shadow his Moms, the usage professor. The guy was possibly the finest and most spectacularly talented writer of his era, and yet the language seemed to frustrate him. If so, what hope was there for the rest of us?
I remember watching him in one of two appearances on The Charlie Rose Show, his bandanna tied around his skull and his every response followed with physical symptoms of embarrassment and self-deprecation. Rose, glib as always, could not understand how this brilliant guy could be so unsure of himself.
But Wallace saw The Tube as the worst kind of trap, a tool for eliding the necessary details, for making an artist into a self-congratulator. Wallace could write a 1,079-page book in three years, he could pluck and remember a goofy comment about a moist loincloth and spin it into art, but he could not pat himself on the back. And when others did the patting, he winced.
By all accounts the nicest of guys, David Wallace wasn't easy on himself.
Chris: When it's time to move on…
I guess first and foremost with the realization -- also affirmed in the Kenyon commencement address (Have you read it? If you haven’t then you may want to read it here) -- that each of us is ultimately, utterly alone, and therefore that whatever we think we can piece together from his writing about the why of his choice is the profoundest kind of bullshit. That’s why I hate how every mention DFW made of suicide (the Kenyon speech, “The Depressed Person,” Mildred Bonk, Eric Clipperton) is even now being lobbed through the intertubes as some sort of insight into or premonition of his suicide.
I don’t know the real estate between his ears today any more than I knew it when I met him and he signed my book in DC, when I actually looked at his head -- his physical head -- and wondered how Ennet House and Enfield Tennis Academy and Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulants and the O.N.A.N.ite reconfiguration and the whole megamegillah of the thing had come from inside that skull.
I do remember that -- before there were critical treatments of the Jest and its legacy had really gelled, as it is finally beginning to -- my first reading perceived the leitmotif of a shapeless head within a frame. Here’s the woman born without a skull and her impossible wheeled prosthesis; there’s that little guy, what was his name, upside down on the Eschaton court with his head buried in a computer monitor; here’s a therapist framing his analysand’s face with a cage made from his fingers; there’s Himself slumped in the kitchen with his head immolated in a microwave.
I took all this to suggest our ultimate paucity of intrinsic fiber or substance as humans, that we are only as strong or rigid or resistant as that against or within which we have decided to buttress ourselves. That we make ourselves, in other words, in terms of the things against which we choose to strain -- and, of course, that we pull to us weight that exceeds our own weight at our great peril. That humble and sane proposition remains about the truest thing I know after my near-40 years. It helps me choose the weights against which to pull. And it is no less true because the one who taught it to me has elected to leave.
Will: Teaching a writing class of 18-year-old students last spring, I distributed Wallace's essay "The View from Mrs. Thompson's". It begins as the story of the author watching the twin towers fall from the living room of a neighbor in Normal, Indiana. Wallace meditates on the nature of small Midwestern towns, and he riffs on the sudden appearance and then commercial unavailability of American flags in the aftermath, and he dissects the paradox of watching an event -- a real-time, actual tragedy -- transpire through a televised image of a place that most people understand only from television.
What Wallace most clearly writes about in this essay, however, is not 9/11 or politics or even culture. He writes, slowly and painfully, about how keenly he wanted to get out of his own head as he sat in a living room full of people who did not share his education, his associations, or his perspective. He writes about the effort he had to make to not see the tragedy of it only in relation to himself, and how that isolated feeling activates his smarty-pants and egocentric, skull-wired default setting about how to think about such things. He strains to listen to the other voices around him with some genuine degree of receptivity.
I feel now that through his work he gave me advice about how to, among other things, react to the news of his demise. As much as I want his loss to be only my own story, it most certainly is not. I can write down my slim strand of a tale as it once wound around his, but what is left now for me to understand is not David Foster Wallace's life or even the words he leaves behind. The best I can do is to keep working hard to be aware of the water around me, the other people whose experiences and feelings -- about this death as much as about anything -- are as valid as my own.
Is that a weight worth pulling against?