September 15, 2008

Dave Wallace in Illinois: In Memoriam David Foster Wallace

I’m a writer, and I grew up in Decatur, Illinois, 45 minutes from David Foster Wallace’s stomping grounds, so the news of Wallace's suicide has really hit me hard. I know in my bones the “true religious-type wind” that, he writes, “informed and deformed” life in the Midwest, and I whispered “Amen” when, based on this anecdotal evidence, Wallace questioned Chicago’s right to the name “Windy City.” My Midwestern upbringing doesn’t necessarily give me the ethos to hold forth on why, now that he has left this world, Wallace matters (confession: I’ve never been able to finish Infinite Jest) and has mattered for nearly twenty years, but it’s really all I have to go on.

To the best of my knowledge, he is the only writer from central Illinois—“Downstate,” Chicagolanders sniff—that has achieved such literary success. But it’s not so much his success that impressed me years ago when I first started reading his work; it’s that he consistently articulated phenomenological truths about growing up in the Midwest that I was incapable of (“[I feel] best physically enwebbed in sharp angles, acute bisections, shaved corners”) and because his work retained the ethic and aesthetic native to the region: a fundamental decency, roughened by a self-deprecating and ironic sense of humor reminiscent of central Indiana native David Letterman, who Wallace simultaneously lionizes and lampoons in his hilarious short story “My Appearance.”

Despite his highly allusive, referential, reflexive, digressive, meta-ness, Wallace was (much like Letterman) charming in a nerdy, didactic way. And he was, contrary to exasperated remarks about his use of footnotes, endnotes, sidebars and marginalia (Wallace notes on the copyright acknowledgment page at the beginning of his first book of stories, Girl With Curious Hair, that parts of his long story “Westward the Course of Empire Makes its Way” (another one I’ve always had a hell of a time finishing) were written in the margins of Barthes’ “Lost in the Funhouse and a book of stories by Cynthia Ozick) eager to make himself clear. “There’s a way, it seems to me,” said Wallace in a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, “that reality is fractured—at least the reality I live in.” The “footnote thing”—Rose’s phrase, not Wallace’s—“is a way to speak to this essential fractured-ness without creating a text that is unreadably fractured in and of itself.”

After reading a lot of DFW (as his cultish fans refer to him, although I do not refer to him this way because I’ve never been able to finish IJ ), you come to understand that this fractured prose style, characterized by segmented super-structures, labyrinthine sentences and protracted digressions, by turns entertaining and maddening, was not just surfacey glimmer belying great depth, but an actual concern with being precise. It’s revealing that Wallace briefly pursued a PhD in philosophy at Harvard before dropping out to devote himself to being a writer.

Internet posters who are now pointing out the hypocrisy of Wallace’s apparent suicide because his work so often plumbed the icky depths of selfishness and vanity (his New York Observer article “Great Male Narcissists” takes on the likes of Updike and Roth), clearly have not read him—or perhaps any literature for that matter—closely. Wallace’s whole ouvre reveals a deep-seated concern for human frailty, especially his own.

To my mind, Wallace’s articles and essays are among some of the best examples of nonfiction’s capability and flexibility as a literary genre that can bring the personal and the global to sensible speaking terms. He avoids the shrill ad hominem attacks of most cultural commentators by taking the empathetic high road with the likes of porn directors, right wing talk radio hosts and John McCain. Oh, how I wish he were still alive so he could bring a sane perspective to the Sarah Palin hysteria.

In his much anthologized essay, “Ticket to the Fair,” (retitled “Getting Away from Pretty Much Being Away from it All” for his collection of essays Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) he does not rub elbows with the unwashed masses at the Illinois State Fair to simply make fun of the antiquated ways and facile beliefs of middle Americans, so de rigeur in this election year, nor did he do it in order to gain the populist cred that so many artists have a difficult time genuinely earning. No, it seems to me his project was more transcendental: he was interested in understanding how humans have the capacity to contain both hideousness and goodness—beauty is conspicuously absent at the fair. Wallace avoided sentimentality. I liked to think that he shared a bit of Flannery O’Connor’s view that sentimentality is the premature, unearned, naive claim to innocence, which tends by some strange alchemy to become its opposite.

His first book of short stories Girl with Curious Hair changed my life. In grad school I was under the dual influence of Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever, two of the undisputed masters of the post-war short story. I would sit in my apartment and read and re-read their stories trying to understand how they worked. The result was stories with Cheever’s lofty exposition, decorous prose and interest in domestic rifts over money and O’Connor’s penchant for characters with allegorical-sounding names and some sort of deformity eventually knocked down several pegs by an act of violence. Writing those stories felt like watch repair rather than an ecstatic rendezvous with the muse. And then one day I spotted Girl with Curious Hair in a bookstore and opened it to the title story.

“Gimlet dreamed that if she did not see a concert last night she would become a type of liquid, therefore my friends Mr. Wonderful, Big, Gimlet and I went to see Keith Jarrett play a piano concert at the Irvine Concert Hall in Irvine last night.”

My jaw was on the floor. I laughed and looked around to see if anyone noticed. I wish I could tell you that in that instant I realized what I was doing wrong—nothing so grand happened—but at that moment I knew that I had no voice of my own. Later, after reading all the stories (with the exception of “Westward the Course of Empire Makes its Way”), it would further dawn on me that stories did not have to open and close with a sharp, neat click, like so many of O’Connor’s and Cheever’s where the endings are dramatically satisfying and pitch-perfect, some so perfect that I nearly quit writing all together. Wallace’s stories are messy and dispense with the old trope of everyday life being interrupted by crisis in favor of stories that begin, for example, in the twi-lit hyperreality of a sociopathic man with a malformed hand he calls “the asset” because he uses it to get laid, or in a recent New Yorker story, eavesdropping on a young, evangelically-Christian-oriented boyfriend and girlfriend discussing plans to abort their love child. Many writers have fecund enough imaginations to dream up such characters and circumstances, but Wallace was one of the rare few able to make them uncannily familiar to us—to see in these troubled characters aspects of ourselves.
Perhaps this is David Lynch’s influence. Wallace’s admits his indebtedness to Lynch in the essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head” about hanging around the set of Lynch’s Lost Highway: “For me, Lynch's movies' deconstruction of this weird irony of the banal has affected the way I see and organize the world..” Wallace defined Lynch’s brand of irony as the “kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." Examples of such irony abound in Wallace’s work. In “Girl with Curious Hair” the narrator is a bigoted, card-carrying, English Leather cologne wearing Young Republican who hangs out with acid-tripping punk rockers who burn one another with cigarette lighters while performing fellatio.

The David Lynch article is a wonderful, fragmented homage, but, more than that, an ars poetica displaying Wallace’s intellectual and aesthetic foundations and formation—what reviews used to be. Wallace, prone to stuttering in public interviews, points out that even Lynch’s manner of speaking is postmodern:

“like Jimmy Stewart on acid . . . This is a genius auteur whose vocabulary in person consists of things like okey-doke and marvy and terrif and gee. When a production assistant appears with the tuna-fish sandwich he's asked for, he stops in the middle of his huddle with the Steadicam operator and tells her "Thanks a million." David Letterman says this kind of stuff too, but Letterman always says it in a way that lets you know he's making fun of about 400 things at the same time.”

Wallace had this capacity, too, but instead of allowing those 400 things to hang suspended there, implied, he enumerated them.

It wasn’t that he was trying to be, as many critics and readers estimate, humorous in a po-mo ironic way, and it’s not just that he’s worried that he has not made himself clear, but that he goes beyond the point of mere worry to chronic, paralyzing self-consciousness. He does admit that if there is a “schtick” in his essays its origins are in his self-consciousness about being sent by magazines to cover events as a journalist would, press pass and notebook in hand, when he does not consider himself a journalist. And it’s not just that he doesn’t consider himself a journalist but that he knows that he in fact is not one: he has not the training or the skills. This, it seems, is the genius of Wallace’s work—and not genius in that rarified way often bandied about, meaning innate, unteachable, near-magical, but in the way that genius may be said to be something native to all humans but rarely realized; personal genius; to do much with what one has been given. In short, his genius is in his awareness of what he doesn’t know, or is not very good at, and owning up to it in such a way that paradoxically restores our confidence in the importance of searching for knowledge through personal experience.

In his essay on tennis he writes of the “unlyrical problem” of trying to accurately strike a ball within the rectilinear lines of a tennis court on windy day in central Illinois: “the best-planned, best-hit ball often [blows] out of bounds.” Wallace’s writes that his tactic was to not overcompensate for the wind but to simply hit the ball as true as he could back up the middle of the court and allow the wind to distort its trajectory. His opponents, much bigger and stronger and better-coached, were sent into racket-throwing tantrums at the unfairness of being screwed over by something as unpredictable and uncontrollable.
In the years that follow, the task of trying to estimate David Foster Wallace’s greatness will prove to be similarly unfair and maddening.