Normally, it seems a bit cheesy to mourn a person whose path you never crossed. I didn’t send a flower bouquet when Princess Diana died. But when David Foster Wallace took his own life, I felt personally bereaved. (And yes, I made it all the way through Infinite Jest. I wouldn’t want to take an exam on it, but I’m glad for the experience.) Damn, he was good! How could he stop? There were so many subjects I wanted to hear his take on. I wanted a sequel to “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
Don’t groan. There’s a novel in it. For some reason, DFW reneges on his vow, and does it again. Stay with me here, okay? Maybe kidnappers hold someone dear to him, and threaten harm if the author does not undertake to go on another pleasure cruise and write about it. Or maybe a therapist suggests that he identify the activity he would maximally loathe, and plunge into it. The title would be, You Laugh at My Horse, You Buy My Horse, an old saying with deep metaphysical significance.
The people who most interest me now are the people — are people who are older and who have sort of been through a mid-life crisis. They tend to get weird because the normal incentives for getting out of bed don’t tend to apply anymore. I have not found any satisfactory new ones, but I’m also not getting ready to, you know, jump off a building or anything.
DFW said that to interviewer Charlie Rose, but a little over ten years later, in September of 2008, things had obviously changed and he hanged himself. It’s impossible to imagine the depth of despair he must have experienced, when even a MacArthur Fellowship couldn’t provide reason enough to live. Short of a Nobel prize, is there any more significant earthly reward for a writer and thinker? It’s an amazing acknowledgment of brilliance and effort. And not enough to keep a terminally depressed person going, apparently.
Jonathan Franzen suggests that DFW died of boredom, and goes into it thoroughly. I’m tempted to disagree, because of a deeply held belief that the well-furnished and well-equipped mind can never be bored. On the other hand, boredom is not giving a shit, and not giving a shit is the opposite of caring, and the worst thing about depression is the inability to care about anything. It’s possible that the most severe depression I ever had was not even as bad as DFW’s lightest bouts of it, but I do know the symptoms, and that is one of them. You have a vague notion, perhaps even a conviction, that it would be a real good idea to care about something. But it’s just not there.
D.T. Max says about The Pale King , which wasn’t finished, “The novel continues Wallace’s preoccupation with mindfulness. It is about being in the moment and paying attention to the things that matter….” Which comes back to boredom. Maybe he was trying to prove that with sufficient mindfulness, boredom can’t exist.
But that wasn’t the case. He surrounded himself with extraordinary people. I’ve watched with interest the transmogrification of DFW into a character appearing in the novels written by various of his friends. (In the straight memoirs, there is no doubt also a certain amount of metamorphosis.) In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, he is Richard Katz:
And the eternally tormenting question for Walter … was whether Richard was the little brother or the big brother, the fuckup or the hero, the beloved damaged friend or the dangerous rival.
Hubristic as it might be, I made a list of similarities between me and DFW, mostly gleaned from the biography of him by D. T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. It says he grew up watching “All in the Family” and “MASH,” which were my favorite and practically only TV shows. And he never liked using the phone. Me either. In the school cafeteria he inhabited the table of “refuseniks” where “the conversation among the group bounced between social and sexual frustration, intellectual enthusiasm, and nerdy inquiry.” Me too! One of the quotes from Max is,
He liked to get high at home before he studied. His parents tolerated the behavior. All the same, Wallace preferred to smoke standing on a chair in an upstairs bathroom blowing the smoke out with an exhaust fan…
How weird! I used to stand on a chair and blow smoke out the transom over the kitchen door, though not at my parents’ house. I used to live in the student ghetto, in a old house subdivided into three apartments. The “neighbitch” who lived on the other side of the wall was mean enough to call the cops if she smelled reefer. So – the transom, the chair.
At one point, “He thought about… going to Los Angeles to write television shows.” I went there wanting to be a screenwriter. DFW had a poster of Klimt’s “The Kiss,” which I also used to have. Maria Bustillos says,
Among David Foster Wallace’s papers at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin are three hundred-odd books from this personal library, most of them annotated, some heavily as if he were scribbling a dialogue with the author page by page.
I do that. An article by Max in The New Yorker says, in 2004, DFW wrote to Jonathan Franzen that to get the current book done he would have to write “a 5,000 page manuscript and then winnow it by 90%…” which is how I approach it – start out with about 10 times as much as I’m going to need and then distill it down.
He heaps scorn upon those who speak of “begging the question” when they don’t have a clue what it means. And he’s with me on who versus that. That is for things, and who is for people. So there.
And The Screwtape Letters was one of DFW’s favorite books! I wonder if he ever got to hear the audio version of the C. S. Lewis classic as read by John Cleese. A genius sandwich. (Somebody gave that to me once, and it’s just about the best present ever.) Speaking of which, an audiobook not to miss is Wallace reading his own collection of essays, Consider the Lobster. The piece about the AVN Awards (the “Oscars of porn) is in there. And consider “Consider the Lobster.” The guy accepts a commission from a cookery magazine to expound on the glory of lobster-eating, does the exact opposite, and is nevertheless paid and published. Could any other writer pull that off?
Of course my admiration for DFW is not all-encompassing. I was disappointed to learn that he and Mary Karr liked to watch the kind of movies where shit blows up. But I like what he said about irony.
And he was funny. All three of these upcoming quotations are from Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.
They joked about the unthinkable. Green warned him that if he killed himself she’d be “the Yoko Ono of the literary world, the woman with all the hair who domesticated you and look what happened.”
Sedaris was surprised at how funny and gentle Wallace was, how full of praise for his students.
Wallace stood up on the stage, very slowly poured himself a glass of water, took a sip, put it down, and, smacking his lips, said, “Aaaah… You know,” he told the audience, “I always wanted to do that.”
More Favorite Quotations About DFW
From Glenn Kenny, who worked with him very closely as an editor:
I think the idea was if you go to him asking him to do something, he’s going to do it his way.
I think the reason he had such an aversion to severely urban areas was the sensory overload of having to perceive that much.
I don’t think Dave was adverse to happiness but I think he was incredibly suspicious because of all of the false things in the culture that are proposed to simulate happiness. He looked at the concept askance because of that. Part of his personal struggle was to find a form of happiness that was not ersatz.
D. T. Max:
The teacher was under constant pressure to entertain if he wanted to be liked – and no one wanted to be liked more than Wallace did. The bind was not just that he did not think he could do it, but that if he did do it, was he actually doing something he would admire himself for having done?”
Maria Bustillos says,
Wallace seemed always to be trying to erase the distance between himself and others in order to understand them better, and trying visibly to make himself understood – always asking questions, demanding to know more details.
Favorite quotations by DFW
I don’t even pretend to be a journalist and have no idea how to interview somebody.
…you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment.
I mean it would be very hard not to imagine that you’re different and better than other people if everybody’s treating you like you’re different and better than them.
From the Charlie Rose interview, in reference to I forget what:
….if that was going on, it was going on on a level of awareness I do not want to have access to.
In a letter to Don DeLillo :
I believe I want adult sanity, which seems to me the only unalloyed form of heroism available today.
When he quit summer university classes:
I rose one day and said ‘No’. That’s what I said.