Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Riotous Genius: An Appreciation of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

David Foster Wallace provided me (and others) with the phrase “howling fantods,” which I’ve often used to describe my not-infrequent states of nervous anxiety -- e.g., “My ex-girlfriend called me for the first time in three years last night, and after I hung up I got the howling fantods and couldn’t sleep,” with the anxiety being described always more of the ambient/terrifying/existential kind and less of the practical/impending-job-interview kind -- and which goddamn fantods, having darkened for Wallace past even the howling stage of their fury, claimed the author last week at 46, an age clearly too young and yet also older than he seemed, the air of wunderkind around him having never fully dissipated. (1)
(1) This sentence represents my sole attempt to approximate -- even in this anemic way -- Wallace’s style in this post, and I know even this is ill-advised. I figured it was better to just get it out of my system and proceed.

In 1996, I was a senior in college, in San Antonio, when my older sister -- who lived in New York, worked in the publishing industry, and with whom I frequently swapped literary opinions and recommendations -- told me to drop everything and read an essay in Harper’s about time spent on a Caribbean cruise ship. In the essay -- which as far as I can tell is one of the very few (maybe only) that members of my generation can confidently identify (and light up about) on the basis of only two words (“cruise ship”) -- Wallace covered a vast amount of cultural, spiritual, and power-toilet-themed ground. He started with a list of declarative statements that have the tone of a shell-shocked war correspondent. Here are a few, condensed:
I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. . . . I now know the difference between straight Bingo and Prize-O, and what it is when a Bingo jackpot “snowballs.” I have seen camcorders that practically required a dolly . . . I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeetshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. . . . I have now heard -- and am powerless to describe -- reggae elevator music.
(That last sentence features one of my favorite Wallace-isms, the use of which almost always makes me laugh out loud: his stating the incapacity of even his prodigious descriptive powers in the presence of the mind-boggling. There are three good examples of this over the course of just a few pages of “Big Red Son,” his essay about the porn industry:

1. About women who agree, spontaneously and unscripted, to have sex in a van for an adult movie, he writes in a footnote: “No theories on this phenomenon or on the civilian females’ possible motives/susceptibilities will even be attempted here -- the relevant questions are just too huge and stupefying.”

2. About a mover and shaker in the porn industry: “Max, after detailing ... the vo- and avocations that led him into the adult industry (a tale too literally incredible even to think about factchecking and trying to print)...”

3. In another footnote, describing a dinnertime conversation in Las Vegas with a former child actor who has become a director on the porn scene, Wallace writes that the actor’s introduction to porn took place “through a flux of circumstances too tortuous to even take notes on...”)


Right around the time I was reading -- and rereading -- the cruise ship essay, Wallace was publishing Infinite Jest, his 1,079-page novel about a futuristic America. At the considerable risk of summing up such a doorstop’s concerns in one word, the novel dealt with addiction. It featured a halfway house, a videotape thought so entertaining that it killed those who viewed it, and years no longer numbered but named after corporate sponsors.

My friend DR called Jest “one of the most rewarding novels I’ve ever read,” but also acknowledged the effort it required, writing: “I’m a guy that believes a book should look like a properly used baseball-uniform when you’re done with it: Worn-in and stained, with a few holes in it. My copy of Infinite Jest, which sits tattered, shredded, and broken on my bookshelf, suffered almost as much as I did reading it.”

Unlike DR, I was (at the time) surpassingly delicate with my books. Especially with first editions of books that I envisioned passing on to future generations. This gentle treatment reached its zenith with Jest. Instead of underlining passages like I did in most books, I kept a separate set of notes about which pages, paragraphs and sentences left the biggest impression. When I finished, I typed up the list, and to this day there are three dot-matrix-printer pages tucked into the front cover of my copy of the novel, to guide me, with notes like “p. 523 -- middle paragraph about Politeness Roulette” and “footnote #269 -- and all of its parental theories, etc.”


Wallace once described the Oscars ceremony as “the whole cynical postmodern deal,” and that phrase describes his beat. A former student of his called him “a noticing machine,” and both the adjective and the noun are perfect. There was something machine-like about his brain (he was going to pursue a career in mathematical logic or semantics before he gained notice as a writer; as David Gates wrote, “I suspect that Wallace was a genius who happened to be a writer, rather than a writer who happened to be a genius...”) and about his prose, which can be called -- among many other things -- industrial and intimidating. And nothing escaped his notice, which thrilled some readers and turned off others. In an essay about John McCain’s run for president in 2000, he spent the better part of a page describing a malfunctioning bathroom door on a campaign bus. It had nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with Wallace’s style, which immersed you in whatever he happened to be immersed in at the moment. Some might think the style self-indulgent, but Wallace’s powers of observation and nuclear-grade sense of humor meant that his most ardent fans would happily read a hundred pages from him about a ketchup dispenser.

His focus on the quotidian (he focused on the grand, too, but we’ll get to that), in both novels and nonfiction, almost reached the level of meditation. He wrote and spoke several times about the importance (and difficulty) of living in the moment, and after reading his copiously detailed (and legendarily footnoted) reports from the field, one couldn’t accuse him of ignoring his own advice.


In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace talked about David Lynch and what identifies an artist: “They've got their own vision, their own way of fracturing reality, and . . . if it's authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings.” And in an essay about Dostoevsky, he wrote:
That distinctive singular stamp of himself is one of the main reasons readers come to love an author. The way you can just tell, often within a couple paragraphs, that something is by Dickens, or Chekhov, or Woolf, or Salinger, or Coetzee, or Ozick. The quality’s almost impossible to describe or account for straight out -- it mostly presents as a vibe, a kind of perfume of sensibility -- and critics’ attempts to reduce it to questions of “style” are almost universally lame.
Wallace certainly had his own perfume. One of his essays for Premiere appeared in the magazine under two pseudonyms, which is maybe the funniest fact of his entire career. I don’t know the particulars of why this was done -- perhaps for some lawyerly reason having to do with conflicting obligations -- but it couldn’t have been to disguise Wallace as the author. Trying to convince a reader it wasn’t Wallace would have been like trying to pass off Dustin Hoffman as Cindy Crawford by gluing a fake beauty mole to his face. I don’t think I’ve ever read a single thing by Wallace that, stripped of a byline, I wouldn’t be able to identify, within 50 words, as his. You don’t need a Ph.D. in literature to recognize the power of Wallace’s work. You just need a set of healthy nerve endings.


Wallace’s grim fate left me worried that going back to read him for the purposes of this post would be, at best, a bittersweet experience. It wasn’t. He was such an egghead that the lingering memory of his work can be one of difficult, sometimes opaque brilliance, but the actual experience of reading his work is riotous. Even in the shadow of his suicide, Wallace’s voice on the page is so distinctive and so human (if a little Rain Man-y at times) that he seems to remain alive, which I guess is the ultimate test for all writers, eventually. Up until 2 a.m. reading his essays the other night, I only felt a twinge of sadness after I put down the book and went to bed.

Even when he was writing about depression or delusions, Wallace could stick the landing on jokes like nobody else. Take this long sentence from Infinite Jest:
He’d kept noticing mice scurrying around his room, mice as in rodents, vermin, and when he lodged a complaint and demanded the room be fumigated at once and then began running around hunched and pounding with the heel of a hand-held Florsheim at the mice as they continued to ooze through the room’s electrical outlets and scurry repulsively about, eventually a gentle-faced nurse flanked by large men in custodial whites negotiated a trade of shoes for Librium, predicting that the mild sedative would fumigate what really needed to be fumigated.
Oddly, it’s the writing that tends to get lost in discussions of Wallace, whose brains and ambitions often receive focus at the expense of his actual sentences. There was something physical about both him (a lumberjack of a guy with a Mount Rushmore-sized head) and his prose that made people consider him in a way they normally reserve for athletes, not authors.

But it isn’t Wallace the inscrutable colossus who will last, it’s Wallace the careful craftsman. Here are just a very few (criminally few) of the images I rediscovered in the last couple of days:

On campaign-trail beverages: “coffee that tastes like hot water with a brown crayon in it.”

On a veteran New York Times reporter: she wore “a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification...”

On a third-party candidate winning the presidency in the imagined future of Infinite Jest: “...the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it...”

From The Broom of the System, his first novel: “Through the giant window high over the cubicle a thin spear of the orange-brown light of a Cleveland sunset, saved and bent for a moment by some kindly chemical cloud around the Erieview blackness, fell like a beacon on the soft patch of cream just below Lenore’s right ear, on her throat.”

On the protagonists in John Updike’s fiction: “Though usually family men, they never really love anybody -- and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.”

On South Carolina during the 2000 presidential campaign: “You can tell it must be spooky down here in the summer, all wet moss and bog-steam and dogs with visible ribs and everybody sweating through their hat.”

One more, also about South Carolina: “The central-SC countryside looks blasted, lynched, the skies the color of low-grade steel, the land all dead sod and broomsedge, with scrub oak and pine leaning at angles, and you can almost hear the mosquitoes breathing in their baggy eggs awaiting spring.”

I’ve seen entire horror movies that aren’t as creepy as the last nine words of that sentence, and I’ve read poems that aren’t as lyrical.


To an outside observer, Wallace's humility and lack of pretension matched his talent. He grew up in the midwest, and eventually taught at Illinois State University (before moving on to Pomona College in California). On two occasions (at least), he wrote pieces in which he refers only half-ironically to Harper’s, for which he was on assignment, as “a swanky East-Coast magazine.” His piece for Rolling Stone, “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” describes his reaction to 9/11, the events of which he watched on TV in the living room of a septuagenarian in Bloomington, Illinois. He regularly and earnestly asked questions about emotional investment and civic responsibility that would have gotten him laughed out of any hipster party in Brooklyn.

I don’t know whether he turned down teaching positions at higher-profile universities -- it’s kind of hard to imagine he didn’t -- but his obituaries make it clear that he was beloved by his students. Gary Kates, the dean of Pomona, said: "I know a great novelist has left the scene, but we knew him as a great teacher who cared deeply about his students, who treasured him. That's what we're going to miss.” A former student of his said, “once you had his trust, he would do anything for you. He was a big dude, about 6-foot-3, but a real gentle guy.”

Of all the things I read since Saturday night, those details made me saddest.


Many critics -- and readers, like myself -- saw Infinite Jest as a dazzling-but-only-intermittently-rewarding novel, and as proof that Wallace, in order to fulfill his promise, might have had some whittling and humanizing to do. Well, as far as fiction went, he whittled it down to almost nothing. He never published another novel. In 1999 came Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a collection of dutiful postmodern workouts that read like time-killing calisthenics after Infinite Jest. Five years later another collection of stories, Oblivion, which I admit to not reading, though I did cringe at a few of the excerpts I came across in the mixed reviews. In his post-Jest fiction, Wallace’s ambition seemed to shrink to executing the kind of experimental set pieces of which Barthelme et al. were brilliant pioneers, and that George Saunders does equally well as Wallace, if not better. So I think it’s fair to say that Wallace never did live up to his potential as a fiction writer, granting that the size of said promise is a significant and maybe unfair consideration in the verdict.

The sheer heft of Infinite Jest imparted it a planetary gravity, which pulled most of the discussion about Wallace back to it. But without that book’s mass (and its notorious endnotes, which themselves would have made a not-small novel -- endnote #110 alone goes on for more than 17 pages, in tiny type, and features a full set of its own sub-endnotes, lettered A through L), I’m not sure the majority of coverage would have focused on his stature as a novelist the way that it has. It’s more notable to me that Wallace was arguably the best nonfiction writer of his generation.


Simply listing, in order, the subjects tackled in his two collections of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, show the breadth of Wallace’s view: growing up in the American midwest, TV’s influence on fiction writers, the Illinois State Fair, literary theorist H. L. Hix, filmmaker David Lynch, tennis player Michael Joyce, time spent on a Caribbean cruise ship, the porn industry, Kafka, dictionaries, 9/11, tennis star Tracy Austin (Wallace played and loved tennis), John McCain, the ethics of eating lobsters, a multi-volume biography of Dostoevsky, and conservative talk radio.

It’s feasible that fiction gave him more freedom than his brain knew how to handle. For someone who could turn a proscribed magazine assignment into a hundred-page disquisition on modern culture and life’s biggest questions, a pile of blank pages and no constraints might have been too much. Let loose in real life, Wallace could use his singular talent to write about things that had some inherent structure (multi-day events, etc.) or were independent of plot (theories, ethics, etc.) without having to worry about the mechanics of fiction, which he never seemed ideally suited for.

It was in his nonfiction where Wallace used his familiarity and comfort with both high- and lowbrow culture to create a portrait of America at the hinge of two centuries that will endure. (Chuck Klosterman shot to fame by distributing Wallace Lite, which maintains the torrent of cultural references and the stratified analysis but substitutes the middlebrow for the highbrow. Thus, fewer pesky calories.)


It’s at least 25 years too early for such a thing to feel remotely OK, but Wallace’s death has predictably renewed interest in his work: As I write this, books of his occupy the number 12, 25, and 26 slots on Amazon’s bestseller list. As I told someone recently, I consider feeling compelled to revisit his work a very, very thin silver lining to last week’s news.


In the aforementioned interview with Charlie Rose, there’s a small moment that captures, for me, a great deal of Wallace’s charm -- while simultaneously capturing why his head might not have been the most pleasant place to reside. He and Rose are discussing a piece that Wallace wrote about filmmaker David Lynch:
CR: You never got to interview (Lynch)...

DFW: I said from the outset -- this is the reason they let me on the set, of all the other journalists, is I was the only who said he did not, in fact, want to interview David Lynch.

CR: Why did you want to go observe David Lynch?

DFW: I...I found...um...you mean, why did I not want to interview him or why did I...?

CR: Why was David Lynch interesting to you, as the subject of a magazine piece?
Wallace was always turning things around to investigate them, so that a simple question -- one that 99.9% of people would respond to without pausing -- serves as a speed bump, causing him to inquire about a potential (if highly unlikely) misunderstanding. This was the semantics geek in him. This was the guy who wrote endnotes for his endnotes.


I’ve heard a few people -- both friends and others -- call Wallace’s suicide “incomprehensible.” One particularly eloquent friend, JF, wrote to me: “One thing I liked about his footnoted style of writing is that it always seemed to be correcting and commenting on itself. It let the world in, and it gave him the space and license to wander. I can't believe he shut the door to correction, as it were, so permanently.”

There’s another reason I felt bewildered when I first heard. Wallace’s sense of humor always stood side by side with his more cynical, acidic take on people and events. It seemed, on the page, that laughter was a balm for him, something he could use to offset his disgust or confusion. (This was less obvious in televised interviews, where he often seemed highly self-conscious and ill at ease.) Of course, we know now that Wallace had been fighting depression for two decades, and had stopped taking a priorly effective medication more than a year ago.


What I perceived as Wallace’s humility seemed to also attend his view of his depression. When Rose pushed him to talk about earlier suicidal feelings (The Broom of the System was published when he was 24), and suggested that Wallace had been to hell and back, he responded, “No, I don't think any more than most people my age.” And pushed harder, he said:
The problem was I started out, I think, wanting to be a writer and wanting to get some attention and I got it really quick and . . . realized it didn’t make me happy at all, in which case, “Hmm. Why am I writing?” You know, “What’s the purpose of this?” And I don’t think it’s substantively different from the sort of thing -- you know, somebody who wants to be a really successful cost accountant, right, and be a partner of his accounting firm and achieves that at 50 and goes into something like a depression. “The brass ring I’ve been chasing does not make everything okay.” So that’s why I’m embarrassed to talk about it. It’s just not particularly interesting. It’s -- what it is, is very, very average.
Of course, Wallace’s work was far from average, and so were his plentiful passages about ambivalence and anxiety in the face of existence. Infinite Jest involves a subplot about alcoholism and support groups, and it has a lot to say about the difficulty of controlling one’s thoughts and moods, including this:
No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. . . . It’s too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it’s as of now real. What’s real is the tube and Noxzema and pain. And this could be done just like the Old Cold Bird. He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen; he could treat his head like G. Day or R. Lenz: clueless noise. He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.


Blogger Barbara Carlson said...

That "0" comments notation at the bottom of your wonderful tribute to DFW makes me sad. We "out here" ARE reading what you write even if we don't always comment. You are not alone is missing this prodigiously alive
(still -- in his legions of readers/friends) gentle man.

If we manage to carry on, armed with his message of thinking and acting beyond the debilitating default setting of ME/MONEY/POWER
he did his life's work and we must, however reluctantly, let him be free to go.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Mrs. White said...

Great post, John. Such a tragic loss...

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful tribute, thanks.

5:00 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

That was a great Obit. And you know I'm a fan of good obituaries. I'm embarrassed to say that I never have read much fiction, so I'm not familiar with his work. But that doesn't really matter, that was a great post.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nicely written.

3:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This was so lovely and heartfelt and well-written...
thanks for helping me come to terms a bit. It is not surprising that gentle souls with minds as complex and hyperactive as DFW's find it hard to negotiate - or even bear - this crazy world.

Those excerpts made me happy that I haven't yet tackled Infinite Jest, though the reading of it will surely be bittersweet now. Funny that I 'saved' it as if fate was telling me to 'ration' his work....

I will surely check out those links to the Pomona and McSweeney's tributes as well; thanks for finding them.

12:15 AM  

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