Friday, November 14, 2008

"Human beings came and went" an epitaph of thanksgiving to my mentor the late David Foster Wallace



In my late teens and early twenties Infinite Jest was my best friend. I lugged the glossy tome of erudition and narrative bravura with me everywhere I went. I ploughed through the continents of paragraphs, brandishing my pen like a scalpel as I chiseled annotations into each page. I loved how each individual sentence revved up and sputtered before driving the reader deeper into a neon Golgotha of an overtly subsidized, spiritually vacuous future. I loved the acronyms and the irony and the lack of punctuation—how everything fractl'd out of control with the subtle velocity of a mouse click and the startled sunrise of a new web page. I loved how from page one, Wallace allowed the reader to stumble and wade into a sea of characters in the book-- creatures who are seeking and yearning. Creatures who are fucked up yet fighting. The scene where Tiny Ewell is confessing his pubescent chicanery to a comatose Don Gately still to this day reverberates inside my chest with the resonance and flap of angel wings. Or the scene where beloved maladroit Mario asks the Moms how she can tell if someone is sad. Open to around page 200 in nearly any version of Infinite Jest and you will witness a miracle in print, the epistemic of a heart that wildly observes and blinks as well as pulsates with the aesthetic drive of all mankind as it lurks and scopes out a simple halfway house while detailing the errant souls that dwell within.

I annotated and re-read and pondered and dreamed. I talked about Wallace to anyone who would listen. I started carrying around a vial of Visine. I told them that Wallace was to a generation of writers what Cobain had been to a generation of lyricists. I told them that the linguistic mortar binding the jacket of this book together contained the ever-elusive "it" in which we as a collective human species were all somehow seeking. The book was marketed like the purported failed entertainment itself—glossy and gargantuan. Epic and exhausting. The blurbs of Moody and Vollmann and Franzen sprouted off the back cover with the intensity of fireworks blossoming above the tinted window showcasing the pensive author himself, looking as if he had just inhaled something green and potent while mulling over the outcome of a game of frisbee golf. He looked like what I thought a literary savior should look like: a wizened Spartan wordsmith. A feral wildman boasting about the glory of his fresh inky kill. He looked like someone who had been there, a washed up itinerant emotional Ishmael, who had not only survived the to tell the tale but one who wished to convey it in a fashion that had simply never before been conceived. That he wished to push the (porous) borders of the page as far as they would allow. Wish to amp up the volume of the contemporary state of American letters. That he wished simply to stretch out the possibility of the human experience and immortalize it in the tattooed hieroglyphics of language.

But more than anything what inspired me about David Foster Wallace was that he lived forty-five minutes away from the aching bluffs of the river town where I was born. For a formative teenage writer lodged in the genital wart of the Midwest nothing is more needed, more revered, more sacred then finding superman occupying the corner phone booth in the sometimes empty avenues of your artistic ambitions—and when that superhero looks like David Foster Wallace and writes like a wild-haired caged mad man howling at the harvest moon, you know you have found a true mentor of the soul indeed.

The summer of '97 I would drive down the cement arteries of I-74, lost in the emerald husks of corn, thinking to myself aloud that "This is David Foster Wallace, country" as I chained smoked Camel Turkish Golds thinking about Don Gately or Hal Incandenza or Himself pressing microwave integers or thinking about the ravishing, unforgettable Lenore Beadsman from Broom of the System (my favorite DFW protagonist of all time) wondering if I would spot him at the Denny's he was rumored to write at. Apparently he would put his television in his front lawn when he wished to log in some serious writing hours. My friends who had met him said that he always referred to writing as "work." That he smoked like a chimney at a nuclear facility. That he was apish in stature, hairy and uncouth and dipped even when he was in class. That he was brilliant. That he smelled. That he couldn't play tennis anymore because he had a sore knee. That he didn’t know how to shave. That all the girls loved him. That he would often enroll his creative writing students through two weeks of remedial grammar at the onset of every semester because they didn't know how to punctuate worth shit. That he would chew up your individualized slain over manuscripts and spit out the romantic residue of your tears. That he was going through writers block. That he had his own private study in Milner library. That he could sometimes be a real asshole. That he had gotten it on with fellow writer Mary Karr at Syracuse and had her initials tattooed somewhere on the hirsute boundaries of his flesh. That he looked like a hybrid between a court Jester or a samurai warrior in that ubiquitous bandanna he donned with the cagey assurance that he could either easily amuse you to death or simply fuck with everything you have ever believed in.





I never had a class with David Foster Wallace. After I discovered the blinding shield of linguistic light that is Infinite Jest I began to consume every writer and book David Foster Wallace recommended. For me personally, this was where David Foster Wallace, the image of a jaded hip insomnia-addled novelist chain smoking cigarettes at a local coffee bar comes to life--that image made me simply want to read and write books and sent younger writers a message that if you openly indulged in your literary fetishes you might also influence others in the process.

Everything David Foster Wallace recommended I devoured with the appetite of hunger strike riddled martyrs. When I first discovered Wallace I was lost in the mire of serpentine sentences brought on by an unyielding "beat and James Joyce phase" that compels so many young (esp. males) writers to forgo the piecemeal rudiments of punctuation, sandblasting a ditzy clang of syllables into the drywall of the page in hopes that a metaphor encapsulating the human condition might somehow be revealed in a dash of brilliance. While my education at that time was (to plagiarize Wallace again) "A few french fries short of an academic happy meal," I never received anything close to the edification and encouragement and the joy inside the classroom that Wallace offered me via his prose and his enthusiasm for contemporary state of letters. There were the writers on the back of the book cover, Sven Birketts urging us to "THINK" William Gaddis and William Gass and John Barth and (oh yes) Thomas Pynchon. I read William James' "Varieties of a religious Experience," I fell head over knee caps enamored with Wittgenstein's Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus based solely that Wallace's first novel Broom of the System had incubated inside the epistemological rungs of this philosophical ladder.


A sentence referencing eternity in respect to the vicissitudes of time culled from that positivism bulletin provides the title of this particular blog.


But then I also began to read his contemporaries. If Wallace was vaulted into the coveted dome of the literati spotlight, he was sharing his champagne and confetti with writers who struggled and wrote long side him. Younger writers. I read the writers whom he was compared to yet seemed to vehemently despise (McInerney and Leyner). I read the writers he adored. I read Susan Daitch and AM Homes. I read and re-read Galatea 2.2 and fucking wailed til their were tear drops on my testicles ("Richard Powers," Wallace applauded in an interview "Who lives all of 45 minutes away from me and whom I have met all of once.") I fell in madly love with the spritely wit and windex clear prose of Lorrie Moore. I slipped into the frigid late-70's ambiance of Rick Moody's icicle prose parading over the upholstery of Updike. I lauded the beautiful carnivalesque clan and narrative tomfooleries of Don Antrim's "100 brothers." I ordered a copy of 27th City and even submitted my name to Oprah's book club in hopes that I would be a guest panelist during the one week that Jonathan Franzen itchingly anticipated CORRECTIONS was chosen to be in the aborted media spotlight.


After all, I knew all about Franzen. David Foster Wallace had introduced me to his work years before.

I read more William T. Vollmann then could possibly be salubrious for my spiritual longevity. More than once I got laid plagiarizing the quote "Gave my heart an erection," a metaphor he quoted in an interview while talking about Carole Maso's ravishing novel "AVA."

Some of the books Wallace introduced me to have become my best friends. I can't imagine where I would go for emotional solace if I didn't have Delillo's WHITE NOISE or GREAT JONES STREET. During the IJ tour Wallace was quoted to having said something like, "The writer I'm most into right now is George Saunders Civil War Land in Bad Decline."--Saunders becoming a second literary avatar who I was honored to introduce in Chicago during his book tour for Pastoralia.

I read every DFW interview I could land my postmodern inflicted paws on. To this day I feel the Larry McCarffery Interview featured in the 1993 Summer issue of THE REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY FICTION has served as my emotional rod and staff--it is the one piece of exposition I have been going to like a confidant for over a decade to confirm my devotion to this craft.

In the interview (published when Jest was still in its second trimester)Wallace said things like "Fiction is what its like to be a fucking human being." He talked about Wittgenstein and about chasing what Yeats called "the click of a well made box " How he talked about the craft and loyalty to composing stories being an act of love. "And I've found the really tricky discipline to writing is trying to play without getting overcome by by insecurity or vanity or ego. Showing the reader that you are smart or talented or whatever, trying to be liked, integrity issues aside, this stuff just doesn't have enough motivational calories to carry you in the long haul. You've got to discipline yourself that talk out the part of you that loves the thing, loves what you're working on. Maybe that just plain loves."

The interview with Larry McMurphy stewarded to my life what the New Testament proclaims to give to tithing Born again arms flailing Christians. It gave me orientation and encouragement and still to this day part of me feels set on fire every time I read it.



the author of this blog (right) endeavoring to emulate the attire of his mentor, circa 1998



The first creative writing seminar I attended at Bradley University I wore glasses and a bandanna to class. After the class period I chatted with my instructor, the great Thomas Palakeel, about post modernism and Wallace’s place in it. A year later I transferred to Illinois State to save money. Wallace was on sabbatical that semester but I remember jipping class and spending all day burrowed 400 meters from his office writing in the basement of Manchester. I had a crush on the scarlet-haired professor with the tight ass whose office was adjacent to Wallace's academic den. I would hang outside his office, my manuscript folded beneath my arms like an American flag configured after taps, waiting to be discovered. There was nothing remarkable about his office. I remember that he had a New Yorker cartoon posted on his office door (something about rogain, middle age and chest hair). He also had a quote stating how he would be on sabbatical followed by the phrase” FARETHEWELL FELLOW TRAVELER.

When I called his office just to hear the voice of my avatar on his office answering machine, hoping to introduce myself as an eager student and enthusiastic fan of contemporary fiction I was dismayed when the semi- nasal tone of his voice offered out a bitter caveat stating, "This number is for student and academic inquiries only."

I met a cool cafeteria worker at Illinois state who was a late-middle aged writer paying his dues like every other aspiring chronicler I know and who walked out of Wallace's classroom after a heated discussion where Wallace ripped his story apart.

"The one word to describe Dave Wallace is "intense." He said, after telling me about a recent rejection letter he had just received from Esquire.


We had a mutual friend named Nick who worked at Brewster Beans and who looked just like Tiny Ewell from Infinite Jest. Nick had met DFW in hallways of Stevenson one afternoon and knew him solely as a professor. Nick was also an English major and I remember feeling appalled when he confessed to me that he had no clue of DFW’s literary renown. Nick had never heard of Infinite Jest, was oblivious that his friend Dave Wallace was named to the New Yorkers "Top twenty writers for the New Millennium."

Nick was working on an adaption of Hamlet for class.

"He has a really cool set up for writing." Nick said. "When I was inside his house last week he told me that he was working on something very serious and that he trusted me not to look around too much."


Nick told me a story how DFW's home answering machine apaprently kept weekly updates of the Bears 2000-2001 sloven season.

"By the way," It would end, "The Bears are still oh and five."


I edited a copy of Nick's Hamlet manuscript. Later Nick work shopped the manuscript. Next to my scribbled comments were those of DFW's. His handwriting was a lot neater than mine.The closest to Dave Foster Wallace I would get that semester was having my handwriting on his writing desk, wondering if his lips offered a snicker of delight when he saw my request of "Needs to have more Alas Poor Yorricks."

I transferred back to Bradley to wade ad infinitum in a haunting quagmire of debt but still somehow determined as fuck to scribe out my heart on to the unblemished pasture of snow that is the beckoning freshness of a blank page. I fell in love with girl who was the most beautiful (visually stunning) and ebullient gifted writer I have ever met (for all you jest-heads out there, her smile alone would make Joellen PGOAT look like she belonged in a barnyard bargain book bin). When John Updike came to speak at Bradley University that fall, I inquired about the future of fiction. Updike mentioned the name of David Foster Wallace and the whole room visually turned in my direction. I made friends with Kris, a James Joyce scholar whose IQ may be soaring somewhere next to the hubble telescope. Together with the PGOAT we maxed out autumnal afternoons driving around Bloomington, leaving Babbit books with a pagoda of postmodern texts busheled in the basket of our arms. We visited Dalkey Archive press and Fiction Collective 2 in Fairchild Hall requesting back issues of The review of Contemporary Fiction. We tramped through Stevenson Hall in search of simply spotting the author. We made Wallace out to be an elusive sasquatch and even coined the term "Wallace droppings" whenever we came across a twinkie wrapper. We bought more books. We read more interviews. We listened to folk music (Dar Williams, Ani Difranco, Greg Brown) and smoked weed. Thanks to the mind blowing Hyperbolean philosophical orations of Dr. Greene we spent that autumn immersed in the incendiary soul poetry of Husserl, Levinas, Battaile and Blanchot. We loved life. We howled and screamed. We fucked and accused. We continued to pelt out the confusion of love and the love of confusion into the keyboard every night in forlorn hopes that a metaphor might somehow be conceived.

We dreamed.


Still Wallace had been the most influential writer in the last half-decade of my life--his prose and literary recommendations alone served as the impetus to my every creative craving and try as hard as I fucking may, I never saw him once.





the best writers of our generation destroyed by madness-- Pulitzer prize winner Junot Diaz, Rick Moody, edwidge danticat, DFW, George saunders, Pulitzer prize winner jeffrey eugenides, New yorker "top 20 writers under 40" June 1999.


I finally met David Foster Wallace at Borders Books store in downtown Chicago on Bloomsday 1999. He had just appeared in the New Yorker top 20 writers for the new millennium issue, standing next to George Saunders, doing what looks like a fist pump of joy.

He was large. With his bulk he looked like an offensive center hunched over on all fours about ready to hike a football shaped exactly, somehow, like the book which I felt was the greatest text in the English language. He wore a pink bandanna, shorts and purple socks. He looked nothing like the saint I had drooled over the past three years. I remember telling my girlfriend that I thought he looked like the energizer bunny clad in that pink bandanna lumbering across aisled of reduced bestsellers brandishing an empty Evian bottle like a scepter, using it solely for a tobacco spittoon, the jester taking court, center stage, waiting to tell us a story.


He looked like a poured hybrid of Hal Incandenza and Don Gately.

He gave a kick ass reading, his voice soft, a late spring breath rustling over the Midwestern prairie reeds. When the plenary Q and A section of the book signing convened and one gentlemen asked him what he was currently reading he answered, "Hannibal" followed by a pause followed by a, "like the rest of the nation" rejoinder. When a middle-aged lady asked him where his inspirations come from, he scratched his head in an apish fashion and confessed that he really didn't know.



After the Q. and A the audience configured into an exclamatory mark of anxious bodies standing in the direction where the author was seated. David Duchovnyof X-files renown cut my girlfriend ( the PGOAT) in line and stepped on my foot in the process in order to be the first to offer Wallace a congratulatory shake. Wallace seemed completely unphased by Duchovy's presence.

I had one copy signed for me and another addressed to Doc. Palakeel, my first creative writing prof at Bradley university. I began to get tense. I tittered. I tried to convey to him the gratitude I felt for everything he had given me. He brushed it off like he could care less about what his work had meant to the general populace at large. When the person behind me in line made a reference to the date of June sixteenth being Bloomsday I almost on cue broke out into a fulsome rendition of Joyce's "Ineluctable modality of the visible," warranting a scowl from my Waterhouse visgaed PGOAT girlfriend which strongly insinuated to quit being so pedantic in public, honey. DFW continued looking down as he autographed his, "with best possible wishes" bromide in the interior of each Hardcover book. When I asked him if I could shake his hand, he said I could but then commented in a very James Joyce May-I-kiss-the-hand-that-wrote-Ulysses-germane-to-Bloomsday-kind-0f-way that if he were me, then I should still wash it, preferably with soap. I kept on wanting to talk to him. I wanted to ask him the perfunctory interrogation of "What advice would he give young writers? Who do we need to sleep with to get published?" As he scribbled the rehearsed sentence into the collar of my book I tried to thank him again for every thing he has given me. Stuttering I mentioned how I had read his five, "Direly underappreciated American novels" appearing in a recent on-line issue of Salon and how I had read each of them and how this constituted my overall affection for himself as the author, that not only did he make me want to give up everything I was doing and write books he simultaneously made me want to give up everything I was doing and read books as well.



When I told him we were from Peoria and attended Bradley University he paused for a moment and said "You guys have a really good basketball team, though, right? That one white guy."

"That one white guy," I thought to myself as I held the porcelain handle of the PGOATs palm in mine and two autographed copies of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men between us like a newborn as we left the bookstore on Michigan Avenue, the late-afternoon tint of over head lego-stacked buildings adorning downtown Chicago like a spiking utilitarian nest of beauty falling all around us in fragments of shadows and in spangles of fresh light.

I don't think the author ever looked up at me once.







***




You could see it after Infinite Jest. You could see Wallace trying to change. You could see Wallace trying to stretch the perimeters of the page. You could see it in Adult World (II) and other more abstract selections of BIWHM. It was as if he wanted to perform electroshock therapy on his readers psyches. It was if he wanted to push the envelope of language past the shoreline of the page into the ocean of reality , the feeling of wading in a pond of consciousness, a feeling of what it means to be a pulsating, sentient human being alert at all times versus, as he quotes, “a very sophisticated mammal” or as Wallace elegantly espoused in his 2005 Kenyon graduation speech: “It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

This is the world we are all blessed to somehow an astonishing part of.


Wallace demanded that you look at a piece of fiction (or reality for that matter) with this sort of 24-7 metaphysical cognizance---to scrutinize the vessels and shapes of the alphabet in a new way, which in doing so, coerces the individualized reader to look at his world from a wider self-expanded periphery. You could see this in Tense Present Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage. You could see it most vividly in HOST with its cryptic interpolated urine stained continents of prose. It looked like witnessing a crop circle from an overhead bush plane. Linguistic alkaloids and metaphorical algorithms and a lot of avant-gardish where the fuck am I going with this—but mostly, I thought to myself as I leered into the foam of sentences ornamented into the page was that this looked like a lot of cryptic slop and I longed for a novel, an adopted Chinese sibling for Infinite Jest to cuddle up with for an eternity all for my own.

Still, in the last half decade of his life, Wallace wrote some astounding shit.

Less than a month after 9-11 A View from Mrs. Thompsons was published in Rolling Stone. Wallace recounts witnessing the tragedy and shock of that day on a neighbors couch. He was writing about 9-11, but he was writing what was transpiring on that day in my back yard. I felt every resident in central Illinois should buy five copies of the article and memorize it. Again I was seminally pissed that no one I knew in the community seemed to care that DFW was writing about the lens of global loss from the vantage point of our own backyard.

Wallace even published two nature poems in Triquarterly "Peoria," named after the city and the lush prairie environs where I have lived for the bulk of my life.



“ Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and sky line of canted rust and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to a place beyond the windbreak, where unfulfilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat…. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and wholrs of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite, Very old land. Look around you. The horizon, trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”


Reading that poem, thinking about all the late nights I spent driving in the country, smoking cigarettes in David Foster Wallace’s zip code, chasing the peach blink of the sunset as it gradually dissipated in the autumnal vapors of the west, thinking about how I too, wanted just to be like this man who had inspired me, it seemed that Dave Wallace had composed these two poems somehow just for me. But I wanted novels. I wanted another 1000 page emotional lifeboat with labyrinthine plots and random minutia. I wanted another Lenore Beadsman and another Great Ohio Desert and a pub where all the bartenders dressed up like Gilligan and a sumo-shaped proprietor who simply wants to eat everything in sight. I wanted the scenes, banal and beautiful, Don Gately trying to rouse fellow residents at 2 am to prevent their vehicles from being towed or precocious Hal Incandenza trying to feel that he is more than just a corporeal version of the OED with a killer backhand—trying to feel that he is somehow a human being in a world where even the calendar days are corporate cavities of the heart.

I wanted another novel.


Candidly I began to give two shits about Wallace’s essays. I checked amazon dot com and the Howling Fantods religiously with the anticipation of seeing an upcoming Work in Progress. When the 2002 O.Henry awards came out I paid more attention Anthony Doeer's resplendent THE HUNTERS WIFE then I did to Wallace's GOOD OLD NEON, a story it seemed to me that was a run off sentence blistered from a previous bildungsroman. Not to bash G.O.N, a story which has meant much to many readers, it just seemed to me that it was nothing more than an extracted B-side raked from the galleys of Brief Encounter (read B.I. #20 12-96 and re-read it and re-read it and re-read it again).


All I could do was bitch that he didn’t write fiction the way he used to anymore.

By this time I was working at Bradley University library as a third shift access coordinator, still writing my ass off every opportunity I got. I turned in a single spaced very heavily David Foster Wallace induced 700 page novel to my creative writing professor at Bradley for my senior project (my other senior project was about the efficacy or lack thereof of MFA programs entitled, “Jack Kerouac never got an MFA.” ) I would periodically find myself back in Normal visiting my artist friend, going to Folk concerts at Illinois Wesleyan still finding gems inside Babbbits used books bin.


I would even traipse around the cigarette stained contours of Stevenson Hall wishing to talk with my mentor, wanting to share with him my nest of rejection letters or convey to him the jolt of electricity I felt every time I massaged the tips of my fingers on the welcome mat of the keyboard. I wanted to tell Foster Wallace how much inspiration his work and artist's purview continued to add joy to my life.


I again wanted to tell Wallace all this only I couldn’t-- Wallace had abandon his longest teaching gig at ISU, leaving the trigonometric back road plains of central Illinois for Pomona California where rich corporate demagogue awarded him 0ne million dollars to teach two classes a year.





****


In the apocryphal Book of Enoch a story is relayed about the fallen angel Penemue, exiled from the presence of God, jettisoned from eternity in heaven for being the first ever teacher of the craft of writing. Even an amateur etymologist could surmise that from name comes the origin for the writing instrument.

“And pointed out to them every secret of their wisdom. He taught men to understand writing, and the use of ink and paper. Therefore numerous have been those who have gone astray from every period of the world, even to this day. For men were not born for this, thus with pen and with ink to confirm their faith; Since they were not created, except that, like the angels, they might remain righteous and pure. Nor would death, which destroys everything, have effected them; But by this their knowledge they perish, and by this also its power consumes them. "


The pen is not only mightier than the sword, it is also the lance in which the damned author will slit his wrist .....



***




This is how I heard about the suicide of my mentor: I monopolized that entire September weekend blanketed in the late night din and fracas of a local bar, blatantly cursing at flat screen digitalized rectangle to see if my beloved White Sox would inch into the playoffs (note: they did). Sunday afternoon when I awoke I was pensive and inexplicably felt broken glass shards coating the interior of my lower stomach lining. My girlfriend kept inquiring what is wrong and I could not give her a valid answer. Ironically my girlfriend of two months was reading Broom of the System. When I arrived at work there was an e-mail. Fittingly, the news of his suicide came from Dr. Palakeel, my first creative writing prof. The heading to the missive simply read "Sad news." Before the New York Times link Dr. Palakeel wrote the sentence, “ I know he has tried this before.”




*****





For the over last decade I’ve been telling everyone that David Foster Wallace was to a generation of writers what Cobain was to a generation of musicians and now Wallace has joined that cadre of elite souls too brilliant and too misunderstood to cope with the book jacket binding that serevs as their own flesh. Wallace joins the extolled likes of Hemingway and Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath. Dying young cements that there will be a mystique around the narrative of your life—that scholars will probe into every facet of your tortured genius, that teenagers will attire themselves in black while locking themselves in the bedrooms of their parents suburban casa numerating ways that there life is sad and lonely just like that of their mentor. Dying young grants you the cool aura Fitzgerald and Jack London and Jack Kerouac and Dylan Thomas. Dying young grants you a romantic aura of Byron or Keats or Shelly. Wikipedia writers who have committed suicide. Vachel Lindsey drinking Lysol. Virginia Woolf’s grave being marked in an effervescent tombstone of expired bubbles. Jesrzy Kosinski leaving a suicide note that reads simply:


“I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity".


An essay from Denise Levertov published three decades ago discusses the suicide and death of so many young writers with fervor germane for today's literary community:


“My own sadness at the death of a fellow poet is compounded by the sense of how likely it is that Anne’s Sexton’s tragedy will not be without the influence of tragedy in others lives. She herself was obviously, too intensely troubled to be fully aware of her influence or to take on its responsibility. Therefore it seems to me that we who are alive must make clear, as she could not, the distinction between creativity and self-destruction. The tendency to confuse the two has claimed too many victims. Anne Sexton herself seems to have suffered deeply from this confusion, and I surmise that her friendship with Sylvia Plath had in it an element of identification which added powerfully to her malaise. Across the country at different colleges I have heard many stories of attempted—and sometimes successful suicides by young students who love the poetry of Plath and who suppose that somehow, in order to become poets themselves, they had to act out in there own lives the vent of hers. Innumerable young poets have drunk themselves into stupidity and cirrhosis because they admired John Berryman or Dylan Thomas and came to think they must think like them to write like them.”

One doesn't much like to ponder the bleak possibility come a decade or two from now of a young writer in his late teens with so much potential hanging himself in the manner of his mentor, a bandanna clad around his limp neck like a fallen halo.


David Wallace becoming the Kurt Cobain for a generation of those who decided to read.


***


Part of me is pissed off and wounded. Part of me wants to buy him a beer and say funny anecdotes so that he can laugh. Part of me wants to give him the finger, tell him he's an overrated fuck up, tell him there are so many young writers, good writers working piss-ant jobs, struggling, impecunious, lonely, fucked-up who harbor knee-deep suicidal proclivities every time they try to explain the jaded nature of their vocation to their parents, to their girlfriends, to their peers-- see the deflated expression etched into the face of a writer who has scribed over a million words in the last decade and still can't find a publisher or make rent but refuses to yield to the chorus of his calling at all costs.

Part of me is learning (on the recommendation of a feathered spiritual friend) to seriously, like Don Gately in IJ get down on my knees and pray for his soul and in hushed reverence thank him for everything he has simply given. That his soul needs help. That it is in a confused state and that it needs fellow wayfarers and dreamers to assist him in his journey between the oscillating spectrum of light casting shadows and prisms between this realm of being and the inscrutable wonder of the world to come.

Part of me doesn't like to think about the method in which he died. Part of me can't imagine killing yourself in such a manner in which your surrogate soul mate or spouse walks in on you hung from the neck, swaying like the stem to some unknown pendulum, an octagon thatch of urine staining the infield of his crotch, his keen eye prodded free from his socket, duck tape manacled around his wrist like an identification bracelet from some Podunk country hospital, the smiley sick clowned faced emblem of Infinite Jest unable to find any more amusement by the simultaneous recurring wonder that is the failed entertainment cartridge of ones own shot at existence.

Part of what gives me the Howling Fantods is that someday, in the not so distant subsidized future that is subsidized academia, some grad student whose published academic drivel on writers include more footnotes than Wallace ever employed will one day quote the death of David Foster Wallace as being the death of postmodernism.


What gives me Howling fantods even more is that he may have had this whole shit planned for some time. When you think of stories such as "The Depressed person," or "Suicide as a sort of present." Or when you look at the time line linearity of Infinite Jest and begin to randomly ponder if Wallace had choreographed this shit: As a fellow Jest head notes:

Most of the action in the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, or Y.D.A.U., which is probably Gregorian 2009. Critic Stephen Burn, in his book on Infinite Jest, argues that Y.D.A.U. corresponds to 2009: the MIT Language Riots took place in 1997 (n. 24) and those riots occurred 12 years prior to Y.D.A.U. (n. 60). It is also possible that Y.D.A.U. is 2008---


YDAU equals autumn 2008.


That “Himself” was Foster Wallace himself. That he gave his readers an sos cryptogram of help and that, throughout the adulation and the praise and the grants and bandana wielding and the dip, there was a tortured soul veiled only as the letter Q. to the astute reader seemingly blinded by his brilliance--a soul who direly needed someone to see him and to hold him and just to pull a Marley and tell him that every little thing is gonnna be alright.


Later in that afternoon I would call Dr. Palakeel, only to hear his voice on the other end of the phone, saying that he knew it was me on the other end of the line the minute the phone rang.

***



Poets and writers drink more intensely. Smoke more intensely. Worship God more intensely. Poets and writers fuck more intensely. Poets and writers give more willingly-- spilling the alphabetical marrow of their souls out into the albino sonogram of hope that is the page, hoping some stranger whom he or she has never before met turns to his crafted syllables in time of dire need and somehow finds solace, finds laughter finds a friend. The best writers will gladly serve as damaged dantes to the romantic whims of their readers Beatrice-like longings. The best writers will be butchered by academics--the same academicians who use footnotes of another mans failed genius as stilts to publish anything at all. The best writers have their hearts turned into a maxi-pads day in and day out. The best writers will understand poverty. The best writers will be self-published. The best writers will watch as rich spoiled North shore brats who have been wiping their asses with two dollars bills their entire lives publish simply because they were able to spend two years on their fathers' yacht writing full time.

The best writers never make it during their lifetime.

The best writers fail.

Again and again and again.

The writer sees. He feels. He loves. And more than anything, he gives, even with the heartbeat and breath of everything that is lodged inside of him.


***

When Foster Wallace died I thought about a lot of things. I thought about his closing comments in the aforementioned Review of Contemporary Fiction interview, in which, when asked about the future of fiction he replies:

"For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back—I mean, what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back—which means we’re going to have to be the parents."

I thought about how so many writers fall pray to this maxim of Shakespeare , "On the ashes of his youth doth lie/ As the death-bed whereon it must expire/ Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by..."

I thought about how the ashes of too many writers fertilize their corpse buried deep in the soil of the page. I thought about good ol' Penume and how the writer is seemingly damned from the outset, perhaps even by a Deity for endeavoring to tell the truth.

Writing is the most lethal vocation I know. No one knows what indeed was concealed behind the bandana Wallace shielded around his skull like a turban or a helmet.

No one truly knows what emotional shit he was goin' through.

I also thought about this quote, by former poet Laureate Donald Hall, written shortly after the death of Dylan Thomas.


“The poet who survives is the poet to celebrate. The human who confronts darkness and defeats it is the most admirable human.”

**


Two weeks after his death I did the only thing I knew I could do-- I phoned up his office in Pomona and left a message for him. I had been trying to contact him for years. I wanted to convey to him everything he had meant to the discourse of my life. I wanted to tell him how he made me want to devote my life to the craft of fiction.

His voice on the answering machine identified himself as "Dave" Wallace followed simply by a high pitched electronic purr. In that moment, as I wallowed in the pause that followed the sound of his deceased monotone. I then told him what I had been waiting to tell him for nearly a decade. I thanked him for everything he had given me.

I quoted his Kenyon commencement address, parts of it verbatim. I told him how he said in his address speech that the "Capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death," and how his life, his prose, his astute observation about the world around him, his incessant curiosity towards the habits and vices of the human race impelled me to want to write books, made me want to read books, and made me want to convey his joy and beauty found in this beautiful pond of reality we all find ourselves skinny dipping through.

Thank you David Foster Wallace.

Bravo!!!!




For reasons I can't explain I even told him that I loved him.



Twice.

3 comments:

Eric said...

David, thank you for writing this and sharing. We are in here, aren't we?

Espai de llibres said...

A very moving writing, thank you for posting it. Greetings from a spanish DFW reader.

Warren said...

Moving stuff here, David. DFW's death is a terrible loss. We'll now have to work that much harder for insights and inspirations.