Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace part two

"I am seated in an office."

I was terribly saddened by David Foster Wallace's suicide over the weekend. As I've said too many times to too many people, Infinite Jest is my favorite book ever. As I've said to a few of you, Infinite Jest helped make me a better (fiction) writer. Besides the sheer experimental audacity of the book, there are the words - the sentences that made one's jaw drop or, on several occasions, made me reach for my laptop or notebook to write something myself. I never wrote at a more prolific level than the period of time from 1996 to 1998 when I was reading Infinite jest. Yes, it took me that long. Now, I should be able to read 1,079 pages in less than 28 months. But there would be weeks at a time when I wouldn't pick the book up. And other periods where I couldn't pull myself away from it. And then the norm - days where I'd read three or four pages and switch to something else. At the time I suspected that I was trying to stretch out the experience of Infinite Jest - to make it last way longer than its 1,079 pages. I feared that I would be disappointed when I was finished with it, that I'd never to get to read those words again for the first time. I was absolutely right. I remember exactly where I was when I finished the book (something I honestly can't say for most books I finish). It was a Saturday afternoon in November 1998. I was seated on the green couch in the Dunn Brothers coffee shop on 34th and Hennepin in Minneapolis. When I read the final page, I remember thinking "Shit. This is it." Not because of the book's not-really-an-ending ending. But because there were no more pages. I walked to my car resignedly with the big blue book in my backpack in a heavy rain. And that was that.

Wallace wrote a lot more after (and before) Infinite Jest - all of it clearly the work of a brilliant, difficult, and dead-on mind. I remember reading the title story of his first short story collection Girl With Curious Hair in a taxi from O'Hare to downtown Chicago and hoping I'd finish it before the ride was over. I read all of it - his two collections of essays, his second story collection Oblivion, his amazing article about Roger Federer (Wallace knew tennis.) Okay so I didn't actually read his first novel Broom of the System. I will. Soon.

I liked his essays but I loved his fiction. The world he observed and recorded and reflected upon came across brilliantly enough but when he threw his imagination into the swirl, well then it got god-like. Yeah I know I could be prone to post-death hype but no. As I wrote in this blog nearly two years ago "His essays are nice and his short stories are nicer but the man's vision, brain, and ambition demand something big, something huge, something infinite and 1000+ pages long."

He really did make me a better writer. I can't explain it now but there was something about the way he structured it all that got to me. It could be a cliche to say that he wrote the way I think, which helped me write the way I think. But yeah that's true. He wasn't a mannered writer. He wasn't a minimalist. He wasn't an easy writer. I'm sure his brain got tired. There's no way someone could write something like "I presume it's probably facilitate that the tennis coach mistook for accentuate, though accelerate, while clunkier than facilitate, is from a phonetic perspective more sensible, as a mistake." (p. 3, Jest) and not eventually feel exhausted.

If his personal pain matched at any level the relentless of his written words, then the fact that the ultimate exhaustion of his head and heart and body may have lead to his suicide seems not that surprising. But it's still so very sad. One page earlier in Infinite Jest, he also wrote
"My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it." 930 pages later, he wrote "...the sad kid holds something terrible up by the hair and makes the face of somebody shouting in panic: Too Late."

I saw Wallace in person three times in my life. The first was in the now-closed Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul. It was for a reading from
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. He shook my hand and signed three of his books for me. He was disheveled. The second time was in 2003 at the Barnes and Noble at the Grove in Los Angeles. He was on a panel discussing "the short story." (Jason - am I right about this or were they talking about something else?) He was less disheveled. I believe this was after he became a professor at Pomona College.

The final time I saw him was at a theater in the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2004 or 2005. He was dressed sharply. He was part of a panel about the current state of fiction. There were other writers there but he was the star of the event - almost all of the Q&As were directed his way. He was an insightful and respectful panelist but he did become testy at one point. Discussing a story from Oblivion called Good Old Neon - a young man (presumably a UCLA student because the UCLA English Department was sponsoring the event) nervously asked Wallace a question - whether Wallace shared some of the same beliefs of the protagonist in the story (I don't recall the specific beliefs.) Wallace paused for a moment and in the most subdued yet sarcastic tone you could imagine said "You're talking about a work of fiction. Fiction. Derived from the Latin word fictus, which means to feign or to make stuff up." The room fell silent. No one asked Wallace any more personal questions. Of course the poor college student was humiliated, being fantastically dissed by a famous writer, probably his favorite writer. I couldn't see the student but I'm sure he was slinking in his seat. I'm sure he was scarred for months. But, considering that the subject of his question - the character in Good Old Neon - commits suicide in the story, maybe he was on to something. (but here's a good counterargument of that contention.)


So yeah David Foster Wallace could occasionally be something of an asshole. Well so could I. And from everything that's been said about him these past few days - read the McSweeney's tribute especially - he was a great guy and a treasured teacher. He leaves behind some amazing work.

The first sentence of this post is the first sentence of Infinite Jest. I'll close with the final sentence (I thought about making this explanation a footnote - you know, as sort of a joke but I can't figure out how to superscript in HTML):

"It was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out."

1 comment:

Jason B. said...

Oh, I don't remember the discussion at Barnes and Noble that day. I only remember his dishevelment and the spit-can he carried for the smokeless tobacco he was using.

I saw him for the first time before that at a Writer's Bloc event. He absolutely castigated an old classmate from ASU who came with a grudge and armed with some wordy hyper-articulated question. It was really stunning to watch. The old classmate attempted to adopt high status by bringing up his knowledge of DFW from the "old days" and posing a question that he had obviously been nursing for years. But DFW disarmed him by saying that he was annoying in class then and that he was still annoying.

What's the story in Oblivion about 9/11? I never finished Infinite Jest, but I always loved this story about the man who poops art and is embarrassed about it, the reporter who shags the man's fat wife and the counter-point of the 9/11 is only revealed at the end.