I regret that I've written about David Foster Wallace only since his death. Indeed, since I was halfway through Infinite Jest when Wallace killed himself, two years ago today, I didn't even manage to read his masterpiece during his lifetime. This summer, I read a collection of Wallace's non-fiction and re-read Infinite Jest. That re-reading only reinforced my opinion that the book is both a masterpiece and one of my favourite novels.
In April, David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was published, an account of several days Lipsky spent with Wallace in 1996, shortly after the release of IJ. The arrival of that book and the fact that Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King, will be released next year, has meant that articles about DFW seem to have been popping up everywhere over the last few months.
It's easy for an artist's reputation - for anyone's reputation, come to that - to be enhanced after death, particularly if that death is untimely. As Laura Miller pointed out in her review of Lipsky, it could be argued that Wallace was out of fashion at the time of his death:
"In 2008, he hadn't published a novel since "Infinite Jest," and his final short story collection, "Oblivion," was filled with riches, but bleak ones, and a strenuous harvest to boot. His nonfiction, always more popular and accessible than his fiction, was no longer sensationally fresh. The moment for fat, formally adventurous novels designed to capture the historical moment seemed past, if for no other reason than that the media institutions required to launch such books -- the New York Times, Time and Newsweek, etc. -- had lost much of their authority. The kind of fiction Wallace wrote had begun to drift toward the cultural margins, and in August 2008 anyone nominating him as the most significant American writer of his time was more likely to have encountered raised eyebrows and sneers about "pomo cleverness" than appreciative nods."
That's merely fashion. Wallace's death brought out his many fans, each ready to remind the world what made the man such a great writer. Wyatt Mason did that very well in the New York Review of Books. He dissected several examples of Wallace's prose and showed that the longwindedness, the casualness, was deceptive. Wallace was a writer in full control of what went on the page.
In an early-Nineties interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace described the purpose of literature:
"I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of "generalization" of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple."
It wasn't that simple for Wallace, of course. A heartbreaking article by D. T. Max in the New Yorker last year discussed Wallace's struggles with depression towards the end of his life and told how the novelist had struggled to find a writing style that he was happy with:
"He found a style that was amusing and engaging, that captured mindfulness without solemnity. Perhaps someone else reading the novel—Wallace would show it to no one—might have been satisfied. But his own past brilliance stalked him. In his 'Author’s Foreword,' he assures the reader, 'The very last thing this book is is some kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher.' He also writes, 'I find these sorts of cute, self-referential paradoxes irksome, too—at least now that I’m over 30 I do.' And yet there he was, writing about 'David Wallace' in long, recursive sentences with footnotes."
In Consider the Lobster, Wallace wrote about the challenge of taking on important themes at a time when, after modernism, an ironic distance from those themes seemed to be required. Wallace succeeded at this extraordinarily well, whatever he might have thought to the contrary. IJ is filled with incredible wisdom and the time that Wallace had spent thinking about being a person and most of all about mindfulness was clearly not wasted.
Miller argued that "reincarnated in the public's imagination as a dispenser of inspirational wisdom [...] would probably have made Wallace himself cringe" but I'm not so sure. I think that what would have made him cringe is the expectation that being seen as a dispenser of inspirational wisdom would have made him cringe. But who knows? I never met him and all I have to go on are those bits of his writing that I've read and tried to understand.
The commencement speech that Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005, which has since been published as This Is Water and which inspired Miller's comments, contains some powerful advice on being a person, delivered with Wallace's typical thoughtfulness and humility.
"Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
"Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
"They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing."
I'm not sure I agree with his definition of 'worships' in that context but, for Wallace, the notion that "everybody worships" explained addiction too. In a 1996 interview with Details magazine, Wallace said: “Drug addiction is really a form of religion, albeit a bent one. An addict gives himself away to his substance utterly. He believes in it and trusts it, and his love for it is more important than his place in the community, his job, or his friends.”
That perhaps explains the unexpected news at the end of the Details piece that Wallace had begun exploring religion:
"Brought up an atheist, he has twice failed to pass through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the first step toward becoming a Catholic. The last time, he made the mistake of referring to 'the cult of personality surrounding Jesus.' That didn’t go over big with the priest, who correctly suspected Wallace might have a bit too much skepticism to make a fully obedient Catholic. 'I’m a typical American,' says Wallace. 'Half of me is dying to give myself away, and the other half is continually rebelling.'
"Recently he found a Mennonite house of worship, which he finds sympathetic even if the hymns are impossible to sing. 'The more I believe in something, and the more I take something other than me seriously, the less bored I am, the less self-hating. I get less scared. When I was going through that hard time a few years ago, I was scared all the time.' It’s not a trip he ever plans to take again."
As we know, whether or not Wallace took such a "trip" again was outside his control. In an excellent address at Liverpool University last year Greg Carlisle, whose Elegant Complexity added so much to my re-reading of Infinite Jest said:
"What we must not do, and something that I hope subsides as we get further away from the shock of his death, is view all of his writings and interviews through the lens of his suicide."
That's a good point. However, Mason puts the other side:
"Although it has been said, in the wake of Wallace’s suicide in 2008, that it would be wrong to read his body of work through the limiting prism of his death, it would be no less wrong were we to evade acknowledging the centrality of depression, addiction, and isolation as subjects in his work, not to say how bravely he sought forms that could contain them."
To me, that's vitally important. The compassion with which Wallace approached those subjects was exceptional and is one of the things that makes him essential reading.
If the above hasn't given you enough to read, Nick Maniatis has some suggestions for more.