Saturday, September 20, 2008

9/20/08 - RIP DFW

"I heard the news today oh boy..."
-A Day In The Life

When I found out that David Foster Wallace had killed himself, suicide by hanging, I was quite unprepared for how deeply it would affect me. He's not a writer I Grew Up With, by any stretch. In general, in terms of aesthetics, post-modernism is not something that interests or engages me. I like a good story, well-told, and formal oddities in the realm of the novel/short story leave me a little cold. I tend to respond to the workmanlike craftsmanship of a Stephen King over the pyrotechnics of a Borges or Barth, which doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the advances in the field, it's just that it makes it seem that Wallace would not naturally be an author that I engaged with.

I've never read Infinite Jest, never read any of his short fiction, so to me Wallace is not even a fiction writer. And in much of the praise for his work and his person it his achievements as a fiction writer that get a lot of play, that designate him as a VIP worthy of the magazine obituary. What has not gotten a great deal of emphasis is the fact that David Foster Wallace was the best American essayist and non-fiction writer since James Baldwin.

Storytelling, I would gather, was not necessarily Wallace's project, but when he latched onto a story in real life, or an idea rooted in reality, and then applied his formidable talent to it, he created entire worlds that lived inside one mundane experience. Whether it was watching Roger Federer play tennis, taking a luxury cruise, going to the state fair, or reflecting on the vapidity of athletic memoirs, Wallace was able to penetrate the subject and its attendant weirdnesses, twists, and turns to a degree that calls to mind the virtuosity of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg variations. Which is not to say that Wallace fell into the perils of shtick - surely, the Wallace-goes-to-Middle-America pitch for an essay could have extended ad infinitum (imagine Wallace writing on Disneyland - the piece practically writes itself), but he wrote primarily on what was interesting to him, which was just about everything. So along with those masterful pieces were achingly hair-splitting essays on English usage, on Kafka, a book about the concept of infinity, etc. etc. etc. Forget the novels - Wallace's non-fiction was and is so penetrating, hilarious, and insightful that he deserves a place on the shelf and a section in every journalism course for that part of his career alone. I wish that he wrote essays about everything that I've ever done - literally, that's not an exaggeration - and treasure the experiences and ideas that he did deign to document.

http://harpers.org/media/pdf/dfw/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf

Follow that link, read that essay, and marvel in the presence of a genuinely capital G capital W Great Writer. A short excerpt, just a brief slice: Wallace summarizing an evening of enforced fun aboard the luxury cruise ship the Zenith (which he has dubbed the Nadir, unable to resist deploying his formidable intellect for sub-adolescent name-calling):

"10:00 AM: Three simultaneous venues of Managed Fun, all aft on Deck 9: Darts Tournament, take aim and hit the bull's eye! Shufflboard Shuffle, join your fellow guests for a morning game. Ping-Pong Tournament, meet the Cruise Staff at the tables, Prizes to the Winners! Organized shuffleboard has always filled me with dread. Everything about it suggests infirm senescence and death: it's a game played on the skin of a void, and the rasp of the sliding puck is the sound of that skin getting abraded away bit by bit. I also have a morbid but wholly justified fear of darts stemming from a childhood trauma too hair-raising to discuss here. I play Ping-Pong for an hour."

Here is an authentic, masterful authorial voice. He mixes in genuine penetrating insight (the way that shuffleboard reminds one of death) with genuinely funny self-deprecating humor (the jellyfish incident) and the kind of perfectly chosen detail (choosing to play Ping Pong) that give you, in one short paragraph, what seems to be a full understanding of "David Foster Wallace": brilliant mind, thoughtful human being with a scalpel-sharp sense of humor, a little neurotic but not off-puttingly so.

That the "real" Dave Wallace struggled with, and eventually succumbed to severe and deep depression, only makes the achievement of his authorial voice all the more impressive - the gulf between Wallace as he wrote and Wallace as he lived required hard work and talent to bridge. "Shipping Out" is an essay laced with despair, sure, but that despair is played off against an everpresent desire for authenticity and connection that ultimately we all share. Postmodernism gets a lot of shit for not dealing with human feeling/emotion/connection; ironic, then, that its poster child was a fierce and tenacious champion of such things.

RIP

3 comments:

mike brotzman said...

Just wanted to point you and your readers to this incredible DFW article that my friend Peter pointed me to yesterday when I asked him if he had "an essay handy on why sports are sweet":

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=all

ariyele said...

alas, the fate of the true and unmistakable genius has too often been death by their own hands (virginia woolf, kurt cobain, elliot smith, and van gogh's ear). i agree with all that you've said about wallace, his brilliance and power wielding the written word, and the talent it takes to artfully mask his private anguish with the witty, sharp, sarcastic hilarity of his public published works.
i myself wish he could now be stored in my pocket and taken out for key experiences in order to share them, and then write them. i'd laugh until i died. rip dfw. rip.

ariyele said...

alas, the fate of the true and unmistakable genius has too often been death by their own hands (virginia woolf, kurt cobain, elliot smith, and van gogh's ear). i agree with all that you've said about wallace, his brilliance and power wielding the written word, and the talent it takes to artfully mask his private anguish with the witty, sharp, sarcastic hilarity of his public published works.
i myself wish he could now be stored in my pocket and taken out for key experiences in order to share them, and then write them. i'd laugh until i died. rip dfw. rip.