Saturday, September 20, 2008

Death Is Not The End

I've been wanting to write something more substantial than this about David Foster Wallace's suicide, which affected me much more powerfully than I would have ever expected. There are a number of reasons for this, I think, and I hope it won't seem to coldly analytical, or too self-indulgent, if I try to work them out here.

I first read Wallace's Girl with Curious Hair in college, when I was considering becoming a fiction writer myself, and many of my efforts in that line were pretty blatant imitations of one or another of his styles. The problem I ran into with my writing, I now realize, was also a problem Wallace had, a weakness which he was able, through sheer force of will, to make into a kind of strength: the tendency to be relentlessly monologic and interior, to explore individual consciousness in excruciating depth. I had a lot of trouble getting anything to happen in my stories, just moving characters around or getting them to talk to each other. So Wallace as a fiction writer was a bad influence (for me, at least), a dead end, although I think a case could be made that he raises the project of a certain strain of modernist fiction (the introspective tradition of Joyce, Woolf, Proust) to the level of the sublime. As in literally sublime: terrifying, infinite, inhuman.

I also relate to Wallace, and was particularly upset by his death, because I've also had some experience with clinical depression, though at nothing like the level he experienced. The exhaustive descriptions of psychic pain in Infinite Jest and in many of the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (like "The Depressed Person," for instance, one of the most harrowing pieces of short fiction ever written) are so scarily accurate precisely because they capture what's worst about that kind of pain, the fact that you can understand intellectually more or less exactly what's happening to you, and yet can't seem to get out from under it. Wallace wrote about this emotional aporia more and more in his later years, which now seems doubly sad, since he clearly was in so much pain that he could think of nothing else, and it is, in the end, not such a rich subject for literature. In this context, his last book Oblivion — and particularly the metafictional suicide fantasy "Good Old Neon" — now seems like an oblique extended suicide note, a work with a certain horrific power but not what he set out to accomplish in the earlier, less obsessive part of his career.

I realize I should be careful in conflating Wallace's work with his illness, but honestly it's hard not to. Many people, understandably, have been urging Wallace's readers not to interpret his suicide as an inevitable outcome of his writing, or as a response to the current state of American culture, or according to any other tempting existential narrative: it's merely a case of an illness, they say, a chemical misfiring clouding the judgment of an otherwise humane and brilliant man and making him do a stupid, horrible thing. I completely agree with the wisdom behind this warning, but I find I have difficulty heeding it. After all, speculation about the relationship between a person's suicide and the world view and cultural circumstances of that person is exactly the sort of speculation Wallace himself wouldn’t — couldn’t — have refrained from indulging in; and to not speculate, to decide beforehand that his fate was a pure biological accident, seems to place an arbitrary limit on the consciousness that Wallace always insisted was possible (if not exactly desirable). He also would have struggled mightily with the cliché of it all — the romantic topos of the self-destructive genius, or the idea of himself as a pure product of America gone crazy — both of them exactly the kinds of truths tranformed into clichés while still remaining truths, thus becoming all the more inaccessible as truths, that Wallace habitually obsessed over. (For a late example of this, see his much-circulated, retrospectively chilling 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address.)

So while I wouldn't presume to draw the moral of Wallace's death, I will say that it feels especially dispiriting to me that he passes away on the eve of this Presidential election, at a time when empathy seems to be hitting an all-time low, on both sides of the aisle (as they say). One of the big losses, I think, is that Wallace isn't here to comment on the American political situation, which he was in many ways uniquely placed to analyze, as a liberal Democrat who wrote an admiring profile of John McCain in 2000.+ Of course it’s idle to speculate about such things, and who knows if he even knew what was going on in the wider world in his last few weeks, but it’s hard not to wonder if McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate wasn’t particularly painful for Wallace (who I think took politics a lot more personally seriously, and certainly wrote about it more intelligently, than many more obviously engagé authors). The current Palin/Obama popularity contest seems to be staging, in the crudest possible terms, a confrontation between populism and intellectualism that was at the heart of Wallace's work. A recurrent theme in pretty much everything he wrote is the need to balance high — sometimes impossibly high — standards of intellectual and social achievement (whether represented by postmodern fiction, prescriptive grammar, prodigious athletic ability or poststructuralist literary criticism) and a passionate need to believe in the moral life of others, including those not able to communicate their moral lives in a way that intellectuals can respect or understand. For me, this was the essence of Wallace, and it accounts for much of the best, as well as some of the worst, in his work. This internal conflict was part of his persona: he wore his polymathic brilliance and educational credentials on his sleeve, while also working absurdly hard to communicate with "regular people," addressing himself — at least in theory — to readers of all levels and tendencies, fighting to recover that Dickensian popular voice he felt had been ceded by the modernists and postmodernists in the name of formal sophistication and authorial autonomy. To this end, he also wrote about people that most intellectuals refrain from considering as anything other than scapegoats or statistics: state-fair attendees, cruise ship passengers, working-class halfway-house inhabitants, right-wing radio talk show hosts, old ladies moved by the events of 9/11. The vexed question of élites, in other words, about which we hear so much right now, was a real question for Wallace who, like any self-respecting genius, believed in the principle of meritocracy, yet could also understand exactly how lonely and angry those outside the magic circle of social and academic recognition could feel.

Lastly: the legacy question. I think Wallace will be remembered as a great writer, especially of nonfiction, and an important figure in the history of American literature, a link from the age of Pynchon/Gaddis/DeLillo into whatever we come up with next. He's also almost guaranteed that he will have perpetual cult status, that the hero-worship that's always been directed at him will continue, and that people will continue to read his work for what are (to me) bad reasons. I've tried to reread some of his stuff recently, as a sort of mourning process, and it all seemed, in this new context, just completely repellent and hermetic and tragic. I hope that changes for me — I’m guessing it will. (Right now I'm planning to reread Infinite Jest this summer, and probably A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again as well.) But I want to add one final thought, more in the way of self-analysis than tribute to Wallace: one reason I like writers, probably the main one, is because they live. That is, I'm interested in literature not so much as a production of aesthetic monuments, but as a record of how one particular human being, who I'm interested in for whatever reason, dealt with the various opportunities, challenges and obstacles that history threw their way. So I guess, more than anything else, I feel angry at David Foster Wallace — who, I now realize, was my favorite living novelist — for giving a new kind of interest to his life's work, a tragic and hopeless one, at the expense of what was, for me, the highest interest of all imaginative literature: the interest of observing how one unique and fascinating person copes with the world.

* I think this conflict probably had something to do with the fact that Wallace was from Illinois, and spent much of his writing life there; it's been interesting to see how many of the writers that have written in tribute to Wallace (particularly at the McSweeney's website, which has transformed itself into a kind of temporary shrine) mention his distinctively Midwestern sensibility, often expressed as "kindness" or "decency."

+ Wallace in the Wall Street Journal just a few months ago gives some idea of his later thoughts on McCain: "McCain himself has obviously changed; his flipperoos and weaselings on Roe v. Wade, campaign finance, the toxicity of lobbyists, Iraq timetables, etc. are just some of what make him a less interesting, more depressing political figure now—for me, at least. It's all understandable, of course—he's the GOP nominee now, not an insurgent maverick. Understandable, but depressing. As part of the essay talks about, there's an enormous difference between running an insurgent Hail-Mary-type longshot campaign and being a viable candidate (it was right around New Hampshire in 2000 that McCain began to change from the former to the latter), and there are some deep, really rather troubling questions about whether serious honor and candor and principle remain possible for someone who wants to really maybe win." (WSJ
, May 31, 2008). He also notes that "the previous seven years and four months of the Bush Administration have been such an unmitigated horror show of rapacity, hubris, incompetence, mendacity, corruption, cynicism and contempt for the electorate that it's very difficult to imagine how a self-identified Republican could try to position himself as a populist." For another tantalizing hint of what Wallace's contemporary political commentary could have been like, see this.