I poke around on the internet and I suddenly see that David Foster Wallace has hung himself. Is it true? I poke around some more. It's true.
I guess it's gonna be four beers then.
I think the guy was sober or at least in recovery. That's what all his books are about (fucking up versus recovering -- also about being smart enough to fuck yourself up in really intelligent ways -- also about being a liar about who you are (a specific kind of intelligent fuck-up)).
But I can't have a dry wake for the guy. Not tonight. Maybe if he died in his sleep. But that's not what he did. The fucker.
"So I inherited the bar because I used to come here all the fuckin' time, and the guy who ran it was a lonely old shithead who was running it into the ground. And now look at me. Now I'm a lonely old shithead who's running it into the ground, looking for some lonelier shithead to take it off me hands."
"It's a good bar, though," I say.
"Maybe. The music's a bit loud, though, don't you think?"
"Maybe," I say.
We stare at the stage for awhile. A full three-piece metal band is playing Hendrix's "Freedom." I agree to videotape it for the internet in exchange for a couple of free pints. Afterwards, I find it nearly impossible to keep my bony little ass on the stool. Everything in the bar is red polished wood, and the guy on stage is wearing a shirt that just says "HELL." I think: yeah, alright.
"One of my favorite writers hung himself today," I say in the silence between sets, before the juke-box comes on.
"Oh yeah? Who's that?"
"Guy named David Foster Wallace."
Blank stares all around.
"He was a really good writer," I say. "Lots of guts."
"Well! To the dead man!" says a boggle-eyed old baldy down at the end. We drink.
"All the good ones kill themselves," says another one. A man on vacation with his girlfriend. She does not say a single word all night. "Hemingway and Kurt Cobain."
"Kurt Cobain!" shrieks the baldy. "I loved Kurt Cobain! Are you a Nirvana fan?"
"Eh," I say. I don't really want to cause trouble.
"Kurt Cobain was a genius writer. That guy was the voice of his generation! And then what? And then what?"
I try to put them together. Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace. Here We Are Now, Entertain Us. Alright, so they both hated cheap entertainment. They also hated it when people believed too much in something fake. They were artists who didn't believe in artifice, misdirection, mysticism, or magic.
But why, though? Maybe because they both had serious things to say that they were afraid no one could take seriously? Maybe they thought the serious things they wanted to say would get drowned out by the giggles, sex, and noise that get shoveled every day out to the scared, lonely people of the world like Halloween candy into a plastic pumpkin bucket?
"Kurt Cobain was a fucking scumbag," I say. "He ripped off everybody he could get his hands on, and all his best songs were covers."
But the music is too loud to carry my words over. The baldy assumes that I agree with him about the genius of Kurt Cobain. Probably for the best.
I bought "Infinite Jest" in the summer after eighth grade, and I read it twice during the first semester of my freshman year in high school. That was the year my family moved to Waxahachie, Texas for a year and I spent the whole year without having a decent conversation with a single conscious entity. I read the first fifty pages the first time locked in my bathroom while my little brother banged his head on the door and yelled out Tourette's cusses. This is the best way to read the first fifty pages of this book, and I recommend this method to anyone. If you need somebody to come over and yell creative profanity at you while you sit in your bathroom and wonder when you will die, I offer my services.
I was supposed to be babysitting, but fuck that. I knew where my little brother was and what he was doing. He was pounding his head on the door.
Maybe because I was trying to ignore so much of life at the time, I was glad the book was a challenge. I was glad you had to fucking DELVE into it and that the story didn't come easy, because that meant that while you were reading it you were truly gone: truly an alien intelligence adrift without ballast -- a brain in a jar perceiving an alien reality of text and narrative.
And what did I know or care about postmodernism or literature or formal experimentation? I still don't know much about these things, or care. Until then, the longest book I'd read was Stephen King's "The Stand," which I also loved. But this book was different. This book wasn't going anywhere. It was going around in circles.
"Like doing cartwheels with one hand nailed to the floor."
I had to read the book twice, because the book has a circular plot and unless you are the sort of person who does crossword puzzles without filling in the words, you need to read it twice to see how the thing makes sense. It spirals around and all the plots fold into each other like all the plots in "Ulysses," except instead of trajectories through the streets of Dublin, the characters in "Infinite Jest" have trajectories through addiction.
I didn't read any Pynchon until later, and of course now I see that there are some big debts. But Pynchon is like a mathematician who has decided to become a writer, whereas Wallace was the other way around, even though that's not what their biographies will tell you. Wallace was also a big fan of Gaddis, but I still can't read Gaddis. His prose feels like it is written by a supercomputer set to "impress." And John Barth. That guy should be a bad experimental painter instead of a writer. He would get laid more, which is clearly what he wants.
YEAH, WALLACE WROTE LIKE THAT, TOO -- POSTMODERN AND AFFECTED. But why does everyone care so much about his writing? That's just his style; that's just his "parent's religion." After fifty pages or so, the style of anybody who is actually trying to say something becomes part of the scenery of a narrative instead of the focus. Really, reading is the closest you can come to having sex, but try teaching that in English class and keeping your job. Once you let yourself melt into a person's style, then you can try and figure out what they are saying, and go where they are going, and get yourself off when they do.
I bought a copy of "Infinite Jest" every time I found it used and gave it away to my friends and people who I thought might read it. A few people did, and then we would sit around and gab about it every now and then. Maybe they'd be high. Maybe I'd be lonely or mad at something impossible to change.
"Eschaton! Best scene ever written in literature! Prove me wrong!"
"Man, Orin Incandenza and those roaches!"
"So you think you can really rig a microwave oven to make your head explode?"
"You want to know why we'll never have videophones? I'll tell you. I'll tell you RIGHT NOW."
Here's what I think: I think in his work David Foster Wallace was saying that the world is an impossible paradox that is designed to break your mind and your soul, and there's no reason to it, and that's part of the paradox. The world is all misery and pain and stupid psychotic bubbles.
His jokes were all screams to him; screams of pain and of being appalled. His stories were all outlandish and self-destructive, and then when they would fall apart, they would get dragged under the microscope of rigorous Talmudic analysis that he would include for you in the recursive margins just in case you weren't paying attention. People found this funny because who would do such a thing? Who would spend so much time thinking about the trivial and the immutable and the wrong in their own imagination? Who would build such beautiful machines designed to fail?
It was great, because he saw horrible shit and kept on being alive to see more of it. It was like there was a person running the marathon of Modern America along with you. But now he's killed himself. The motherfucker.
David Foster Wallace was not the sort of artist who achieves apotheosis by killing himself (like Plath; like Cobain); he was the sort of artist who achieves apotheosis by staying alive and trembling and working until the last hard screams of a natural death. In fact, parts of his work may be ruined for me now.
It's tough to say. I'll have to go back and look at his stories again when I'm not so angry. I know, I know, I know: You shouldn't judge fiction writers by what they do or how they live or when they die. Stories are alive, and they live, too -- maybe forever. I guess I have to keep telling myself that.
So what now? Are they going to turn "Infinite Jest" into an HBO TV series like "Six Feet Under"?
They could if they wanted to. They can do anything if they want to, can't they? What do writers own? Everything below their necks but no further?
An interesting coincidence: they are making a movie out of "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" this year, which was his worst book. I liked his history of infinity more than that slog through hateful human archetypes.
Fuck ya'll for making a movie out of that. What did ya'll do? Offer him salvation?
What I liked most about David Foster Wallace was how big a heart he had. Maybe he thought he was "acting" and that he was fooling all of us into thinking he had a big heart because of his skill at crafting despair and through his wit and ability to pervert the mean.
But that's not what I mean. I mean that David Foster Wallace was easily the sort of person who would have been a great serial killer or mass murderer. That short story in "Oblivion" about the guy with the ricin? I bet that's what he was most like deep inside. He must have been pretty damn psychotic: he loved sealed-up systems more than any writer around. Math; grammar; AA; tennis; TV. So what? As far as I know, he never killed anyone but himself and never raped anyone but himself (as far as I know). He had a heart so big that he didn't use his tremendous brain for extensive malice (as far as I know). He just wrote. That's what makes me miss him already.
The writing was great. The writing could make you cry. Even you.
I'm still a little drunk, so you'll have to forgive me.
Posted by miracle on Sun, 14 Sep 2008 17:48:02 -0400 -- permanent link