David Foster Wallace was whirled into my life by my eighth girlfriend (if she can quite be called that), the one I’ve lovingly dubbed “Try Before You Buy” in the nomenclature of retrospect. It was my sophomore year in college, an absolute disaster of an annum if I’ve ever lived one, but one that birthed a good deal of long-term positivity despite its torments. It was the age in which Introspection was born and Steve-o and I won three straight tournaments and I was trying to fall for this crazy smoker who dervished words together at will and chopped off all her beautiful hair the week before we started dating.
The nickname comes from the fact that she introduced me to the concept of dating multiple people at once as a deliberate medium-term approach to life (as opposed to a brief but unfortunate transition, or the infamous “overlap” phenomenon). This has apparently become a standard way of being in contemporary America for those unmarried in their mid-twenties and above, but I sure wasn’t ready for it at 20 in the year 2000. I don’t think she was either, frankly, but like so many people she felt that circumstances were dictating her fate and it was time for her to learn about open relationships. This didn’t require her telling each of us about the other without revealing identities, having us discover each other’s identity almost immediately, and making it clear when she was spending time with one or the other of us to the other, though. But she did that.
As those of you familiar with the story (or who’ve read the earliest entries of Introspection) know, she broke up with the other guy to be with me exclusively after some weeks of torturous sharing. And then the guy, during the breakup conversation, told her some mangled misinterpreted third-hand half-truths about me that caused her to freak out and break up with me too (enter the Even-Number Principle). A tornado of misinterpretation and bad blood emerged, briefly costing me my friendship with Mesco (long since repaired), and leading to a couple months where the girl and I IM’ed for multiple hours a night, every night, but I wasn’t permitted to see her in person till the last week of school.
It’s probably not surprising that this sounds like the plot of a David Foster Wallace short story, both because the girl revered the man as her favorite author and because her head was such a constant wondrous jumble of verbiage that her life had no choice but to follow suit. I admired her spinning blender of verbosity, perhaps as her most shining attribute. As I came to read Wallace, initially at her behest and later of my own interest, I came to see the source and even understand my past a little better.
I think I first started reading Girl With Curious Hair after she and I were no longer together, but were arguably more emotionally attached via constant IM contact than we had been during our relationship. (She was one of the few people in my life with whom I had meaningful and/or extensive IM conversations.) Actually, it may not have even been till the next year, when I was working at Goldfarb Library and had ample free time to read books of my interest since I sure wasn’t reading my unpurchased textbooks. My reading tends to form as a sort of queue and it takes a while for me to get to hot recommendations. As I’m remembering this, it might not’ve been till my senior year, since I wasn’t at the desk the first semester of junior year. This recollection is rapidly losing traction.
Regardless of when it was, I recall being struck by the fearlessness of Wallace’s writing, how he seemed a perfect parallel on paper to my way of being in the world. He legitimately didn’t seem to care whether anyone read a given story or not, much less whether they enjoyed it or wanted to keep reading. He wrote exactly what he was going to write, in exactly the language he chose, regardless of accessibility or interest level. This struck me as a remarkable trait in a writer and just as admirable as I find it in human interaction. Above all, it was honest experimentation. It was like witnessing a writing test zone, with all the similar risks of getting shelled by live fire.
Everything that had ever occurred to me to try or to one day aspire to try, Wallace seemed to be up for the challenge. Writing entirely in dialogue or second person or with words that start only with vowels. I don’t think he did any of these things per se, maybe not in any of his works, but he was exactly the kind of author who would do them. And there seemed to be a breadth of forethought and intelligence behind such efforts that was often breathtaking and certainly worth reading.
After getting through Girl With Curious Hair, I think some vague bitterness about the girl or the fact that none of his other collections at the time were of short stories dissuaded me from going on a DFW kick. But the stories therein haunted me for a long time and certain scenes still came to mind out of nowhere, with a visceral reality that was oft overwhelming. His story about LBJ (“Lyndon”), particularly, seemed so unbelievably real as to be a historical account transcribed.
Thus a few years later, when bored and depressed at a PIRG party, my eye was particularly caught by the word “stories” next to “David Foster Wallace” on a book cover. And so I picked up Oblivion, tearing through much of the first story before leaving the party. Isaac Bloom, the book’s owner and a friend, tried to insist several times that I take the book home, but I refused when finding out that he hadn’t yet read it himself. I would pick up a copy at some point, I assured him.
And then, late last year, came the torrent. I read it all, sometimes reading DFW books back-to-back or nearly so, which I tend to try to avoid. I hauled Infinite Jest to India over the protests of all my traveling companions, who insisted that such a move was surely asking for trouble. I pointed out that I was far too invested in the book to quit now (over halfway through), and besides it was easier than taking the equivalent number of books needed to replace the lengthy tome. I finished the book on a train in the middle of India and while I wasn’t all that impressed with the ending (most DFW books seem to die rather than end), it was a momentous, moving night.
I’ve still yet to read his two nonfiction works, but I completed all of DFW’s fiction early this summer. I was especially impressed by Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, especially dark and the most seemingly relevant to the events that transpired to end Wallace’s life. For one, the jaw-droppingly brilliant micro-short story “Suicide as a Sort of Present” immediately merited inclusion among my favorite short stories of all time, coming in at #10. The thread stories of the titular brief interviews are almost universally stunning. And a line that struck me as powerful and bizarre at the time, read in a memorable bleary fog of plane-switching downtime in the Phoenix airport, has taken on a whole new meaning. Addressed to someone trying to relate to himself, he wrote: “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer.”
It shouldn’t take much explaining to demonstrate why this line impacted me so. I mean, David Foster Wallace was not just any fiction writer, he was a fiction writer who could literally get anything published to the reading and adoration of the masses. The story from which that line was taken (“Octet”) is perhaps the greatest proof of this fact, an absurdly rambly meta-meta-meta-fiction piece that pulverizes the comprehensible limits of any sort of fourth wall with the audience. It is immensely entertaining, but perhaps only because I aspire to be a groundbreaking fiction writer myself. Aspire. Desire. Want. Would love to. Would in no way, ever, consider the condition “unfortunate”.
And so we arrive at the heart of the matter, it would seem. In the face of the success, the adulation, the reverential readers and students and literary crowd, in the face of having feasibly decades of writing opportunity ahead, as discretionarily unmitigated in time constraints as he would possibly want to be (yes, I focus on this as the blockade against writing success since this is what hampers me almost entirely at the moment), he chooses to walk away. And not just from the shining light of it all, like J.D. Salinger, but from the potential to even write for oneself and burn the results. To take the ability and hard-earned position to influence others, the profound compulsion to make them think and think hard… and crumple it up irreparably.
It would be easy to have my next line be something about the unforgivable nature of this act. The truth is, of course, that I could never fail to forgive someone their suicide. I am hardly prone to forgiveness in any capacity, but I am prone to suicidalism and as such find it to be infinitely understandable. Unfortunate and perhaps mired in an extreme lack of ultimate creativity, but understandable all the way. And while I happen to be on the upside of my lifelong battle with suicidal ideation, I am hardly naïve enough to conceive that I would never be on the down-swinging pendulum while simultaneously a successful, acknowledged, and influential writer of fiction. Especially if somehow I felt that the essential angst of the era were laden in being misunderstood or unable to continue to create at the level to which I had become accustomed or even expected.
But we are not given the details of Wallace’s suicide. Surely a hanging seems rather dull for such an expansive and explosive creator. I had to read it three times before I even believed that aspect. It’s almost enough to make one wonder if he really did do it himself, a la the old Elliott Smith rumors from back in the day. Talk about two people who have something to say to each other at the next water cooler. No doubt they would hate each other in person despite having begrudging admiration and ultimate high respect, not to mention so very much in common.
Perhaps there will be books on it in the future, perhaps a note published. The media seems all to eager to conceal details of a suicide, likely equal parts respect for family and some sort of extremely passive campaign against any alleged glorification of the act. We can be told how many times the murdered were shot, but those who chose to stage their own departure and arrange the details are denied the spreading of that statement. Of course, it must mostly be those closest to the suicide who aid in the concealment – we would surely never learn if his final note, discovered by his wife, blamed her for all his troubles. The resentment and horrifying insult of loving a suicide must ultimately take over in the immediate wake.
And so we are left to imagine the details, to fill in our own perspectives and wonder how we relate, how there but for the grace of God go we. It is not a planned, constructed, or well thought-out suicide that I fear for myself so much as an impulsive one. My incredibly unstable moods and widest imaginable range of highs and lows make me caution myself at approaching trains and over high ledges, but I have no concern at something so elaborate as a noose. By the time I had put that much thought into it, I would have realized I still had one more thing to try to write or express, or that I could spend a whole life doing nothing but playing video games or poker until I got sick of that and wanted to be more productive again, or that I could just disappear and start over. All of these things, of course, unless I did something which I regretted to the point of being unable to live with it. Which is why I spend so much of my time and effort trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.
David, I don’t know the details of your life (maybe I should read your nonfiction, huh?) nor what brought you to this point. But I’m disappointed. Not in you or with you or even by you, but by the fact that there won’t be anything (or much) left to read from you. It was good. I would have done some of it differently, but generally very good. I hope you can find a way of communicating more urgent messages next time around.