Perspective or lack thereof

I think I have a big problem…yesterday was my ten year anniversary and I completely forgot because today is the one year anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s death. It would seem that my priorities are way out of whack.

Sept 12, 2008 I was moving semi-long-distance, in the truck one-fifth of the way to my new home and heard that the man I considered the greatest living writer was dead. I couldn’t believe it. But it didn’t hurt yet. A few days later, when my Internet was finally up and I was sitting on the floor in front of a box-perched computer, I learned Wallace had hanged himself. And the floor fell out from under me.

That day got me reading again, got me back into academic writing, mired me in a mild existential crisis I’m not sure I’ve emerged from. But his death got me living again; scared me back into conscious decisions and active participation in the forward progress of my life. David Foster Wallace’s suicide terrified me—that I wouldn’t get any of my writing done, that I wouldn’t get my life done, that I would lose my son the way Mrs. Wallace did, that I might lose Spouse the way Ms. Green did. That day, finally back in the place I love and with a family I’m struggling to be good to, a huge sinkhole collapsed, and I’m still struggling to keep from falling in.

So I forgot my anniversary. Meh. Spouse did, too. We forget a lot these days. Chalk it up to all the living we’re doing.

Rest in peace, Mr. Wallace. And may his parents, sister, and wife all find some peace, too. I wish I had more to offer than blog posts and scholarship on his work, but it’s all I have to give. The rest I’m giving to my family.

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IJ quote of the day 48

There isn’t a line, really, from 694-699 that I didn’t star or underline or flag or highlight or take a deep breath and read again.

Kate Gompert narrates the difference between anhedonia and psychic depression. As it relates to happiness, to the world becoming a map. As it relates to Hal’s understanding of his father’s suicide. As it relates to millennial U.S.A. hipness. As it relates, specifically to cynicism and irony and, really, postmodern fiction, which Wallace seems to argue, kills humanity.

“We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete….the last true terrible sin in the theology of millenial America” (694).

And Hal notes what I’ve heard Wallace articulate in interviews: “that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclittically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for; this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (694-5).

Here’s the thing. This is why I read Infinite Jest. Not for this statement, though I believe it is the key to the post-postmodern literature we’re all alive and lucky enough to watch take shape. But because it took Wallace 700 pages to get the reader to a place where she could hear this. Read it without a sarcastic roll of the eyes. Until you see Ennet House and E.T.A. and Marathe and Gompert and Poor Tony and Matty Pemulis and Lenz and Gately and Mario, for heaven’s sake Mario, this section is just a throw away. Prosthelytizing. But we’ve earned it, reading this far. And it’s more intense than I can articulate. Maybe you can help me.

But here’s the kicker. It gets worse. When Gompert is done with Hal and his relatively petty problems, we get to the realization that “dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain” (695). That “the person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise….It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames” (696).

Holy f—ing….I can’t imagine the pain. I can’t stand to think some people are in that pain. And after narrating the civil engineer’s treatments and the shrugged statement, “This happens sometimes. some cases of depression are beyond human aid,” I cried for Wallace’s wife and his mother and his sister and his father. Intentional fallacy, nothing; nobody’s saying autobiography. But Jesus, people. This book is full of hope and humor and terror and violence and gripping pain. And I can’t believe more people don’t read it.

Thank you, Mr. Wallace for giving the coward, the weakling in me this out:
“She could barely stand to think about them, even at the best of times, which the present was not” (698). Because this is the kind of stuff, with Poor Tony and Matty’s childhood and Gately’s childhood and Lucien’s murder and the decaying baby and everything else in this novel, all of the psychic pain, to say that there’s even worse pain out there…how the hell are we supposed to sleep at night?

How did he make it as far as he did?

“The Unfinished”

It has taken several days for me to finish D.T. Max’s New Yorker article, biography of sorts, of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King. The article is moving, and includes correspondence from Wallace to Franzen and DeLillo, and quite a bit from his wife, Karen Green, whose pain I cannot even fathom and would love more than anything to salve with…what I don’t know. Because it’s none of my business, but if I cry reading a biography what must she do living in it?

Aside from being a touching portrait of an intensely intelligent writer who wanted simply to make readers feel “less alone inside,” and who in that quest felt increasingly more alone (except in the sunshine that was his marriage…thank heaven for Karen Green, who from the article I gather made him feel more at home and comfortable in his own skin than, it seems, anything else could outside really great writing).

What compelled me yesterday, reading the final pages of Max’s article (I still haven’t read the new piece of fiction that follows—I can’t yet) was Wallace’s root idea for The Pale King, as he articulated it in a typed note amongst his papers: “Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—likes on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious things you can find…and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

I think that technicolor bliss can probably come after any intense “almost kills you” period of intense focus on undesirable emotions (fear might work as well as boredom).  As melodramatic as I oft am, I know that the weeks of intense three-year-old battling, of taking each breath as though it might be the only thing that could keep me going, is part of what made yesterday, a gorgeous, sun-filled day of hiking and strawberries and camaraderie with Peanut, the second-by-second bliss it was.

It was not a perfect day. It was a perfect-as-human-existence-can-get-if-you-have-a-dollop-of-realism-adorning-the-top-of-your-daily-trifle day.  And I’ll take it.

Maybe it shouldn’t matter this much, but it does.

I was trying to explain to Spouse, again, why my world is still upside down about David Foster Wallace’s death. Why I still read hours’ worth of blogs and comments and articles about him instead of doing the other work I’ve promised editors and conferences and myself.

And here’s what I came up with tonight.

It’s not just that he’s gone and we won’t get any more of his work. I mourn that, sure, but there’s a few pieces I haven’t read, and they will last me a while. It’s not just that I’m paralyzed with the breadth of non-DFW work that has been published since my reading has slowed to the pace of a cold, squeezie bottle of honey fresh from the fridge and in need of a serious thaw to disgorge its contents, and that I’m convinced that there are dozens of fabulous works just waiting for me, most of which I’ll never get to. Even rereading IJ will last me a year, given the whole toddler in my care thing. The posthumous twisted knots in my stomach and mind are not just stemming from the remembrance that, when I began reading Infinite Jest, the first piece of his work I ever picked up, fewer than 100 pages in I decided I wanted to go to grad school and study literature, theory, rhetoric, and writing so I could bend my mind far enough to more than just appreciate what he was doing to mine. It’s not just that I stopped reading his work, caught up in life and a grad school that didn’t value his fiction as much as I did, and I now feel terribly guilty that I didn’t read everything fresh off the presses, couched as it was in moments of time, popular culture critiques and all.

So why am I still absolutely inside out about his death? Forget the normal psychological, Oh no I’m going to die, too. Oh no I will never write as well as him. Oh no he’ll never write again. Oh no my kid is going to die and I don’t ever want to know what his mother knows. Oh no we’re all going to die and most of us won’t even notice when the rest o us go. I know all that. I deny it like everybody else.

It’s that I want to stop my day to day life right now so I can consume his prose non-stop. I want to read and read and read and read everything David Foster Wallace ever wrote. Because when I read his work—fiction and  nonfiction—right there, in the moment, I am everything I want to be. He leads me to a place where I’m smart and interesting and humane and giving and wise and raw and empathetic and genuine and white-knuckled, staring my demons in the face. He lets me into worlds I’ve never known and deepens the colors for me on worlds I know better than I thought anyone else could.

His words make me the best things about myself, and nothing else does that. So, yeah, I’m absolutely shattered. Still. And I don’t see that going away anytime soon, even if that’s unseemly or silly or just downright unhealthy.

So how do we get up in the morning and make toast and do the dishes, now that he’s dead? What really sucks is that we just do. Because it really shouldn’t matter this much, to those who were not his wife, his sister, his parents. But it does. It really does matter.

My third and final DFW post

[I just can’t leave this post as I originally wrote it. But I can’t delete it entirely because the comments from blueeyedsoul are lovely. Rather than leave this angry, name-calling post as is, I’ll repost here my original reaction at DFW’s death. I feel, first and foremost, for his parents and his wife at the stomach-turning loss. And I feel deeply for the reading community. See also my first post about his death.]

posted sept. 16 here:

In grad school, the professors wouldn’t let me write my thesis on Infinite Jest because none of them had read it, and when they saw that it topped 1300 pages (I don’t have my copy to give you precise numbers, I just moved and don’t have anything in the fridge and need to go shopping and am not in the best mood, so bear with me on estimates) of densely packed text and endnotes sheer rambling genius, they balked at the workload reading both his novel and my thesis would bring to their carefully balanced lives.

I resented their laziness. Then I changed topics and vowed one day to write an erudite lit-crit analysis of the text. Especially because Wallace excelled at but distrusted literary criticism. But shite happened and I haven’t gotten around to it.

I blogged about a month ago that I felt disconnected from the world when I realized Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had been dead for three days before I knew. It was as though my sadness didn’t count any more because I had missed the window.

This time, the world rotated twice before I knew DFW died. The announcement rocked me to the core but didn’t change my day. And that, itself, saddens me because it means my life is so shifted off its base that the shockingly early death of one of my top ten creative inspirations doesn’t even rate a schedule change. The rest of my week, though, shuddered and sputtered as the implications of his death sunk in.

And I don’t know what to say. I’ve known for two days and I don’t know what to say. (Updating this weeks later, I’m still not done processing my grief.) [Updating this almost a year later, I’m still not done processing my grief.) His writing changed me. I saw him speak once (thanks MPB and SBB) and his speaking did not change me. The creepy cult curiously smarmy cadre of followers did not change me. I was rarely tempted to quit my job and run off to Pomona to be his student, because I didn’t feel any need to be connected with him personally. I didn’t want to be taught by him or to talk with him or to write for him.

I wanted to read his work.

And now there won’t be more.

I may be silly to feel his death as a weighty presence in my life. The man himself had no presence in my life. His characters, their actions, their idiosyncrasies, their seismically surreal lives had a transient presence in my life. But all I have to do is recall the cover of his weighty novel and I can again touch the intellectual dance of reading it, tender humanity of the characters, and its mind-bending importance on post-postmodern literature. I can, remembering, feel my hunger for more as I read myself bleary-eyed for the entire summer of 1997 (I was busy in the summer of 1996. I didn’t pick up IJ because of the grant. I picked it up because I wanted a book that would ensure nobody would talk to me on BART, a la The Accidental Tourist. But I loved it intensely then, and would love to reread it now.) [I am rereading it now, thanks to infinite summer.] I can feel my connection and revulsion and confusion at Wallace’s characters every time someone says his name.

And I want more. I’m angry and disappointed that there won’t be more.

I loved his lobster piece for Gourmet magazine. I love that he took the job, puzzled at the pop cultural status that brought him such tangential work, and I loved his rambling thoroughness. I loved that he came to the conclusion that it’s just not okay to boil creatures alive.

I haven’t read the obits. I don’t even know how he died. (I found out later and wrote a horrible post on this blog, of which I am embarrassed but which I will not erase.) I don’t care how he died. This is not a Jeff Buckley story or a Kurt Cobain story or a River Phoenix story. I wish I knew what kind of story this is. All I know is that the woot from Sept. 16 made me feel all too keenly that nobody will take DFW’s place.

And now all I can think is, I hope all you bastard literary canon snobs will read his work, because you missed the boat the first time. When I write my PhD dissertation on his work and one of you lazy self preserving pricks says you haven’t read it, I will produce all the contemporary fiction on the shelves and say, “well, it’s better than and worse than and different than this….And it’s all we have left.”

The Macarthur grant bit always forces the genius label. I don’t know that he was genius. I just know I really love reading his writing. I don’t even know that I love his writing itself. I love the experience of reading it. And that is the ultimate compliment for an author. I may not love your work, man. I just love what it does to my head. Your writing makes me want to work harder and smarter and be a better and more empathetic person.

We’re all going to miss you, and our minds are poorer now that yours is silent. I hope, at least, that the pain is gone.

David Foster Wallace

In grad school, the professors wouldn’t let me write my thesis on Infinite Jest because none of them had read it, and when they saw that it topped 1100 pages (I don’t have my copy to give you precise numbers, I just moved and don’t have anything in the fridge and need to go shopping but can’t get past a long day of running around after a toddler with a heart heavy from the pain of DFW’s death thudding around in my stomach, and am not in the best mood, so bear with me on estimates) of densely packed text and endnotes sheer rambling genius, they balked at the workload reading both his novel and my thesis would bring to their carefully balanced lives.

I resented their laziness. Then I changed topics and vowed one day to write an erudite lit-crit analysis of the text. Especially because Wallace excelled at but distrusted literary criticism. But shite happened and I haven’t gotten around to it.

I blogged about a month ago that I felt disconnected from the world when I realized Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had been dead for three days before I knew. It was as though my sadness didn’t count any more because I had missed the window.

This time, the world rotated twice before I knew DFW died. The announcement rocked me to the core but didn’t change my day. And that, itself, saddens me because it means my life is so shifted off its base that the shockingly early death of one of my top five creative inspirations doesn’t even rate a schedule change. The rest of my week, though, shuddered and sputtered as the implications of his death sunk in.

And I don’t know what to say. I’ve known for two days and I don’t know what to say. (Updating this weeks later, I’m still not done processing my grief.) His writing changed me. I saw him speak once (thanks MPB and SBB) and his speaking did not change me. The creepy cult curiously smarmy cadre of followers did not change me. I was rarely tempted to quit my job and run off to Pomona to be his student, because I didn’t feel any need to be connected with him personally. I didn’t want to be taught by him or to talk with him or to write for him. I wanted to read his work.

And now there won’t be more.

I may be silly to feel his death as a weighty presence in my life. The man himself had no presence in my life. His characters, their actions, their idiosyncrasies, their seismically surreal lives had a transient presence in my life. But all I have to do is recall the cover of his weighty novel and I can again touch the intellectual dance of reading it. I can feel my hunger for more as I read myself bleary-eyed for the entire summer of 1997 (I was busy in the summer of 1996. I didn’t pick up IJ because of the grant. I picked it up because I wanted a book that would ensure nobody would talk to me on BART, a la The Accidental Tourist. But I loved it intensely then, and would love to reread it now.) I can feel my connection and revulsion and confusion at Wallace’s characters every time someone says his name.

And I want more. I’m angry and disappointed that there won’t be more.

I loved his lobster piece for Gourmet magazine. I love that he took the job, puzzled at the pop cultural status that brought him such tangential work, and I loved his rambling thoroughness. I loved that he came to the conclusion that it’s just not okay to boil creatures alive.

I haven’t read the obits. I don’t even know how he died. (I found out later and wrote a horrible post on this blog, of which I am embarrassed but which I will not erase.) I don’t care how he died. This is not a Jeff Buckley story or a Kurt Cobain story or a River Phoenix story. I wish I knew what kind of story this is. All I know is that the woot from Sept. 16 made me feel all too keenly that nobody will take DFW’s place.

And now all I can think is, I hope all you bastard literary canon snobs will read his work, because you missed the boat the first time. When I write my PhD dissertation on his work and one of you lazy self preserving pricks says you haven’t read it, I will produce all the contemporary fiction on the shelves and say, “well, it’s better than and worse than and different than this….And it’s all we have left.”

The Macarthur grant bit always forces the genius label. I don’t know that he was genius. I just know I really love reading his writing. I don’t even know that I love his writing itself. I love the experience of reading it. And that is the ultimate compliment for an author. I don’t even love your work, man. I just love what it does to my head.

We’re all going to miss you, and our minds are poorer now that yours is silent. I hope, at least, that the pain is gone.