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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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.