Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Let the New Year Begin with Some Good Old David Foster Wallace

I don't know if any single famous person's death has had as much of an effect on me as David Foster Wallace's tragic suicide in September of 2008.

We've lost many other authors in and around that time such as Kurt Vonnegut (yet another of my favorites, though), John Updike, Frank McCourt, Norman Mailer, J.G. Ballard and so forth, but the youngest of those listed was Updike, who died at the venerable age of 76 from lung cancer. Of writers who have come to represent their respective generations like the above named, it is worth arguing that no one has been as significant to Generation Xers as Wallace (no, not even Michael Chabon or Dave Eggers), who was born fittingly in 1962 which more or less represents the tail-end of the Baby Boom and the outset of his generation with that letter.

It's the untimeliness of Wallace's death that continues to sting. As those other authors' ages and creative output during the latter parts of their lives confirm, he could have been doing plenty of relevant work in his usual detail-oriented and incisive style for many, many more years. It's hard not to feel selfish, like we've all been deprived of something special. Wallace's death also presents us with a clear and startling example of the perniciousness of mental illness, and the complicated nature of the inner workings (both physical and abstract) of the human mind.

Wallace's short story "All That" published in The New Yorker last month is yet another example of all that (sorry) effing talent no longer with us. But with that said, I don't want to talk about David Foster Wallace only in the negative, because 1) it's obviously depressing and 2) to me, as with anyone who's ever admired a celebrity from afar, he was already a phantasmic abstraction to which his work and his physical image in pictures and television were so closely tied and essential to his tangibility. I used to imagine conversations I'd have with him (in a normal, balanced way, I feel confident in averring), if ever the opportunity presented itself. I related to his work and imagined then to him by proxy, which like the rest of his admirers I probably would have had we ever met. It's worth mentioning as purely a positive way of looking at Wallace's passing that from the phantasmic abstraction vantage and his work being so essential to what made him who he was to most people, in that admittedly bizarre sense, he's never really left, and won't for as long as his work exists, which hopefully will remain timeless like the works of classic authors such as Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Fydor Dostoevsky have. But enough of the whole "immortality achieved through oeuvre" thing.

More to the point of Wallace's work, one thing good writing does is it allows you a medium through which to imagine you understand its author better philosophically and perhaps emotionally. It's different from other kinds of writing -- philosophical and other didactical tracts, for instance -- because it allows you to insert your own interpretation, to interact with the text as the story progresses, to glean meaning in a way that the other forms of writing do not allow. It does not necessarily lecture you, although I hold that it can and still be considered great. It isn't limited to one form or another. There's a fluidity it possesses that seems to only ask that you engage it, whether you agree with it ideologically (and the like) or no. I feel as though reading David Foster Wallace (the fiction and non-fiction alike) is one of the things that taught me all that I mention in this paragraph (and sorry, this last use of "all that" is less of a pun and used more for clarity's sake than when it was used earlier in this post).

(FYI: I use a lot of cluttering parenthetical asides because footnotes and endnotes were already taken by admittedly (nay, inarguably) better writers (Junot Diaz also uses footnotes to very good effect in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao").)

I also notice the literary blogosphere is more or less aflame over the lameness of a recent New York Times essay by Katie Roiphe which covers and criticizes the emasculated, over-sensitive tendencies 0f today's male writers. David Foster Wallace was unkindly and undeservedly included in Roiphe's list of said male writers. I don't have much to add that wasn't already put forth very well by Seth Colter Walls on The AWL, but that doesn't mean I don't think the criticism engendered by Katie Roiphe's essay isn't incredibly deserved and that Roiphe herself is plainly misguided. And she's misguided for just the same reasons I'm irritated by hyper-masculinity in other facets of modern American life -- it's an inane attempt at returning to the normative gender specific role playing that has (and in certain cultures continues) to dictate one's options in life, and furthermore, her argument represents a facile need in humans to easily identify and therefore make sense of the people whom we encounter so as to allow ourselves the ability assimilate and discriminate (thereby making sense of) more easily. It's a basic clan-mentality driven by the desire to survive and not be ostracized by our peers, which I hope we evolve beyond some day. (I admit these latter points diverge slightly from Roiphe's argument, but not enough that they aren't worth mentioning.)

David Foster Wallace was extremely perceptive (almost superhumanly so), and that someone has done him the disservice of misreading his work so profoundly as Roiphe did is to my mind one of the most infuriatingly small-minded, disrespectful things a person could do to an author. Certainly Wallace can be criticized, but as Walls outlines well, not for the reasons Roiphe seems to think he can.

I'm sorry this post seems to be ending on a fairly heated note but c'mon, get yer head out of yer ass, Roiphe!

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