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The Work of David Foster Wallace

Malcolm Knox

Medium length read3100 words
 

The book wizard is the pop-up voice offering a shortcut to what to read. My book wizard seldom pops up but is reliably on the money if, equally reliably, vague on the detail. His urgent message in 1997 was typical. Sounding shattered, as always after reading one of these books, he said: "You have to read this. I can't remember the author's name. Or the title. But God, it's ... Just read it, I can't say any more."

Cover: November 2008
November 2008
Robert Forster
The Work of David Foster Wallace
Malcolm Knox
Trekking in the Simpson
Robyn Davidson
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz
James Marsh’s ‘Man on Wire’
Luke Davies
‘Vanity Fair Portraits’
Clare Press
Australian Political Memoirs
Peter Hartcher
David Marr’s ‘The Henson Case’
Sebastian Smee
Don Watson
Kate Grenville's ‘The Lieutenant’
Christina Thompson

The outcome, after some interrogation and cross-referencing, was a relationship with the writing of David Foster Wallace that has been life-changing, albeit less so than for Steve Beeson, whose life was literally changed by Wallace's 1996 novel, Infinite Jest.

Some years ago, Beeson told a friend called Mike that he had read IJ. Mike said, "I know someone who will sleep with you." Nine months later, as Beeson puts it, "Mike introduced us - Steve, Karen, Karen, Steve, Infinite Jest, go - and walked off." Karen had been longing to talk to someone, anyone, who had read the book. Inexorably, Steve and Karen were married; a friend played a tape of a voicemail message from Wallace himself: "Uh, um, this is really a strange and almost horrifying thing, but I hear that a couple, Steve and Karen, are joining themselves in holy matrimony because of my book?"

Beeson's anecdote appeared on Dave Eggers' McSweeney's website after Wallace hanged himself, aged 46, on 12 September. The web was soon awash with memories advertising the devotion that Wallace inspired among fans (some calling themselves the Howling Fantods, borrowing a Wallacism). Among those to post their memories were Eggers, Zadie Smith, and acquaintances who edited Wallace's work, studied writing under him at the colleges where he taught, or just met him once.

Reading these contributions put me, a certifiable Howling Fantod, back in my box. I had planned to write a tribute to Wallace and a reflection on his suicide, or perhaps just a lament, through the prism of my relationship with his work, but was humbled by how garden variety my admiration was, compared with this erudite and stricken community of friends and readers. None of these people can now feel alone in their grief; but when we form a particularly deep and influential connection with a writer, because the act of reading is so private, we wish to believe there is something private in that connection. I discovered through Wallace's death what should have been obvious all along: that I was one of a great many.

In trying to think of a passage from Wallace that expresses my awe at his genius, I find it in ‘Up, Simba', an essay on John McCain's campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination:

 

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can't get ourselves to do on our own ... A leader's true authority is the power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn't be able to if there weren't this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please.

 

Wallace, a liberal, saw echoes of this quality in McCain, circa 2000. We Fantods see it in Wallace.

*

The son of a philosophy lecturer and an English teacher, Wallace was born in 1962. In a book review, ‘Authority and American Usage', Wallace revealed that his mother, Sally, used to fake a coughing fit if one of her two children uttered a solecism at dinner, and would continue to splutter and choke until Wallace or his younger sister, Amy, figured out and corrected their mistake. While it was a light-hearted game, Wallace wrote that he was slightly chilled by the idea of children being brought up to think that a linguistic error might deprive their mother of oxygen.

Wallace grew up in a small town in Illinois, and was an elite junior tennis player, a rare combination of sporting and academic prowess. His was an omnivorous brain, able to ingest complex mathematics, logic and philosophy, and forests full of dope. He majored in philosophy and English at Amherst College and studied creative writing at the University of Arizona. He went on to publish two novels, three collections of fiction and two of non-fiction, and works on rap music and mathematics. He taught writing to college students, ultimately at Pomona, California. His mania for language persisted, to the extent that he would write I hate you on the paper of a student who, say, mistook ‘further' for ‘farther'.

The richer details of Wallace's biography have emerged in posts written since his death. They synthesise into: a bear-like and acned man who, beneath his signature props of long hair and bandana, was painfully courteous, modest, as funny and troubling in person as on the page. Those who knew him as the tobacco-chewing Dave Wallace, rather than the enigmatic genius David Foster Wallace (the triple-barrelled name was a publisher's suggestion to distinguish him from another David Wallace), count themselves blessed to have known a loveable and down-to-earth man, and also privileged to have been let in close, because Wallace was so uncomfortable among strangers that his shyness was its own defensive barrier. In one of his stories he writes of becoming so tortured by not wanting to offend people with any of the standard options for ending a conversation that he would end up blurting out, "I need you to go away and leave me alone now." Charles Hauther, from Skylight Books in Los Angeles, once told me that he had hand-sold more copies of IJ than had any other bookseller in America. After Wallace visited his store, the two corresponded until the author asked, politely but firmly, that it end. Hauther, who had never presumed to friendship, accepted the cutting-off in the manner in which it was given.

 Wallace wrote like a gifted undergrad who stayed up all night smoking pot and pouring out his ideas, which at some stage he was. The difference between him and other such undergrads was that the next morning Wallace's ideas were every bit as mind-popping and original and coherent as they had seemed the night before. His addictions provided rich material on the nature of dependence and its intersection with American consumer culture, a keystone for the big novel that brought Steve and Karen Beeson together and sent me, after the call from the book wizard, on a search through the English-language bookstores of Paris in April 1997. When the book wizard calls, it is too urgent to wait. And so my first memories of Infinite Jest are rolled up with the sandy gravel and hard metal seats of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the toy boats on the pond fusing in memory with a teenage boy being interviewed for entry to a tennis academy somewhere in a futuristic mid-western America, the book's opening scene.

(For those who haven't read Wallace, I suggest starting with the two non-fiction volumes, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. Then read the short-story collections Girl with Curious Hair and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. This is the best training for the 1079 pages of Infinite Jest. Wallace's other novel, The Broom of the System, precedes IJ but is best read after it; it is an undeveloped blueprint for the greater, later novel. Finally, read his 2004 short-story collection, Oblivion.)

*

Infinite Jest is reputedly hard to read. It isn't. It is long, dense and largely plotless, as experimental and digressive as Tristram Shandy, but strangely easy once you hit your stride. Unlike Wallace's postmodern antecedents (I hear his correction: I hate you), his metafictional tricks are at the service of a subject that is as accessible as turning on the TV. In fact, it is turning on the TV. The novel traces a quest for a videotape, Infinite Jest, which plunges viewers into a fatal catatonic trance. The (very) loosely connected characters include Hal and Orin Incandenza, the sons of the video's creator and members of their father's tennis academy; a recovering substance abuser, Don Gately; spies who meet in the desert in wheelchairs, disguised in drag; and so on.

Nutshell summaries make it sound more madcap than it is, as does the knowledge that IJ contains 100 pages of close-spaced footnotes. This turns many readers off, but those who read them ingest something peculiar to Wallace: the notes are not smartypants literary bells and whistles, but contain the funniest, most incisive and revealing passages, the sotto-voce murmurings that give the reader the illusion of a privileged intimacy with the author. There are footnotes within the footnotes, each parenthesis burrowing deeper into Wallace's mind, which ultimately seems to envelop the reader entirely.

Much has been made of Wallace's wry clairvoyance in IJ, in which he created a world where everything, including time, had been corporatised: events taking place in the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, for example. But this is only a subset of his huge achievement, which is to marry the very high and very low: expressing ideas from Wittgenstein in the language and experience of a teenage pot-smoker. And it makes sense! Instead of coming across as jejune, lowering the philosophic content down to the TV generation, Wallace's conveyance of enormous ideas pulls everything, the ideas and the reader, upwards.

Epistemologically, Infinite Jest and The Broom of the System both play off a Donald Barthelme short story, to which Wallace gave credit. He summarised the narrative pattern in a 1999 lecture on Kafka:

 

... imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don't know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens ... and it opens outward - we've been inside what we wanted all along.

 

This, in short, is the coda for IJ: the hypnotic video is the book, the thing the characters (and readers) have been inside the whole time they have been looking for it. Likewise in Broom. It is a Zen-like encapsulation of life - the journey does not take us to the destination, but occurs inside it - but by eschewing the modern writing rule of conciseness, instead expanding until the reader is immersed, Wallace is doing more than imparting a lesson. He is inviting the reader into experience itself.

Wallace established a one-on-one intimacy with readers, and when the readers were writers then the relationship could be among the most influential and personal in their lives. The powerful asymmetry of the writer-reader relationship is similar to the celebrity-fan nexus; I would like to think my admiration for Wallace is deeper and richer than that of a teenager for J-Lo, but the differences are in degree, not kind. Right now I am grieving over the death of someone I don't know, a phenomenon which, when I have seen it in others, I have roundly scorned as absurd. Such is Wallace's influence.

Since his death I have been rereading Consider the Lobster. As always when I read Wallace, he colonises my mind and my language. This is good and bad, as it is good and bad for a high jumper when someone literally raises the bar. Good, because it inspires you to aim higher. Bad, because your next attempt is now much likelier to fail. Yet irresistible: Wallace's writing is so incredibly brainy that under his influence I feel brainier and more perceptive; it is an elevated state. Yet corrosive, because such a strong influence is a bad thing for any writer. Developing your own voice, once you have become a lover of Wallace's work, is not so much a search for independence as a defensive measure.

Although IJ was long, I remember wanting to drag it out so it wouldn't finish. Likewise, when Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion came out, I was trapped between a compulsion to read them and a dread of having finished them (that paradox is another Wallace-like condition). Around the turn of the century I wrote a Wallacey failure of a novel, encyclopaedic and hypermanic, which never made it past its first reader and happily (for me) was never published. I have seen this happen to other novelists. You recommend Wallace, and months later they return spouting footnotes like an old potato with hairy shoots. There is a whole institution for the Wallace-infected, and it is called McSweeney's. To Dave Eggers' credit, he at least knows he is inferior. And that's the case for all those American novelists of Wallace's generation, the best of whom, such as Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Rick Moody, no matter how grand their ambition and self-regard, humbly acknowledge Wallace as the master. Their own achievement in part depends on how cleverly they can absorb some of his braininess while putting enough distance between it and them to escape too-close comparison.

*

Wallace seems to have suffered from a long and heavy depression that wore him out, as it wears out others. His story ‘The Depressed Person' (from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) is the most morose thing I've ever read, and that was years ago. I can't even look at it now. His father said that Wallace had been depressed for 20 years but had recently stopped responding to his medication. He had made earlier suicide attempts. There is a biochemical facet to Wallace's death that generalises him into a failing human machine; yet for his family he would be much closer to that - the poor vulnerable kid who was ground to dust by a lifelong illness - than to the seer whose work is now being reinterpreted as a multi-book suicide note.

Often cited, in this light, is the story ‘Good Old Neon' (from Oblivion), which appears to lift the veil from ‘David Wallace', liar, deceiver of friends, not a nice person at all. The story is narrated by an old school friend of Wallace's who is committing suicide. During the moment of his death and its warping into a subjective eternity, the narrator relives all the pivotal moral moments of his life, for good and ill - eternal life being one life relived, and either suffered or enjoyed, over and over. It's a brilliant riff on an often-explored conception of death, and as a reader you can only hope that when the real Wallace's doors opened outwards to him, he found some peace.

The empathic bonds in Wallace's writing are too tight for me to think about his death without some part of me dying too. Perhaps, like the narrator's death in ‘Good Old Neon', this is an experience I should embrace philosophically; but every fibre reacts against it. His death makes me bitterly angry. Yet what right to I have to anger? While distraught, the Fantods have been unsurprised since hearing that Wallace's wife, Karen Green, found him hanging in their home in Claremont, California. Death always seems to have been his destination, in more ways than the obvious. And so to acceptance. But then anger again, that his death can be reduced to a mechanical complex of depression, substance abuse, existential despair - all suicides are the same, and Wallace was not, we assert, the same as anyone; he was head and shoulders above every other writer who still walks this Earth. So, then, back to grief.

I emailed my book wizard the news that Wallace had died. He replied, "If him, what hope is there for the rest of us?" Egocentrically, I misread him, replying that I agreed: if writing the greatest book of a generation cannot bring happiness, then failing to write anything anywhere near that good might have its consolations. Better to live on your knees than die on your feet.

But that wasn't what my wizard meant. He meant what so many of the Howling Fantods have meant: if Wallace, a more evolved and far-seeing intellect than the rest of us, reached a point where he could no longer stand life, then what do we do? Do we stop our enquiries short, for self-preservation? Do we acknowledge that the truth is too dark to handle and wilfully stop thinking?

For solace, I turn to the books again and read ‘Up, Simba', the John McCain essay. I realise that I have been wrong about McCain, or limited in my perception of him. It's not enough to change my views of the 2008 election, but it does press home the reminder that George W Bush's defeat of McCain in the 2000 primaries was just the first of the two acts of American political foulness that year.

In ‘The View from Mrs Thompson's', Wallace reveals that he was a churchgoer, but of a particular kind. He tells of going to church on 12 September 2001 to

 

pray, silently and fervently, that you're wrong about the president, that your view of him is maybe distorted and he's actually far smarter and more substantial than you believe, not just some soulless golem or nexus of corporate interests dressed up in a suit but a statesman of courage and probity and ... and it's good, this is good to pray this way. It's just a bit lonely to have to.

 

When I am re-immersed in Wallace's work, I recover the knowledge that an author's life is just a blip, whether he lives to 46 or 92, and that what really counts are the words and the books which are reaching thousands of new readers right at this moment, and which will last as long as there are people who laugh and cry at what a guy can get out of his planet-sized brain, his planet-sized heart, and onto the page.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and has won a Walkley Award for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life.
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