Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace: Suicide as a Sort of Present

Last night, I began reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a collection of short fiction by the late David Foster Wallace, a writer with whom I was previously more or less unfamiliar. I certainly knew of him, but before last night the only major piece of writing I'd read by Wallace was his fascinating and infuriating essay "David Lynch Keeps His Head". I'm not crazy about the idea that this choice of reading material shows me up as the kind of person who waits for a tragedy to begin educating themselves about a particular person, and I'm even less crazy about the possibility that anyone might think I'm now taking up this particular habit in order to ferret out clues to explain why Wallace took his own life. But while I'll have to take the hit regarding the first part, I assure you that the second part is the furthest thing from my mind.

Okay, not the furthest thing from my mind. After all, one of the stories I read last night is called "Suicide as a Sort of Present", and I'm currently in the middle of a long, footnote-heavy story called "The Depressed Person". Your antennae can't help but go up.

But a lot of people seem to be jumping on certain things -- Wallace's 2005 Kenyon University Commencement speech; "Good Old Neon", a story from his collection Oblivion; page 696 of Infinite Jest -- and claiming that they might contain valuable clues. Some people (and I believe I've seen this in the comments of the Onion AV story about Wallace) have said that the deep veins of caring and sympathy that run through his work were some sort of clue, because anyone who cares as much as Wallace did finds it difficult to exist in this world (which seems to imply that those making this point don't care all that much). And I've even seen one or two comments to the effect that Wallace's coverage of the McCain campaign are what drove him to it (classy...and that one I'm sure I read at the Onion AV).

I have to admit that while talking about Wallace with my wife, I fell into this trap myself: "You know, he never wrote another novel after Infinite Jest. Maybe that had something to do..."; "Whatever you think of his writing, he was clearly some sort of genius. Maybe he had a hard time with...". But that's all bullshit, and arrogant into the bargain. His reasons are in no way our business. His death isn't even our business, or at least the details of it aren't. It's news, and I'm not claiming otherwise, but it somehow doesn't seem right that I know the very sad details of the death of David Foster Wallace, a stranger to me.

But enough. How's the actual reading of Wallace going? Better than I would have expected. As with pretty much the rest of the world, I first became aware of David Foster Wallace when his mammoth, forboding slab of a novel Infinite Jest came out in 1996. The flurry of praise that both preceded and followed its release made me instantly curious, and the title indicated that it wouldn't be all gloomy portent: there might be fun to be had in its pages, as well. And damn it, twelve years later I still want to read that son of a bitch, and I'm going to, but for now I'm finding myself fairly engrossed in Wallace's short fiction. The infuriation I felt while reading his David Lynch essay is still there, but so is the fascination. For instance, the first story I read (out of, I admit, completely morbid curiosity) was the aforementioned "Suicide as a Sort of Present". It's short, about four pages, and it tells the story of a woman who is filled with self-loathing due to her belief that she is a failure. When she has a child, a son, she wants him to succeed as she believes she has not. She feels hatred for her son when he doesn't meet her expectations, but never acts on it. She gives him unconditional love, even when his bad behavior starts to become alarming. With great subtlety, the end of the story implies a level of violence far beyond suicide, although that's part of it, and after finishing it I just sat there for a second, slowly realizing what had happened.

The story I'm reading now, "The Depressed Person", is starting to bring Wallace's infuriating qualities to the forefront. Wallace, apparently, had a thing about footnotes, and right now the footnotes to the story (which are really as much a part of the story as the main narrative, and what is the main narrative and what acts as a footnote has become blurry) take up about 4/5ths of the page. This may or may not be intentional, but just the layout, the appearance, of the pages has, at this point, become absurd. Given what I'm becoming to regard (based, I admit, on very little experience) as Wallace's particularly restless kind of genius, I'm guessing that's on purpose.

So, I'm now reading David Foster Wallace, after meaning to for over a decade. I wish I could have found a different type of motivation, but there's no use worrying about that now. I'm reading him, finally. And, even if you find him frustrating, you should probably be reading him, too.


Greg said...

I had Infinite Jest for years. Years! But I never got through it. Despite it's length, it's an easy read, but I found the center too loose, the structure too unfocused. The little bit I read had many pointed and sharp moments but it didn't pull me in. Just happens sometimes I guess. Being of mammoth size and needing bookspace, I donated it to the second hand bookstore so I could load up on more things that might grab me more.

bill r. said...

Whew, sorry for the delay with this, Jonathan, but I've been out of town for work today.

I've made what I consider astonishing progress on Brief Interviews.... It's a fascinating book. It's not easy, or even necessarily entertaining, but you can really see Wallace struggling with communicating with the reader (this is easy to notice since, every so often, he comes right out and says so). I think this collection was his first stab at fiction following Infinite Jest, and I think finishing that book, and having it so widely praised, caused him to flounder about a bit, and he chose not to hide that. When he said his genius was of a particularly restless sort, I must say I was onto something (which means I, too, am a genius).

bill r. said...

When I said his was genius was of a...etc.

Fox said...

All this book stuff is weird. Books and writers and stuff. WHERE IS THAT 12 MOVIE MEME, BILL!?!?