>David Foster Wallace: The View From Up There
David Foster Wallace reading at All Saints Church in 2006. Photo: © Steve Rhodes.
There is one question which we seldom ask each other directly: it is too brutal. And yet it is the only question worth asking our fellow-travelers. What makes you go on living? Why don’t you kill yourself? Why is all this bearable? What makes you bear it? (Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet)
After Spalding Gray committed suicide in early 2004—the date is vague because his body wasn’t recovered from the East River for almost exactly two months after he was reported missing on January 11, 2004, which was a Sunday and the day after Gray had left his apartment for the last time—I went on a sort of online information-collecting binge.
“It is generally a mistake,” goes the well-traveled joke, “to attempt to download the internet.” That remains true even if one attempts to download not the entire internet, but just a piece of it, because the internet is a fractal creature in which every enlargement includes as many details and particulars as the original. Another way of saying that is: there is no such thing as just a piece of it.
The internet is a metaphor which demands that you accept the fact that all information is partial and contingent.
Which might just make it the ideal place to try to learn something about a suicide, an act absolutely guaranteed not to yield up one single piece of information about a person’s life that does not turn out to be partial and contingent. Naturally, one is already entirely familiar with the way the internet tends to be a vast recycling bin of pre-chewed data that replicate faster than Salmonella in egg salad in July.
But I still hoped I might find something on the internet that could help explain—no, not explain: give a wider picture of, build some context around—why Spalding Gray had killed himself. And so unpleasantly—forcing himself into the freezing, garbage-strewn East River in the middle of winter. Or why David Foster Wallace did, choosing a suicide method not known for its quick and painless agency or for leaving behind attractive corpses. In both cases, the suicides conjure up images of punishment; in Wallace’s, of something resembling an execution.
Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t actually help with that: It’s brimming over with information, but is the antithesis of context. There’s no picture big enough on the internet nor—of course, I know this—is there one anywhere. And now, only six days after Wallace’s wife found his body in their home in Claremont, California—his death an act that newspapers are still calling, without evident irony, an “apparent” suicide—the internet is positively thrumming with tributes to Wallace that are largely numbing in their sameness.
For the record, I wasn’t Wallace’s number one fan, which is almost a badge of distinction in this week in which his suicide has been blogged to death (excuse the expression) and in which one has a hard time suppressing a cruel reflection on this upwelling of unconditional love, this outpouring of “you changed my life” testimonials, this heaping of one affirmation upon another that Wallace was categorically and without question America’s most brilliant writer and that literature may never recover from such a loss, which reflection consists of you kind of wondering whether or not all these bereft and devastated and suddenly literature-deprived thousands ever told Wallace any of this while he was still alive or, if they did, why it didn’t make any difference.
It seems sort of … I dunno, impolite to kill yourself when people are falling to their knees all around you, swearing their undying loyalty and affection, but I realize that suicide obeys its own laws that are not the laws of the living. On the other hand, we all know that people very much tend NOT to tell you these sorts of things while you’re still alive, which is a pity on so many levels, and the high-octane keening they bring to their encomiums after your death is, at least in part, fueled by guilt over that very fact. Also by the desire to win the title of Most Bereaved, which no one would actually ever admit to wanting. Both of which are much in evidence in what is now being published online about Wallace.
So I’ll just say that Wallace was a terrific writer whose nonfiction seemed to me to be better by leaps and bounds than his fiction. In the latter, Wallace’s work never struck me as much different from the pretty and pointless writing buoyed up by the Dave Eggers/McSweeney’s/can-you-bear-how-much-more-hip-we-are-than-you? clan (who currently figure among some of the loudest mourners in the Wallace claque, a fact I find, frankly, kind of creepy, since their whole creative project involves never being observed being sincere): facile humor; autonomic irony; blatantly affected anomie; the skill to wield the English language with a virtuosity that is no less than stunning in order to create effects that are narcotizing in their banality and to forge prose that substantially fails to justify its own existence; and a claustrophobic, stop-me-before-I-self-reference-again inability to accept that fictive reality is subjective and author-generated and that no reader past the age of five is actually unclear on this concept.
I very nearly (stupidly) never read Wallace at all because I’d come across an article of his in which he’d basically beatified Thomas Pynchon, a writer whose collected works are my answer to the death-penalty mongers who insist we can’t possibly find a punishment worse than death for our most hideous criminals. Or, to say it with Wallace’s much kinder phrase about the reactions to his fiction that he received from professors at Amherst College when he joined the writing program in the early-1980s—I find myself unable to enter into the aesthetic.
Nonfiction, on the other hand, tended to hem in the worst of Wallace’s tendencies as a writer—perhaps because the need to focus on a specific and circumscribed topic provided, so to speak, a plot from which he couldn’t entirely expatriate himself; and perhaps also because, given that many of the nonfiction pieces were produced for magazines, an editor with page-limits actually had the power to murder Wallace’s darlings and wrestle his pieces into something under 125,000 well-thesaurused words.
In the best of Wallace’s nonfiction, he was an intensely vulnerable narrator and a wide-eyed (if never naïve) observer, and what made him irresistible was not just the genuine “what am I doing here?” sense of being spaesato (a great Italian word that literally means “un-towned”—i.e., the way it is when you find yourself in a place where nothing feels like home) that he brought to such topics as county fairs and lobster festivals and the John McCain press bus during the 2000 presidential campaign, but the fact that he did it without archness or bourgeois, urban-cool snottiness. It’s easy to comment on how weird other people are; it’s a lot less easy to write honestly about how weird you feel around other people.
In fact: Wallace’s self-consciousness, social anxiety, and introversion bordering on ochlophobia struck me as endearing, though I always wondered how much of it was a literary pose. Now, I guess we all know: it wasn’t. In fact, having recently finished A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, in whose title essay Wallace describes the ultra-luxury Caribbean cruise that Harper’s hired him to take and to write about, I’m more than a little uncomfortable as I recall all those descriptions of Wallace spending most of the week locked alone in his stateroom. That wasn’t just a bunch of cute, George Costanzaesque neuroses talking.
But what I truly admired about Wallace, and what made me (almost always) forgive his consistently high ratings on the Reader-Irritation Index, was that he was smart. As in awesomely, astonishingly, prodigiously, improbably smart. Even I wouldn’t be enough of a schmuck to suggest that I had any concept of “why” Wallace killed himself, but I will say that one of the things I know about being smart (you’ll forgive me if I immodestly say so) is that, although people assure you constantly that it is a wonderful gift, the fact of the matter is: you pay for it every single day of your life.
Anyway, I wasn’t Wallace’s biggest fan and I’m not vying for Most Bereaved, but I am semi-obsessed by the suicides of creative people, especially of highly successful creative people, which is a fixation that should not be examined too closely. For me, it all started with Joseph Duell, the twenty-nine-year-old New York City Ballet dancer who, one Sunday morning in February 1986, jumped out of the fifth-story window of his West 77th Street apartment in Manhattan. Duell was handsome, insanely talented, lauded by the media and loved by audiences. And really, really unhappy.
Over the years, a long line of artists after Duell. A long line of suicides I learned about through indifferent means, along with everybody else who could read a newspaper or watch TV, nobody calling me personally to deliver the news. A long series of occult and baffling moments of “No, not for one single minute more” that lead from Duell to Breece D’J Pancake to Spalding Gray and, now, to David Foster Wallace. Deaths in which I felt implicated, at my narrow end of the funnel, the way you can feel implicated in events that have nothing whatever to do with you personally but everything to do with you categorically. The disappearance of people who gave you pleasure anonymously, with no interest in whether you, personally, had received pleasure. That strange, unpleasant sense that your emotional attachment to another is utterly unreciprocated except in some collective, molecular way in which the you of you is subsumed in hive-like synonymity.
In Wallace’s case, it’s an indolent, undignified observation, but one is perhaps to be forgiven for considering such a death and thinking that unsuccessful creative people have more reason (and, arguably, perhaps more of a right) to be studying The Big Book of Knots, but I guess it just goes to show that writing for the New Yorker and getting your books published by seriously major publishers and winning a MacArthur “genius” grant doesn’t buy happiness.
No. And someone as smart and as percipient as Wallace would never have seriously thought it could. Plus the fact that the relationship between (externally verified) success and a sense of (internally experienced) inauthenticity is a much more fraught calculus than something like fame is in a position to touch. Here’s Wallace talking of his career in a March 27, 1997 interview with Charlie Rose:
I started out wanting to be a writer and wanting to get some attention
and I got it really quick and realized it didn’t make me happy at all, in
which case: Why am I writing, what’s the purpose of this? …. The brass
ring I’ve been chasing does not make everything okay…. Whatever
you get paid attention for is never the stuff you think is important
about yourself anyway.
So this then is the point. Maybe. Wallace didn’t need to hear from another soul that he was smart, a keen observer, a gifted writer, empathic, humane, moral, a fine mind. He knew all that (I truly believe he did, and anyone who heard him speak or be interviewed should believe it, too; Wallace wasn’t blind to his talent, which I hope means we can stave off any and all analyses in which the words “low self-esteem” should happen to figure). He just couldn’t get a lot of mileage out of knowing it.
Thinking about success and creativity and the arts-reward system (publishing, career-making reviews, grants, etc.) and about artists themselves and the whole vexed question of fame and suicide, here’s the image that keeps coming to my mind: You’ve got a million bucks, neatly wrapped in small bundles, and each packet cinctured with one of those little paper bands and the lot of them arranged geometrically in the bottom of a snazzy leather briefcase. Which is now lying in one corner of a lifeboat. Which is floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with you in it and nothing else as far as the eye can see. It’s a shitload of money—and right at the moment you can’t use it to get a damn thing you really need.
And so: Why is all this bearable? What makes you bear it?
Maybe I’ve got the question all wrong anyway. Maybe it’s not why gifted, successful, highly praised people like Wallace kill themselves, but why doesn’t everybody? Because what really scares me is the thought that David Foster Wallace, as monstrously smart and preternaturally sentient as he was, had figured something out that I’m still not bright enough to see.