Monday, September 15, 2008
And so but.
So this is what brings me out of blog semi-retirement. Not the bike accident that tore up my face and left me with a shattered sense of what I looked like for weeks, so much so that when I look in the mirror, my eyes still go immediately to the new scars on my forehead, upper lip and chin, all of them faded now from their angry red to an apologetic pink. Not the cancer diagnosis that even now, as it enters its last week of real medical importance with the last of the offending tissue coming out of my neck in a chunk this Thursday, haunts my brain in a big black robe, checking its watch impatiently, or the accompanying paranoia regarding the upcoming surgery and its (statistically unlikely) threat to my facial-motor skills. Not any of the awfulness and growing despair surrounding the current election. No, not those. It's DFW.
One opens oneself up to derision (or at least would've last week) by claiming to be a David Foster Wallace fan. He was, after all, one of the smartest of the smart kids, and while he may have lacked some of the smarminess of Dave Eggers, his style had a type of intellectual intensity that reminded one, first and foremost, of the kid in the front row of the class, practically jumping up and down to get the teacher's attention, to answer yet another question posed to the entire class or worse, volunteer a bit of extra information on the subject at hand.
Extra information is certainly one of the first things that stood out in DFW's work, and as a style it's one I openly cribbed when working on my Flying Burrito Brothers book. Sure, it indicates certain...mental health issues when a writer cannot physically bear the thought of a stray related fact left on the cutting room floor. But it also indicates a deep investment in things, things in the William Carlos Williams sense: objects seething with meanings. In short (although nothing about DFW was ever in short), a sort of feeling that this fact might save your life. And if not that one, maybe this one. At the very least, maybe it'll be something you can turn over in your head for a little bit, while your laundry dries or in the seconds/minutes/hours before falling off to sleep.
This speaks, I think, to two things about DFW. The first is the difference between his mode of intellect (and expression of said intellect) and that of many of his contemporaneous young turks. When I finally got around to attempting "A Heartbreaking Stagger of Et Cetera", I was immediately (as in "before the first page"), I was immediately thrown out of the text by the feeling I was about to start a long conversation with someone who wanted me to know exactly how smart he was. The feeling was cold, condescending and alienating. DFW's work, no less showy and fact-packed (moreso on both counts) gives the opposite feeling. DFW was excited to tell us all the things he knew not so he could look at us smugly afterward, but because he knew we were smart. And he knew he was smart. And he wanted us to remember how fun that could be, how knowledge, even little trivial bits of it can light up the quotidian with the soothing warmth that a string of Christmas lights can give a kitchen, a sweet and needed opposite to the glaring overhead fluorescent of everything about the world that constantly threatens to overwhelm us with the almost blinding unknowledge of ideas ungrounded in things, of ideology uber alles. Or, in the case of many of DFW's characters (and possibly the author himself), the deafening roar of the solipsistic self. One of DFW's most resonant sentences (up there for me with Pynchon's devastating one-two, "They were in love. Fuck the war.") is Hal Incandenza's desperate lament at the beginning/end of Infinite Jest, when, unable to communicate from inside this all-encompassing sense of isolating self (whether because of a mystery drug as the novel suggests or because he's trapped in a pervasively ironic discourse where nothing can be said and meant, as the novel insists), he pleads to the "I am in here." As if the reader, speaker and author all need convincing.
The second, corollary to a love of knowledge because it's fun to be smart, is DFW's deep compassion. I can't find the quote now but I think it was Turgenev who suggested all art should prepare us for compassion. This sentiment might have seemed a little too moralistic for a lot of contemporary writers (and any statement that begins "the purpose of art is..." pretty much begs for a fight), but DFW seems to hold it close to his heart throughout his work. DFW was adept at drawing compassion out of a reader (often along with its ugly stepsisters, pity and revulsion) through his gift at a sort of narrative brutality, most notably in the threateningly honest "hitting bottom" narratives of "Infinite Jest"'s addicts, which serve not to advance the story but to offer an almost violent counterpoint to the ironic discourse employed by other characters in the novel (a discourse which, as previously mention, is one centrally concerned with non-meaning, anti-compassion and the protection of the solipsistic self and leads to one of the novel's central frustrations/thrills: a series of unsolvable ambiguities, sets of signs that mean neither one thing nor the other) and in the throat-grabbing two page piece, "Incarnations of Burned Children". But more often, DFW offered a training course in compassion through his intellectual investment in things. If he could teach readers to apply his sort of sprawling deconstructive techniques (not to be confused with Deconstructive techniques. Lower case, it means something like taking a watch apart to see how it works, learn how to put it together and possibly build a better watch. Upper case, it means something like taking a cat apart to see what a cat looks like when it's been taken apart) to objects around them, to invest those objects with attention and caring, DFW seemed to believe transference of those skills to the people around them would necessarily follow. This is of course not always the case: there are plenty of people who have a rabid curiosity for objects and no interest in other people. But in DFW's work, the two seem intrinsically linked. His obsessive inclusion is born of a sense of caring or attempting to care fiercely about the world outside of himself.
I first read "Infinite Jest" during my second summer in Boston. I could tell you I was living with a prostitute, dating a nineteen year old albino, drinking heavily and teaching sixty hours a week, but those are just a scattering of facts I've told so many times they have the snark of irony about them, for me at least. I could also tell you I'd just been kicked out of graduate school, which amounted, at the time, to the total destruction of every life-plan I'd had, and left me with the feeling of being completely adrift in myself, unconnected with the world ("life-plans" being, after all, just maps for how we want our selves to interact with/fit into the world). I could also tell you, in the spirit of inclusion, that when I went to Brookline Booksellers to buy "Infinite Jest" I nearly knocked over a small Asian woman who turned out to be Amy Tan. For those weeks of reading, mostly on the medievally slow B train of Boston's Green Line, the moments I passed locations mentioned in the book seemed like the first connection I'd had to the outside world, the fact of Mike's Liquor's, the actuality of the Cambridge subway station. Slowly, my feet extended out of myself and touched the ground again, legs shaky as a frequent subway rider's can become. In the months that followed, I returned to DFW's description of depression like a promise that mine would eventually retreat, that my depression and I were not identical (a difficult conclusion to reach from the inside of such a condition).
Of course, like Salinger, I could never read DFW if I had any plans to do writing of my own: the precision of his sentences, so different from Salinger's (closer, I've always thought, to a sort of hipster Henry James) but just as pristine, ringing, gorgeous, would invade and overtake my own cadence til I was thinking in DFWspeak. I would often point to one of the exchanges between Hal and his older brother in "Infinite Jest" as exemplifying all the modes of conversation Ford Maddox Ford and Joseph Conrad outlined and have recommended to numerous professor-friends the use of one or the other of his essays in their classes (I know I've focused largely on his fiction here, but the rest of the journalistic world is giving ample attention to his non-fiction). And I borrowed/stole his footnoting riff for my own nefarious uses. But his way of thinking, of taking things apart, putting them back together and taking them apart again, his ability not to distract the reader with facts but to ground and center the reader with them, to draw the reader out (rather than draw things out of the reader) into a space where they were vulnerable to ideas, to feelings, to other things became locked in my mind as a kind of underlying architecture, a palimpsest that changed the shape of everything written over it. I never scoured publishing schedules for news of DFW's next work or trawled through magazines hoping he'd contributed. New work would show up like the occasional and unexpected letter from an old friend, and like the best of old friends, the conversation would seem to pick up in the middle of a frantic sentence, bursting with a pent up enthusiasm that broke through every dull thing around it.
As goodbyes go, this one is overly long and rambles into places it need not. But I imagine DFW would have wanted it that way, and I'm a little less for knowing his next missive will never be delivered.
Posted by No Radio at 1:00 PM