David Foster Wallace
“There is no great genius without some touch of madness.” – Seneca (5 BC – 65 AD), Epistles
I remember the exact moment when I first heard that David Foster Wallace (DFW or “Wallace” henceforth) had died. I remember it not because I knew who he was, but because it’s just one of those weird, seemingly irrelevant things that I tend to remember whether I want to or not. Like a song that you can’t keep from playing in your head.
My wife and I were watching ABC’s “This Week” (hosted by George Stephanopoulos) on a Sunday morning, and they were at the “In Memorium” part of the show where they pay homage to famous people who died the previous week, as well as to soldiers who died in Iraq & Afghanistan.
And like I said, I don’t know why I remember this, but I do remember it – very clearly in fact – that I glanced up from whatever it was I was doing (which interestingly, I cannot remember, but if it matters I was probably sweeping the floor) and saw that David Foster Wallace, age 46, had died. They showed his picture (the very picture you see at the beginning of this post), and I remember thinking, “Wow, he was so young.”
But as I mentioned, I didn’t know who he was, and I let it go. “It” being the shock and sadness of realizing that somebody so young – so scarily close to being my age (DFW was 7 years my senior) – had just died. Also, “This Week” (as you will notice if you watch the clip) did not indicate how DFW had died; that he had committed suicide, a fact that I would learn later, but strangely, I can’t recall where or when.
Things are a bit foggy after that. I don’t remember the next time I stumbled across DFW, but I think it was most likely the result of my searching for something related to tennis, and I “discovered” Federer as a Religious Experience, and The String Theory, both of which were written by Wallace, both of which are over-the-top incredible. For example, from Federer as a Religious Experience:
“A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.”
And from The String Theory:
“They are practicing ground strokes down the line — Rosset’s forehand and Hlasek’s backhand — each ball plumb-line straight and within centimeters of the corner, the players moving with compact nonchalance I’ve since come to recognize in pros when they’re working out: The suggestion is of a very powerful engine in low gear. Jakob Hlasek is six foot two and built like a halfback, his blond hair in a short square Eastern European cut, with icy eyes and cheekbones out to here: He looks like either a Nazi male model or a lifeguard in hell and seems in general just way too scary ever to try to talk to.“
Maybe what constitutes great writing is as subjective as what constitutes great music, great food, or any type of great art, but it is very hard for me to imagine the vast majority of people being anything other than absolutely smitten with DFW.
I also recall that having found and read the aforementioned articles and being absolutely smitten with the writing, I went back to see whom I should give the credit. I recognized the name – David Foster Wallace – and it came back to me almost instantly: “Oh wait a second…that’s the guy that I remember, and I can’t remember why I remember him, only that I do, and that he’s also the guy that I later learned hung himself. That’s the same freakin guy!”
Months later I’m browsing through “mathematics & science section” of a Barnes & Noble in Denver, and I see a book title that stopped me in my tracks: Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞.
For you non-math geeks that translates to “Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity”. Recognize that in the bookstore, on the shelf, the most prominent aspect of the book is the spine, and that on the spine of this book (unlike the cover), the name “David Foster Wallace” is no more prominent than the title, “Everything and More”, so that I see and recognize and process both of them more or less at about the same time. Another one of those moments I remember vividly. And I recall thinking, “Huh, this must be a mistake…somebody must have been too lazy to put this book back from wherever they picked it up”, and then I picked it up, mostly out of sheer curiosity, but also because I thought that if it weren’t too much of a hassle, I’d go put it back myself. I also pick up trash I see in parking lots and along walks that I might be taking, as well as hold the door for people, men & women alike. It’s just basic fucking kindness. Anyway, you can imagine my surprise – no, utter delight! – at realizing that this really was THE David Foster Wallace that had captured my attention, and that it (the book) was correctly placed in the mathematics section of the bookstore. It was a math book written by DFW! For the mathematician, this book was probably a let down in ways that only a mathematician could understand or articulate. For me, decidedly very much not a mathematician, the book was great for the first 1/3, difficult for the second 1/3, and completely over-my-head for the last 1/3. I liked it, but like with so many of the math books that I’ve bought and read over the years (particularly Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics, which has the fewest highlights in any book that I own, simply because I didn’t understand what I was reading, and so didn’t know what to highlight as significant or important), it was way more than I could handle. Still, I keep buying them and trying to understand them.
From the first 1/3 of Everything and More, a comment about Platonism as it relates to mathematics:
Whether or not the Third Man strikes you as a valid refutation of the O.O.M (One Over Many ~ Plato), you may well have already noticed that Plato’s Theory of Forms has problems of its own, like for example a conspicuous goofiness when the O.O.M is applied to certain predicates – is there an ideal form of left-handedness? of stupidity? of shit?”
I was on an airplane when I read that, and I laughed out loud. I imagined the guy sitting across the empty seat from me (aisle seat on Southwest – I always try to get a window seat: (1) So I can look down, and (2) because I absolutely cannot stay awake on an airplane anymore, and it’s easier to lean my head against the wall/window/fuselage and nod off) thinking to himself, “What sort of nerd reads a math book and laughs?” This made me laugh again, only I kept it to myself.
Having “read” Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞, I decided I wanted to read something a little more obtainable, something I could get my brain around. So I searched Amazon, read the reviews, and decided upon a book titled, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.
Unbelievable! I bought the book in March, and have already read it twice. Sheer genius from cover to cover. Here are some of the essay titles, with a brief description, and some selected text that continually makes me giggle:
Big Red Son is about DFW’s experience at the 1998 AVN Awards; the Oscars of the porn industry, and it’s wickedly funny. This segment is nothing short of hilariously brilliant:
“A strange and traumatic experience which one of your correspondents will not even try to describe consists of standing at a men’s room urinal between professional woodmen (male porn stars) Alex Sanders and Dave Hardman. Suffice it to say that the urge to look over/down at their penises is powerful and the motives behind this urge so complex as to cause anuresis (which in turn ups the trauma). Be informed that male porn stars create around them themselves the exact same opaque affective privacy-bubble that all men at urinals everywhere create. The whole Ceasers Forum’s men’s room’s urinal area is an angst festival; take it from us. The sink-and-mirror-and-towlette area, however, turns out to be a priceless mash of insider jargon and shoptalk, all made extra resonant by echolaic tile and a surfeit of six-dollar drinks. One performer-turned-auteur is telling a colleague about an exciting new project:
“Found this Russian, this chick like nineteen, can’t speak a word of English, which for this [= this exciting project] is perfect.”
“You going to get in there? Just for maybe like one scene?”
“Nah. That’s the whole point. I’m the director. This is my package now.”
“Oh man though but you got to get in there. Just one scene. Nineteen, no English. Probably got a [pants decreed edit] about this big.” [illustrative gesture unseen because the auditor is still standing complexly traumatized at urinal].
Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think is a book review of John Updike’s, Toward the End of Time. More accurately, it’s a devastating takedown of the book, and by extension, Updike himself. And DFW counts himself as an updike fan! Here’s the closing paragraph of the review:
“Maybe the one thing that the reader ends up appreciating about Ben Turnbull is that he’s such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps clarify what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this author’s recent characters. It’s not that Turnbull is stupid: he can quote Pascal and Kierkegaard on angst, discourse on the death of Schubert, distinguish between a sinistrorse and a dextrose Polygonum vine, etc. It’s that he persists in the bizzare, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for human despair. And Toward the End of Time’s athor, so far as I can figure out, believes it too. Updike makes it plain that he views the narrator’s final impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I am not shocked or offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Rampant or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the novel’s first page. It never occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.”
Authority & American Usage is another book review, only the book he reviews is Bryan Garner’s 1998, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. You read that correctly; he reviews a dictionary. Not only that, but he uses said review to launch into what is clearly a very, very sensitive area for him; the question of which words get to go in the dictionary, and who gets to decide, and by what standard do they get to decide, and why should we have any faith in this whole process? It (the review) is phenomenal.
“When I say or write something, there are actually a whole lot of different things I am communicating. The propositional content (i.e., the verbal information I’m trying to convey) is only one part of it. Another part is stuff about me, the communicator. Everyone knows this. It’s a function of the fact that there are so many different well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. “I was attacked by a bear!” to “Goddamn bear tried to kill me!” to “That ursine juggernaut did essay to sup upon my person!” and so on.
The point of all this is to give you a few concrete examples that illustrate that DFW was a genius. Empirically; he was a recipient of the Macarthur “Genius Award”, in 1997. Unfortunately, the cliche’ about “genius and madness” (I think Wallace had a love/hate relationship with cliche’s. I think he loved the fact that there’s a reason cliche’s have the staying power to become cliche’s, namely, that they so often true. In fact, before he died he almost certainly would have been aware of the discovery of a gene known as DARPP-32, which researchers claim biologically links mental instability and genius. I think he hated cliche’s because they’re so overused, and accessible) proved true in his case. Madness for DFW was clinical depression.
Since his death, Wallace’s family has stated that he was chronically depressed. He had been taking medication for his condition for 20 years and had occasionally been hospitalized. “Everything had been tried,” his father said, “and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.”
Also, the point of all this is to submit that I’ve read enough about him, and feel enough of a “kindred spirit” sort of connection with him (less the genius and talent) that I am plausibly qualified to offer an opinion that I’m realistically not qualified to make. I think I can kinda-sorta understand and (hopefully) explain his frustration.
If you’ve ever read DFW, you know how highly he regarded crystal clear precision and clarity in his writing. It probably started when he first learned about dangling modifiers, probably on his own, at an age far earlier than his peers (e.g. “people who eat those mushrooms often get sick”). Once he realized that if he wasn’t careful in how he wrote – deliberate, precise, exact – that he could very easily be misunderstood (i.e., nobody would get what he was talking about), he became understandably obsessed with being over-the-top clear. I say understandably, because…I understand that need. I feel the same need myself, but I lack the patience and talent to manifest it as magnificently as Wallace did. Nevertheless, I get it. And, as a wanna-be-math-nerd, I understand that part of the sexiness of math, which is something that was very near and dear to DFW’s heart, is knowing that there *is* an answer. The answer may be, “there is no answer” (which paradoxically, is an answer), or it may be, “It is impossible to know whether or not there is an answer” (which is also an answer), and finally, there might actually be an answer, which, at the level of mathematics that I’m comfortable with, is nothing more complex than a rational number. Anyway, to get back on topic, here’s a guy who is incredibly smart, and incredibly driven to be clear in what he writes. Thus, the footnotes, another DFW trait. His epic 1996 novel Infinite Jest is 1079 pages long, and contains 388 footnotes. Some of the footnotes in Consider the Lobster, for example, are quite long, as in, more than a page. I don’t know what the font size is on these footnotes, but it’s considerably smaller than 10-point. I’m going to guess it’s somewhere around a 7 or 8 point font. And there’s even footnotes to footnotes, which get into text so tiny, 6-point or smaller, that it’s truly difficult for yours truly to read them. All in an effort to be clear. I’ve read that many people find this over-the-top self-clarification to be highly irritating, but I’ve never seen it that way. I’ve always appreciated every footnote, and I’ve always read each and every one of them. It’s just so goddamned considerate, in my opinion. Often he clarifies himself and I have to backtrack to see what it was that I might have missed. That is, he catches things – assumptions that he knows I’m making – and reminds me that he’s aware that I’ve just made an assumption, but that it’s OK, and everything is running smoothly, so feel free to jump back in the story now. I don’t find it pretentious in the slightest.
Genius. Highly observant. Able to write about anything. Anything1. Can you imagine? What would it be like if you had no limits as a writer? And an obsessive need to be understood. And, here’s the last piece of the puzzle as I see it: a need to “figure it out”, to solve it like he’d solve a mathematical problem (clearly he had an extraordinarily high aptitude for mathematics). Not just a need to figure it out, but the ability to do so, and the ability to communicate it to a generally lay audience he knew would need a significant amount of handholding so that they too could understand it, and so that he could likewise be understood.
All this came to me in one big chunk of an idea. A flash of insight (maybe?) that seemed to overrun me with its obvious obviousness. It happened while I was reading Up, Simba, a lengthy (and awesome) essay from Consider the Lobster in which Wallace writes about life on the campaign trail with Sen John McCain during the summer of 2000. The epiphany occurred during this stretch of commentary:
“The fact of the matter is that if you’re a true-blue, market-saavy, Young Voter, the only thing you’re certain to feel about John McCain’s campaign is a very modern and American type of ambivalence, a sort of interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit, that there’s nothing left anywhere but sales and salesmen. At the times your cynicism’s winning, you’ll find that it’s possible to see even McCain’s most attractive qualities as just marketing angles. His famous habit of bringing up his own closet’s skeletons, for example – bad grades, messy divorce, indictment as one of the Keating Five – this could be real honesty and openness, or it could be McCain’s shrewd way of preempting criticism by criticizing himself before anyone else can do it. The modesty with which he talks about his heroism as a POW – “It doesn’t take much talent to get shot down”; “I wasn’t a hero, but I was fortunate enough to serve my time in the company of heroes” – this could be real humility, or it could be a clever way to make himself seem both heroic and humble.”
And that’s when it hit me: DFW, I think, was unable to come to terms with the very non-binary nature of human beings. For example, Wallace sees McCain start to get teary eyed and immediately starts to process the tree of variables: “he’s really crying” vs “he’s not really crying, but he knows that if he appears to be crying, he can score some big-time political points for his humanness”, and all the “yes but” permutations resulting from each branch of the decision tree created from each of those choices. And where you and I would become overwhelmed at say two or three levels into this analysis (compare to thinking two or three moves ahead in a game of chess to get a degree of the complexity involved in this type of thinking, and then consider that in chess, the rules are fixed and the board is finite and there are only so many moves possible in each state of the game, and then consider that with people, who the fuck knows what the rules are, or what their motives are, or what they’re up to), he – being a genius – could keep it up for who knows how long. That is, when people in our lives do weird shit that doesn’t make any sense, we simply shrug our shoulders and say, “Eh, whaddya gonna do? People are strange”, and get on with it. But if you’re DFW, and you’re a veritable genius, and you really can figure this kinda shit out, and you know you can, and you know that other people can’t, and that’d they’d really, really love to find out why, and that they’d love you for it if you could but explain it to them, then why wouldn’t you expend some mental energy trying to figure it out? I don’t think Wallace ever had would I would consider to be arrogance about this, but was probably more matter-of-fact about it, and just did it (or tried), if for no other reason than he could. Same reason people climb mountains and BASE jump. Because it’s there/Because he/she can. And besides, if you have to ask, you probably won’t get the answer anyway.
The problem of course is that people are not binary. People do shit that just doesn’t make any sense. People really are (or can be) strange. We accept this, I suspect, not just because it’s true, but because we don’t have the mental acuity to do otherwise. We can’t figure it out, and we know we can’t figure it out, so we don’t even try. Problem “solved”. Was McCain really crying, or was he faking it? Probably a little bit of both. Doesn’t that make sense to you?
The closest thing I can think of that even comes close to explaining my quasi-unexplainable sadness at DFW’s death is my realization after seeing The Dark Knight, that Heath Ledger had just pulled off something rather extraordinary, and that I wished he wasn’t dead so I could see what else he could do. I wish you weren’t dead David. I wish you were still here, with us, writing, thinking, and living.
- In Incarnations of Burned Children, Wallace writes, “If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.” I agree, and I’d also like to add to that, “…or read this short story.” because Wallace in just 1,125 words, Wallace will absolutely break your heart. I’m very serious, and I want to offer a word of caution to you parents out there; you will cry if you read this. At least I can’t imagine that I’m the only one affected by it that way. Completely, utterly, hauntingly tragic. I almost wish I hadn’t read it, because now the images and the emotion it created are seared into my memory, and it hurts at a level that’s hard for me to put into words.