David Foster Wallace killed himself on Sept. 12th, 2008. I wrote a couple of short texts in response to his death — he was my teacher when I was a master’s student at Illinois State University, and he will always be an important figure in the landscape of my life. I’ll post both texts here, in reverse order. I wrote the first piece here a couple of weeks back for his memorial service at ISU, which occurred yesterday. It is included in a collection of remembrances that was bound and given to his parents. The second piece I wrote the night after I heard about his death. It is a bit rawer, darker, and perhaps in some ways angrier than than the one I wrote for his memorial. I posted that piece on Grand Text Auto, and a redacted version was also posted on the McSweeney’s website. It has been a strange process watching the world react to his death (in some ways getting to know him better through the fragments of his life shared by others, in other ways just shocked at the way his postmortem memory has taken on a kind of rock-star hagiography). I have thought about him, his life, his writing, and his end very often since.
So long, David
The first time I met David Wallace, about a week after I started in the MA program at ISU in 1993, I told him that I was excited about working with him. I told him that about a month earlier, I had picked up a copy of The Broom of the System at a used book store in Madison, where I was living at the time, read it twice from cover to cover and thought it was just about the smartest, most fun and engaging book I had read in years. He looked a little pained, made some sort of one-handed adjustment to his bandanna, and told me that I should never tell a writer I had bought his book used. He also said that he had written that book a long time ago, when he was very young, and that he had very mixed feelings about it — it was nothing like the kind of stuff he was writing now. I remember that he was on his way out the door, and he was juggling a tennis racket in one hand as we talked.
The first writing workshop I took with David met the first day of class in one of those awful interior classrooms in Stevenson Hall, a kind of musty box with no natural light and the hum of old-style fluorescents overhead. David hated those lights. The first assignment he gave us was to bring lamps to the next session of the class. When the next week came around, about a dozen students showed up carrying lamps, ranging from clip-on desktop models to things with ceramic bases and flowery shades that looked like they had been plucked from a 1970s parents’ basement. There were not enough plugs in the room, and we had to go to ridiculous extremes to balance the lamps on the slanted surface of the writing desks, so at some point David concluded there was no option but to convene the next class in the house he was renting. The rest of the workshop meetings, both that semester and during the following year took place in his living room. The first meeting he held in his house I remember being fascinated and troubled by the fact that on his bathroom wall he had thumb-tacked up a) a junior tennis circuit tournament chart and b) the wrapper for an Adult Depends undergarment. Being a bit of a smart-ass, when I emerged from the bathroom, I asked whether he was having any incontinence issues. He looked momentarily baffled, then slightly embarrassed, and explained it was just for something he was writing, that it was sort of like research.
I knew David from 1993-1995. We didn’t really stay in touch after I graduated. But I got to know him pretty well during that time. He was my thesis adviser and he taught me a great deal about writing fiction. I mention the fact that he had the grad workshops meet in his home because that’s sort of how he was in a general sense. He let you in his living room. Though teaching creative writing was by no stretch of the imagination anywhere near as important to him as were the thousands and thousands of words of Infinite Jest that he was writing and revising each and every day (his output during this period was insanely prolific), he was nevertheless a great teacher. He taught you to care about your writing on a sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word, comma-by-comma basis. He honestly thought that the project of the novelist was possibly the most important work he could conceive (and that with the job came a kind of terrible responsibility to humanity). Though he always emphasized the fact that he doubted most of us students would ever actually become writers (he suggested we not even begin to think of ourselves as writers until we had written at least fifty stories), he was universally respectful of any attempt to write a story that any writer took seriously. He himself wrote as if his life depended on it, and it probably did. He thought that writing was a kind of cure for loneliness, or at least that it could serve to make a person feel momentarily less alone, more understood.
I probably still haven’t written fifty stories, but I’ve written a few things in the years since I was one of Wallace’s students. Like most of his students I know, I’ll always feel a little like I’m living in his shadow. It is and will always be impossible to measure up to his example. I think of him nearly every time I write. I am grateful for all that I learned from him.
David’s death hit me like a freight train. As a reader, of course, I feel a deep loss. But also, selfishly, I had always thought that I would have a chance to meet David again, to sit down with him and talk, to reunite. I can only imagine what those closest to him, his parents, his sister, and his wife, have suffered in this time, and there is no sufficient way for me to express my sympathies.
By chance, Robert Coover happened to be in town the morning when we heard the news about David. Coover knew David, liked him, respected his work, and had invited him to come to visit Brown. Coover was deeply shaken by the news, distracted enough that he missed his plane from Bergen to London while we traded stories about David, and so we ended up spending the day together with my wife and daughters. It was a kind of Indian summer day in Norway with marvelous, sparkling light, everything around us shining, vibrant, and green. As I watched one great American novelist playing with my girls, happy in the autumn of his years, I couldn’t help but think about another, and all those books he would have written in his forties, his fifties, his sixties, and his seventies. All the joys he might have known. He was robbed, and so were we all. Yet if there is one thing you can say about David, it is that he did not waste the life he lived. He is present in the lives of his students, his readers, his friends, and his family. His works and his life still mean a great deal to the world, and he always will.
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David Foster Wallace was a great teacher, in his own particular way, and he was a gifted writer who maybe got a little hung up on things, on interiority, on the prison of his own consciousness. He could write the shit out of you. He feared and was fascinated by the twisted. He knew grammar and could speak it very well. He knew theory and didn’t want you to try and teach it to him. He was so fucking postmodern that he grew sick of contemplating his own existence. He was not moderate. He wrote long and loved footnotes but hated the fact that he felt compelled to use them. He loathed that he loathed. He told tasteless jokes about death. He managed to write a monument and then he never could quite escape its shadow. He was a genius. He used smilely faces for grades. He was greasy. He would sweat. You would smell him in the room. He was conscious of his own body odor. He would scratch at the side of his face absent-mindedly but not absent of mind, if that makes sense. He would ask you if things made sense in a way that was both sincere and dismissive. The questions primarily rhetorical. He had a great desire to be a good human being. He had acne and feared it. He was athletic. He would see you and wonder if you had once played tennis with him. He had a very intense stare, you could say piercing but that wouldn’t be quite right, it didn’t pierce, it did something else. It worked in conflict with his body language. He loved writing and was humiliated by it. He was sympathetic to any creature in pain and sympathetic to anyone who caused pain. You need to wonder if he might have been better off if he had stayed on drugs. He was large and filled a room with language. He was complex and verbose and often right. He made errors. His eyes were evasive but he would work his way to telling you what mattered. He feared middle age and deterioration. He was a man of his time and he limited it. He feared the image. He loved the idea of celebrity in reclusion. Pynchon, DeLillo, Dostoevsky. He drank those carb milkshakes that bodybuilders drink. He read self help books in order to both help himself and to see how contrived and pathetic and self-indulgent the American mind had become. He confronted each of his addictions, one at a time. He never really learned how to dress himself properly. He sometimes wished he had become a philosopher instead. He studied sentences. He edited mercilessly, but found the text grew longer with each incision, fresh trees sprouting from every wound. He hated fluorescent light, and the buzz of technology. He loved his dog. He was a precocious child, and lonely. Humanity is a difficult subject, a dying life form. He told a string of jokes about the Branch Davidians. He wanted to make you laugh and cry at the same time. He thought that was the problem, that we could no longer get past our by-now-ingrained habits of looking at our own situations from a raptor’s-eye-view of irony, of post-deconstructive psychoanalytic abstraction, from a post which would make everything cool to the touch, that it had become impossible to feel. The need to be cool. The need to be cool consuming and leading to the failure of the heart. The heart has become impossible. The need to disconnect the brain from the heart. The dread. The sound of the tapping keys, the leaky faucet tapping, the reader, the viewer. The fear of the red pen. The jailer. The purpose of the novel to disturb and entertain. The impossibility of the subject. He wished he had chosen to become a mathematician, a physicist. He was devoted to the word and lived within the claustrophobic walls of its temple. He tried to deconstruct manhood. He was trying to explain something in way that even you could understand it. He could not explain. You could not understand. This incredible awkwardness. He feared himself, reclining by a pool, dripping with sweat, completely satisfied and empty. The reductive cockroach, the expansionist lobster. The most complicated problem you could throw at him. Eating a corn dog at the state fair. Interviewing porn stars with an awkward erection. Destroying the television because you are addicted to it. Never really leaving home. He wanted to save something. He thought that life was too short, or ought to be. The desire to find a humorous way to get to something real. The desire to extend. The understanding of the psyche of the man facing the firing squad, the desire to dwell on it. The impossibility of the word love. The impossibility of ending. The metaphor of getting into the ring to fight. The desire to remove oneself from the arena. The trouble with closure. Finding a voice. Finding a note. The decision of whether or not to leave. Recognizing that voice is a sentimentality. The sense of failure. Finally just tired. Leaving a tragedy. Did he think to erase his hard drive? Probably not, you poor bastard. Given the possibility of forensics. Burning the manuscript. Throwing the pages into the fire. The eventual film. The desert. The spider, the variety of it. Diseases that eat the flesh. This move across the dark room, this groping with alien fingers. What one does after being bitten by a brown recluse. Walking in the desert. Remembering the clouds. A ligature. Suspension. Constriction. The most common method after firearms. Read the footnotes. Have you read it, and yet you still don’t get it? The very long joke. The partial weight of the body. The sense of an ending. The conditions related to the event. The argument at hand. The desire to leave a little mess for pain but not so much as to trouble your love. Your sense of love. The awareness that your body will likely shit itself. The contemplation of that shit as you tender the cord. The awareness that you are loved and yet not able to de-abstract it. The occasion an excuse. But deep. You loathe the very idea of the sublime and you want to express it. The rise and the leap. You cannot ultimately communicate. See the notes. Finding the other and still knot. You hear yourself gag and you smell everything as your nostrils flare. Time is relentless and it will not slow for you now. Agency was had. A certain type of determination. A private novel on a machine of one’s own. No intentional fallacy. Flee from me. Reaching for the cord. To pull it away. To scratch at it. The survival instinct. Merciless. Cruel. Inevitable. Brave. Cowardly. Wanting. Full stop.