Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ambition, and DFW's unfinished novel

You'd think that knowing all the facts would make you feel a little better about the outcome. But this New Yorker piece about David Foster Wallace's life, death, and career just makes me feel worse. I knew I would miss him, but I am surprised at how often I think of Wallace: at least once a week since his suicide, I've come across something, some cultural phenomenon or political imbroglio or literary controversy, and instantly regretted that Wallace would never see it, never know about it, never weigh in on it. His patterns of thought are permanently imprinted on my mind--more so than those of most people I actually know. That's because he put more of himself into his work than any other writer of my generation. He laid it on the line.

Anyway, the enormity of this loss is finally beginning to sink in. As Rhian said to me the other night, Wallace's ambition was a force that held all other writers aloft. No matter how lazy any of us was feeling, we could always be assured that Wallace was trying harder than everybody else. He was a leader, and there is really nobody to replace him. Oh, there are lots of excellent writers around our age, doing very fine work. But none of them has the personal and professional cachet that Wallace did--he was virtually synonymous with Contemporary American Literature, and it always made me proud to be engaged in the same kind of work as him.

That's not to say he was a writer of great books. I don't think he ever really produced one--he produced great bits of things. There's greatness in all of his stuff. But all of it was interestingly flawed. According to that New Yorker piece, he seemed to know this. His ambition was always three steps ahead of his ability. That's the mark of a great artist, in my book. His struggle to write the present unfinished novel, The Pale King, is incredibly sad and moving to behold.

This excerpt, "Wiggle Room," strikes me as pretty terrific, though I'm sure that it will soon be drenched in haterade, as was the previous excerpt. I am more confident than ever in my long-held opinion that Wallace was both the most nerdy of writers and the most sentimental, and these excerpts suggest that he was trying very hard to actualize his own truest self, the one that I have always been rooting for him to bring to the fore.

The lesson to take away from this, for all of us who write fiction, is to stop being such wimp-assed pencil pushers and get out of our comfort zones once and for all. Wallace isn't going to cover us anymore. If contemporary literature is going to be taken seriously, we're going to have to make literature worth taking seriously, even if it fails, as so much of Wallace's brilliantest stuff did. Otherwise we'll be relegated to the cultural footnote the film industry has been stuffing us into for years. Fiction writing should not be an amusing affectation. It should be the ultimate expression of being human, as Wallace thought it should be. Try harder. That's what we all have to do.

As for the unfinished novel--I'm looking forward to seeing what this thing is, and imagining what it might have been. Clearly Wallace wanted it out there--he left it neatly organized for his wife to find, and I think he would have had no trouble destroying it, along with himself, if that's what he felt was necessary. Perhaps it's a message to all of us who aspired to be more like him: this is as much as I could do, you take it from here.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for articulating much of what I too have felt since DFW's passing. I felt strangely akin to him since the Broom of the System, which was given to me as a highschool graduation gift (!!)(Along with a first edition of Berryman's Dream Songs...funny how I treasure the former more than the latter, even if the latter may someday net me some real cash.) Many of DFW's struggles have mirrored mine, as they have so so many artists I know. The thing is, his choice to end his life made me mad and made me even more determined to slog through this life, no matter what obstacles present themselves. I feel that I

I hope you (and Rhian) are well.

Meghan Howes

Anonymous said...

looks like my first comment was truncated...ah, cyberediting.


k. said...

Yeah, I'm reminded of him all the time too. Just last night I was out to dinner with some friends and they were talking about how addicting TV is, "like a drug," and I had to stop myself from mentioning Infinite Jest (because sometimes I annoy myself being That Guy). (And speaking of TV, I've been meaning to reread his essay on TV for a while now, maybe I'll go do that now.)

About him producing a great book, though, I have to disagree. I think Infinite Jest definitely has flaws, but it's one of the few books I've read whose flaws actually make it (in my opinion) greater, more human. And considering the book's aims, there is something about its flaws that seem profound.

What was the last excerpt that you are referring to? "Good People"? Who drenched drenched that in hatred?

jrlennon said...

I should have linked, at the time, to the random blog comments/posts I found about "Good People," but if I remember correctly it was being pooh-poohed as DFW lite. Also, Rhian wasn't wild about it, either. I liked it, though. Its protagonist is the same one as in this new piece.

It's been years since I've tried to get through "Infinite Jest," like, sequentially, but I will definitely try it again. I dip into it occasionally at random and am never disappointed...

rmellis said...

Megan Howes!! Hey, how are you?? It's been a few years.

I've always liked Wallace's nonfiction much, much more than his fiction, but that is probably because of my poor reading skills. I have huge respect for his ambition and his brilliance and his seriousness, though. He's left an enormous void in our literary culture, one that will be felt for years.

jrlennon said...

Hey yeah Meghan, I wanted to check with Rhian first to make sure you were the Meghan Howes I thought you were! I remember that house you rented with Holthoff, your neighbors across the street had a sign hanging from their porch that said "The STREIGHTS," and Mark wanted to hang up a competing sign reading "The QUEERS."

I'm kind of surprised I'm not angry at DFW for killing himself. I'm disappointed and sad, to be sure. But I feel a deep sympathy for him, whatever he may have robbed us of by his absence, however betrayed other writers who have grappled with depression might feel.

The Dream Songs: now that shit is fucked up. I can't believe Berryman actually lived longer than Wallace before he followed his father into death. Those poems haunt me, but I agree with you, DFW speaks more directly to me.

Anonymous said...

I read the New Yorker piece yesterday and kept hoping that its author was going to elucidate Wallace's writing for me. But he didn't. I think Wallace deserved a better memorial about his gifts, not a harrowing, one dimensional account of his depression.

-Nancy F

jrlennon said...

Maybe, maybe. Perhaps someday one of his friends will write something less clinical. I hope so. But I'd imagine it's all too fresh in memory right now...

Anonymous said...

JRL, would you be so kind as to comment on what you found compelling about "Wiggle Room"? I'm willing to suspend judgment, given that it was an excerpt, but reading it as a stand-alone story I found it tedious and obscure.

That may have been the challenge the author accepted: How to write about a life of tedium and the people who must endure it, yet making the story of that monotony not monotonous.

I always enjoyed DFW's work, more his nonfiction than his fiction, and I mourn his passing. I'm just hoping the New Yorker selection was merely the tip of a promising iceberg.

jrlennon said...

I liked about it what I like about all of Wallace's fiction: the pattern of thoughts in the character's mind. There's nothing spectacular about what the piece describes, it's just that I like seeing things the way Wallace, and the character, see them.

Matt said...

Nice post - coincidentally I was recently musing on DFW on my blog after reading "A Supposedly Fun Thing...".

I like your statement: "His ambition was always three steps ahead of his ability. That's the mark of a great artist, in my book.". It comes back to the process of writing as opposed to the result of writing - perhaps not a fascinating subject for the non-avid reader (or non-caring-about-writers-reader), but as a writer I think there is merit to this.

As for publication of DFW's unfinished novel, I'm always torn in these situations: what you get will never be what the author wanted, and yet to hold it back (assuming it's in some sort of semi-solid state) also seems a little cruel. I think posthumous publications should have the word "ACHTUNG!" writ large upon their sleeves.

Lisa N.R. said...

Hello Rhian and JR:
Thanks for this blog, a literary life-line in the facebook-twitter world. I, too, have been particularly grieved by the loss of DFW and have been thinking about him a lot these days.

DW’s writing (I read in a memorial that he actually hated the “Foster” that publishers made him add—-he thought it sounded pretentious), at least the pieces I’ve read, seem to me to be infused with compassion, a humaneness, as he writes to make sense out of suffering and folly in this absurd postmodern world. He is willing to “die on the page” for the reader.

I though Max’s article in the NY-er resonated the same quest for understanding in DW’s life as an artist, until the end where it succumbed to a lurid and contrived staging of a SCENE. (I thought to myself, my god, Max is writing a MOVIE, even now) Utterly false and unjust. I don’t know what happened to Max along the way; he seems to lose his moorings. The article begins well,compelling us to consider the deep pain that DW endures as an artist, but in the final paragraph, he implies that DW left his pages, arranged in the lamps for Karen and the rest of us,and went out to the patio and CHOSE to snuff out his own light. The last line…”it was the ending he chose” is, on the one hand, a tautology. Yes, by definition, it was the ending he chose; he did it. On the other hand, and I'm not sure the author intended this effect, it makes DW look like a selfish prick who doesn’t care for the suffering of others, particularly his wife and family who nursed him through those devastating collapses. As if DW was just so self-absorbed and despairing of his PROJECT (The Unfinished), his pages, that he ended his life in a stagey, “bathed in light,” Hamlet, sort of way. I suspect that DW’s untreated illness killed him, that he was not in a position of true CHOICE and that is the enormous tragedy, whether it happens to an artist or teenager or a housewife. Perhaps Max meant to be elegiac and offer consolation, i.e. “at least we are left with his work,” but to me, it smacks of rifling through the pockets of the dead, finding something to take for oneself.

People who get cancer are always commended as “brave” for going through their suffering, even when it kills them. Not to romanticize or deify the struggle with mental illness, but I do believe DW had a type of courage in battling his illness and Max’s article ends in a negation of DW’s struggle to become a “fucking human being.” (Exqueeze me, DW's words, not mine)I think DW would have abhorred the theatrical, flamboyant re-telling of the final hours in his struggle with his depressive illness.

I’m going to forego the frenzy to feed on carrion and wait a good long time to read any more post-humous DW, although I found "Wiggle Room" to be an exquisite, compassionate exploration of the soul-killing menace of boredom. It calls to mind the Roethke poem, "Dolor." Office supplies as the harbinger of death...
I’m going to honor his memory by following in DW’s footsteps and taking up Dostoevsky on his recommendation— (in "Consider the Lobster" there is a fine essay called "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky)---“a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction that was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction.” That's what I need right now, ingenious and radiantly human fiction.
Rest in peace, Dave. I'm going to try to be a better "f---ing human being" and a better writer because of him. Thanks JR and Rhian for initiating this important discussion. (Sorry about the length of this post.)
Lisa N.R.

E. said...

In my experience, there is no particular nobility or bravery in living with illness. This is an intransigent fallacy in our culture which, in my experience, unduly burdens the ill person who is not outwardly brave; who rages, cries, squirms, and fears. (The implication being that if you fail to smile, you die. Holy shit.)

Re: illness, physical or mental: you do what you have to do. Everyone's got something -- some obstacle, some thicket to negotiate. Illness will get you whether or not you have courage, authentic or manufactured; courage is clearly not a requisite for survival. For every cancer patient you see celebrated for bravery, for sunny optimism, there lay thousands under their sheets, quaking. Illness, addiction, heartbreak, pain... every life has something. The nobility resides in the living, not in the obstacle.

I think DFW's bravery is in his work. Regardless of his horrific illness, it's his work that enobles him.

JRL, thanks for this post.

jrlennon said...

Thanks, you guys, for these last few comments...I missed 'em while working on the newer posts. Lisa, I really didn't read the ending of the Max piece the way you did--it certainly did seem a bit theatrical the way Max described his study at the end, but even if this was the effect Wallace intended, it doesn't make him seem like a prick to me. It just seemed as though he was saying, essentially, sorry, I can't take it any more, but here, let me give this thing to you. I didn't take away from that the idea that the novel itself had killed him--the novel was just, I assume, the struggle of the moment. If he'd survived to finish it, there would have been other projects to suffer through. But maybe I'm reading between the lines--it may be that Max is doing him a disservice.

Anyway I didn't think Max's article was great, but it doesn't change what I think I know about Wallace (I only met him once, but know people who knew and loved him), that he was a really nice, really honest person, as well as being a superb artist.

Anonymous said...

Hi John and Rhian...

Good to hear back from you...yes, 'tis *that* meghan. I will always remember Rhian from the house on Spruce (and Karin Schalm)...seeing Rhian's curly hair at her desk as I snoozed in the windowseat. She'd come in from a night of carousing downtown. (This was before I understood just what that meant when one is in the MT MFA pgm.) Ah my first landing in the 'zou.

JR, I totally agree with your reading of the end of the NY'er piece. I didn't read it as "what a selfish prick" but rather, frankly, "what a relief." Because that's what I think DFW sought for well over 20 years: relief. It's what swims at the bottom of everything the guy ever wrote--relief from his nasty inner critic, from the absurdities of fame, from the flames that licked his brain day in and day out--relief from heartache, headache, soul ache. He was "tired of himself" (the word might be "sick" or "weary"--I don't have the piece in front of me) and tired of his Groundhog Day-ish life. There were times when I thought his work was just one huge circle jerk, with replications of DFW as all of the participants. But mostly I loved the way he dissected scenes and expounded on the mundane; I loved his love of language and its inherent music. He was my Joyce, in a way.