Monday, September 15, 2008


I have a few more extended thoughts about David Foster Wallace that I will not have time to put down until late tonight, but I thought I would post a link to my Stop Smiling review of his 2006 essay collection, Consider the Lobster. It is basically a negative review, but I think it's a thoughtful one. Wallace always was a polarizing writer, no need to pretend otherwise now. Very sad death. More later.

P.S. ... See also, "David Foster Wallace stranded on a desert island."

UPDATE [9/16 12:54am] ... Here is some of what I wanted to get down on paper. I think I may try to rework this somewhat and give it more of a shape and see if I can convince someone to publish it. Not sure. But here is a first go at an essay on the death of David Foster Wallace:
I read Infinite Jest in the second semester of my freshman year of college, and I was, wow, a true fanboy. Certainly, I liked it a little too much.

People did make fun of me for my obsession with David Foster Wallace. I did strike up at least one friendships based on mutual love of the writing and thinking of David Foster Wallace, a kid in my sophomore creative writing class named…I can’t remember his name. I did write stories, as the undergraduate creative writing major that I was, that were love-letters to the style and priorities and structures of a story by David Foster Wallace. I did not use footnotes. I don’t think I ever got quite that bad. Limits.

I grew up in a small cornfield town in central Illinois, about an hour away from the small Illinois cornfield town where David Foster Wallace grew up. There was something deeply thrilling about being a creative writing student and reading “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” the first essay in Wallace’s collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and knowing firsthand the landscape it described. I still love that essay. Plus, Wallace was a professor at Illinois State University in Normal, where I was from -- I felt I had a connection. I went to school in Ohio, but I still went home plenty, and I knew people who had Wallace as a professor. My best friend, Mike Perillo, was in Wallace’s class. More on that later.

One time I sat directly behind him at the Normal Theater at a screening of a movie about alcoholism called “My Name is Joe.” Should I have approached him? No, what for? I did not need him to know what a huge fan I was -- I knew.

Someone I know’s older brother had David Foster Wallace as his AA sponsor, or maybe it was NA, I don’t know. I do remember sitting in this kid’s living room and asking questions about what David Foster Wallace was, you know, really like. Nice guy. Treated his dogs like his kids.

I’ve told this story before, but it is a good one. The first story Mike Perillo turned in to Prof. David Foster Wallace came back with the message on it: “I swear to God if you ever turn in a piece of shit like this to me again I will flunk your ass. I shit you not.” Mike said he wrote the same message on a lot of people’s first assignments. A motivational tactic, perhaps? Who knows, maybe the stories really were that bad.

Maybe. But it seems to me now that there is also a certain need to dominate in a note like that. It's the same kind of urge that drives one to write a 1,000+ page novel with 100+ pages of footnotes that more or less runs down the OED but doesn't even have an ending. The same urge that would lead one to write, in a magazine called Gourmet, an essay about the neurological processes by which a lobster experiences excruciating pain as it's being cooked. (Although that one is kind of cool, I admit.)

That was kind of the problem with my personal Wallace-obsession. For a self-conscious 20-year-old, maybe the best, most admirable thing about David Foster Wallace was that you could be assured he was the smartest person in any room. He studied philosophy of mathematics! Look at all the words he knew!

My professor, Steven Bauer, sort of liked Wallace’s writing, I think, but he told me I was hiding behind DFW, not just as an aspiring writer but also as a reader. I should not be into Wallace when I had not read any of the traditional, non-flashy, non-ironic, non-experimental works of fiction that Wallace was struggling so hard to break from. Really, Steven Bauer wanted me to grow up in all sorts of ways, and one of the main ones was to stop being so self-serious and super-smart all the time. Very good advice as it turned out.

So guess what happened? In time, I sort of broke up with David Foster Wallace. I remember actually writing an email to Steven Bauer at one point declaring my independence from Wallace. Of course I still read his stuff, but I did start to read it a bit differently. I could understand why some people hated him.

That way of seeing Wallace sort of culminated with the review of his essay collection Consider the Lobster I wrote in 2006 for Stop Smiling magazine. I did not tear Wallace a new one. But I was writing from a position of strength: I knew the subject inside and out.

This news means the cruise essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing," really is the best single piece of writing Wallace ever produced. You could do worse; that essay is hysterical. And there are a lot of other essays of his that really stand up as literary works, along with not a few of the stories and Infinite Jest. But this news means that unless there are posthumous publications, these will remain his best work, forever.

Part of me wants to say that all this stuff from my own life made it hard for me to know how to feel at the news of David Foster Wallace's suicide, but it really didn't. I knew exactly how to feel about it. Bad.


stridewideman said...

This is great. I feel very similarly to this, though I don't necessarily agree with all of your points. I kind of felt a little better reading it.

Michael said...

Although I probably did tell you that to make myself feel better, I'm pretty sure I was the only one to get a piece back with that particular DFW quote in my class. I found that paper a few moves ago and I don't think it's quite that harsh, but that is basically it. He was fond of the phrase "I shit you not."

You're 100% right about his need to dominate though. He was often hilarious in class, but then there were times when he just couldn't shut up or stop commenting on what people were saying, while they said it. That got old sometimes.

I read the Rolling Stone piece on his suicide and I really cannot imagine him breaking down and crying in class as he reportedly did in his last semester of teaching. So there was, in my view, some really nasty brain chemistry happening for him. Sad.

Sorry I'm so late to comment.