David Foster Wallace hanged himself on Friday.
As with many true innovators, his critics were as passionate as his fans. Some hailed his experimental prose style and his ear for the polyphonic babble of consumer culture. Other readers were frustrated by the tortured self-consciousness of his meta-fictional devices, or repelled by the world he showed us, in which psychological trauma collides with air-brushed entertainment to produce the grotesque.
All these reactions have some truth to them. DFW pushed the limits of consciousness and language, perhaps at his own expense, and the products of such a Promethean struggle are always unsettling and sometimes, in artistic terms, failures. Did he feel that way about any of his work? Did he wonder whether the pain of exploration had been for nothing?
DFW is most famous for his massive novel Infinite Jest, a dystopian commentary on addictive entertainment and environmental destruction, in which most of the plot takes place in the footnotes. But I mourn today for the writer who gave us extraordinary glimpses of grace in two short prose pieces: “Good People”, published last year in the New Yorker, and a section toward the end of his book Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
It chills me to think that someone could understand sin and redemption with such piercing vision, and be able to write brilliantly about it, yet not think his life was worth living. That is, after all, the pursuit I have broken my heart over for the past year. One could repudiate the goal, but what else is there that will not also disappoint us? Perhaps the only lesson is that there are casualties even in the good fight.
“Good People” is a perfectly crafted story about Christian teens facing an unwanted pregnancy. DFW sets us up to expect all the usual cliches and then gives us a genuinely startling breakthrough at the very end. We realize, along with the protagonist, how much of our life is spent in the fog of our own self-serving assumptions about other people. Like him, we are convicted of sin at the very moment that we are given the hope of mercy (and thank God, no sooner).
I remember thinking, when I finished this story, “I hope DFW is happy that he wrote something this great. I hope he recognizes how special it is,” because I have looked into the black hole of my inability to be satisfied with my work. I probably couldn’t write a story this good (hopefully someday I will), but would I be happy even if I had? If not, is that a reason to stop writing? One of DFW’s obsessions was questioning the whole idea of happiness, not only the distractions and intoxicants that we mistake for it, but the quintessential American notion that we are entitled, if not obligated, to pursue it in deadly earnest.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is an uneven collection of stories, essays, and meta-fictional sketches, sometimes shifting genres mid-story. Its themes are loosely woven together by interspersed excerpts from fictional interviews with some repellent yet oddly vulnerable characters–men who reveal their perversions and strategies for sexual exploitation, with a mix of self-justifying bravado and confessional self-loathing.
The second moment of grace I mentioned comes here, as one man recounts second-hand his former girlfriend’s story of how she was almost raped. At the moment she thought she was going to die, she channeled unconditional love for her abductor and he let her go, not understanding himself why he was doing it. But we see all this through the filter of the narrator who treated her badly and can’t quite bring himself to respect her story, because of what it would imply for his own life. This is exactly how Christ-like goodness looks in a fallen world–not surrounded by sentimental plaudits, but slightly ridiculous, a bit incredible, even (if we are honest) unwelcome to the point of provoking our cruelty. I’m reminded of Shusaku Endo’s novels Deep River and The Girl I Left Behind.
DFW had a maddening habit of leaving his stories unfinished (The Broom of the System ends mid-sentence, and I’ve never been able to figure out the ending of Infinite Jest) or collapsing them into anguished commentary about his failure to be authentic in the writing process. Did his glimpses of transcendence make the disconnect between writing and reality more acutely unbearable? When a writer sees God, the real God who is “not this, not that”, he falls speechless, or speaks and hates his speech for being less real than what he has seen. And what is a writer without words? What makes him real?
David, I pray for you, I thank you for looking into the abyss on our behalf, and I pray that you can hear this poem:
from The Man Watching
by Rainer Maria Rilke
trans. by Edward Snow
…How small that is, with which we wrestle,
what wrestles with us, how immense,
were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
be conquered thus by the great storm,–
we would become far-reaching and nameless.
What we triumph over is the Small,
and the success itself makes us petty.
The Eternal and Unexampled
will not be bent by us.
This is the Angel, who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews
in that contest stretch like metal,
he feels them under his fingers
like strings making deep melodies.
Whomever this Angel overcame
(who so often declined the fight),
he walks erect and justified
and great out of that hard hand
which, as if sculpting, nestled round him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be the deeply defeated
by ever greater things.
from The Book of Images (New York: North Point Press, 1991)