Watching the legions of Michael Jackson fans make pilgrimages to and build cairns of flowers and stuffed toys at the Neverland Ranch in southern California, I can’t say I shared their sorrow exactly. I did sympathize: Boy, had I been there. When David Foster Wallace hanged himself at his own southern California home on September 12, 2008—that’s the closest I’ve ever been to crying over the death of someone I didn’t know. What roiled my emotions all the more was the now-too-late conviction that I’d betrayed Wallace.
DFW called himself a novelist, wanted to be remembered as a novelist, corresponded with novelists about the craft, labored for years over the 2.75 novels he managed to finish (the last 0.75 of which unfinished novels is being molded in a full 1.00 novel called The Pale King by editors at Little, Brown, his publishing company, at this very moment). But as of September 12, 2008, beyond the disappointing exception of a 3,209-word New Yorker story (“Good People”), I hadn’t read more than a few spare sentences of the fiction Wallace considered his life’s work. Instead, all the riffs on dictionaries and tennis and John McCain and porno award shows that I’d committed to memory practically (I don’t even play tennis), all the lines I quoted to uncomprehending family members and the pieces I forwarded incessantly to friends who never read them, were from magazine articles. I loved Wallace for journalistic essays—what in less polite terms novelists often refer to as hack work—that Wallace did for mercenary reasons, because an editor dangled a paycheck, and he was polite, and he needed money like the rest of us.
Now there’s no reason to think Wallace loathed writing nonfiction—it just wasn’t his passion. He aligned himself with Dostoevsky and Pynchon, not Capote and Talese, and there’s even scuttlebutt out there that he killed himself in despair over his unshapely mess of a last book and the pressure of never living up to, well, himself. I will read that last book when it comes out, for sure, and since last September I’ve decoded a fair number of his hermetic short stories and even committed a month to finishing (and I did finish!) all 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest, down to every last little cross-eyed footnote’s footnote. I felt less guilty after finishing, but yet finishing only reinforced what I’d suspected. When the Library of America editors get around to selecting a picture of the long-haired, bandana-ed, tobacco-cheeked Wallace for its 2050 catalogues, they’re not going to spotlight his fiction in this first volume. It’ll be the nonfiction he composed during spare hours.
But here’s the thing: It may work out better for Wallace. Because if this is the way it all shakes out, DFW, instead of having to ride the stock exchange of literary taste in dead white male novelists, will find himself in a distinguished little nook of odd artists who labored to produce highbrow work—but who sort of ass-backwardsly won permanent and inarguable fame in lower-browed fields.
Some quick examples include C.S. Lewis (“Chronicles of Narnia”), A.A. Milne (“Winnie the Pooh”), and Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), who considered themselves, respectively, a theologian, playwright, and fiction writer, but who ended up as brilliant children’s fabulists. There’s Theodore Geisel, who chose a silly pen name like “Dr. Seuss” because he wanted to reserve his given name for the Great American Novel he had in him. One Arthur Sullivan composed the music for “Onward, Christian Soldiers” among other bombasts, but is chiefly remembered nowadays, along with his impish partner Gilbert, for his musically innovative spoof operas. The best example of talent sprouting in a different field than where it was sown was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German panmath and belles lettrist, who would have been crushed to learn that his scientific and philosophical treatises are now barely readable (much less read), and that people read him “only” for his literary value.
Perhaps the most apt comparisons with Wallace are Honoré Daumier and John Berryman. As a painter Daumier is considered very good but decidedly AAA. He’s remembered primarily as the greatest caricaturist who ever lived. I can snicker at his arrogant socialites and politicos without knowing a word of French—without knowing anything more about these bygone froggy contretemps than I do about the Teapot Dome Scandal. Daumier had a brilliant instinct for satire and could encapsulate all the foibles of French politics and high society in a few strokes of ink. In the same way Wallace was at his sharpest analyzing the contradictions and foibles of American culture, that loose, baggy monster that took over the world. Having seen it happen while he was growing up, he dissected exactly what television had done to literature (“E Unibus Plurum”), and even one favorite part of Infinite Jest was the inset essay explaining the reasons why live, vis-à-vis video telephony will never replace the toe-picking- and unmentionable-body-zone-scratching-anonymity of good ol’ audio-only telephones. Neither Daumier nor Wallace disavowed his gift of scrutiny, and in fact those skills informed and expanded their highbrow work. At the same time, for each, there was a disjunction between what he loved and what most people loved him for.
Then there’s Berryman. Though Berryman won Pulitzers and high praise for his poetry—he basically invented a new form of sonnet, an 18-liner, for use in his Dream Songs—he is read sparingly now. Again, this would have crushed him. There’s a pathetic story about Berryman hearing of the death of Robert Frost, in 1963. Instead of mourning or at least taking a moment to reflect, Berryman begged the bearer of the news, “Well, who’s number one now?” Who’s the number one poet? Berryman suggested “Cal,” i.e., Robert Lowell, but only in the hopes he would be contradicted and reassured that, No, he, John Berryman, was the number one greatest living poet now. Most people would indeed have ranked Lowell and Berryman nos. (1) and (1a) at the time, but the constellations always shift around us after we’re gone. For all the richness of a few of the Dream Songs—which are so right they make you want to sit right down and do the work of memorizing them, just so you can carry them around (try: “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” or “There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart so heavy…”)—but for all that, too, too many of them are overwrought, or obscure, or not sketched in enough, or written in a minstrel-speak that’s frankly sort of embarrassing to have to read nowadays. Berryman liked to talk about writing in terms of being “hot”: Hot was when he was his own muse, and all the literary and neurological pistons fired in synch. Berryman may have been hot less often than he hoped.
And yet what a man! By all accounts Berryman was an epic, once-in-a-century teacher and explainer of poetry. Was, as someone said of Wallace, a giant comet cruising at a low altitude through the space the rest of us inhabit. Anyone who ever had a class with Berryman recalls his performances with an awe bordering on worship, as if their years were to be cleaved into B.B. and A.B. Some semesters he’d taxi straight in from his room at the psyche ward just to teach a seminar, then collapse afterward in a sweat, taking two days to pull himself back into shape. Berryman taught at my alma mater in Minnesota until he leapt off a bridge on campus one January day in 1972, and some professors there still talk about just seeing him, once. Berryman’s mesmerizing even via YouTube. At first he looks just odd, a puppet reciting poems through his bivalve mouth and beard, and he rolls about in his chair like he’s either on some drug he shouldn’t be on or not on some drugs he needs to be on. But then, just listen. His cadence and rocking and diction and rhythm are magically weird, and they explain everything you need to know about why he’s not read much now: He was his poems, was his own instrument, and when he died there was only the libretto leftover.
Berryman drew people into his orbit despite—or actually probably because of—his inelegance. It gave you the sense you were watching some alternative, and possibly higher, form of human being, stripped of pretension. Wallace, a misfit in front of a crowd himself, had the same draw. (Little, Brown understandably elided this in the official book version, but Wallace’s first words in his now famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, This is Water, were actually, “If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to.”) Fiction is necessarily a second-hand enterprise: The author has to establish a narrative persona that, however similar to his/her own thoughts, is distinct. There’s a remove there, and even when it works, you really end up adhering more the narrator (or your interpretation of the author-as-narrator) than the author him/herself. But Wallace often wrote his nonfiction in a sort of omniscient first-person—“a giant floating eyeball” hovering over the scene, as he once said—and it was this illusion, of an unfiltered connection to a brilliant, idiosyncratic mind, that made his essays so endearing. Admittedly, the one thing Wallace was better at than practically anybody—capturing the distinct voices of people, including mean, ugly, hideous people you’d rather not have to talk to, and then embodying those voices in dialogue—doesn’t come through as well in nonfiction. But there are moments. Read the aside (in a footnote) about ‘Mondo and the “serious mind-f***” in that Atlantic cover story about talk radio, “Host.” Anyway, classify Wallace’s fiction according to any literary rubric you must—postmodernist, ironist, satirist, pseudo-sci-fi—he was, in real life, in non-fiction, a decent, shy, emotive, high-strung Midwestern guy with the cranial capacity of a Cray. What I wanted as a reader (and got; that’s why he was/is a brilliant writer) was a chance to shadow him for a spell, and see the world like he saw it.
Like serial killers, artists invite long-distance psychological profiling. But I’m not sure you can make a satisfying taxonomy of the temperaments and inner natures of all the artists here, those quirky ones who aspired to genius in one area and settled for immortality in another. They had different motivations for persisting in their chosen line, and you can’t even find a consistent consequence for their lives. Some, like Seuss, accepted their fate and lived happily; some, like Milne, grew more and more bitter (which crotchetiness added to his literary appeal among younguns); others, like Goethe, died secure and never had a twinkling of how much would crumble. But if we can tease out any common fiber it’s that their “high art” was too important to them. They felt they had to do something really grand, and their talents stiffened. With the lower art form, they relaxed. With Wallace specifically, nonfiction forced him to engage with the larger world (which he often didn’t do in short fiction, much of which reads like writing exercises, albeit outstanding ones) and yet also forced him to pare and focus (which he often didn’t do in, say Infinite Jest, which was actually cut down to the 10^3 pages you heft home from Barnes & Noble). In nonfiction Wallace couldn’t resort to narrative trickery or spiral off into inner labyrinths of plot, and (with all due and sincere respect, David) this work was better for that.
There’s nothing crueler the gods can do to an artist than misalign his talents and passion. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the final thing Berryman and Wallace shared was a sad, suicidal end. But whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces such anguish also produced David Foster Wallace, and like Goethe and Sullivan and Daumier, we’ll remember him: On nearly every page of Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again he wrote something startling and funny and true that made me stop and announce, even to myself, Just look at what he did there. Look at that.