by Robert P. Baird
In a recent review of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published “novel,” Garth Risk Hallberg writes:
In the end, Wallace’s body of work amounts to an extended philosophical experiment. Can “morally passionate, passionately moral” fiction help free us from the prisons we make? To judge solely by his suicide, the experiment would seem to have failed.
Of course Hallberg doesn’t end there; he goes on to say that “watching [Wallace] loosed one more time upon the fields of language, we’re apt to feel the way he felt at the end of his celebrated essay on Federer at Wimbledon: called to attention, called out of ourselves.” This is fine stuff, and credible: Hallberg is a serious and intelligent critic, and what he says about the fragments assembled into The Pale King fits the expectations established by Wallace’s earlier writing.
Still, it’s the earlier sentences that interest me more. In identifying a philosophical, even therapeutic aspiration in Wallace’s work, Hallberg is cashing out Wallace’s famous assertion that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” Hallberg draws a line from Wallace’s art through his life to his death, a line we can trace with almost syllogistic precision: if Wallace’s life was the test of his art, and if his suicide marked a failure of his life, then so, too, must his death stand as a capital judgment on his art.
I admire this formula, even as I find myself troubled by it. I admire it because it lays out in especially stark terms a dilemma whose presence has imposed itself, often in unresolved and unsettling ways, on most of the reviews and reminiscences written in the runup to and aftermath of the publication of The Pale King. Hallberg’s great service is to name the question that all of us face in the wake of Wallace’s suicide: namely, how should his death affect the way we read his books?
It’s easy to smirk at this question, easy to take refuge in the old New Criticism and say that Hallberg’s got hold of the issue the wrong way around. After all, we don’t let it it affect our appreciation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to recall that Tennessee Williams choked to death on an eyedropper. We don’t let the knowledge that Kurt Gödel died of starvation arouse any reconsideration—besides, perhaps, a glib and guilty joke—of the Incompleteness Theorem. We all know that Hemingway, Woolf, and Berryman committed suicide; who, now, would judge any of their work diminished by that fact?
And yet while the line Hallberg draws between Wallace’s life, death, and art might rankle our critical sensibilities, there was a time—a long time, in fact—when such a connection would have seemed a truism. In Spirit in Ashes, the philosopher Edith Wyschograd describes the persistence of a centuries-long consensus about the meaning of death in the West. From Socrates to Kant, with significant detours through Christianity and possible extensions into existentialism, what Wyschogrod calls a “paradigm of authenticity” held that the mark of a good life was a good death. Within this paradigm, “The actions of a person’s last days are interpreted as the touchstone for determining his or her value as a moral being.” (It's for this reason, if you grew up Catholic, that you learned to ask Mary to pray for you at the hour of your death.)
What counted as a good death was subject to local variations, but Wyschogrod leans on Phillipe Ariès to argue that the core of the authenticity paradigm was a conviction that a good death was a “tamed death”—an experience of dying that was free of fear and anxiety. This was Socrates saying, in the Phaedo, that “the true disciple of philosophy…is ever pursuing death and dying; and if this is true, why, having had the desire of death all his life long, should he repine at the arrival of that which he has been always pursuing and desiring?” This is Epicurus, writing to Idomeneus on the day of his death, “My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could augment them. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which arises from the remembrance of our past conversations, counterbalances all these afflictions.”
The upshot of Spirit in Ashes is that we don’t generally think like this anymore. On Wyschogrod’s reading, the terrors of the twentieth century caused the thorough dismantling of the authenticity paradigm. Concentration camps, mass killings, and nuclear weapons made it not just impossible but unthinkable to calmly and rationally prepare for the moment of our passing.
There is, however, a decent case to be made that something like the authenticity paradigm survives in the way we talk about Wallace’s work in the aftermath of his suicide. “Something like”: I hedge because to get from Wyschogrod to Hallberg we have to give the screw another turn, to link death to life and then, further, life to art. But once we make that jump, once we admit the transitive property, it’s not hard to see how Hallberg’s reading fits the tradition Wyschogrod sketches.
The idea that Wallace’s art maintains a deep relation not just to his life but also to the manner of his death (and vice versa) is one that so far seems impossible for us to shake. Hallberg’s, while clearest, is hardly the only example of this tendency. You can sniff it in Lev Grossman’s claim, in Time, that the “formidable interpretive challenges [of Wallace’s work] have only been exacerbated by the complicated emotions surrounding Wallace's death.” You can hear it in Maria Bustillos’s suggestion that Wallace, a bit like Jesus, taught, suffered, and died for the idea that “those who are unsure of themselves and suspect themselves of the worst falseness and wrong, bad things are to be not only pitied but loved, identified with and known.” You can see it in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s admission that despite his desire “to resist romanticizing [Wallace’s] suicide” he is convinced that
there remains a sense in which artists do expose themselves to the torrents of their time, in a way that can't help but do damage, and there's nothing wrong with calling it noble, if they've done it in the service of something beautiful. Wallace paid a price for traveling so deep into himself…
Even Jonathan Franzen, who knew Wallace well, argues that the trouble his friend had with his writing was not incidental to his death:
Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him…he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.
The New Critical refrain that the life is the life and the art is the art is usually good interpretative counsel. But the reasons why we’re so regularly tempted to blur our readings of Wallace the man and Wallace the work are not difficult to discern. Forget for a moment that Zadie Smith said he had no equal among living writers, that Lorin Stein said he “changed the way we write and read,” and that George Saunders called him “first among us. The most talented, most daring, most energetic and original, the funniest, the least inclined to rest on his laurels or believe all the praise.” Forget that Sullivan discerned in Wallace’s suicide not just a loss for his family, friends, and fans, but a loss for the entire English language. (“Here’s a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That's what Wallace's suicide did, two and a half years ago. It wasn't just a sad thing, it was a blow.”)
Above all that, beyond all that, there was something else. Wallace belonged to that slim class of writers—Frank O’Hara, Annie Dillard, and Martin Amis are three more—who knew or discovered or learned how to project intimacy with a force that felt literally telepathic. Wallace called it peeling back his skull; through some dark magic he seemed able to climb in and describe the state of what we used to call our souls.
The effect is especially obvious in Wallace’s nonfiction, but it’s waiting for you in the fiction, too. At Wallace's memorial Saunders described it this way:
Something about the prose itself was inducing a special variety of openness that I might call terrified-tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a fix we’re in on this earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds. This alteration seemed more spiritual than aesthetic. I wasn’t just ‘reading a great story’ – what was happening was more primal and important: my mind was being altered in the direction of compassion, by a shock methodology that was, in its subject matter, actually very dark.
Wallace believed that one aspect of fiction’s magic was, as he told David Lipsky, its ability to capture “what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell ‘Another sensibility like mine exists.’ Something else feels this way to someone else.” (Of course, Wallace was too good a magician and too good a philosopher to believe his own illusions. He knew that “we all suffer alone in the real world,” knew all too well that “true empathy’s impossible.”)
It was Wallace’s special gift—or, okay, one of about three dozen of his special gifts—that he could work this magic on people who generally considered themselves too sophisticated to fall for rhetorical tricks. He cultivated charm on the page, even as he recognized that his efforts could very quickly “become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire [me] instead of an exercise in creative art.”
Whatever the dangers, the magic succeeded. Readers responded to Wallace in exactly the ways he wanted them to. They plied him with the kind of intense emotional allegiance usually reserved for the earnest young fans of movie stars and delivered an extravagant counterproof to James Woods’s bone-stupid assertion that “no one has ever claimed to be moved by him.” As Bustillos put it, “Wallace gave voice to the inner workings of ordinary human beings in a manner so winning and so truthful and forgiving as to make him seem a friend.”
For many readers the effect was even more intimate. What Timothy Kreider wrote to McSweeney’s was something you often heard privately before Wallace’s death and publicly after:
When I first read him, I thought that here was exactly the writer I would be if only I were much smarter, and a much better writer, reading his more recent work I felt that David Foster Wallace was the person I would be if I were less intellectually lazy and more honest and conscientious, kinder and truer to myself.
If you’ve read anything about Wallace, you’ve heard similar things before. But usually lost in these discussions is the fact that Wallace himself was wary of the link between art and life that so many of his bereaved fans have tried to draw out. In his review of a Borges biography he took issue with “the idea…that we can’t correctly interpret a piece of verbal art unless we know the personal and/or psychological circumstances surrounding its creation.”
One trouble with making Wallace’s art answer to his life—and, even more problematically, to his death—is that we risk ignoring all the other things his work was about. A bigger danger is that each word he wrote starts to look like a symptom in need of diagnosis. Already it’s started happening. Already we've seen stories that once bewildered critics with their involutions and opacities spun into transparent allegories of Wallace’s depression and addictions. Already we've watched his carefully constructed halls of mirrors razed and rebuilt as glass cathedrals where each of us can bend a knee to the horror of his suffering.
Consider, for example, James Lasdun's review of The Pale King in The Guardian. Lasdun writes that “at a certain point it becomes impossible to resist the thought that under all the high talk about the place of boredom in modern life, what Wallace was really writing about was depression.” To support the point, Lasdun quotes this passage from the unfinished novel:
Ed Shackleford turns a page. Elpidia Carter turns a page. Ken Wax attaches a Memo 20 to a file. Anand Singh turns a page….Ken Wax turns a page. David Cusk turns a page. Lane Dean Jr rounds his lips and breathes deeply in and out like that and bends to a new file. Ken Wax turns a page…
Lasdun’s interpretation of boredom as depression sounds plausible until we remember that Wallace, in Infinite Jest, was careful to distinguish the kind of vague anhedonia that characterized “the lively arts of the millenial U.S.A.” from the kind of depression that kills people. Here's how Wallace described the latter:
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it…a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence…a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels…an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self.
It has fallen, somewhat oddly, to the person in perhaps the best position to prove the link between Wallace’s art and his death to argue most strenuously against it. Wallace’s widow, the artist Karen Green, told The Guardian recently that her fear for The Pale King is that it will be read as an extended suicide note. She explicitly rejected the notion that Wallace’s art and his depression shared a common source: “People don't understand how ill he was. It was a monster that just ate him up. And at that point everything was secondary to the illness. Not just writing. Everything else: food, love, shelter…”
I’m not suggesting, and I doubt Green is either, that we can or should stop asking questions about depression and suicide when we talk about Wallace. The point is that we have a choice about where to look for answers. As Henry James wrote in “The Death of a Lion,”
The artist’s life’s his work, and this is the place to observe him. What he has to tell us he tells us with this perfection.…It’s the course to which the artist himself at every step, and with such pathetic confidence, refers us.
By yielding to the “vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz” that Wallace mocked in Infinite Jest, by guessing at the kind and quality of his addictions, by raiding his archives for the secrets of his depression, we end up denying him his own best commentary on his suffering. We let his suicide be his last and loudest word.
But can’t we repay his confidence better than that? The least we can do is try.