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Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen on David Foster Wallace
09-19-2011, 07:46 PM
Post: #1
Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen on David Foster Wallace
Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen on David Foster Wallace

Starshine's note: These two pieces are pulled from the (attached) Five Dials celebration of David Foster Wallace life and work from those who knew and loved him most. It's a fascinating read about DFW as a writer, but also as a person struggling with--and weighed down by--both genius and madness.

David Foster Wallace: On Reading -
Adam Kirsch on David Foster Wallace -
Jonathan Franzen / "Robinson Crusoe," David Foster Wallace, & the island of solitude -
David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College -
David Foster Wallace's The Pale King [book review] -

Zadie Smith

To the critics, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was an ironic book about misogyny. Reading it was like being trapped in a room with ironic misogynists on speed, or something like that. To me, reading Brief Interviews wasn’t at all like being trapped. It was like being in church. And the important word wasn’t irony but gift. Dave was clever about gifts: our inability to give freely, or to accept what is freely given. In his stories giving has become impossible: the logic of the market seeps into every aspect of life. A man can’t give away an old tiller for free; he has to charge five bucks before someone will come and take it. A depressed person desperately wants to receive attention but can’t bring herself to give it. Normal social relations are only preserved because ‘one never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.’

Brief Interviews itself was the result of two enormous gifts. The first was practical: the awarding of the MacArthur. A gift on that scale helps free a writer from the logic of market, and maybe also from that bind Dave himself defined as post-industrial: the need always to be liked. The second gift was more complicated. It was his talent, which was so obviously great it confused people: why would such a gifted young man create such a resistant, complex piece of work? But you need to think of the gift economy the other way round. In a culture that depletes you daily of your capacity for imagination, for language, for autonomous thought, complexity like Dave’s is a gift. His recursive, labyrinthine sentences demand second readings. Like the boy waiting to dive, their resistance ‘breaks the rhythm that excludes thinking’. Every word looked up, every winding footnote followed, every heart- and brain-stretching concept, they all help break the rhythm of thoughtlessness – your gifts are being returned to you.

To whom much is given, much is expected. Dave wrote like that, as if his talent was a responsibility. He had a radical way of seeing his own gifts: ‘I’ve gotten convinced,’ he wrote, ‘that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent [. . .] Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.’

This was his literary preoccupation: the moment when the ego disappears and you’re able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward. At this moment the gift hangs, like Federer’s brilliant serve, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither. We have almost no words for this experience of giving. The one we do have is hopelessly degraded through misuse. The word is prayer. For a famous ironist, Dave wrote a lot about prayer. A married man, confronted by a teenage seductress, falls to his knees and prays, but not for the obvious reason. ‘It’s not what you think I’m afraid of,’ he says. The granola-cruncher prays as she is raped, but she isn’t praying for her own rescue. A man who has accidentally brain-damaged his daughter prays with a mad Jesuit in a field, as a church made with no hands rises up around them. When the incomprehensible and unforgivable happens, Dave’s characters resort to the impossible. Their prayers are irrational, absurd, given up into a void, and that, paradoxically, is where they draw their power. They are the opposite of ironical. They are full of faith, a quality Kierkegaard defined as ‘a gesture made on the strength of the absurd’.

When I taught Brief Interviews to college kids I made them read it alongside Kierke-gaard’s Fear and Trembling. The two books seem like cousins to me. Both find black comedy in hideous men who feel them¬selves post-love, post-faith, post-everything. ‘When people nowadays will not stop at love,’ wrote Kierkegaard, ‘where is it that they are going? To worldly wisdom, petty calculation, to paltriness and misery? [. . .] Would it not be better to remain standing at faith, and for the one who stands there to take care not to fall?’ The truth, he argued, is that we haven’t even got as far as faith. Kierkegaard took faith seriously, recognized it as an impossible task, at least for him. Dave took faith seriously, too: it’s his hideous men who don’t. The most impassioned book recommendation he ever gave me was for Catholics by Brian Moore, a novella about a priest who, after forty years in a monastery, finds he still isn’t capable of prayer. Anyone who thinks Dave primarily an ironist should note that choice. His is a serious kind of satire, if by satire we mean ‘the indirect praise of good things’.

But I don’t mean to replace an ironist with a God-botherer. The word God needn’t be present – I’d rather use the phrase ‘ulti¬mate value’. Whatever name one has for it, it’s what permits the few heroes in Brief Interviews to make their gestures on the strength of the absurd, making art that nobody wants, loving where they are not loved, giving without the hope of receiv¬ing. Dave traced this ultimate value through the beauty of a Vermeer, to the concept of infinity, to Federer’s serve – and beyond. As he put it: ‘You get to decide what you worship.’ But before we get giddy with po-mo relativity, he reminds us that nine times out of ten we worship ourselves. Out of this double-bind, the exit signs are hard to see, but they’re there. When the praying married man puts his hands together, the gesture might be metaphysical, but he’s seeking a genuine human connection, which, in Dave’s stories, is as hard to find as any god. Love is the ultimate value, the absurd, impossible thing – the only thing worth praying for. The last line is wonderful. It reads: ‘And what if she joined him on the floor, just like this, clasped in supplication: just this way.’

Jonathan Franzen

Like a lot of writers, but even more than most, Dave loved to be in control of things. He was easily stressed by chaotic social situations. I only ever twice saw him go to a party without Karen. One of them, hosted by Adam Begley, I almost physically had to drag him to, and as soon as we were through the front door and I took my eye off him for one second, he made a U-turn and went back to my apartment to chew tobacco and read a book. The second party he had no choice but to stay for, because it was celebrating the publication of Infinite Jest. He survived it by saying thank you, again and again, with painfully exaggerated formality.

One thing that made Dave an extraordinary college teacher was the formal structure of the job. Within those confines, he could safely draw on his enormous native store of kindness and wisdom and expertise. The structure of interviews was safe in a similar way. When Dave was the subject, he could relax into taking care of his interviewer. When he was the journalist himself, he did his best work when he was able to find a technician – a cameraman follow¬ing John McCain, a board opera¬tor on a radio show – who was thrilled to meet somebody genuinely interested in the arcana of his job. Dave loved details for their own sake, but details were also an outlet for the love bottled up in his heart: a way of connecting, on relatively safe middle ground, with another human being.

Which was, approximately, the description of literature that he and I came up with in our conversations and correspondence in the early 1990s. I’d loved Dave from the very first letter I ever got from him, but the first two times I tried to meet him in person, up in Cambridge, he flat-out stood me up. Even after we did start hanging out, our meetings were often stressful and rushed – much less intimate than exchanging letters. Having loved him at first sight, I was always straining to prove that I could be funny enough and smart enough, and he had a way of gazing off at a point a few miles distant which made me feel as if I were failing to make my case. Not many things in my life ever gave me a greater sense of achievement than getting a laugh out of Dave.
But that ‘neutral middle ground on which to make a deep connection with another human being’: this, we decided, was what fiction was for. ‘A way out of loneliness’ was the formulation we agreed to agree on. And nowhere was Dave more totally and gorgeously able to maintain control than in his written language. He had the most commanding and exciting and inventive rhetorical virtuosity of any writer alive. Way out at word number 70 or 100 or 140 in a sentence deep into a three-page paragraph of macabre humour or fabulously reticulated self-consciousness, you could smell the ozone from the crackling precision of his sentence structure, his effortless and pitch-perfect shifting among ten different levels of high, low, middle, technical, hipster, nerdy, philosophical, vernacular, vaudevillian, hortatory, tough-guy, broken-hearted, lyrical diction. Those sentences and those pages, when he was able to be producing them, were as true and safe and happy a home as any he had during most of the twenty years I knew him. So I could tell you stories about the bickering little road trip he and I once took, or I could tell you about the wintergreen scent that his chew gave to my little apartment whenever he stayed with me, or I could tell you about the awkward chess games we played and the even more awkward tennis rallying we sometimes did – the comfort¬ing structure of the games versus the weird deep fraternal rivalries boiling along under¬neath – but truly the main thing was the writing. For most of the time I knew Dave, the most intense interaction I had with him was sitting alone in my armchair, night after night, for ten days, and reading the manuscript of Infinite Jest. That was the book in which, for the first time, he’d arranged himself and the world the way he wanted them arranged. At the most microscopic level: Dave Wallace was as passion¬ate and precise a punctuator of prose as has ever walked this earth. At the most global level: he produced a thousand pages of world-class jest which, although the mode and quality of the humour never wavered, became less and less and less funny, section by section, until, by the end of the book, you felt the book’s title might just as well have been Infinite Sadness. Dave nailed it like nobody else ever had.

And so now this handsome, brilliant, funny, kind Midwestern man with an amazing spouse and a great local support network and a great career and a great job at a great school with great students has taken his own life, and the rest of us are 17 left behind to ask (to quote from Infinite Jest), ‘So yo then, man, what’s your story?’

One good, simple, modern story would go like this: ‘A lovely, talented personality fell victim to a severe chemical imbalance in his brain. There was the person of Dave, and then there was the disease, and the disease killed the man as surely as cancer might have.’ This story is at once sort of true and totally inadequate. If you’re satisfied with this story, you don’t need the stories that Dave wrote – particularly not those many, many stories in which the duality, the separateness, of person and disease is problematized or outright mocked. One obvious paradox, of course, is that Dave himself, at the end, did become, in a sense, satisfied with this simple story and stopped connecting with any of those more interesting stories he’d written in the past and might have written in the future. His suicidality got the upper hand and made every¬thing in the world of the living irrelevant.

But this doesn’t mean there are no more meaningful stories for us to tell. I could tell you ten different versions of how he arrived at the evening of 12 September, some of them very dark, some of them very anger¬ing to me, and most of them taking into account Dave’s many adjustments, as an adult, in response to his near-death of suicide as a late adolescent. But there is one particular not-so-dark story that I know to be true and that I want to tell now, because it’s been such a great happiness and privilege and endlessly interesting challenge to be Dave’s friend.

People who like to be in con¬trol of things can have a hard time with intimacy. Intimacy is anarchic and mutual and definitionally incompatible with control. You seek to control things because you’re afraid, and about five years ago, very noticeably, Dave stopped being so afraid. Part of this came of having settled into a good, stable situation here at Pomona. Another really huge part of it was his finally meeting a woman who was right for him and, for the first time, opened up the possibility of his having a fuller and less rigidly structured life. I noticed, when we spoke on the phone, that he’d begun to tell me he loved me, and I suddenly felt, on my side, that I didn’t have to work so hard to make him laugh or to prove that I was smart. Karen and I managed to get him to Italy for a week, and instead of spending his days in his hotel room, watching TV, as he might have done a few years earlier, he was having lunch on the terrace and eating octopus and trudging along to dinner parties in the evening and actually enjoying hanging out with other writers casually. He surprised everyone, maybe most of all himself. Here was a genuinely fun thing he might well have done again.

About a year later, he decided to get himself off the medication that had lent stability to his life for more than twenty years. Again, there are a lot of different stories about why exactly he decided to do this. But one thing he made very clear to me, when we talked about it, was that he wanted a chance at a more ordinary life, with less freakish control and more ordinary pleasure. It was a decision that grew out of his love for Karen, out of his wish to produce a new and more mature kind of writing, and out of having glimpsed a different kind of future. It was an incredibly scary and brave thing for him to try, because Dave was full of love, but he was also full of fear – he had all too ready access to those depths of infinite sadness.

So the year was up and down, and he had a crisis in June, and a very hard summer. When I saw him in July he was skinny again, like the late adolescent he’d been during his first big crisis. One of the last times I talked to him after that, in August, on the phone, he asked me to tell him a story of how things would get better. I repeated back to him a lot of what he’d been saying to me in our conversations over the previous year. I said he was in a terrible and dangerous place because he was trying to make real changes as a person and as a writer. I said that the last time he’d been through near-death experiences, he’d emerged and written, very quickly, a book that was light-years beyond what he’d been doing before his collapse. I said he was a stubborn control freak and know-it-all – ‘So are you!’ he shot back at me – and I said that people like us are so afraid to relinquish con¬trol that sometimes the only way we can force ourselves to open up and change is to bring ourselves to an access of misery and the brink of self-destruction. I said he’d under¬taken his change in medication because he wanted to grow up and have a better life. I said I thought his best writing was ahead of him. And he said: ‘I like that story. Could you do me a favour and call me up every four or five days and tell me another story like it?’

Unfortunately I only had one more chance to tell him the story, and by then he wasn’t hearing it. He was in horrible, minute-by-minute anxiety and pain. The next times I tried to call him after that, he wasn’t picking up the phone or returning messages. He’d gone down into the well of infinite sadness, beyond the reach of story, and he didn’t make it out. But he had a beautiful, yearning innocence, and he was trying.

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