“Rereading David Foster Wallace”: Thoughts on the Life, Death, and Work of Someone Who Was a Whole Lot Smarter Than Any of Us

10/08/2012 9:28 AM |

David Foster Wallaces notes on Don DeLillo. You cant do this if you read on your iPad.
  • David Foster Wallace’s notes on Don DeLillo. You can’t do this if you read on your iPad.

I had a creative writing teacher in college who, to be quite honest, I’d never really respected that much because all of the short stories she assigned had clearly been culled from the MFA program she’d just finished a year before, and even though they were very good short stories and worth reading, it wasn’t an original list and you really got the feeling —or at least I really got the feeling—that each story was the only thing that she had read by any of the authors. It was like she made us a mix that was comprised of “Space Oddity” and “Two Weeks” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Empire State of Mind” and “Kiss” and “Sweet Jane” and “Creep” and, I don’t know, “Let It Be” and those are all perfectly good songs and maybe totally representative of all of the artists who sing them but they are not really very interesting choices for someone to make when putting together a mix. Like, at all.

But so anyway, she and I had a disagreement about David Foster Wallace. Specifically about his story “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” which, yeah, of course, is the one she’d assigned. I mean, I loved it obviously. It’s funny and morbid and ironic and cruel and wickedly, devastatingly smart. But it was also tough to read. Because it was written by someone who was mentally ill. And even though this person knew he was mentally ill and played around with that fact quite a bit, there were still moments where the real illness came through and no matter how agile his literary performance was—and has there ever been such agility? Who else makes their readers’ eyes dance up and down, back and forth, across the page like that, all in pursuit of footnotes—it still wasn’t quite enough to cover up the reality that this was a man who could not relax when everyone around him was relaxing, this was a man who found release in his writing, but not necessarily in living. This was a tragedy, presented as farce, because Wallace was not in control of his mental illness. Yes, through his writing, he could assert some power and use his prodigious gifts and incredible genius to create art, but he was still sick. And that made it hard for me to read. As much as I laughed and as much as my eyes widened in appreciation at the luminous prose, I had a difficult time, because this wasn’t fiction, this was real. It was manipulated, but it was still the truth, or a truth, and it was painful. My professor, though, she said, “It’s just a joke. He’s trying to be funny.” And I thought to myself, Wow, you are dumb. One dumb motherfucker.

And speaking of dumb motherfuckers: Brett Easton Ellis. At the panel that I attended on Saturday, October 6th, titled “Rereading David Foster Wallace”, the moderator and Wallace biographer, D.T. Max, brought up a tweet that Ellis had sent recently, which read, “Saint David Foster Wallace: a generation trying to read him feels smart about themselves which is part of the whole bullshit package. Fools.” The poet Mary Karr immediately responded by saying, “Spoken by somebody dumber than David. I mean, I’m dumber than David. Y’all are dumber than David. But, it’s not the 80s anymore and that’s just someone with a hard-on.”

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