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."
Which is true. Brett Easton Ellis does have some sort of hard-on for David Foster Wallace, due to envy, sure—what writer wouldn't be envious of Wallace's success and acclaim, both critical and popular?—but also due to frustration. And the frustration is that very specific frustration of feeling that the public perception of someone you know is wildly different than the reality of that person. Ellis hates the fact that Wallace is thought to be a saint just because he was a genius. Ellis hates the fact that Wallace can do no wrong because he is dead. Ellis hates the fact that Wallace is untouchable because, a little over four years ago, he took himself away from the world and all of its judgments and critiques. What I'm trying to say is that Brett Easton Ellis's hard-on for Wallace is due to the fact that all of us have a hard-on for Wallace.
I just claimed partial responsibility for one of Brett Easton Ellis's hard-ons. I'm going to go wash my mind out with soap now.
Anyway, I can understand where Ellis is coming from, but Mary Karr was right, he's still "dumber than David." And this matters because it means that he is jealous of David and his opinion can't be considered, really. Whose opinions can be considered? Well, everyone's on the panel for starters. Wallace's biographer D.T. Max was the moderator, but also felt like a participant, and Karr is a poet and memoirist, but was also in a long and tumultuous relationship with Wallace. Deborah Treisman was Wallace's editor, first at Grand Street and then at The New Yorker. Dana Spinotta is an acclaimed writer and didn't know Wallace but is a huge fan and just an all-around brilliant presence for any panel, anywhere, at any time. And the novelist and law professor, Mark Costello was one of Wallace's closest and oldest friends and the two of them co-wrote the 1997 book, "“Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present.”
When asked about Wallace's interest in rap music, Costello said, "He got into rap music theoretically. And I was like, you know, it's actually this thing." And there were many other personal anecdotes about Wallace that brought the man, not the myth, into the room. A portrait of the artist emerged and it was exactly as a Wallace fan might have imagined. Wallace was a man who felt that he was externally inspired to write, he felt like "his ass left the chair," that he was levitated out of his body when he was able to set down the "incandescent prose" that he was so admired for. But he was also anxious and sometimes foolish about his success. Karr related the time that Wallace was asked to participate in an advertisement and she had to say to him, "Would Nabokov make a Gap commercial? Think again, Dave."
At one point, Karr asked, "Did y'all have the same experience of asking him to cut or clarify something and it would come back nine pages longer?"
Treisman said no, but that, "you might get a nine-page note on why he couldn't [make the cuts]."
She quickly followed up by saying that "editing him after death was much easier."
"Editing after death was much easier." This comment floated down into the room, people seemed a little unsettled by it. I laughed. I laughed because it was funny and also because I hate when death is made into a precious thing. Or when mental illness is tiptoed around, as if it were a sleeping dog. That particular dog is never asleep. Treisman recounted what a friend who also suffers from a similar disease told her, which was, "It's not that you wake up one day, saying, I'm going to kill myself today. It's that you wake up every day, saying, I'm going to try not to kill myself today." Which, I think, can be one hell of a lonely way to live. There were more revelations about David. How many of his popularly-known "close friendships," like those with Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo, were almost exclusively epistolary. Max called Wallace, "God's gift to the U.S. Postal Service" because of the huge amount of letters he wrote over the course of his lifetime. And, again, there is that loneliness. That feeling of not quite being of the world you live in. Costello called Wallace, "an animal who was in a cage," a man whose only escape from himself was his writing. And the problem with that, of course, is that Wallace's writing was so distinctly his own that it brought him acolytes and imitators who were drawn to his distinctive voice, who were drawn to him.
How can this feel to a person who only wants to escape from himself? I don't know. And there were no answers given. Only dismissals of those who tried to glamorize Wallace's illness or death as being inseparable from his genius, and condemnations of those who thought that Wallace's disease gave him some kind of authenticity that other's lack. When Max mentioned that people get lines of Infinite Jest tattooed on their arms, Karr replied, "Yeah, people killed themselves after Kurt Cobain died, too. There are some dumb motherfuckers out there."
There are. There are so many dumb motherfuckers out there. But it is a very specific, wannabe literary-minded, but really kind of sociopathic, dumb motherfucker, who likes to excuse his or her own lack of genius by lionizing those geniuses whose all-too-human flaws led them on a path of destruction. Because David Foster Wallace—as if this point hasn't been made clearly enough already—was a genius. He had that rare and particular gift of being widely-imitated, while still being totally inimitable. And it is a whole lot easier for the masses to admire someone and try and imitate that person and then excuse their own inability to be a genius too by saying that, oh, well, he was brilliant but he was also crazy and now he's dead. And beyond this being a facile and rather base way of understanding either genius or mental illness, it is also incredibly ungenerous to the people who actually knew these tortured figures, the people who are actually affected by their loss.
The panel ended with Karr reading a bit from a poem she had written about Wallace's death, where she laughed at him—"Ha ha"—because although he had tried to escape, she, and everyone who knew him, will continue to breathe him in and out and in again. And I thought about dumb old Bret Easton Ellis, who is jealous of David Foster Wallace—of his life and work and death—and I thought how ridiculous that is. None of the people on the panel I went to are jealous of David Foster Wallace, no matter how prodigious his gifts were. The people on the panel knew too much about the cost of being David Foster Wallace.
All of us may be "dumber than David," but all of us are alive.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen