America's universities sheltered David Foster Wallace—and almost ruined his writingby Julian Gough / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Like James Joyce, David Foster Wallace will be remembered—and, by some, fiercely loved—for a book which 99.999 per cent of the world’s population will never read to its end.
Wallace hung himself in his home in California on 12th September 2008, aged 46. So Infinite Jest (1996), his second novel, turns out to be his final one, and lines and paragraphs throughout its 1,079 pages now flash in neon: “Help me, I’m depressed.” The neon will fade. It will be a magnificently ambitious book again. But right now it reads like a suicide note.
Wallace’s subjects were depression, addiction, language, advertising, philosophy, tennis—tennis was for Wallace what Catholicism was for Joyce—and, ultimately, America. His books (two novels, three short story collections, several collections of idiosyncratic and original journalism) sold well in the US, less so in Britain. Young writers loved him. On the small, strange planet (or, more accurately, asteroid) inhabited by novelists trying to reinvent the novel, this is the death of Kurt Cobain.
Wallace’s comic mode disguised the fact that his view of life was tragic. The last story in his collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is, I think, one of the great short stories of the past few decades. In it, he tells a story of a man telling an unnamed listener a story about a woman telling him a story about a man raping her. All those frames within frames should push the pain far away, but they don’t, they pull it closer. The story is postmodern and emotionally direct at the same time. That’s very hard to do. It is magnificent.
Often, though, I disagreed with Wallace, with the way he applied his style (comedy) to his content (America). I thought he had more potential than any American novelist of his generation, but achieved maybe less than 20 per cent of it. Crucially, he was unplugged from electric, living America, by a life spent in the university system. His father was a professor of philosophy, his mother a professor of English. He majored in English and philosophy at Amherst, did an MFA in creative writing in Arizona, turned his English thesis into his first novel, studied philosophy at Harvard, got a job in the English department of Illinois State University, which he left to teach creative writing at Pomona College in California, where he died.
He was an immensely gifted and original writer, with a brilliant, hyper-analytical mind. The two things such people should avoid are marijuana and universities. He was aware of the dangers of the former (which was not just a threat to his prose—after his first novel he checked into rehab and asked to be put on suicide watch). But he couldn’t escape the warm, welcoming trap of the latter. Only universities will give a job for life and full health insurance to a novelist with heavy-metal hair and a history of depression. He was, as ever, aware of the risk to his fiction. In a brilliant, painful television interview with Charlie Rose in 1997, he said, “Oh boy, don’t even get me started on teaching… The more time and energy spent on teaching, which is extraordinarily hard to do well, the less time spent on your own work… I find myself saying this year the same thing I said last year, and it’s a little bit horrifying.” He looked like a trapped animal. He’d been teaching for four years. Eleven years later, still teaching creative writing, never having written another novel, he killed himself.
The market system fails its good, ambitious writers. The terrific experimental writer Thomas M Disch tried to stay out of universities, slowly writing difficult, fascinating, award-winning science fiction and horror novels. Broke, facing eviction from his New York rent-controlled apartment, he shot himself on 4th July 2008.
Novelists need a range of modern, enlightened patrons. A bunch of Borgias. We need a system (online, worldwide) to match patrons and artists, setting out mutual obligations, allowing different models to be tried. The university system is doing her best, trying to be a nourishing mother (the original meaning of alma mater), but she’s smothering her most beloved children.
A life in academia formed, deformed and almost ruined Wallace’s writing. Infinite Jest is nearly a thousand pages of exhausting, inexhaustible, hugely flawed and brilliant novel. It is followed by almost a hundred pages of endnotes (his editor made him cut as many again). The endnotes have footnotes. Wallace was, on one level, aware that he was cut off from ordinary America, but the knowledge put his prose into a hyper-analytic death spiral. Like so many academics, he became obsessed with the white whale (or pink elephant) of the authentic. He spent much of his time attacking forms of language of which he disapproved (pharmaceutical jargon, advertising, corporate PR). This was literary criticism disguised as literature—grenade attacks on a theme park.
Wallace was not alone in this; it happens to most American academic novelists (like the superbly gifted writer George Saunders who, at 49, has still never written a novel or left school.) They waste time on America’s debased, overwhelming, industrial pop culture. They attack it with an energy appropriate to attacking fascism, or communism, or death. But that culture (bad television, movies, ads, pop songs) is a snivelling, ingratiating, billion-dollar cur. It has to be chosen to be consumed, so it flashes its tits, laughs at your jokes, replays your prejudices and smiles smiles smiles. It isn’t worthy of satire, because it cannot use force to oppress. If it has an off-button, it is not oppression. Attacking it is unworthy, meaningless. It is like beating up prostitutes.
But under all that froth, that energy wasted attacking confectionery ads, lies the true, hard core of Wallace’s work: its engagement with depression, addiction and death. Infinite Jest contains the most accurate and moving descriptions of clinical depression in modern literature. Read now, the Kate Gompert chapters provide a mature, gentle explanation of Wallace’s own death. And they forgive us, his wife, his parents, his friends: we weren’t to blame. They are noble pages. As Thomas Pynchon has said: “When we speak of ‘seriousness’ in fiction, ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death.” It is a tribute to modern America that this is so. Modern America beat fascism and it beat communism. Death is the last oppressor left standing in America.
The manner of Wallace’s death has changed the meaning of his work. Pages that seemed self-indulgent now feel painfully earned. Scenes that were coal have become diamond. At the minimum this should shut up James Wood. Wood famously called Wallace (among others) a “hysterical realist.” (See Prospect, November 2000.) “Hysterical” was always an appalling word to use, to deny the subjective reality of other writers, but today it reads like Patton slapping a shell-shocked soldier. Reading Infinite Jest now, it’s not the same book. Each time I go back, it has grown new facets, like a crystal. I don’t know how great a book it is, because it isn’t finished yet.
David Foster Wallace lives.