I am so glad you are collecting remembrances of David. Hearing more
about him, remembering him, talking about him makes me feel better.
It’s the only consolation that works for me. It is so weird he hangs
himself when he did. He hung himself and let himself crash days before
the stock market crashed. There’s something very Slothrop about this.
But let’s not forget in the moment of his death or ever that David
was an advocate of a full-blooded response to life and to artworks. The
way I can carry on his work is to develop and publish more books that
make people feel it’s not OK to respond to life and art with a blasé
snootiness. It’s our moral duty to embrace both of them and even to
embrace him in death.
I had some good dealings with David in which he did not hold back
his responses to life. He was a wonderful colleague for my dear friends
at the Dalkey Archive Press like John O’Brien, when it was located at
Normal, Illinois, just down the road from where I was raised in St.
Charles. There was something militantly Midwestern about David, and
that was a great thing in my eyes. Normal, IL. Normal. Illinois. Well,
if you’ve read and looked at Michael Lesey’s Wisconsin Death Trip,
you’ll know you ought to be a little careful if you go to my normal
Illinois or David’s. But I think the Dalkey Archive people with their
journals and love of strange books from France and Russia provided a
wonderful environment for David. Their spirit and his seems to be that
espoused by Tom Petty when he sang, “She was an American girl, raised
in the provinces. Couldn’t help thinking there was a bit more life
The East Coast can be hostile in different ways. David thrived at
Amherst; but not at Harvard. I talked to David long after he’d
abandoned Harvard and gone on to Illinois normalcy and extraordinary
literary achievement. I met him when he tried to interest me in
publishing a book on Cantor’s philosophy of mathematics. David was not
goofinig around with philosophy. David was raised in the richest
philosophical soil we have in this country, the equivalent of the black
earth of Illinois where he lived so long. We Americans are good at this
stuff, and have been since the time of Perice and Royce. I know his
uncle, John Wallace, a philosopher at Minnesota with whom I worked
closely when I worked at the University of Minnesota Press; and I knew
of his father, a philosopher of highest repute at Illinois. This book
on Cantor was not a fit for my list which features really technical
books like those of Willard van Orman Quine, but the manuscript was
really good. When we talked about why he left philosophy, he mentioned
a snot-nosed grandee at Harvard who was unpleasant and treated him and
not just him with disdain. I was sorry he did not find the really
loving folks our department has, but that’s the way it was. And I would
have been and had been just as put off by that guy’s behavior.
I was going to write that philosophy’s loss was literature’s gain,
but that is glib and false. He never stopped being the sharpest of
thinkers, and what I love about books like Supposedly Fun Thing is that the reasoning is so powerful and all set forth in a pop style that makes it a delight to for me to read .
So he left the provinces for LA. It’s a city that’s been hard on lots of writers.
David was a half-generation younger than me, but I’m taking his loss
personally. He bridges the generations: my son Eric loves his writing
as much as I do. We once went to hear him read from a new book,
ironically in Emerson Hall at Harvard where the philosophy department
has its offices. For me seeing him go is like seeing one of the most
hopeful signs of life in this country gone. All the more reason, I
feel, for me to pursue what I understand as his agenda for
thinking—opening up the doors of perception.
David Foster Wallace forever changed the way I regard footnotes.
Because of his brilliance and originality, whenever I am reading a text
with footnotes I turn to them eagerly, armed with the expectation that
the universe just might expand a little more in a surprising way,
hoping that the tiny print will fizz like Pop Rocks with witty
precision. I am almost always disappointed. But I will read the next
one, and the next one, hoping to find that graceful, magical
elucidation one more time.
I didn’t know DFW personally, but reading his words, I often
imagined I did. The Metafilter thread alone demonstrates that I’m not
alone in this, not by a long shot. In that sense, at least, DFW was
successful in his aim to counter our everyday sense of alienation. It’s
a deep shame that he couldn’t likewise benefit from his own gift.
I was terribly saddened to hear this news. Whatever one felt about
his work, it was hard to imagine any serious reader of fiction not
being intensely interested in what he was going to do next. I had been
looking forward to witnessing his literary journey, and to adjusting my
own opinions and prejudices — or rather, being forced by the quality of
the work to do so. Of great interest to me was his own ambivalent
relation with some elements of postmodernism (irony, too-easy
elf-consciousness, and so on), and the burgeoning presence of moral
critique in his work. One had the feeling that his new work was being
written under considerable pressure — and I don’t just mean
psychological pressure, but the pressure of staying loyal to his
fractured, non-linear epistemology while at the same time incorporating
some of that admiration he had for the concerns of the
nineteenth-century novel. To put it flippantly, he was aesthetically
radical and metaphysically conservative, and the negotiation of that
asymmetry would have been a marvelous thing to follow, as a reader.
An untruthful reviewer of my book, How Fiction Works, claimed
that David Foster Wallace was its “aesthetic villain.” That is not
true. I discussed him as an extreme example of a tension I think is
endemic to post-Flaubertian fiction, which is the question, as Martin
Amis once put it, of “who’s in charge”: is it the stylish author, who
sees the world in his fabulous language, or his probably less stylish
characters, who are borrowing the author’s words? Wallace’s fiction, I
wrote, “prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of
language in America, and he is not afraid to to decompose — and
discompose — his own style in the interests of making us live through
this linguistic America with him.” One of the most impressive aspects
of Wallace was that stylistic fearlessness.
On Friday, I was pondering writing a note to Wallace to say as much
(and to correct the impression he might have got from that review), and
then on Saturday came the terrible news — “like a man slapped.”