Missing David Foster Wallace
Is it possible to miss someone you’ve never met? In the two years that I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace—author of the mammoth novel Infinite Jest, three volumes of shorter fiction and many works of journalism and criticism—I’ve come to develop a bizarrely personal relationship with a man who killed himself before I had even read a page of his stuff.
My introduction to Wallace mirrors that of most people our age: through a commencement speech he delivered to Kenyon College in 2004. It’s a candid little distillation of many of the things that Wallace tackled in more depth in his fiction and his non-fiction writings: narcissism, self-gratification and freedom in the information age. His authorial voice was, and still is, contagious and—as is symptomatic of Wallace—is defined by the confluence of several ostensibly random and contradictory qualities. It is, by turns: self-deprecating, self-absorbed, zany, heartfelt, expressive, digressive, caustic, hyper-articulate, colloquial, and, at its best moments, lucid.
Nowhere was he as lucid as he was in his essay, “Up, Simba”—an exhaustive, 70-plus page narrative of his week-long stay with the press corps following John McCain during his 2000 presidential campaign. The first time I read “Up, Simba,” afterward I felt lightheaded, disoriented, different. Overwhelmingly, I felt clean. This is an odd adjective to describe one’s reaction to a piece of non-fiction—specifically political non-fiction, which is so often the most dull, uninspiring, dispiriting non-fiction out there. It’s odd, too, because Wallace originally published “Up, Simba” in Rolling Stone: a magazine known these days not so much for its cultural cache as its hackneyed, lefter-then-left political editorials and pieces. Wallace was a maximalist post-modern writer with a famously exhaustive reporting style. You might know him for his most conspicuous stylistic flourish: footnotes. So why would Wallace publish an overlong expose of the media and an assessment of a Republican (McCain) candidacy—footnotes and all—in a magazine with limited print space and an even more limited reputation for political journalism?
“Since you’re reading Rolling Stone”, he wrote, “you’re an American between say 18 and 35, which demographically makes you a Young Voter. No generation has ever cared less about politics and politicians than yours…partially because no generation has been marketed and spun and pitched to as much as today’s demographic Young....there is a tension between what McCain’s appeal is and the way that appeal must be structured and packaged in order to get him elected, to get you to buy....Salesman or leader or neither or both, the final paradox is this: whether [McCain] is truly ‘for real’ now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours.” In effect, he’s asking the readership of Rolling Stone to make the difficult and paradoxical choice of committing oneself to a candidate—any candidate—while totally aware of the fact that a voter can only get a highly subjective, public-relations-crafted image of that candidate, and that the things that make a good candidate are not necessarily the things that make a good President. Not the easiest or sexiest point to make.
Truncated and appropriated for this article, Wallace’s observations don’t carry the weight they do after two and a half hours spent alone with a book, in the hands of a writer whom, like all of us, was burdened by his flaws, his prejudices and his subjectivity, but who—unlike most of us—embraced objectivity in his writing and in his participation with the world.
The same sense of scope and meticulousness that informed his fiction (especially Infinite Jest) imbued his non-fiction with a fair-minded, panoramic genius. And it is precisely that genius that I miss so much. No contemporary public figure has so objectively pointed out the bullshit and hypocrisy that make up contemporary American politics. In times like these, when the political rhetoric in this country has reached an all-time low of partisan bickering and needless vitriol—where you are forced to choose between a series of rigid, reductive political binaries (Tea Partier or Socialist, the 99 percent or the one percent, Democrat or Republican, Obama or Romney, etc.), I can’t help but wonder what an incisive, critical mind like Wallace’s would make of the current political scene.
What would he make of Obama, who made for a perfect candidate but, depressingly, an ineffectual politician? How would he make sense of Occupy Wall Street, with all of its intentional vagueness, anti-political politics and hipster drum circles? What would he have to say about the current Republican candidate pool, the most lackluster, laughable gallery of CEOs and skeezy pizza tycoons that the GOP has to offer?
I don’t know. Wallace suffered from clinical depression all his life and hung himself on Sept 12, 2008, three days before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and roughly two months before Obama was elected President. He ducked out of the world right as the world we know was coming to fruition. With his suicide, he has become mythologized, commemorated and—regardless of the vitality of his writing—dated. I came of age after he died, and now, in November 2011, with the economy in the toilet and Europe on fire and the Occupiers making hand signals while the Tea Party kills jobs under the pretense of saving jobs, I miss the thoughtful, calm, critical thinking of someone I didn’t know but have come to miss.