Sunday, September 14, 2008

Signifying Something

I'm attempting a near hat trick of selfish right now.


That's not a selfish act.

Writing with intent to blog?

That's a misdemeanor of selfishness at least, and that's what this is.

Drinking Johnny Walker Black with a Jones Soda chaser?

Self-destruction. Of the liver at least.

The Valerian root/melatonin cocktail that I hope will knock me out for a good 12 hours?

Selfish denial of wanting to deal with all this. The all this that can only best be encompassed by italics.

I'll never meet the author of my favorite novel--my favorite writer. I will never meet my favorite author. 48 hours ago it was technically possible that I could. Now? David Foster Wallace is dead. And as much as I'd like to empathize with his wife, friends and family, students--my first reaction was the selfish one. And that's why I'm drinking. Because even at the best of times it seems so much of humanity is a parody of Ayn Rand: "how does it affect me?" If I was a little less self-aware of my selfishness, maybe I'd be drinking less...

There's a word, I think, for how I'm feeling right now: I don't really want to be writing this, with sad bastard music on, drinking, and the Fresno-Wisconsin game on mute because I think maybe any old college football game will get me feeling better maybe?--but really I just want to crawl into the far corner of my bed, curl into a ball and cry until I pass out. I'm thinking maybe it's not an English word, but maybe something made-up, like when an animal tharns. The word. And for the condition in general, not the specific near-tears I'm dealing with now.

Over someone I've never met.

I never met David Foster Wallace, will never meet David Foster Wallace.
This is not normal behavior. I know this. But also.

This is the kind of intimacy writing has. Few other mediums can have a connection like this.
Sports I think is one, which kind of explains the muted CFB on in the background. Music is another.

Again, this is seeing through my own, somewhat selfish lens. And yes, the connection is a kind of selfish one.

"I can relate to this."

"I was there."

And that's the scary part.

Yes, I admired the hell out of the sheer, more-blinding-than-staring-at-the-sun-from-the-surface-of-Mercury brilliance of the man. So much that many times, my own writing (this likely included) reads, to me at least, like a bad parody of his own writing style(1).

But unlike say, any professional athlete, or even musician, I idealized Wallace.

By about 22 it had dawned upon me that being a "rock star" was very, very, very unlikely to ever happen (if "rock star" was defined as: making lots of money playing music, getting interviews and covershoots, music videos etc.) But that same year I was flipping through a book of MFA programs because that was the dream: get MFA, publish first novel, get rave reviews, then land great job teaching creative writing to college students (though the first draft of this plan was a bit less realistic, as it involved getting the MFA and giving a A to the freshman I was dating at the time, then landing the teaching job at UGA, thus never leaving Athens for anything beyond vacations or family gatherings, and exposed a serious naivete about college hiring practices). But so the point was: I didn't think I could be Steve Vai, and I was damn sure there was no chance I was going to walk-on to the football team and then make it big in the NFL. But I thought, sort of, and however wildly hubristically, that I could be like David Foster Wallace. And when a man you've idealized and (so far, wildly unsuccessfully) who's life you've tried to emulate kills himelf, is it so far out of left-field to ask the question: so is that me in 10, 15 years?

And one of the more frightening things isn't the selfish "I'll never meet him" sentiment, but the part of me that thinks "I can kind of understand." I'm not going to speculate on any issues with mental illness Wallace himself may have had. But based on his micro-essay for the 150th Atlantic, I can make the educated guess that he does keep up with current events.

If ignorance is bliss, in today's world, where even some of the most banal slights can spawn 2,000 words on someone's blog, being informed is almost asking for, if not outright depression, at least some sort of flirtation with it. I've been reading a lot more financial blogs in the past year--they accurately called the housing crisis, and now I'm informed. But the catch is: I also know that I'm pushing 30 and any chance at "comfortable retirement" for me in the US is sitting at just a few shades from about nil at this point. The whole country's in debt beyond its eyeballs, the demographics are such that we'll be a country of old men (and women) very soon, with a decent number of kids, and not much in between. Anger and Fear still seem the two dominant moods in our foreign policy. If we're not all-out fucked, something more than foreplay is at least going down already.

One way I'm reading David Foster Wallace's death is this: life is sending me (and many, many others) an increasing number of reminders that it is not fair this year.

And if you were already having doubts about this thing called life, reading about it in the US lately...I can't see it helping.

Wallace wrote the single most frightening story I've ever read (it's one of the Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in the short-story collection of same name) and the frightening element was all about dehumanization. I don't think it's possible to accurately write something that dark and feel all that chipper and happy.

(And I'm reading back over some of this and questioning a bit the deal I made with myself to publish it as is, with no revisions, because let's face it, it's a bit of a drunken mess, even if there are no typos.)

I was a junior in college when I read Infinite Jest for the first time (and to show how very little I understood women, as well as the real influence of non-assigned books at most colleges, thought that simply reading it at Tate Center would get me dates. That enough people--single, ravingly attractive, female people--on campus gave a damn about contemporary fiction to know about a 1,000 page novel published back when they were all in high school or middle school. That they would be impressed that I, a skinny undergraduate so lacking in confidence around women that I needed them to all but hit me upside the head and scream "hey idiot! I'm interested in you! I wish to date and possible sleep with you! And by 'sleep with' I mean fuck your brains out! Do I have to spell it out further!" that they'd be so impressed they'd all but scream out all those things I listed in quotation some 10 words back.) The first 100 pages took me forever. I had no clue what was going on, and there was no Wikipedia to help me out. I was fortunate enough to have access to the online OED at least. And for a kid who'd gained a lot of false confidence in the breadth and width of his vocabulary in high school while reading nothing more challenging than Stephen King or Clive Barker, and scoring a lofty SAT Verbal, well IJ was a wake-up call. The blurbs talking about the "brilliance and wit on every page" were right, and there was much rereading.

I enjoyed that my overly snarky Multicultural Lit teacher was impressed I was reading it (and relieved that he put up with my ham-handed aping of Wallace's style in my essays for that class--and yes those essays were probably worse than the mixed metaphor about ham and apes in this sentence). I got no dates out of it. But over three months later I'd finished, and almost wanted to start over again right there. This was what great literature could still do. This was a Ulysses for my generation (well, depending on how you define "my generation.)

I've reread it several times since then and it has not grown remotely close to getting old.
Parts can make the hairs at the back of my neck stand at attention, and parts can give me that strange kind of ache in my stomach that usually precedes an issue with my lachrymal ducts(2).

His essays and short fiction have much the same effect on me.

There may or may not be more.

But if I'm going to be selfish about all this, I need to do it in a good way, if such a thing is possible. I haven't written this much, or this long, on one topic in a long time. I've got notes and notes and notes and poorly-written fragments that I've thought for a while could be a very good novel. I need to stop being such a self-pitying pussy and make them that novel. As Wallace himself put it about writing:


The smart thing to say, I think, is that the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation -- fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you're now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun. It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun's new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don't want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.

It's the man's life and work that will be remembered, not his death. And the single largest, most life-changing thing I took (and am still working on) from Infinite Jest is the fact that simple, seemingly banal things can have real depth and truth to them. "Be honest" is two words and an overused phrase in print. In practice, in life, in relationships? A whole 'nother story.

Telling myself "have fun, write more"? Just words on a blog. In practice? Wallace again:

But it's still a lot of fun. Don't get me wrong. As to the nature of that fun, I keep remembering this strange little story I heard in Sunday school when I was about the size of a fire hydrant. It takes place in China or Korea or someplace like that. It seems there was this old farmer outside a village in the hill country who worked his farm with only his son and his beloved horse. One day the horse, who was not only beloved but vital to the labor-intensive work on the farm, picked the lock on his corral or whatever and ran off into the hills. All the old farmer's friends came around to exclaim what bad luck this was. The farmer only shrugged and said, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?" A couple days later the beloved horse returned from the hills in the company of a whole priceless herd of wild horses, and the farmer's friends all come around to congratulate him on what good luck the horse's escape turned out to be. "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?" is all the farmer says in reply, shrugging. The farmer now strikes me as a bit Yiddish-sounding for an old Chinese farmer, but this is how I remember it. But so the farmer and his son set about breaking the wild horses, and one of the horses bucks the son off his back with such wild force that the son breaks his leg. And here come the friends to commiserate with the farmer and curse the bad luck that had ever brought these accursed horses onto the farm. The old farmer just shrugs and says, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?" A few days later the Imperial Sino-Korean Army or something like that comes marching through the village, conscripting every able-bodied male between like 10 and 60 for cannon-fodder for some hideously bloody conflict that's apparently brewing, but when they see the son's broken leg, they let him off on some sort of feudal 4F, and instead of getting shanghaied the son stays on the farm with the old farmer. Good luck? Bad luck?

Life sucks, but dwelling on the suckiness of life(3) sucks more. Or, to quote Orson Welles (a hero of mine I never had a chance of meeting):

Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash - the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die. "Be of good heart," cry the dead artists out of the living past. "Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing." Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much.

R.I.P. David Foster Wallace, your songs are not yet silenced, and we will go on singing.

(1). For fuck's sake I snuck in at least one footnote in a column for the Red and Black. And more than one sentence that started with "so but then."
(2). And yes, at 1am "lachrymal" is about the best I can do in terms of "hey look at my brobdingnagian vocab use!" Johnny Walker is good stuff.
(3). Ok, I'm going to have to come back and edit "suckiness" though right? That's veering dangerously close to old-school LiveJournal/Geocites emo pages right? Or am I just using footnote snark to hide my diminished perspicacity? Instead let's end with one more quote:

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.

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