David Foster Genius Wallace vs. David Foster Human Wallace

From time to time, I'm stunned by a fragment of text. It happens like this: I bite my lip, tilt my head back, and just breathe for a few seconds. If it's funny, I tend to cackle. It's involuntary. If that sounds ridiculous to you, imagine how it looks to the iPad operator seated across from me. There's an absurdity to this whole thing, a paradoxical moment of intense human connection to a handful of words rather than the living person three feet away. 

These fragments tend to have two things in common. First, they describe things I've already felt in ways I've never thought of ("bleak but beautiful, like light through ice"). Second, they're often written by David Foster Wallace. 

September 12, 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of his death, and since anniversaries only seem to matter in certain marketable denominations, I suspect you'll hear a lot about it this year.

I bet you'll hear about Infinite Jest and "the one about the cruise ship," about depression and genius and suicide and legacy. You may even hear a bit about the personal faults and questionable behavior that we tend to forget when someone dies.

But then September 13 will roll around and we'll have to get back to whatever the hell This is, so we'll file his name away as another synonym of cryptic excellence. And in all seriousness, who could really blame us? There's a lot going on, apparently.

But this whole genius-by-mystified-jury thing is tricky because it means that a lot of people go through their lives somehow knowing that Wallace was a great writer without ever reading a word he wrote. And so while that opens the door to responses like "bookstores are big" and "you haven't fucking read Ulysses," it also opens the door to one hell of an argument: to make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people. And the funny thing about that argument is that it isn't mine--it's Wallace's, word for word. But I'll come back to that. Hopefully.

For me, true excellence is revealed in one of two ways: obviously, inexplicably, and at gut level, or through personal experience with the difficulty of the task. With Wallace, it's both. I'm seized by the bewildered awe of the uninformed and the technical wonder of the intimately aware--like a casual tennis player watching Roger Federer play. 

In fact, five words buried within a footnote of Wallace's essay about Federer inspired this whole thing. These five words described the sound of a tennis ball crossing midcourt at 90 mph as "a kind of liquid hiss," and when I read them, I crumpled. I simply accepted that, not only would I never do that, I wouldn't have thought it was possible until I read it. 

But just like you're strangely urged to play a sport after observing precisely how good you'll never be, I opened a notebook and started writing. 

That was a couple weeks ago, on a couch in Chicago, and so when I woke up last Saturday in St Petersburg and learned that John McCain had chosen to stop treating his brain cancer [and then died that evening], I immediately pulled Consider the Lobster off the shelf and found "Up, Simba," Wallace's essay about spending a week on the presidential campaign trail with McCain in 2000.

Now, I tend to underline and dog-ear and generally deface the pages of my books, so there's a bit of nostalgia that comes with opening them again and seeing the things that once intrigued me. In most books, there are a dozen underlines, perhaps a few more. In "Up, Simba," I found 73 underlined sections in a 78 page essay (of which more than half was cut by Rolling Stone). It's so damn good, such an honest tale of a skeptical, progressive author struggling to reconcile McCain's likability and tact and anti-tact with his conservative agenda and Wallace's own post-Nixon disillusion, that it's hard not to just transcribe the whole thing. 

But I'll skip the sobering look at McCain's time as a prisoner of war, and at the torture and his refusals to go home early, and at Wallace's constant pleas amid the details to "imagine it was you." 

Because this is about Wallace, not McCain. 

And because buried among beautiful fragments like "this country's great digital engine of public fuss," and "everything looks dead and not happy about it," you find Human Wallace, the relatable, introspective genius trying to engage with the same culture that seems hell-bent on elevating him to literary sainthood rather than reading most of what he wrote. And Human Wallace simply begs: "Even in AD 2000, who among us is so cynical that he doesn't have some good old corny American hope way down deep in his heart, lying dormant like a spinster's ardor; not dead but just waiting for the right guy to give it to?"

Actual argument: maybe Wallace is that guy.

To find him, you might want to skip the novels and go straight for the essays, because while his fiction tends to be beautiful and hilarious, it [almost] appears to be intentionally confounding--like one intricate inside joke that you're excluded from but desperately want to think you're in on.

Of course, it's possible that I'm just too stupid to understand him, but this obscures the fact that Jonathan Franzen, an excellent writer and longtime friend of Wallace's, still leans back in his chair and simply says "wow..." when interviewers ask him about Infinite Jest two decades after its publication. More importantly, it ignores Wallace's own claim that the initial hype surrounding Infinite Jest conflicted with its length and complexity and his own ability "to do elementary arithmetic." In other words, the people clamoring about the book hadn't had time to read it yet. 

And besides, his fiction tends to leave me depressed and uninspired by the time I reach the last page. Uninspired to write (because I won't hold a candle to it) and to live (because he'd surveyed the vista of human experience and identified little more than suffocating complexity and futility--punctuated by occasional laughter). 

And so you'll want to start with his essays, partly because it's tough to slip infectious existential dread past the editors at a mainstream magazine, and partly because there's nothing so captivating as a self-aware genius trying to reverse engineer a phenomenon.

And that is where you'll find Human Wallace: stalking the halls of a porn trade show in Vegas, probing the mystery of the all-inclusive vacation, wading into the ethics of eating lobster, picking apart Terminator 2.

And that is also where you'll find the bits that will stun you in your tracks, those gorgeous brush strokes that make up Broom of the System and Infinite Jest, regrouped into a painting that you want to look at because you like it, not because it's hanging in a museum and other people are clustered in front of it. 

I could--and as you'll see, did--keep going, but I've temporarily accepted that I should just defer to the man himself. 

That said, I'd like to defer said deferment for a moment so I may point out that some of these fragments are actually full sentences, and that all of them are hilarious but also rather mean and thus not representative of Wallace's voice--which tends to be far more considerate and accepting than these 10 lines would have you think.

"He is wearing a black cowboy hat and what has to be one of the very few long-sleeved Hawaiian shirts in existence anywhere." - "Big Red Son"

"[of Grammar Nazis] We are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else." - "Authority and American Usage"

"It always seems important to have at least one person in the vicinity to hate." - "The View from Mrs. Thompson's"

"Larry King Live with Larry King Looking Even More Like a Giant Bug Than Usual." - "Up, Simba"

"...'catered' lunches, which today are strange, bright-red ham on Wonder Bread, Fritos, and coffee that tastes like hot water with a brown crayon in it." - "Up, Simba"

"Hell could easily be a chain hotel." - "Up, Simba"

"Be apprised, though, that the Maine Lobster Festival's democratization of lobster comes with all the massed inconvenience and aesthetic compromise of real democracy." - "Consider the Lobster"

"...faculty power struggles that summon images of sharks fighting for control of a bathtub..." - "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young"

"...this third round [tennis match of the 1995 US Open] has particular romance around it because it features two Greeks neither of whom are in fact from Greece, a kind of post-modern Peloponnesian War." - "Democracy and Commerce at the US Open"

"Whoever he is, he has a goatee" - "Big Red Son"

By the way, Wallace often pointed out that many of the funny things in his books were, in fact, not intended to be funny. I don't think that's entirely true, mostly because one of the best ways to make a funny thing funnier is to pretend it isn't (see any episode of The Office). But, to be clear, there were moments when he aimed for tragedy and accidentally hit comedy. This is no more true than in "The View from Mrs. Thompson's," a brief essay about witnessing the events of September 11, 2001 from a small town in Illinois. 

It's a surreal look at a surreal day, but a few pages into it, he describes his quest to find an American flag to display on his porch--because by September 12, 2001, his house was the only one on the block without a flag. To paraphrase him, he felt that he needed to hang a flag not so much because it would make a statement that he completely agreed with, but because not hanging one seemed to make a far worse statement.

The trouble was that every American flag in the entire town had apparently been bought and hung in the past 24 hours. He briefly considers stealing one from someone's lawn. He eventually tries a convenience store and, upon learning that they've also sold their entire stock, proceeds to have something not unlike a panic attack in the middle of the store.

What follows is tragic and beautiful and hilarious:

"In one more of The Horror's weird twists of fate and circumstance, it's the KWIK-N-EZ proprietor himself (a Pakistani, by the way) who offers solace and a shoulder and a strange kind of unspoken understanding, and who lets me go back and sit in the stock room amid every conceivable petty vice and indulgence that America has to offer and compose myself, and who only slightly later, over Styrofoam cups and a strange kind of perfumey tea with a great deal of milk in it, suggests construction paper and "Magical Markers," which explains my now-beloved and proudly displayed homemade flag."

So on September 12, 2018, when you're presented with the brilliance and suicide and legacy of Genius Wallace, don't forget about Human Wallace--hugging a stranger in a convenience store and going home to find his Magical Markers 17 years earlier.

Here is Wallace's essay about 9/11

Here is Jonathan Franzen's wonderful essay about coping with Wallace's suicide by going to a desolate island 500 miles off the coast of Chile.