Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Living With Sadness

I first encountered David Foster Wallace's writing about twenty years ago while reading short stories in the Paris Review. His story, Little Expressionless Animals, about a woman with an innate fear that is exploited on a television game show was both disturbing and brilliant. When his first short story collection came out shortly thereafter, I was so enthralled that I read it in one day. I recommended it to a friend who never returned my copy; I'm sure the bastard just liked it too much to give it back.

David Foster Wallace killed himself a few days ago in Southern California. His books never sold well. I never was able to see him give a reading - believe me I would have loved the opportunity - but had I gone to one, I'm sure that less than 40 people would have shown up. He was just too smart and too good a writer to attract a decent size audience.

Yet when he died, the news of his death was major news in a few venues that could care less about serious writers. Maybe it was the way he died. Suicidal artists, I guess, make news because they give us fodder to talk about how artists are such tortured souls. It's titillating news even if the subject being described is someone hardly anyone has ever read. Give a news article a heading of something along the lines of "Major Writer Kills Himself" and you can probably draw in more than a few people to read at least a few lines.

It's an aspect of human nature, the news equivalent of rubber-necking, that's less than admirable.

That said, Mr. Wallace was indeed a tortured soul. You knew it from just reading one page of anything he wrote. He was also one of the brightest public or at least semi-public people in America. I'm very smart and can get full of myself easily. But when I'm around people like David Foster Wallace I'm reminded in an instant that there are people who can run rings around me intellectually.

It's a truism that the smarter you are, the sadder you are. Of course, there are brilliant people with temperaments that allow them to find and explore happiness with ease on a regular basis. But my view is that they are the exceptions. If you're hyper- aware of the details of the world around you, you tend to notice the dust in the corners, the things that don't quite work, the daily inequities in most people's lives even if your own life may be a rather charmed thing.

I know what profound sadness is. I suffered from a horrible depression in my teens and twenties and thank god every day that it hasn't returned. It's just luck that it hasn't is my view. When I wake up, I say a prayer, look outside, and the world almost always looks good to me more or less. The trees, the foliage, the birds, the shapes of the clouds, the smell of the air, mostly it fills me with wonder. I'm thankful that it does. I also know that there are stupid little things like going into a large grocery store with its high pink fluorescent lighting that can make me feel sad; I do my best to avoid them.

I wonder if I could maintain my sense of wonder if I was as bright as someone like Mr. Wallace. Somehow I have my doubts. I remember once giving a lecture at a university and one of those oh so bright tortured souls, someone whom I knew, came up to me after and asked me a question about something I said that wasn't quite right. "I heard one of your gears click a bit when you said that," he said. He wasn't trying to put me down. He was just stating a fact. I felt that gear click, too. He had comprehended not only everything I said that day, but also understood my emotional and mental state in saying my every word. I looked at him and thought, "How the hell can anyone live with that level of awareness?"

I think that the answer is that not everyone can. David Foster Wallace RIP.


Claire said...

1) If you wanted to meet him, why didn't you say so? You knew he was a professor at my college. He did readings and whatnot.

2) I think you may be underestimating his popularity to prove your point. Bookscan (which generally picks up about 50% of sales) reports more than 66,000 copies of Infinite Jest sold, for example--and that's just since 2001, five years after the book was published. Not Oprah bestseller numbers, certainly, but hardly an obscure literary figure.

fortyquestions said...

DFW certainly wasn't an obscure literary figure, but he was an obscure public one. I didn't mean to single him out as particularly obscure. I went to a free reading by Michael Chabon a couple of months ago with 30 people attending. Chabon has likely sold far more than DFW and has won a Pulitzer Prize, but remains largely an obscure public figure (although he did make People's 50 Most Beautiful or whatever they call it one year!) as well. It's par for the course.

You may not remember this, but I talked to you about DFW when it was announced that he was coming to Pomona. I didn't notice him giving any readings when I visited although it's true I didn't say to you explicitly, "Make sure to tell me if he's giving a reading." But it's your job to read my mind! So there!

Claire said...

Hmm. It may be hard for me to see the gap between "obscure public figure" literary authors and "not obscure public figure" literary authors, because even the most "out there" literary authors are so quiet compared to what I'm used to from genre authors--they don't host and post on message boards (or blog with extensively interactive comment threads), they don't set up dinners with groups of fans when they're out traveling, they don't encourage lengthy e-mail correspondence, they don't go to conventions and hang out and chat in the bar.

But it's still hard for me to grasp the idea of DFW as a distant literary figure, when in my head he'll always be "that professor who locked the door on late students."

(Chabon's Amazing Adventures sold an order of magnitude more copies than Infinite Jest, for the record. Can you tell that Bookscan is one of my favorite toys?)