This twisted appreciation of David Foster Wallace began as an email to my good friend Paula. I’ve edited it a bit since sending it to her, but for the most part it remains the same as I wrote it struggling to survive the weirdest illness I’ve ever had. (Click the photo to the left and it will take you to a short story published by the New Yorker in 2007 called “Good People.”).
By now you’ve heard that David Foster Wallace hung himself to death on Friday, September 12th. Around that time, I was just beginning a four-day, all out defense against a flu virus the likes of which have never been seen — literally, it would appear, since my name is now on the first page of the CDC’s list of 2008 flu-season illnesses treated in a hospital.
I would like to believe the wild and crazy spirit of DFW may have had a role in things attacking my body (although I know he would have no reason to do so). I knew nothing of his demise until Monday the 15th after a Sunday afternoon in the ER and the embarrassment of realizing that I wasn’t actually going to die (the embarrassment coming when my wife reported that she’d paid the $200 ER co-pay and that it was all right, but still if I could just learn to be sick a bit better without suffering quite so much we would have saved enough money to pay for the Orkin man to do a full sweep and extermination series on our dilapidated house).
I think DFW would have been fascinated by what happened to me on Friday night just as this virus was really kicking into high gear. I was lying on our couch, having dozed on and off through David Letterman and Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late” show. This was weird enough. In my super-psychotic state both shows annoyed me immensely. I began to worry that I’d finally gone beyond Schtick. That’s a terrifying feeling even if you question it from the get-go because you know you’re actually just moronically feeble due to a bunch of microscopic parasites looking to turn your brain into a frothing megalopolis. “I’ve gone beyond Schtick! Oy, fuck me!” Only David Foster Wallace would truly understand the path of fear I had stepped onto. Going beyond Schtick leaves irony behind as well; going beyond Schtick is a step into the unknown.
All of this was through the slow and gradual incremental anti-zen fermentation of viral LOVE that ultimately resulted in this little case of sleep apnea that I took on. By the end of Ferguson’s floggity “Late, Late,” I was floating in and out of sleep in a stupor and fog, sick as a door mouse crushed by barefooted clowns at a combined septuagenarian orgy and an octogenarian S&M-for-late-comers coming out party.
When you’re as sick as I was, sleep is the only heaven. But when every few minutes you begin to doze, feeling nearly pain free, and then you awaken first to the sense that you’re drowning in cotton and warm water, (can’t breathe mother fucker!), and then you realize you can, but oh My God how absolutely horrible it is to feel my body, and what the fuck is on TV?…What the?… perfect people sitting around a room, driving in perfect cars? I heard them just as I was falling asleep: insanely brilliant banter, socially astounding quips and metaphorical lunges, sexy voices, a plot that can turn a lag bolt under a summer deck in Maine. Brilliance!
I think: David Foster Wallace, are you writing TV shows? I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s beyond Mamet because its not trying to be anything important or thick with blood and turmoil.
I think these small but important thoughts about this Foster Wallace TV creation, understanding that I’m really just captured by a crude, multiplying substance roaming through my body, turning it into a home, and then I’m drowning again. It comes as a shock every time. Ub lub lub lub, I hate…and then I look up and everyone on the show has stopped speaking. They’re sitting there or standing in utter silence. I barely have time to register something is wrong, then I’m slipping into a daze again; I hear the intelligent dialog, feel the effect of profundity, and then I’m in a state of paranoid fear, I’m dying! They come up again, only this time the TV flashes a montage of close and wide-angle versions of these people’s lives, they’re not saying a thing, I’m wondering and breathing for my life and then I’m under again thinking maybe it’s them trying to suffocate me and the reason they’re not talking is that they’re waiting to see if I’m just going to die right there.
This went on for about an hour. I didn’t realize until the next day that I wasn’t really sleeping but just letting the virus play with my health. Germs are very intelligent, I think, lying there in agony with my beautiful, healthy wife taking my temperature. I’m hoping they’re not as intelligent as my wife.
The most frightening moment of that night came near the end of the show. I vaulted confused out of my swamp, snuffing and gasping, angry really, and they were all there in a room on the set, just staring at me with a hint of sadness on their faces. That’s when I knew I needed to turn the TV to ESPN reruns of Sports Center. Nothing is more soothing than hearing the same Schtick over and over when it is the importance of sports that is at stake. There is no way to go beyond ESPN Schtick.
Three days later, randomly it seemed at first, I read on my Salon.com an email posting of DFW’S self-hanging. “This is not real,” I thought. “How can you joke about something like this?” He is invincible! How can you be a God of Reality, a maker of Truth like no one else living in this language, and do such a thing. Surely, a joke…I was finally on the mend. Turns out I needed a double dose of Tylenol along with a double dose of Motrin. I’d only been taking Motrin in 200 mg tabs. Should have been 400 all along and taken with the Tylenol, not staggered, which was just a schedule that seemed more healthy. My wife never said, that’s an expensive lesson, $200 to learn that you need 1000 mg of Tylenol and 400 mg of Motrin, but she didn’t have to either. I love my wife. David Foster Wallace could not have killed himself. I feel so much better. But he had…
We’ve lost one of only four great writers living in America today. This will piss a lot of you off, but I don’t care. Barry Hannah, Don DeLillo, and Annie Dillard are the other three. DFW was the tops though. He was our Michael Jordon, our Muhammad Ali. And no one, except us hacks who had aspirations of these four’s absolute human genius, American genius, no one understood how important David’s work was and how he was preparing this next generation to fly finally beyond post-modern twittery. I read Infinite Jest on the toilet only. I figure with over 1200 pages it will take me at least 600 sessions on that toilet. I have Oblivion and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men next to my bed. I get false erections whenever I find a new essay, interview, or story by him in general media. How could anyone be so damned amazing as a writer? How could anyone tell the truth so well about being an American with a brain? How could anyone actually think you’re supposed try to tell the truth…not the literary truth but the raw up the butt truth, the sense of being a turd on the way down, sad, so sad…
I had intended for years to write to DFW after reading an interview in which he talked about “the click” and honesty and good writing being about dying in order to move the reader; that good writing is about really giving something to the reader — de-egoized; that there may be some writer out there who has gone beyond irony, a writer who uses sincerity as his tool, who brings back in the flush of life as lived through love. I wanted to write to him to tell him that I think that’s what I’ve been doing because I can’t even define what irony is and it makes sense, because for every great piece of fiction I’ve ever written I’ve received nothing but rejection. I was going to ask him if he might read my very long, sad novel about confused male sexuality. It would have been pathetic, I know. He is four years younger than me and I’m kind of seeing him as a god (a King really), but there you have it. By now, I would hope you’d expect something as childish as that from me. It’s not my childishness though. It’s his greatness. I’m willing to grovel at the feet of someone whose understanding of American literature was the new beginning we all wanted, even back there in 1977 when it became clear that Ken Kesey did not want to write anymore. We wanted something. I kept looking. I kept trying. Roth, Oates, Bellow, Salinger, Ford, Cheever, Munro — shit the list goes on and on. You can’t imagine how many girls I’ve picked up with the line, “When are we going to find the next Fitzgerald, Kerouac, or Hemingway? When? No, no, no, all of these you list are derivative, realist, bullshit.”
What would I say to DFW now, other than what I’ve already said here? Only one thing, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart: I love you David Foster Wallace. I love you and we’re in deep shit now without your navigating system and your mapping of the social mind lost amongst the objects. I love you David Foster Wallace, and thank you.
And, no, I never picked up a girl with a line about the poor state of writing in America. Only you, David Foster Wallace, could have pulled something like that off.