Why David Foster Wallace’s afterlife is going so well
Salon’s Laura Miller wrote an article yesterday that brushed against a fascinating subject I would summarize like this: Why is David Foster Wallace having such a great afterlife? (Here on earth that is–let’s leave spiritual afterlife for another day.) Miller has this to say about the novelist and journalist who committed suicide in September, 2008:
The posthumous transformation of Wallace’s reputation has been a disconcerting thing to behold. … Wallace’s death was tragic, but the actual tragedy has been further wrapped in a mantle of hysterical pop tragedy, that process by which virtually any self-destroying celebrity is transubstantiated into the avatar of each fan’s personal misery. (Special bonus irony: Who would be perfect to write about this metamorphosis? David Foster Wallace!)
I was hoping she would keep traveling down this road, because I have been fascinated, although not disconcerted, by Wallace’s transformation. Instead, Miller dutifully tracks the new book by David Lipsky “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace”, a transcript from a series of 1996 interviews. She never returns to her broader question. Maybe Miller plumbed the depth of her thinking on the topic. Her conclusion, as it stands, seems to be that Wallace’s death is easily compared to Corey Haim’s or, to match sensibilities, Kurt Cobain’s.
But I don’t think Wallace’s posthumous rise is about pop hysteria. Something more genuine is at work, at least for people beyond the literary circles concerned with Wallace before his death. The main element of his soaring afterlife is the quality of his thoughts. Wallace was a master talker–about his work, about literature in general, about life in general–it was his true populist genius. Gone were the complex forms of his fiction when he spoke. (His journalism was similar to his speaking.) What emerged in interviews and speeches was a human being who embodied the very thing that his irony-rich literary times disdained–sincerity. “The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, ‘then’ what do we do?” That is the question of our snarky times and of his own life. When Wallace talked, he extended literature’s reach beyond even his own writing.
If Miller’s concept of ‘pop tragedy’ is that we pay more attention to the lives and thoughts of famous people when they die prematurely–well, okay. But it’s natural. And I would contend that a semi-famous author–I’m sorry literati, but there were plenty of thoughtful people who didn’t know Wallace existed pre-death–would fade away fairly quickly if they didn’t have much to say in their lifetimes.
I have talked with several people who went to read ‘Infinite Jest’ as a way to understand him posthumously. They returned in varying states of perplexity. Maximalism is not everyone’s tea brand, after all. But underneath the digressions and bibliographies and OCD was a man with something to say that actually resonates with human beings interested in more than their 401K and lawn maintenance. Miller points to “This is Water,” Wallace’s 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College, which made the Internet rounds and “reincarnated (Wallace) in the public’s imagination as a dispenser of inspirational wisdom.”
Oh well, maybe that’s the way to put it. Another way is, it spoke to people where they were. In one selection from that speech, you can see Wallace’s struggle with form versus meaning.
.. important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Banal platitudes, as a concept not a reality, is what Wallace the thinker escaped in death. He emerged from behind the wall built by worry over ‘banal platitudes’ and was fully human to us. This understanding of the man became more poignant when D.T. Max wrote a masterful profile of Wallace in The New Yorker in March of 2009. The great struggle of Wallace’s writing life–to say something fundamental–was resolved once his words fully belonged to others. That explains his transformational afterlife.