Revisiting David Foster Wallace

 

We like whole, round numbers, especially when they’re linked to celebrations, anniversaries, demarkations of memorable times, both good and bad.

On February 21st, David Foster Wallace would have turned 50 years old. To mark this whole number I watched an interview of his I’d somehow missed, the full eighty-plus-minute interview with German TV’s ZDFmediatek, and delighted in DFW’s stumbling, long-pause-defined attempt to spill the secrets of literary writing to yet another person who must be made to understand that writing is a difficult process to explain, especially with cameras all around you. To make things go more smoothly, he turns the interview into a conversation; it’s obvious he’s doing this as a favor to his agent and new German publisher, and is constantly sipping his coffee and closing his eyes to refocus any question posed to him. He looks completely uncomfortable and out of his element, and keeps asking if anything he says is making sense.

Beyond a few minor surprising answers, this was what I enjoyed the most about the interview: his squirming. The greatest writerly asset DFW had was not his superb memory or his childlike curiosity or his jarring ability in almost every one of his meandering paragraphs to suddenly snap his fingers and deliver a cultural truth to us in one quotable, pithy moment, it was the ability to do all these things and still come off as an honest human being struggling to understand why the world was so terrifying and sad. And to keep at the heart of his investigation his own sympathy. At the beginning of the Believer interview with D. Eggars, DFW’s future plans include “TO TRY EXTRA HARD TO EXERCISE PATIENCE, POLITENESS, AND IMAGINATION ON THOSE WITH WHOM I DISAGREE,” which sums up the basic attitude I’ve heard him display each time I’ve heard him speak: the many times online (the Charlie Rose interview is a good one) and once in person, at an NYU talk/mutual-interview he did with George Saunders (somebody must have a bootleg of this–please email me if you do!). I still remember a few details from the talk: Saunders quoting Trotsky, how DFW pronounced coitus “co-ee-tus,” and how some asshole from the crowd tried to get them both to hate on Rick Moody. But mostly I remember how uncomfortable DFW seemed at first, at least until he began talking about how scared and sad human beings are. It was a subject he’d obviously spent some time with, and when he spoke of it, it was almost a plea for us, his audience, to recognize we were in very real ways our brothers keepers. We were responsible for each other; it was us and then oblivion.

Speaking of which, don’t read the Karen Green interview with the Guardian unless you have a loved one close enough to spoon afterwards. If you, like me, plan to wallow in some David Foster Wallace aftermath celebration, I invite you to check out The Awl’s “46 Things to Read and See for DFW’s 50th Birthday.” Ouch. And, wow, fun! I plan on reading Pale King during the summer, not cooped up indoors, on a train to a beach perhaps.

Side note: It was my intention once to download Infinite Jest onto my iPhone and write a piece of entertaining journalism on the bizarre and difficult joys of small textual spaces but got fifty pages in and had to fight the urge to throw my phone away. Hence, no such piece exists in my ouvre. I’m sure I’ll get around to it someday. Perhaps it’ll find its form with the haiku.