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Who’ll Take Care of His Dogs?: David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)


David Foster Wallace hanged himself at some point on Friday. He wasn’t “one of the best writers of his generation” or any of that eulogy stuff, he was the ONLY writer.

All the other dudes whose style closely resembled his, took influence from, or even influenced him, and shared some sort of loose, critic-created kinship with Infinite Jest, or his insanely smart and genuinely hilarious non-fiction, weren’t really doing the same thing. Wallace was funny and fun but not in a like, bon mot-making author way but in a like, everything is absurd and I can make poop jokes about it and reference stuff like Good Times or whatever and not be this writer being funny horse-shit guy and be intellectually rigorous and somehow not even like, be on some I’m reconciling opposites”/high-low/postmodern thing” but just being, inhabiting, both of those things because they were who “DFW” seemed to be.

Wallace seemed like a big guy. Soft-spoken and stammering in interviews, trying to find the “right” words to Charlie Rose’s silly questions but also sort of bursting out of his dress-shirt and in author photos–especially the recent-ish one with his beloved dogs (there’s a great interview in an old The Believer where Wallace gushes about his love of his dogs)–wearing these shit-kicker boots and looking like he could wreck you in a fight if push came to shove.

It was always hard to tell how much his public, bandanda-wearing, long-haired “look” was an image, a weird merging of like a DH Lawrence alpha-male character (DFW basically looked like a lumberjack) and the worst, most obsequious kind of grad student and how much of it was really just how he dressed, but it sort of illustrates his writing…both head-in-the-clouds intellectual insanity and hard-edged, morally serious confrontation with the sad, hard, and glorious realities of life.

Imagine that bigger-than-average lumberjack body hanging, a foot or so from the floor, the toes of his shit-kicker boots aimed back toward the ground. In my head, he’s wearing the exact outfit and looks exactly the same a he does in that aforementioned author photo.

Were his dogs in the house? Did he stick them outside or on the porch or something? As he undoubtedly dangled for awhile, were they barking? He would’ve realized the absurdity of that. I’m not saying it would or should’ve stopped him–the time I tried to kill myself, The Harder They Come OST was playing in my car and I realized this was sort of funny and absurd, but I was alone, so I could ignore the absurdity and not be embarrassed; beyond-palpable feelings of embarrassment are a big reason why people kill themselves–but no doubt, Wallace would’ve thought about these things. His non-fiction especially, showed that he wasn’t the kind of big-brain that could turn it off or adjust it. Why Kafka was funny, David Lynch, tennis, or the Adult Video News award all got approached the same way.

A mildly clever line about the author who never took the easy way out in his writing, taking his life by his own hand could be made, but that would sort of miss the point of Wallace’s work, which was always about the impossibility of figuring everything out and genuinely reconciling things and trying really hard anyway.

His work was about challenging and confusing readers but not in an author as smarmy trickster way, but in a “I hope by challenging you, you will accept the challenge and maybe become a little less desensitized from everything”. This is why he wrote a respectful profile of John McCain for the reactionary left silliness that is ‘Rolling Stone’ or why he spoke to a bunch of graduating students and told them how they needed to shy away from their core, condescension and try harder (and chuckled when they sort of missed the point), and wrote a rap book that hyper-intellectualized rap before it was cool to hyper-intellectualize rap.

“Anyway, but then I started to have dogs. If you live by yourself and have dogs, things get strange. I know I’m not the only person who projects skewed parental neuroses onto his pets or companion-animals or whatever. But I have it pretty bad; it’s a source of some amusement to friends. First, I began to get this strong feeling that it was traumatic for them to be left alone more than a couple hours. This is not quite as psycho as it may seem, because most of the dogs I’ve ended up with have had shall we say hard puppyhoods, including one past owner who went to jail… but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that I got reluctant to leave them alone for very long, and then after a while I got so I actually needed one or more dogs around in order to be comfortable enough to feel like working. And all that put a crimp in outside-the-home writing, a change that in retrospect was not all that good for me because (a) I have agoraphobic tendencies anyway, and (b) home is obviously full of all kinds of distractions that library carrels aren’t.”

A lot of book critic eulogizers who like to think too hard have said stuff about how there’s no “suicide” in Wallace’s writing, while say, Hemingway’s short, hard-ass lines and phrasing are brutally accepting of reducing the world to um, short, hard-ass lines and turns of phrase and I guess, more “suicidal”. Wallace’s work is the same as Hemingway’s and all other writers reaching for empathy and understanding and a weary acceptance of what this world’s all about (or not about). Wallace’s “trick”, where his brilliance begins, is in his ability to take all that silly, fun, show-offy, post-modern, meta-fictional, inter-textual crap and use it for something more than “experimenting with the form” or revealing through post-modern fiction the very post-modernity of the world we live in; “the porousness of certain borders” to steal a phrase from Wallace himself. The only difference between Hemingway and Wallace was in approach…minimalism and maximalism used for the same end goals.

Wallace used all that postmodern stuff but found a good home for it–these tricks were like Wallace’s puppies, Burroughs and Barth and Barthelme and DeLillo had over time, given the techniques “bad puppyhoods”–and re-directed it towards empathy and understanding and human emotions. Yeah, you open Infinite Jest and the jokes are about how each year’s owned by a corporation are there and the footnotes purposeful inhibit conventional readability and the titular film is a comment on how media eats our souls, but all that stuff was the obvious part of Jest. A “trick” in Wallace’s work was the way he exposed the superficiality of a lot of readers and critics who read Infinite Jest, or “The Depressed Person”, or “Incarnations of Burned Children” superficially and then smugly decried the work as superficial.

Wallace’s work, starting with Infinite Jest and up to his death was about sadness. He stated his goal in writing Jest in a interview as this: “I wanted to do something sad. I’d done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I’d never done anything sad”. Those footnotes are funny but they’re also joy-hindering interruptions. The kind of interruption you experience when you are watching your favorite TV show and there’s a commercial is the kind of interruption an addict experiences when the path of the straight and narrow gets de-railed is the kind of interruption that occurs when you wake up, determined not to mumble “fuck…” first-thing and expect the worst, only to you know, be confronted with the worst or something close to it…like the death of the only author who really seemed to get or care about what life was like for most people.

Written by Brandon

September 15th, 2008 at 7:14 pm