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Monday, September 15, 2008

Laura Miller on David Foster Wallace

posted by on September 15 at 11:38 AM

From Salon:

He talked about how difficult it was to be a novelist in a world seething with advertisements and entertainment and knee-jerk knowingness and facile irony. He wrote about the maddening impossibility of scrutinizing yourself without also scrutinizing yourself scrutinizing yourself and so on, ad infinitum, a vertiginous spiral of narcissism—because not even the most merciless self-examination can ignore the probability that you are simultaneously congratulating yourself for your soul-searching, that you are posing. He tried so hard to be sincere and to attend to the world around him because he was excruciatingly aware of how often we are merely “sincere” and “attentive” and all too willing to leave it at that. He spoke of the discipline and of the abrading, daily labor such efforts require because the one imperative that runs throughout all of his work is the intimate connection between humility and wisdom.

Like a lot of us at The Stranger, I found out in the aged grandeur of the Moore’s lobby, at the Genius Awards party on Saturday night, when someone handed me an iPhone with a news story on it. It seemed impossible that the pixels on the screen were actually shaped into these letters, spelling out this news. David Foster Wallace? Hanged? Wife found him? Wha—? There were things to celebrate on Saturday, but gravity had just shifted, the lights had just flickered, and it was with a lot of stomach sadness that we went on celebrating.

Here is Laura Miller talking about stomach sadness with DFW in 1996, right after Infinite Jest was published. (The whole interview is fascinating—click on the link at the bottom of that first page to keep going.) And here is DFW’s most recent—generous, intrepid, unlikely—short story for The New Yorker. (Representative sentence: “The appointment was for afternoon, but when the doorbell had rung so early and his mother’d called to him up the stairs, he had known, and a terrible kind of blankness had commenced falling through him.”)

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I laughed, but in an odd way. I was surprised, but there was just something about the rope that triggered the response that wasn't warmly received in the circle. Kind of like the scene in The Rules of Attraction when the gal places her rings down one by one, and then the razor. Suicide that takes more steps than an arm lift and a pinch just makes me laugh. Forgive me.

Posted by soooooorry | September 15, 2008 12:03 PM

I noticed you filed this under 'Genius.' Maybe if you guys gave him an award, this wouldn't have happened.

Posted by Cheap Shot | September 15, 2008 12:11 PM

I think he obviously was suffering, but a damn coward if he resorted to this, having a loving wife who would have helped him.

Sorry, but what a jerk.

Posted by Original Monique | September 15, 2008 12:32 PM

@3: I disagree, Original Monique. He was clearly disturbed—-manic depressive and in the process of changing or trying to drop his meds. What happened was not cowardly; the man was disturbed. I usually agree with you, but you're really wrong here. Mental illness isn't cowardice.

Posted by Paul Constant | September 15, 2008 12:36 PM

Tremendously sad--for readers and especially for his family.

Posted by Westside forever | September 15, 2008 12:37 PM

@Paul: I agree, mental illness is not in itself cowardice. This situation just really botheres me. He was not alone, broke, or mistreated. He was a well-respected auhtor, beloved by many. Having family around him, obviously willing to help.

I know that depression can get really bad, and yes, while switching meds it can be almost impossible (I have many in my family with these problems) but seriously, this just seems like he decided not to fight anymore. And when I think of all the people that I know personally that have fought this pain, if only for their loved ones, I think he is a jerk. I know it seems harsh, but really I can't help feeling that way.

Full Disclosure: My brother killed himself after long suffering mental illness and drug abuse. I think he is a jerk/coward too. Instead of fighting, these people just give up.

Posted by Original Monique | September 15, 2008 12:46 PM

I will add though, condolences to all. Especially his poor wife.

RIP Mr. Wallace.

Posted by Original Monique | September 15, 2008 12:49 PM

@ OM: I know from personal experience that you're thoughtful and considerate and not at all a jackass, and that your intentions aren't bad. I just wanted to point out that his choices were probably not his own when he did it.

Posted by Paul Constant | September 15, 2008 12:54 PM

I'm about as sad as it's possible to be about someone I never knew having died too soon. I loved Wallace's writing tremendously and wish that he had won his long battle with depression, yet I hate this idea that people in severe pain should endure agony for decades like dancing bears because it makes the people around them feel better.

It's a horrible way out. Condolences to his family, friends, and students especially.

Posted by josh | September 15, 2008 1:00 PM

Paul, true enough. I do feel very sorry for him. I know his suffering must have been extremely great and painful.

Posted by Original Monique | September 15, 2008 1:08 PM

I too, have a brother who killed himself. He was not a coward or a jerk, he was profoundly depressed, and thus, gravely ill.
Anger and rage are common responses to the suicide of others, as are guilt, sorrow, and confusion. All I know is this: If you can't find some compassion for them you will never find any compassion for yourselves.

Posted by inkweary | September 15, 2008 2:00 PM

When you pass judgment like that, you're just patting yourself on the back. When I call you a coward, I'm saying,"Look at me, brave and macho." I call you a jerk: "I'm so much more considerate than you."

You have no idea till you walk in someone's shoes. For example. When my cousin killed herself, I'm quite sure she thought she was doing the best possible thing for her children.

Part of depression is distorted thinking. She truly believed she was sparing her family. Sure I'm angry and sad and I miss her, but to call her a coward and a jerk would be to misunderstand.

Posted by Sara | September 15, 2008 2:16 PM

DFW died the same day as my father. Both were crushing blows. Although Wallace wasn't a personal relationship, it is a loss I experienced with much sadness. Wallace's kindness with other writers was commendable. "Tense Present" on democracy and the dictionary wars changed my thinking about language. Wallace's three-page sentences were about more than his brilliance; they oriented our minds too.

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