On the Road

A university exhibit and a new book look at David Foster Wallace's life and work. Scott McLemee visits the relics...

April 7, 2010

About 20 years ago, while I was working in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, one of my fellow archival technicians was a recently graduated Yalie who had been employed at one point by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University is home to, among other things, the Ezra Pound papers. "After a while,” my friend said, “you started to notice something about the Ezra Pound scholars. They looked like Ezra Pound. Not all of them, of course, but a lot of them did. You could tell when there was a conference because all these guys who looked like Ezra Pound were in the reading room.”

This raised questions, of course, about influence and causality: Did you start imitating Ezra Pound after studying him for a while, or was it that guys who already looked a little bit like the poet were more likely to specialize in him? Did people in other specialties or fields of study do this? We did not have people in powdered wigs showing up at the LC asking to see the papers of the Founding Fathers. Did they maybe have powdered wigs in their backpacks but thought better of it when they saw the security guards?

And so the conversation progressed after work, after beers. I forget what conclusions we reached, but that may be for the best.

Some of it came to mind a couple of weeks ago while I was back at my own alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, standing in the lobby of the Harry Ransom Center, where there is a small display of a few items from the recently acquired papers of David Foster Wallace. I had made inquiries about having a look at the collection. It is still being processed, and I was told that doing so would only be possible during a return trip this fall. I imagined coming back in November to a reading room full of David Foster Wallace scholars -- unshaven guys in bandannas, presumably. So much for stealing a march on them....

The glass case in the Ransom Center lobby contains a few pages of the typescript of his novel Infinite Jest, and the page proofs of a biography of Borges that he wrote about for The New York Times (full of the marginal and inside-the-cover notes a reviewer makes along the way), and also a poem about Vikings that he had written at the age of 7.

The display was a modest concession to public curiosity. While no amount of staring at it could spark in my brain any new insight into DFW's work, it had the virtue of being unsensationalistic. A writer who kills himself runs the risk -- and he must have known this -- of having his life and work turned into one long suicide note. That is both ghoulish and dumb, but perhaps understandable, given that the act of writing itself tends to be lacking in overt drama. It is easier to focus on the big exit than the steady application of backside to chair.

One small element of the display did have an emotional charge, at least for this viewer. Inside the cover of the Borges biography (which he ended up finding disappointing) Wallace recorded the word count and deadline his editor had given him when assigning the piece. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about either the note or its location; it is the kind of thing a reasonably efficient working writer jots down as a matter of course.

But there is a complex double-take involved in seeing Wallace in those terms: a genius, yes, but also, among other things, a reasonably efficient working writer, immersed in the everyday routines of that particular mode of being in the world.

Returning last week to the familiar clutter of my Inside Higher Ed cubicle -- a scene less of reasonable efficiency than entropic squalor -- I found that Broadway Books has sent a copy of David Lipsky’s new volume Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. It consists of the transcript of five days’ worth of conversations that Lipsky, a novelist and Rolling Stone contributing editor, had with Wallace in early 1996, when Infinite Jest had just appeared. There are a few pages of introductory material by Lipsky himself. They overlap a bit with the memorable article Lipsky published following Wallace’s death, but not that much, and anyone who has read the one should also check out the other.

Becoming Yourself is not that long a book (just over 300 pages, most of them well-ventilated with white space) but I found it a slow read, because something about the whole thing felt disquieting. Lipsky was accompanying Wallace on part of his book tour. Their discussions, recorded on tape, were meant to be raw material for a Rolling Stone profile that, for one reason or another, never quite came together. Although a sort of intimacy emerges, the whole thing is marked by the strained dynamic of self-consciousness squared -- for each of them is alert to the Goffmanian undercurrents of each step of the whole encounter, the way that each element of self-disclosure (whether by interviewer or by subject) is at least potentially a form of manipulation.

That tension will not come as a surprise to any reader of Wallace. The ratcheting-up of self-awareness, particularly as provoked and channeled by the mass media, is the vital pulse of his writing, whether fiction or non-. He never left you with the sense that he was exempt from it in its most inexorable and on-autopilot forms; on the contrary. But with pen in hand, he could, if not exactly regulate the pace and intensity of hyperlucidly self-conscious frames of mind, then at least do something with them, creatively.

Not so here. At times Wallace finds himself at sea, treading water, going in circles. His comments, made between stints of promoting Infinite Jest, are riddled with a sense of complicity in something he understands as both necessary and dubious. (Commercially necessary; existentially dubious.)

He has, he says, “written a book about how seductive image is, and how very many ways there are to get seduced off any kind of meaningful path, because of the way the culture is now. But what if I become this grotesque parody of just what the book is about? And of course, this stuff drives me nuts.... So the next level of complication is, do I congratulate myself on my worry and concern about all this stuff, because it is a sign that I’ve not been seduced about it? And then of course, if I get happy about that, then I’ve lost the edge – I mean, there’s just no end to the little French curls of craziness you can go through about it.”

True, that. But these are remarks, and remarks are not literature. Over time it becomes obvious that Wallace is in perfect earnest about the fear of distraction from work – from making literature, that is, rather than being part of the culture industry, with its ambient sound (as he puts it) of “this enormous hiss of egos at various stages of inflation and deflation.” Wallace is the most eloquent in the passages where, no mistake about it, you can hear his desire to stop talking.

Best to end, then, with one of them:

“What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit – to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level. And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is. Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time. And it’s not a question of the writer having more capacity than the average person. It’s that the writer is willing I think to cut off, cut himself off from certain stuff, and develop ... and just, and think really hard. Which not everybody has the luxury to do. But I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person.”

Usually the reader imitates the author -- hoping to absorb that state of grace or genius, or at least to share in its aura. Here the roles have shifted, the polarities reversed. This is why his death seems such a loss. Reading him, there was the sense that he understood the way we live now. He would tell us what we knew about it. Almost knew, but not yet.


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