The Living Dead

By

David Foster Wallace speaks to us from beyond the grave in David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself—but should we be listening?

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As I’m sure you know, David Foster Wallace, a writer celebrated by many as our generation’s very own, true, certifiable literary genius—of a kind America had not been able to credibly boast for a very long time—hanged himself in his home in Claremont, California, in September of 2008.

In April of 2009, Little, Brown published This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life a transcript of Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. It’s a good speech that expresses an invaluable sentiment about selfless living. It is approximately 94 sentences long and was—until recently—available online, for free. The book contains 144 pages and lists for $14.99. You do the math.

In April, 2011, LB will publish the Wallace’s unfinished last novel, The Pale King, the early excerpts of which are, in my opinion, staggeringly good. For this I am thankful to Michael Pietsch and Little, Brown, and to Wallace himself, who apparently prepped the unfinished manuscript for mailing before leaving this world behind.

Now, too, you may go out and purchase Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself—another transcript, this of an extended interview with Wallace that Rolling Stone assigned to writer David Lipsky in 1996, during the final days of the book tour for Wallace’s juggernaut second novel, Infinite Jest. Though they killed the original feature story, a retooled version of the interview finally ran in RS in 2009, on the occasion of Wallace’s death. The raw ore of the transcript is left more or less unrefined by Lipsky in Although of Course, and though I bought it on sight—in my haste thinking it was a formal biography—I now can’t help but wonder, “Do we really need this?”

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It seems inevitable that some people will purchase Although of Course in search of clues as to Wallace’s final motivations. Wallace, who died at 46, was more than a decade younger when the interview was conducted. Can a 34-year old writer who still teaches at a state college in Illinois, and whose new 1100-page monster has just hit the shelves, and a 46-year old cultural icon even be considered the same person? Is there anything but sentimental value to be found in the faded portrait of an author, one that may no longer be germane? The answer is yeah. But not for the reasons you might think.

There is a contingent that will suggest the entirety of this posthumous release is opportunistic, in bad taste, simply gross. Part of that argument rests on the fact that some of these publications are not author-sanctioned. It’s the squeaky little voice of conscience that struggles to make itself heard over the din of necrophilia that erupts whenever someone famous dies tragically. We heard it trail after Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith. But the question of whether or not any of this is in good taste is really pretty uninteresting to me. Celebrity is an intrinsically morbid phenomenon. It lusts to be the agent of death, and then picks the bones clean in self-congratulation when it succeeds. The Bacchante tore Orpheus to pieces and, in some stories, ate the pieces, after all. What reasonable expectation should an author have of controlling his body of work from beyond the grave? Moreover, is it reasonable to believe that the things one meant to suppress were well-enough hidden that they’ll be any surprise once they come to light?

Let’s be honest. What we’re talking about here is a person’s right to manipulate how others see them, something Wallace apparently struggled with every day of his life, if his writing and interviews are any indication. It’s an inalienable right, but one that depends entirely on our ability to outwit our audience—and so it’s a right that one inevitably loses in death. Death is nothing if not the ultimate loss of control.

If it’s condescending for us to appoint ourselves the stewards of a dead man’s memory, it’s also kind of superstitious. It suggests that we believe the author can see us from his cloud somewhere, that he can disapprove of all the hideous things we’re attaching to his memory. Concerns about posthumously released work should center around the living—not the dead.

And so rather than ask whether Wallace would have approved, a more important question we might ask, especially as more of his work comes to light, is: “Is this good for us?”

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I’ve written about the occasion of David Foster Wallace’s death before. At the time, I consciously avoided discussing his suicide for two very specific reasons. The first was that I could imagine how horrible it was for those who actually knew and loved him, to stomach the glut of interpretation. The second is that I have an aversion to the interpretation of suicide altogether.

Any suicide has two meanings: that which the deceased understands, and which he takes to the grave; and that put together by those left behind, a fairy tale written by the living to try to understand their loss. But the reasons we might speculate for why a person has taken their own life have less to do with the truth of their choice than with our attempts to make ourselves relevant to that choice—because suicide is a death that suggests we were, in fact, irrelevant in the face of some ineffable sorrow.

For the people who experience suicide first-hand, this making of meaning is utterly necessary. In the case of celebrity suicide, it’s an impulse taken up and easily perverted by the public, who grieve earnestly but ignorantly and very often selfishly.

For instance, when I learned (via text message) that Wallace had killed himself, I felt a tiny flutter of validation under my immediate horror and grief: “This proves his genius.” Now the media have turned that whisper into a shout. Read any of the profiles occasioned by his death, or any number of the reviews of Lipsky’s book, and what you will find are otherwise sober biographers unable to resist the impulse to equate Wallace’s suicide with his genius. It’s almost as if we are trying to include Wallace’s death in his body of work, as if we want to believe it was some kind of message we can understand. Wallace was profound, incisive, sui generis. We want his death to be those things, too.

It isn’t. It can’t be.

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The great strength of Lipsky’s book is that it is unedited. Reading Although of Course, my initial disappointment gave way to a deep appreciation. By letting Wallace speak uncensored—or, more specifically, by denying the 34 year old the right to edit himself—Lipsky has given us what we urgently need in the wake of Wallace’s suicide, if only we will let ourselves acknowledge it: a picture of an inconsistent, flawed human being.

Wallace’s brilliance is available on-demand. Although much is made in reviews of Lipsky’s book of Wallace’s reluctance to sit for interviews, a wealth of such material has been accessible through the fansite The Howling Fantods for nearly as long as Lipsky’s has languished unread. And to answer my own question about the continuity of Wallaces over time: In my opinion, the material offered online shows a consistent and insightful worldview throughout his career.

That continuity is almost precisely the problem: To look at these interviews, one might assume that David Foster Wallace was incapable of anything but profundity. It adds to the temptation to appropriate his suicide for petty intellectual exercise. What Lipsky offers instead is a young man with a crush on Alanis Morrisette; who intellectualizes this crush in a way that might be familiar to the similarly overeducated; who does not seem particularly annoyed by dog shit on his carpet; who speaks in a jangling, clipped drawl that a merciless Lipsky represents orthographically to the point of irritating the reader; who jokes in far too convincing a way for far too long about his disappointment that Infinite Jest is not yet getting him laid.

None of this is done out of malice. One feels a genuine love at the heart of Lipsky’s literary photograph. He showcases a young, expansive mind at work that was, at times, small and even a little creepy in ways that we could all recognize if we would only admit our own, similar failings, if we would only allow our geniuses the inconsistencies of being that we suffer every day.

You can choose. Wallace’s suicide can stand on its own as the last, tragic act of a medically depressed man who was, in that moment, fleeing pain and incapable of rational thought. Or you can choose to make his final act the antithesis of a career that championed selflessness, sacrifice, and humility. You can choose to insist it was the author that took his own life and not the man, and, in so doing, leave yourself with the unanswerable question of that contradiction, and of the ultimate value of his work in light of it.

A friend of mine says this essay ends abruptly, that it doesn’t give a satisfying sense of completion or meaning when all is said and done. That it doesn’t offer consolation.

Okay.


Tye Pemberton is a graduate of USC and an MFA candidate at Columbia University. His nonfiction and short stories have appeared in Watchword, Versal, and the Manifesto issue of We Still Like. More from this author →