I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.
I started reading Harvey Pekar’s comic book series American Splendor in high school, when I was anxious about my future and frustrated by my present. Little did I know then, Harvey would soon become a friend and a confidant of sorts.
At 16, my impending adulthood terrified me, and I worried often about my ability to do the ordinary things that an independent person must do to get by. I was convinced that facing the logistics of life—finding a place to live, paying the bills, going to the dentist—would deplete any happiness I might find. The bureaucracy and tedium of high school left me outraged, and like many young people who came of age during the Bush administration, I had a pretty grim view of humanity’s future.
I found hope and comfort in American Splendor, even as the comics actually confirmed some of my worst fears about the adult world. Harvey’s autobiographical protagonist faces all the challenges I worried about, and he doesn’t always respond to them with the calm maturity I hoped I would someday develop. Most of the stories in American Splendor take place at the hospital where Harvey worked for most of his life as a file clerk, or on the streets and stoops of his run-down Cleveland neighborhood. They chronicle his strained relationships with loved ones, his bouts with cancer and depression, and his frustration at practically everything.
American Splendor reassured me despite all this gloom. A lot of the comics recount run-ins with a cast of eccentrics; some strangers, some co-workers and friends. I think one of these vignettes, an encounter with a guy named Crazy Ed, inspired Pekar to start writing comics in the first place. I spent a lot of my life at the time wandering around the city and riding buses, so I had plenty of conversations with strangers myself, and I often enjoyed talking to them more than anything else I did. Pekar recognized that these interactions are not just funny anecdotes: they can sustain one’s spirits and make it easier to persevere. Getting through the day was hard, he affirmed, but it was worth it. Not for any great philosophical reason, but because ordinary life is filled with strange occurrences that are not to be missed. American Splendor helped me imagine a future I could handle, and I considered Harvey Pekar an ally on my path to adult stability.
When I saw a P.O. box listed in a back issue of American Splendor, I decided to write him a letter to thank him. I told him that his comic books reassured me that things would turn out okay, and that I loved the Mr. Boats stories (a series of comic strips about an elderly co-worker given to making grandiose statements in elevators). I didn’t really expect a response; my brother had made similar overtures to R. Crumb and never heard anything back. A few weeks later, though, my mom called me at work to tell me that I had gotten a letter from Harvey Pekar. Luckily, I worked in a bookstore, so I could brag about it without having to explain who he was.
The wrinkled, beat-up envelope from Cleveland contained a short note, in which Harvey thanked me for my letter and said I could give him a call if I wanted to talk some more. He had free long distance, and he didn’t have time to write long missives. I couldn’t believe that an accomplished writer wanted to talk to me, although I knew from references in the comic books that he had become friends with fans before.
I was extremely nervous the first time I called. His wife picked up the phone, and I stumbled through an awkward explanation of who I was. Once Harvey got on the phone I relaxed a little bit and we talked for a while. His voice was strained and raspy, due to a problem with his vocal chords that was charted in a series of comic strips. I felt bad about keeping him on the phone because it sounded so painful. Our first conversation was friendly but short. We mostly talked about comics we liked; he was very enthusiastic about young comic book writers like Keith Knight, and gratified by the medium’s newfound popularity. He was surprised that I found anything uplifting in American Splendor, since his work was often derided as too curmudgeonly. We agreed to talk again soon and he got off the phone to go to bed.
We had longer phone conversations over the next year. Harvey was warm and funny in conversation, but he also sounded worn out and subdued. In his comics, he portrayed himself bursting with energy and anger and enthusiasm. I knew this was an exaggeration of his personality, but I think the time I knew him was especially hard for him. It was a bad time for me too, and having someone to commiserate with helped. I was so grateful that he was interested in my problems that I felt presumptuous trying to help with his; I was just a kid and I didn’t have much perspective.
I remember one very serious conversation about living with chronic depression. He was amused that I expected him to have some words of wisdom on the topic, since he had struggled with these problems his whole life without overcoming them. Nonetheless, he did give me some advice that was both pragmatic and frightening, and I’ve tried to follow it ever since. I think Harvey didn’t even consider it good advice; it was just the only thing that worked. He told me that you have to force yourself to do whatever needs to be done to get through the day, no matter how you feel, and at some point later you’ll be glad you did.
We talked about lighter stuff too, mostly books and art. Harvey also told me to read as much as I could about everything I was interested in, and to keep educating myself whether I was in school or not. He believed in reading to satisfy curiosity and gain expertise, not just for pleasure, a philosophy in keeping with his pragmatic, unromantic approach to writing (another thing he encouraged me to do regularly). And, as any reader of American Splendor would expect, we spent a lot of time complaining.
We met in person twice, at comic book conventions in San Francisco and Portland, but I enjoyed talking on the phone more. The conventions were busy and crowded, and I was even shyer in person. When I introduced myself for the first time, I was flustered and asked if the convention gave him any free food. Recognizing a fellow cheapskate, he responded enthusiastically and gave me a handful of energy bars.
I was very sorry to hear about Harvey’s death last week. I’m sure our conversations meant more to me than they did to him, but I hope they cheered him up. Our acquaintance demonstrated one of the things I had loved about American Splendor: the importance of connections to strangers. The fan letter I wrote on a whim led to a brief but valuable friendship. Those talks helped me grow up. I took his advice and forced myself through the rest of high school. I’ve settled into the adult life I was so afraid of, and most of the things I dreaded turned out to be pretty easy. I wish I could thank him, and ask him for advice again, this time on figuring out what to do with my freedom.
It seems fitting to begin a reflection on the late David Foster Wallace in a fit of anxiety about reception – about the propensity of words, sentences, personae, to falsify or to be misunderstood.
For example: I know this seems fraudulent and fanciful and like the scratching of some deep narcissistic itch, to write publicly about a famous person’s death. And also: I want you to know I know, and to make sure you know I want you to know I know, so that you don’t mistake me for someone less intelligent, original, precise, and self-critical than I am. Because I am terrified of the ethical misstep, of solipsism, and above all of getting things wrong.
So, I think, was my subject, for whom the vicious regress sketched above could go on infinitely, each new confession forcing a confession about the rhetoric behind that confession. Indeed, in his later work, as in the short story “Octet,” David Foster Wallace found a way to make the regress feel infinite. Some readers saw in this a kind of heroism – a commitment to representing philosophical truth, no matter how ungainly. Others saw it as evidence that Wallace had hit some kind of aesthetic cul-de-sac. Some even saw it as both: a heroic cul-de-sac. But it seems to me that Wallace’s manic sincerity was merely the obverse of our age’s reflexive irony. Each was an expression of deep suspicion of abstractions like “trust” and “faith.”
Which makes Wallace’s achievement even more impressive. Ultimately, his characters and narrators managed to push beyond paradox and to risk saying something about what used to be called the human condition. In honor of those risks – and with the preliminary apologiae more or less in place – let me try here to risk saying something about David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace was a large, shaggy, uncomfortable, funny person who once held me and 75 other people hostage for over an hour in a basement room in St. Louis. He was reading from his new book, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I was 19, and when the reading was over I squeaked out something like, “Infinite Jest really meant a lot to me,” and he said something like, “Do you want me to sign your copy?” and I said something like “I checked it out of the library” and then I ran away.
That is, Wallace was a person I did not, in any respectable sense of the word, know, though I am currently feeling a dreadful temptation to pretend otherwise, to insist on a connection between reader and writer, to assert some rights over the body, and over the life, and over the work. Then again, in another sense, I knew him – I did. I heard the critic John Leonard say one time that the great writers, the ones who matter, are “friends of the mind,” and David Foster Wallace was mine. Simply put: his work has mattered more to me, and for longer, than any other writer’s, and when he killed himself last week at age 46, I felt like I had lost a friend. His voice is still in my head.
I came to that voice in high school, when I first read Infinite Jest. This was immediately and not incidentally prior to my discovery of literature per se. I read the thousand-page book more or less continuously for three weeks (as would be my habit every few years) and I felt like someone was speaking to me directly, in my language, about people I knew, or had been. “Like most North Americans of his generation,” Wallace wrote, in a passage that hooked me early on, Hal Incandenza
tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.
The secret power of this voice, as Wallace would discover in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” lay in its immense ethical appeal. Although his descriptions of Hal’s life at a tennis academy, and of pharmaceutical habits or Eschaton, did not stint on arcana, Wallace was perfectly willing to admit that certain things were “hard to say.” Moreover, there was the seeming correspondence between the authorial persona and the real person I glimpsed through the interstices of the fiction, and, later, nonfiction.
That person was like an extreme caricature of many generational traits: polymathic, ironic, brilliant, damaged, and under intense pressure to perform. The difference was that DFW (as I came to think of him) had performed. Unlike so many of the other great minds of our time, he had made good on his promise, less by virtue of talent than through moral courage and hard work. I still think the elucidation of Gerhard Schtitt’s tennis philosophy in Infinite Jest is some of the best writing about writing I’ve ever read: “How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.” Wallace somehow managed to pay attention to everything.
Of course, nothing is so unforgivable in postmodern America as an assertion of one’s own value, and in various large and small ways, Wallace’s critical reception would be dampened by schadenfreude. The surest way to marginalize the literary high-water-mark of the 1990s would be to exaggerate its (considerable) length and difficulty. “Sure Infinite Jest is great,” the logic went, “but does anybody actually read it?”
Similarly, I think, it would be both inaccurate and reductive to blame the burden of following up a masterpiece for driving Wallace to his death. In the 10 years that followed Infinite Jest – which might have been a perfectly reasonable gestation period for another long novel – Wallace published five books, for a more than respectable average of one every two years. The short stories “Church Not Made With Hands” and “Good Old Neon,” and the essays on the porn industry and John McCain in Consider the Lobster would be among his best work.
Furthermore, it was impossible to read about the Depressed Person in “The Depressed Person” and not to understand that the author had known depression on the most wrenching and intimate and long-term terms. The suicide that now hangs shadelike over the Wallace corpus in fact predated it, at least as a potentiality; think of The Sad Stork and Kate Gompert and “Suicide as a Sort of Present” and the narrator of “Good Old Neon.”
Or don’t, because revisiting Wallace’s work is liable to offer more questions than answers. E.g.: How can someone with so much going for him have felt so bad? How could such an ambitious communicator have settled for this final muteness? And what, in the end, can we say about it?
We can say, first of all, that David Foster Wallace’s death is a historic loss for readers. To me, the self-annihilating qualities of “Octet” and “Mister Squishy” and “Oblivion” didn’t read as fictional dead-ends, but as attempts to solve, once and for all, the preoccupations of Wallace’s youth, prior to some astonishing new novel.
And we can remember that that book would have reflected a side of David Foster Wallace his critics didn’t often acknowledge: the metaphysician. In retrospect, Wallace’s belief in something larger than logic is everywhere: in Schtitt’s philosophies, in the prayerful ending of “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” and in “Good Old Neon,” where a suicide suggests that “all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life [turn] out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward.” Indeed, it offers some solace to recall that Wallace imagined death, in Infinite Jest, as a restoration, a
catapult[ing] home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.
This lovely image of connection posits death as the antithesis of depression, whose cause and effect, as Wallace diagnosed them, was the ontological problem of aloneness. Wallace revisited the proposition again and again, most recently in a soon-to-be-minutely-parsed commencement address at Kenyon College:
I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of what your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
But on this point, Wallace, who got so much right and saw so much so clearly, fell prey to a junior-grade fallacy, which now deepens into irony. As he himself put it in Infinite Jest: “sometimes words that seem to express really invoke.”
Even as Wallace’s darkest images expressed the anguish of existential solitude, the act of writing fiction, of writing it so well, was itself an invocation of community. His finest creation, Don Gately (the Leopold Bloom of Infinite Jest) bodies forth the possibility of true empathy, and we learn, through a series of hints, that he will try to lead Hal Incandenza out of the prison of the self.
Gately’s secret? He has come to understand that there is no proof, that some things one simply takes on faith. And as Gately observes, it works. David Foster Wallace’s death looks, from where I’m sitting, like a failure of communication. But his life, and his work, are an affirmation of it. Death is not the end.
It was pelting rain in Brooklyn and I was out with my son, then about four, headed to the grocery store. Directly across the street, I saw a lanky elderly man, his iron-gray hair matted with rain, on the top step of his stoop, banging on the front door of his brownstone and shouting up at the third-floor window to be let in. It was the poet Philip Levine. I had seen him around the neighborhood for years, and may have even waved to him the way one does to familiar-looking strangers, but now I recognized him because just a couple weeks before his picture had been in the paper when he was appointed the nation’s Poet Laureate.
“I can’t believe it, I locked myself out,” he explained when I crossed the street and asked what was wrong.
“Well, at least come down here,” I said. “You can stand under my umbrella.”
When I read over the weekend that Levine had died, at age 87, I thought of that rainy September afternoon in Brooklyn. A couple months later, on assignment for Poets & Writers Magazine, I would climb the stairs to the third-floor apartment Levine shared with his wife, Frances, and listen to his stories of growing up poor and full of rage in Depression-era Detroit. From the window of his study, I could see into the window of my own apartment across the street, but it was an altogether different Brooklyn on Philip Levine’s side of the street. He talked about starting work at age 14, about working factory jobs at Chevrolet and Cadillac, and how “intoxicating” it had been to discover the war poetry of Wilfred Owen when he had been a young man facing the possibility of fighting in a war.
The anger that filled him in his early years was of no use to him as a writer, he told me. “It was a huge hindrance because it meant I couldn’t write anything worth a damn about that work life,” he said. “I couldn’t get that disinterestedness that’s often required. I couldn’t get Wordsworth’s tranquility. It took me until I was about 35 before I really wrote a poem that was about work.”
What changed him, he said, was a dream he’d had about a friend from his working days in Detroit named Eugene. In the dream, Eugene had called from L.A. hoping to be invited up to Fresno, where Levine taught at the state university, but Levine hadn’t invited Eugene to his home. “I woke up and was furious with myself,” he said. “How could I possibly not invite Eugene to my house? This was terrible. I was turning my back on my whole growing up.” That morning, he settled into bed with a pad of paper and wrote without stopping for a week, beginning a run of poems about working-class America that would earn him two National Book Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and an appointment as the nation’s Poet Laureate from 2011 to 2012.
But that interview was still several months in the future, and on this rainy September afternoon, Levine was merely a soaked 83-year-old neighbor who had locked himself out of his house. Huddled under my umbrella, I told him that by chance I’d met his son Mark through friends in upstate New York, and that Mark and I had had an unintentionally hilarious discussion in which it had gradually developed that his father, the famous poet Philip Levine, lived part of the year in a brownstone directly across the street from ours in Brooklyn Heights. Then I said: “And now you’re the Poet Laureate.”
He looked at me, startled, as if he were Clark Kent and I had somehow guessed his secret identity. Then he threw back his head and laughed.
“That’s right, I am,” he said. “I’m the Poet Laureate of the United States.”
Previously: A Year in Reading: Philip Levine
Photo: US Department of Labor