It would be a shame if the death of the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov yesterday got lost in the welter of cultural losses that surrounds it. Aksyonov is one of the towering literary figures of the postwar era – one who might have been more widely recognized as such were it not for the strictures of Soviet publishing culture. In his novels The Burn, The New Sweet Style, and especially Generations of Winter (which we have championed at this site), Aksyonov synthesized the Tolstoyan legacy of the 19th Century with the innovating impulses of the revolutionary generation. In making Russian literary tradition his own, and re-opening its dialogue with the rest of world literature, he pointed the way for the novelists who would succeed him. I can think of no more fitting way to honor him than to read him.
TriQuarterly, the long-running trail-blazing literary journal more or less dreamed into existence by the late Charles Newman, is apparently no more, due to budget cuts at Northwestern University. Newman’s foreword to his first issue as editor, reprinted at A Public Space, should be required reading for anyone thinking about the purpose and future of the little magazine and its role in the artistic ecology.
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.
The first words of Harry Crews’ first book, The Gospel Singer, are:
Enigma, Georgia was a dead end. The courthouse had been built square in the middle of highway 229 where it stopped abruptly on the edge of Big Harrikan Swamp like a cut ribbon.
This is geography as metaphysics, and I can never read about the Big Harrikan Swamp without thinking of it. William Gay’s horrifying Twilight followed Crews into the literary Harrikan. Now Crews, who died on March 28 at age 76, has followed Gay all too closely into that bigger, scarier Harrikan that eats us all.
Before that was Barry Hannah, and before that Larry Brown. It’s hard not to notice the way the obituaries make all of these writers sound the same, when they don’t in their own prose. An excessive journalistic focus on their hard-scrabble lives creates the illusion of a school: the rough-and-tumble “Southern Writers.” It’s true enough that the manners described by Hannah, Brown, Gay, and Crews were those of the mid-to-late twentieth century South. However, the mystery each grasps at in his own way extends beyond any real-life coordinates. In Crews’ case, when we look past the haggard face and the thrilling biography full of fights and fornication, we find a fictional world closer to the Eastern Europe of Kafka and Hrabal than to today’s good ole boy.
I first heard about Crews when I was trying to write a novel about people I’d known when I was living in South Carolina with a stripper several years my senior. I was embarrassed of my novel and of South Carolina. I’d tried my hardest to get the hell out of there — to become unSouthern. But as any Southerner who is a writer and an exile knows, it only really gets in your blood once you’re gone. I wasn’t trying to convince myself I didn’t hate it, like Quentin Compson; I was trying to convince myself I did. A friend, seeing my struggle, suggested I try Harry Crews.
I picked up A Feast of Snakes and was astounded by how radically unSouthern its South was. The book had all the tropes of a “Southern Novel,” sure — alliterative names, bootleg whiskey, dog-fights — but it pushed them so far as to blow them to kingdom come. Which was what I’d been waiting for. I’d read a ton of Faulkner and all of Flannery O’Connor, but, with apologies to Faulkner, the past is, after a certain point, past. (Today, it’s hard to believe that when O’Connor went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, nobody could understand what she was saying. Southern kids text “OMG” like everyone else.) Crews’ book had come out the year I was born, and yet, as I read it at the turn of the millennium, I saw an old coot way out-doing what I thought was new; this wasn’t past at all. Joe Lon, Berenice, and all the snake freaks, dog-fighters, and castrated cops pushed the real South I knew into an ecstatic, rhapsodic space. It was right next door and out of this world.
In a lot of ways, Crews’ irreverence toward regional tradition is to be expected. With World War I, generation displaced region as the primary literary category, Malcolm Cowley once argued. This seems pretty sound today. We don’t really talk about “Midwestern literature” post-Sherwood Anderson (or maybe Saul Bellow). “New England literature” sends us all the way back to Emerson and Thoreau. Yet you still hear “Southern Literature” all the time. It resounds like the drone-string of a banjo every time one of these old white rebel novelists dies.
There is still plenty of debate about the implications of the term. Marc Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American, recently wrote a controversial essay attacking an upstart, upscale rival, Garden and Gun, for “white washing” the South. I like Garden and Gun, but I loved Smirnoff’s attack — except that much of his criticism applies equally well to his own pages. Why does the Oxford American have to be a magazine of “good Southern Writing?” It might not fetishize the South in precisely the same way as Garden and Gun (or Southern Living, to which Smirnoff compares G&G), but it still fetishizes it. There are amazing writers in the South — Suzanne Hudson is the best, in my opinion; seriously check out In A Temple of Trees — but they aren’t good because they’re Southern. So maybe the most fitting tribute we could pay to Harry Crews’ achievement is to bury the term “Southern Literature” alongside him.
But we need Southern Lit, you might say. The South is different — they’re crazy down there — and we require a certain quota of drunk, hard-living scribblers in order to understand them. I’d reply that that’s precisely the reason Southern Literature should be kicked to death like the dog, Tuffy, in Feast of Snakes — with a vicious brutal love. Because it is not the job of Harry Crews to school you on the quaint anthropology of a foreign region or to make you feel better about living there. It is his job to take you to a different Georgia, Enigma and Mystic, a Georgia of the mind. Crews is not a romantic writer, but his works are now being romanticized — and civilized. The Southern Lit industry tells us what to expect when we read these dead gritty Southern white dudes. But the only way to do justice to the sledgehammer prose of Crews — to allow it to do its work — is to kill off the genre, sacrificing the adjective “Southern” for the sake of what really matters here, which is Literature.
Just found out that Hunter S. Thompson killed himself. It’s unbelievable. I suppose he’s one of those guys who didn’t want to die of old age. Maybe we’ll find out more…HST has been appropriated by many. He came to represent a lot of things, especially an over-the-top counter-cultural wackiness, that he may or may not have signed up for. It also seems like his work is dismissed by as many as those who embrace it. To my mind, his books, especially those penned from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, included long stretches of blinding brilliance. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad HST writing on bookshelves too, but his public demanded it, I suppose. My favorite HST book is Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72 which is about the race that led up to Nixon’s reelection. If you have even the slightest interest in politics, this is an essential book. In it the ever-distractable HST follows the many tangents that encompass the insanity of the American political process. In one particularly surreal scene, Thompson shares a long limo ride with Nixon. The election is not the only – nor even the central – drama of the book, which originally appeared almost in its entirety in Rolling Stone. The subplot that occasionally becomes the plot of the book, is whether or not HST will be able to finish the book and to face the inevitability of Nixon’s reelection. In the end he does not, and the reader is left frustrated, wanting this man – who seems to have an answer for everything – to stick it out until election day, but he can’t. I think, though, that that was Thompson’s way. It’s infuriating in that instance, as well as in today’s, but in exchange we got brilliance from a man who wrote with such fury that he burnt himself right out.See also: the AP obit. The first of many to come.