The center of DFW
Assessing the Midwesternness of a departed master.
David Foster Wallace, author most notably of the 1,000-plus-page novel Infinite Jest and winner of a prestigious MacArthur “genius grant,” committed suicide on September 12 at the age of 46. News of his death has left his adoring fans, including me, stunned. I grew up in Decatur, Illinois, about 45 minutes from Urbana, his old stomping grounds. And though Wallace spent formative writer years in Massachusetts and Arizona, I can’t help but see and hear the Midwest when I read his work.
I know in my bones the “true religious-type wind” that he wrote about in “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” an essay on math and tennis (two of his hobbies), and have seen with my own two eyes the way it “inform[s] and deform[s]” life in the Midwest. But Wallace didn’t dwell on the typical effects of wind and flatness—jackknifed tractor trailers, white-outs and tornados—he focused more on articulating phenomenological truths about growing up in the Midwest. “[I feel] best physically enwebbed in sharp angles, acute bisections, shaved corners,” Wallace wrote, referring both to the tennis courts where he spent his adolescence as a nationally ranked junior player and the geography of his hometown.
To the best of my knowledge, Wallace is the only writer from “downstate” who has achieved such literary success and exposure. He has done so, I think, because his work retains the ethic and aesthetic of the region: a fundamental decency, roughened by a self-deprecating and ironic sense of humor reminiscent of Indiana native David Letterman.
Wallace simultaneously lionized and lampooned Letterman in the hilarious short story “My Appearance,” in which Rudy, the entertainment-exec husband of a famous, award-snubbed soap-opera actress, tries to convince his wife not to appear on Letterman’s show (he thinks Dave is a misogynist who “savages” his female guests) by deconstructing, with all the earnest anger of a cultural-studies grad student, Letterman’s brand of comedy. The humor of the story is distinctly Midwestern—even hypereducated Midwesterners fear becoming humorless like Rudy. Wallace, much like Letterman, was—despite his highly allusive, self-referential, self-reflexive, digressive, meta-ness—charmingly nerdy and folksy in a didactic way. He was also— contrary to exasperated remarks about his use of footnotes, endnotes, sidebars and marginalia—eager to make himself clear.
“There’s a way, it seems to me,” he said in a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, “that reality is fractured—at least the reality I live in.” The “footnote thing”—Rose’s phrase, not Wallace’s—“is a way to speak to this essential fracturedness without creating a text that is unreadably fractured in and of itself.” The author still must offer some amount of “seduction,” Wallace said, or else he alienates the reader.
After reading a lot of DFW (as some fans refer to him, although I should not refer to him this way because I’ve never been able to finish Infinite Jest), I’ve come to understand that this fractured prose style was not all po-mo irony. Neither was it merely surfacey glimmer belying great depth. It was an indication of his genuine concern with precision.
Wallace’s nonfiction work managed to give us some of the best examples of how that genre can bring the global and the personal to sensible speaking terms. He avoided the shrill ad hominem attacks of most cultural commentators by taking the empathetic high road with the likes of porn directors and right-wing radio hosts. But he wasn’t sentimental, either. In his much-anthologized essay, “Ticket to the Fair,” in which he rubs elbows with the unwashed masses at the Illinois State Fair, his intent isn’t simply to poke fun at the facile beliefs of middle Americans, so de rigueur this election year. Nor does he do it to gain the populist cred that so many artists have a difficult time earning. His project was more transcendental: He wanted to understand how humanity might contain both hideousness and goodness.
If there was any “schtick” to his writing, it was born of a paralyzing self-consciousness at being sent by magazines to cover events as a journalist would, when he never considered himself a journalist—he had neither the training, the desire nor the skills. This was part of his genius. He owned up to his shortcomings in a way that, paradoxically, restored our confidence in the importance of searching for knowledge through personal experience.
Some Internet posters have harped on the hypocrisy of his suicide, pointing out that he so often plumbed the icky depths of selfishness and vanity (his 1997 New York Observer article “Great Male Narcissists” questions the relevance of Mailer, Updike and Roth). But clearly, they have not read him closely. Wallace’s oeuvre reveals a deep-seated concern for human frailty. Especially his own.
He once wrote of the “unlyrical problem” of accurately striking a ball within the rectilinear lines of a tennis court on a windy day in central Illinois. His approach was not to overcompensate for the wind, but to simply hit the ball as true as he could back up the middle of the court, and allowing the wind to distort its trajectory. His opponents, much bigger and stronger and better coached, were driven to racket-throwing tantrums by the unfairness of being screwed over by something so unpredictable and uncontrollable. Estimating David Foster Wallace’s greatness, I think, will prove similarly maddening.
David Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find.