September 12, 2016
Curtis White remembers David Foster Wallace
by Curtis White
Today marks the eighth anniversary of the death of iconic novelist (and Last Interview Series participant) David Foster Wallace. We reached out to Curtis White, author of many books, including We, Robots and The Science Delusion, and a close friend and artistic comrade of Wallace’s, and he offered the following recollections.
One: Private Thoughts
While we’re on the subject of depression, as we all should be on the anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s suicide, I’d like to tell you something that passed between me and David that is, in retrospect, very strange.
When Dave first came to the campus of Illinois State University in 1994, I was excited to have a colleague with whom I could hope to have a long and productive relationship. In fact, we did have a long and productive relationship, or at least I did. He was just the challenge that I needed, and I think I owe my best work in fiction in part to his influence.
When he first arrived, I was just about done with my novel Memories of My Father Watching TV. So, I asked him if he would take a look at the manuscript and talk about it over coffee. Isn’t that what colleagues are supposed to do, ideally? I think he thought my suggestion was a little nerdy. Or perhaps it was that he didn’t trust me yet, or didn’t really trust anyone. As sincere as he was, he had a hard time believing that others were sincere. He always seemed to be looking behind what you said for a hidden purpose. This will sound nerdy, but the only thing I ever tried to communicate to him was that I wanted to be his friend, someone he could trust. I did not succeed.
Anyway, he said, “Sure,” so we met one afternoon over at a campus pizza place called Garcia’s, the home of the Flying Tomato Brothers, or something like that. He was very happy about my story “Combat,” especially the idea that my father was a German pontoon bridge in World War II, and he generally liked most of the rest, although he said some of it was too much like Robert Coover’s work for his taste. Perhaps David was so neurotic about the influence of the postmodernists on his own work (especially Barth and Pynchon) that he even disliked seeing it in the work of others.
A well-known instance of his (public) aversion to pomo: one of the first writers we talked about was Mark Leyner (I Smell Esther Williams, Et Tu, Babe). David’s ordinarily open, inquisitive face suddenly scrunched into a little knot of conviction. I did not know it, but he was already on record as saying that Leyner was everything that was wrong with postmodernism: the art of puerile game-playing and yukking it up in a moral vacuum. He was annoyed to learn that Mark was a friend and someone I respected.
I said to David, “I know what you mean, but I think My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist is a much better book than you allow and… have you actually read Et Tu, Babe?”
He scowled, grumbled, turned his dew-ragged head away, as if to say, “Don’t make me reconsider my firm prejudices.”
But the reason I’m telling this story is that Memories is explicitly about the distorting psychic effects of depression, especially the horror of life without dopamine (anhedonia). Detailed though his reading of my manuscript was, he never commented on my subject matter. Not once, not even obliquely. At the time, not knowing his history as everyone does now, I didn’t think anything of it. But it’s clear to me that he said nothing about it because he didn’t want to talk about it, especially as it affected him. I think he felt that any mention of depression would perforce lead to an acknowledgment that he was all too familiar with it himself. And he was so embarrassed by and ashamed of his condition—his hospital time, his debilitating drug regimen—that he couldn’t say anything, especially to me, his senior colleague and, as he always said, his teaching “mentor.”
I could never take that honorific seriously; I always thought he was being ironic. But I don’t think he was being ironic. And I think he was a little disappointed that I was never more mentor-like. Odd. But odd in just the way that David was often odd.
An instance of this oddness: full though his books may be with irony, you could not talk with him ironically. He didn’t get it. In person, he was very literal, very earnest. He was a sincere person, which was a problem for me. I habitually expressed my affection for people (especially our colleague, Dalkey Archive’s John O’Brien) through teasing irony. I could always say the worst things to John, things that came quite close to the bone, and know that he would laugh. But I remember vividly one day when Dave, John, and I were together for some event, a reading perhaps, and I said something teasing to David, something mild by my standards. Well, Dave rose from his seat—pale, horrified—and said, “So that’s what you all really think of me.”
I immediately got up and wrapped my arms around him and said, “Oh, David! I’m just teasing you! We love you!”
I never teased that beautiful, tortured, and unreachable soul again.
Two: Public Thoughts
David called Memories of My Father Watching TV “grimly comprehensive.” But it was the virtue of Infinite Jest, perhaps the last great act of intellectual virtue in this broken culture, to be itself a grimly comprehensive work that foresaw the end of the comprehensive, the end of all wholes, and certainly the end of understanding them. Unlike, say, Ezra Pound’s leveling of Western culture to “an old bitch gone in the teeth,” there is nothing prophetic or resentful about Jest. If it is about an End Time, it is one characterized by something like dementia, a little drooling at the corner of the mouth. It is about an apocalypse that no one noticed.
The novel’s title refers to what one initially imagines is the central concern: a videotape that, once viewed, causes the viewer to, essentially, “laugh himself to death.” The fear is that the “entertainment cartridge” could be used as a weapon of terrorism and blow up not just a Yorick or two, but culture as such, Reality as such, the big things that contain us all. The entertainment could go viral and cause every human consciousness to implode. For novelists, this is what is known as a ground situation. It is supposed to initiate the plot. But in Jest, it doesn’t.
Instead, the tape is introduced in the novel’s first pages and then slowly forgotten, as if the novel were suffering from the gradual corrosive effects of Alzheimer’s. There is no rising action for the video-trope, no crisis, no climax, and no closure. The novel itself seems to become distracted, as if something very important were happening, but it can’t quite remember how it could or why it should pay attention. The novel itself seems as if it too has watched the entertainment cartridge.
After my first reading of Infinite Jest, I called David to congratulate him. I told him it was one of the best books I’d ever read. (His response: “Thank you so much. I worked really, really hard on it.” His “reallyreally” was inflected with boyish sincerity.) I said that as soon as I was done, I started reading it again. (A satisfied and grateful hum from the other end.) But I also asked why it was that the two main characters—Hal Incandenza and Don Gately––were said to meet on page seventeen for the purpose of “digging up my father’s head” when they never meet in the succeeding 1062 pages. The two characters are parts of two narrative lines that remain thematically related (by addiction) but dramatically separate.
It seemed as if the novel itself were having a dream.
So I asked him about it, as diplomatically as I could. He said that in the five hundred or so pages that had been edited out of his manuscript, scenes in which Gately and Hal meet had been removed. These edits were driven largely by considerations of what the spine of a single volume could physically hold, as well as by what could be reasonably charged for a book, and certainly by the equally reasonable desire of his publisher to make a profit.
(An aside: with all the hoopla that surrounded the posthumous publication of The Pale King, I wonder why a “director’s cut” version of Jest, restoring the missing five hundred pages, has not been released. Are they lost? Is the publisher too embarrassed to confess to eliminating the missing passages?)
Even now, I’m dumbstruck by David’s admission. It is an acknowledgement of an inconsistency, a “flaw,” driven purely by extra-artistic considerations. Should I have been scandalized? As a fellow artist, should I have said, “David, how could you?” Should I have defended the idea of the integrity, the organic wholeness, the perfection of the work of art?
I’ve wondered for years what to make of all this: the central metaphor that seems to dissipate like vapor up and out of the book; the scenes that seem to happen in some space outside the novel itself. Perhaps David’s acceptance of these “flaws” was only a pragmatic concession to what he couldn’t control: the publisher’s final authority over certain aspects of the product. The publisher’s “or else,” as in “or else find another publisher and give us back our money.” But it seems to me that in some way David accepted the flaws as if he were acknowledging the succumbing of art’s perfections to entertainment. He accepted perhaps because the wounds to his novel came from the Entertainment State itself, came from the “cartridge.”
Nota Bene: In a way that is unique in the history of the novel, the work’s critique of the world is internally confirmed by an intrusion of that world into the very flesh of the work.
Curtis White is the author of many books, including the acclaimed The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, both from Melville House. His newest book, Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed, comes out 11/5/2019.