Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reading David Foster Wallace in an Airport

Walking through an airport is like walking through the subconscious of America. On my way to the gate this weekend, carrying my shoes, I passed Cinnabon, McDonald's, Panda Express, Chili's To Go, and continued past TV screens of Barack Obama cut like dumbed-down drugs with cell phone commercials, past bookstores that shone with glossy ghostwritten books decorated with the names of celebrities. On the walls, posters made an elaborate, strained analogy between Tiger Woods and some under-explained business service; they showed the same image of an apple three times, under the words "Organic," "Imported," "Engineered." This is not an apple. This is a PC. Bing goes the internet. So easy a cave man could do it. Businessmen hunched over laptops like turtles half in the shell, children hunched over portable games that looked like smaller laptops in their tiny hands. The air smelled like nothing, then like fast food, then like nothing again. The floor shined and squeaked. Our bags could be searched at any time. And then I sat down at the gate, my back to as many TVs as possible, to read A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN.

I feel as though I have a tortured relationship with David Foster Wallace, although I've never met the guy. Let me do the requisite idiotic blogger thing of comparing myself, point by point, to someone infinitely more talented and famous: we both grew up in central Illinois. We're both afraid of the rides in Happy Hollow. We've both been hide-the-knives depressed (hell, who hasn't). We both love Thomas Pynchon. We both overthink the obvious, then overthink our thinking. We both hate irony and cynicism while being compulsively ironic and cynical. I do not know, but I suspect, that we would both call the essays in his book A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN far more frightening and lonesome than "hilarious," as so many blurbers chose to label them. Screams of laughter, in this case, are nonetheless still real screams.

The reason I call my relationship with David Foster Wallace "tortured" is that, while I love his work (or at least his nonfiction -- shamefully I've yet to read INFINITE JEST, and haven't reread THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM in years), I at the same time find it so disturbing, so hopelessly, anxiety-inducingly true, that it kind of devastates me and makes me want to lunge immediately in the direction of the nearest Marilynne Robinson novel, to retreat to a world where young girls press flowers into books instead of donning T-shirts silkscreened with advertisements depicting images from ironic beer commercials in order to audition for a televised DO YOU REALLY KNOW THE 80's pop culture trivia game show.

There's a natural attraction for writers (at least for me) to the world of "real things" -- observable, nameable things, things like butter churns and the translucent ears of kittens glowing pink with sunlight, as opposed to the fleeting visions flashing by in pop-up windows or stock tickers or television screens, or the complex systems and theories behind such visions. Working as we do in the already abstracted medium of language, we are told, "Writers write with nouns and verbs" -- "End on an image and don't explain it." David Foster Wallace is all explanation, all "making sense of" -- only even then, the complexity boggles him, and though his theses and postulates and conclusions are numerous, by the end of most essays he's left himself and the reader reeling. But, sitting in the airport, surrounded by screens that twinkled all around like cities glimpsed from the air, I had to wonder if there was any other way to write.

1 comment:

Sherlock said...

DFW is one of my heroes. He has committed suicide since you wrote your blog, for reasons that appear not to have to do with writing. I think your critique of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is really on the dime. He writes about reality in his essays with such detail--a tennis net, e.g., that makes you practically smell the net, even though there is no reference to the musty smell and all one's associations with the game--that DFW simply stops me cold with wonder. What if I could write like that (?) I think. Oh well, R.I.P. David. And the rest of us better keep on trying.