Thursday, June 11, 2009

To David Foster Wallace, RE: "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"

I'm gradually making my way through everything you wrote, hopefully in time to read your posthumous novel (when it comes out) with all the other books behind me. Not sure if I'll get there, especially with Infinite Jest looming, but I'm trying.

It's hard not to read "Brief Interviews" without reading the biographical knowledge of what we now know about your psychic history into it--the 20-some years of clinical depression, endless therapy, experimentation with every medication that ever hit the market (quoting from "The Depressed Person": Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Welbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT (during a two-week voluntary in-patient course of treatment at a regional Mood Disorders Clinic), Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person's every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth...). (Nardil was the one, if I'm remembering the New Yorker article correctly, that you were using up until you went off them altogether.) So it's easy to read stories like "The Depressed Person" and "Suicide as a Sort of Present" as thinly-disguised memoirs, purposefully written with female protagonists to throw off the reader's scent, i.e. female protagonist as cowardice, fiction as cry for help.

But I don't read them that way (at least in total). I think you were much too smart (and much too well read) to believe that such a plan would work (or succeed). And there's too much nuance in the stories, too much that sounds like your mind at work for the sake of art (and not for the sake of DFW) for them to be simply memoirs by slight of hand. I think the idea of memoir by slight of hand would have been sickening to you, and even if you wanted to do it (which you probably did), you wouldn't have been able to, and this one of your qualities that I admire so deeply: (and which will sound cheesy, no way around it) your commitment to your art in spite of yourself. (Or put another way, in an adjective, "Excellence.") The range of formal skill, imagination, and emotional daring in "Brief Interviews" would be sullied by the presence of a flat piece of memoir, even one that exposed with total candor the amount of pain your illness was causing you. And what would it really have gotten you, in the end? I think the outpouring of sympathy would have been utterly despicable to you, and would have only magnified the self-loathing. Like, I'm so weak I actually wrote down my request for your sympathy. No, to do so would have been much more terrible than keeping it all silent, bearing the weight alone and with close family.

And because you couldn't simply write a first-person memoir, you had to write fiction, and if it were fiction, well then it had to be good fiction, which means it had to access all of your abilities, which means it had to be imaginative, which means it couldn't be any sort of simulacrum. Even if the emotional core of it was what the Old School (and me) calls "True." Even if all of the twisting, self-flagellating thought depicted therein was, at one time or another, enacted in your own personal life. Because I didn't know you, it's difficult for me to be sad about you being gone, but you as an artist (who I'm becoming more and more familiar with) being gone I am very sad about, and if the function of an artist is to define and magnify the human, well then I guess I am sad about you being gone. Very sad. Sadder with each book.

[I had something more to say about how the story "On his deathbed, holding your hand, the acclaimed new young off-Broadway playwright's father begs a boon" can be read as a play written by the new young off-Broadway playwright himself, and thus as a fiction within a fiction that calls into doubt all of the father's sentiments--or solidifies them--but I don't have the energy. Plus it's possible I just said all I had to say.]

"You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer."

"There are right and fruitful ways to try to 'empathize' with the reader, but having to try to imagine yourself as the reader is not one of them; in fact it's perilously close to the dreaded trap of trying to anticipate whether the reader will 'like' something you're working on, and both you and the very few other fiction writers you're friends with know that there is no quicker way to tie yourself in knots and kill any human urgency in the thing you're working on than to try to calculate ahead of time whether that thing will be 'liked.' It's just lethal."
-is there better writing advise out there than this?

"She said the best way to describe focus to a person who hadn't undertaken what were apparently her domination's involved and time-consuming series of lessons and exercises was to envision focus as intense concentration further sharpened and intensified to a single sharp point, to envision a kind of needle of concentrated attention whose extreme thinness and fragility were also, of course, its capacity to penetrate..."

"...it was as if my mind was having a garage sale..."

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