Edge-first and Splashless and Sad

Cody Walker
November 26, 2009
Comments 1

A month ago I wrote a post on re-reading (and also re-listening). The premise was simple: books and records stay the same, while we — the readers, the listeners — change. But then something happened: I spent a week teaching David Foster Wallace — something I do most years, but hadn’t done since his suicide — and I realized that his work had changed, changed utterly. How could I read this passage, from his unsinkable (but hardly buoyant) cruise-ship essay, and not be yanked out of the essay and into those first confusing moments when we learned of his death?

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir — especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased — I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture — a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.

Thousands of other Wallace re-readers must have experienced similar shocks over the past year. In a review of Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon commencement address (an address now published, as you probably know, in book form, and called This Is Water), Tom Bissell writes:

Any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace’s work (and there are many: the patriarch of Infinite Jest is a suicide; Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” is narrated by a suicide) now has a blast radius that obscures everything around it. These are craters that cannot be filled. The glory of the work and the tragedy of the life are relations but not friends, informants but not intimates. Exult in one; weep for the other.

At a memorial for Wallace held last fall at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, I wept while a dozen speakers — including Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders — paid tribute to their lost friend. Wallace, I think, would want me to examine those tears.

So: when I was in high school, a friend — not a best friend, but someone I had known for a long time and for whom I had a lot of affection — was killed in a car crash. David Bowie’s “Changes” played at the funeral. And for about a year after that, whenever “Changes” came on the radio or popped up as part of a mix tape, I sort of ostentatiously changed the channel or hit the fast-forward button. But that was so stupid, so indulgent: it drew attention to my loss, loss I wanted people to recognize — and it did no real honor to my absent friend.

Which isn’t to say that my tears at the NYU memorial were for show. But perhaps they were irrelevant, a sentimental indulgence — I mean, Wallace wasn’t a friend — and perhaps what’s important, finally, is returning to the work, transformed as it may be. I can listen to Wallace read from his state-fair essay and still feel myself widening with pleasure. I can hear “Changes” and think, Man, that’s a really good song.

A week ago, while I was supposed to be taking notes on a grad student’s teaching performance, I scribbled these lines: “We honor Wallace by reading him, remembering him, studying his sentences. Alone as he may have felt, he makes us feel less lonely.” The lines seem a bit ponderous to me now — but hey, it’s Thanksgiving, and I’m grateful for scraps of all sorts. I actually felt terrible earlier tonight, at midnight — but now, three hours later, having re-read the commencement speech, having flipped through both essay collections, I feel all right.

I’ll close with a poem by Jason Whitmarsh, a Wallace devotee and someone who, by the luck of the calendar, turns forty today. As Wallace writes at the end of another essay, “Wish him well.”

Change

Change makes news
not with what’s new
but by pulling
what’s lost into view.
This man today
has another man’s face.
Something must
have taken him
or taken place.

***

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