Other people’s words are the bridge you use to cross from where you were to wherever you’re going.
—Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind
In my grade five class play, performed at the Halton Waldorf School in Campbellville, Ontario, I found myself cast in an entirely unsatisfactory role. It was a very small part, with minimal stage time, and hardly any lines. At the age of ten it was clear to me, and should have been evident to everyone else, I thought, that I was destined to be a great actress. I’d been robbed of my natural place in the spotlight, and my sparkling creative energy had been cruelly relegated to languish under a bushel. It was a strange and remarkable little school I attended, and the play in question was an adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The role I’d been given was that of Urshanabi, the humble ferryman, who shepherds our immortality-bent hero across the Waters of Death.
I like to remember that moment now, from the other side of both an early professional life spent in theatre and childhood itself. I like to remember being cast as the ferryman, because I’ve chosen to grant it meaning in retrospect. And it brings me pleasure to allow myself to investigate what this act of ferrying has come to signify in my relationship to reading and writing.
I’m not the first writer to fix on the ferryman, and I won’t be the last. In her Nadine Gordimer Lecture, the final public address delivered before her death in 2004, Susan Sontag describes the fiction writer as “someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.” Not only reading and writing but experience itself seems always struggling to contend with here and there. Here I am in childhood, not knowing by what means I will ever reach adulthood. Here I am in my own body, my own mind, not knowing how I might meaningfully connect to yours. Here I am alive, kicking, not able to conceive of the stillness of the other thing. I love Sontag’s peculiar turn of phrase, to make something go where it was not. The particular and awkward marriage of to go and to be, here, deliver a hit of sudden rightness. Sontag is not only saying that the act of the novelist is simply to guide a subject to a new place, but that the novelist brings to life, through action, a subject that has not even existed, as such, until this moment. The subject in question, Sontag’s “something,” can be read as the writer, the reader, and the book itself, equally. Yet there is nothing imprecise in this phrase; it is a complex thought striving to be equal to its own idiosyncratic impulse. Negotiating a gap is complicated, especially when our means of attempting to bridge it, as writers, is language. Language is perhaps the mother of all stop-gaps; still, its work in meeting gaps is not to close them but to give them names.
Here is Sontag in the medium of fiction, herself; in her last novel, In America: “There are so many stories to tell, it’s hard to say why it’s one rather than another, it must be because with this story you feel you can tell many stories, that there will be a necessity in it; I see I am explaining it badly . . . it has to be something like falling in love.”
So let me tell you a story.
Once there lived two writers, thirteen years apart in age, the younger one a Black Woman in Britain, and the elder a White Man in America; the blue ocean stretched between them. Both had published burstingly intelligent fiction in their early twenties to a great deal of notice, and therefore laboured under the weight of literary expectation, and also the weight of the names Black Woman in Britain, and White Man in America, as well as those of Youth and Genius. Yet the attention allowed them to write and to publish; perhaps, to find one another. For they did find one another, across continents, and a friendship was born.
Maybe as Zadie Smith was reading Kierkegaard, David Foster Wallace was reading Wittgenstein; as he was working through Markson, she was contending with Hurston; and Kafka, Nabokov: simultaneously, or successively? Which books, of the many both read coming into their lives as writers, would they not have known at all but for each other? I do not know. Affinity springs less from shared taste than shared questions, though, and as they grew older together these two writers shared questions of growing up. They began to think and speak about love and truth and belief and death in expanded ways, and because they were writers and readers, they framed their questions through the practice of their craft. They did this in fits and starts, painfully, hyper-self-consciously—particularly as they were writing around the turn of the millennium, from a Western cultural centrifuge of sentimental cynicism—but also they did it in relation to one another, as literary colleagues, and in a more abstract way, in relation to multitudes of individual historical writers who had effected them in their own reading.
British novelist and critic Adam Thirlwell calls the act of reading a true model of friendship, though he characterizes it as an autistic one: “beyond the difficult problems of real friendships.” Relieved of its diagnostic, pathologizing duties—in fact, literalized—the term autistic invites a closer look. Rooted in the Greek autos, self, it seeks to describe something of the problem of solipsism, and concerns aspects of the brain that contend with language, social interaction, and abstract thought. The space that living people occupy in my life is in no way identical to the space that books occupy; in my own experience, however, the difficult problems of real friendships are those same problems of autistic consciousness. What if there is something to be learned from our relationships with books that may aid in our relationships with people? This is the tenet of a humanities education, surely, and there must still be a few of us around who believe in the value of that.
So here we are, children who learn to read and write, who grow up, live lives, reach out over the water, form relationships as best we can. Here we are, asking questions. Articulating, which is to say joining, a shifting here to an unstable there. To what end?
In the mid 2000s there were whispers about Zadie Smith, the now slightly less young novelist, writing a book of criticism. It was to be a book about writing, named for the often well-earned, if somewhat shopworn, Beckettian dictum: Fail Better. Literary blogs trumpeted the book’s impending arrival. Smith spoke about it occasionally in interviews. No volume appeared. Then in 2010, Smith published a collection of occasional essays called Changing My Mind. The Fail Better project is brushed up against, fleetingly, in her forward to this collection as “a solemn, theoretical book about writing” she had believed herself to be composing, and for which the deadline came and went. It feels salt-stung, this half-page forward; and its opening: “This book was written without my knowledge” leaps out of the gate with a kind of abridged declarative force that evokes a shadow-sentiment: this book was written without my consent. I find something profoundly resistant, sad, circumscribed—in the way a shadow of irony slants across it. In addition to an incomplete book of criticism, there is also an incomplete novel underpinning this occasional collection, Smith tells us in passing. Whether these writing projects have actually been abandoned, or are slowly forging further-ranging paths than anticipated, they represent no small labor and no small loss. The lady does not protest enough.
Fail Better, as a book, may not exist at present, but in 2007 Smith published an essay with the same title in The Guardian. Its flash-points include many she shared with Wallace—concerning the duty of the writer, and the ethical dimension of literature—and resonate in dialogue with the criticism of his short fiction she would eventually publish in Changing My Mind.
In her Guardian essay, Smith wants to find words for what, precisely, is difficult about writing fiction. To orient us, she visualizes the territory inhabited by writers, in this case novelists, as “mostly beach, with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach.” Of course the perfect novels on the far shore don’t exist, not beyond the conception of platonic ideal—“Most writers, most of the time, get wet.”
The compelling movement here is the reach, though—the act of stretching. We might picture it, in this scene, as the arc of a front-crawl stroke, or the taut brace of a paddle in the water’s grip. The drive toward the farther shore is immense. And the tension and vitality of that striking outward, that desire, is what is articulated in the body of the real-life book we are left with when the glimmering far-shore mirage has been burned away. Smith ultimately deems the necessary artistic condition of reaching-as-failure something worth celebrating, if only because any other way of holding it would likely destroy a serious writer, or at the very least destroy the thing in them that is moved to write seriously. The nature of the difficulty of writing here is the nature of the difficulty of speaking the truth. It is the difficulty of speaking the truth in the face of the innumerable internal and external pressures that seduce with the promise that we can avoid confronting pain, our own and that of others, by taking a dive or drifting a little off the mark. In Smith’s words:
. . . to tell the truth of your own conception—given the nature of our mediated world, given the shared and ambivalent nature of language, given the elusive, deceitful, deluded nature of the self—truly takes a genius, truly demands of its creator a breed of aesthetic and artistic integrity that make one’s eyes water just thinking about it.
But there’s no reason to cry . . .
To tell the truth of your own conception. Conception signifies both inception and understanding; origin and end. It is a truth the subject generates and a truth that generates the subject. Maybe a pink-grey headache sets in at this point, and the whole enterprise begins to take on a taint of tautology. But that’s the point: a site of simultaneous significance, apprehended, stilled in instants only, begins to break down in its own conflicting currents—enough, as Smith says, to make one’s eyes water.
Yet there’s no reason to cry, she tells us: “If it’s true that first rate novels are rare, it’s also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them.” Don’t cry. Be proud. Count yourself lucky. I can’t help feeling strong-armed by this account of how I should respond. At all costs, it seems: the thing in me that’s bursting to cry—shut-it-the-fuck-off. But the crisis of conception that brings me to tears remains; she hasn’t dissolved that, only muscled through it.
There is a turn in the story of the two writer friends with the overlapping questions, as you might be aware—between the Guardian publication of Smith’s “Fail Better” essay, and the release of Changing My Mind. On September 12, 2008, David Foster Wallace committed suicide.
It is a well-documented matter at this point, something you likely registered on some level when I began the story of the two writer friends. And perhaps you’ve gleaned from accounts that Wallace had been treated for depression since late adolescence, and that he did not speak of it publicly in his lifetime; that, newly married, he adjusted his medication under the guidance of his doctor because he claimed to be happy, and longed to feel a little less mediated, chemically speaking; that that didn’t work. Perhaps you know his fiction, and have paid particular attention to his particular attention to mental illness, so-called, and suicide. Perhaps you paid attention because you already knew how his story ended, and perhaps also because you did not know how yours would. I couldn’t say.
In a resonant, thoughtful essay that closes Changing My Mind, Smith assesses the blisteringly parabolic stories of Wallace’s 1999 collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men as “not quite convincing in their optimism. They seem . . . to offer more of a willed solution than an instinctive or deeply felt one. This isn’t a bad thing: it contributes to their compelling ambivalence.” The way she introduces her essay collection strikes me as similarly unconvincing in its optimism, as does—I will press into murkier territory here—the manner in which she frames Wallace’s suicide. Smith identifies his writing as marked by a “longing for the infinite” which eclipses any attempt on the author’s part to ground the work in “relationships between persons”:
Throughout this essay, which I began writing when Wallace was alive, I have defined that longing as purely philosophical—events have shown this to be wishful thinking on my part. The story “Suicide as a Sort of Present” now inevitably resonates beyond itself, but it is also the same story it always was: a reminder that there exist desperate souls who feel that their nonexistence, in the literal sense, would be a gift to those around them. We must assume that David was one of them.
If I have ever read an example of someone actively not-crying on paper, “We must assume that David was one of them,” is it. This is an upper lip of steel. There will be no crying, here, whether there’s cause or not. And it’s not for me to say where or how or with whom Zadie Smith should be doing her crying. Not crying is like taking cough syrup, though: it suppresses a symptom; it doesn’t treat a cause. Not crying is no cure for the source of crying; the source of crying, still there, heaves.
The subject of suicide is absent, strictly speaking, from the story “Suicide as a Sort of Present.” It is an account of a mother who cannot bear the manner in which her own deepest shame and self-loathing bleed out of her and attach themselves to her son in “a world of impossible expectations and merciless judgement.” This is how the story concludes: “She could not, of course, express any of this. And so the son—desperate, as are all children, to repay the perfect love we expect only of mothers—expressed it all for her.” The son, as subject, is absent from the story, and the act is absent from the story, and the word is absent from the story, saving the title. For all its explicit grief, the story resolutely resists contact. In its open-endedness, it escapes into the ether, a system closed to vulnerability. I don’t take Wallace’s move here as an empty gesture—in its turning from itself, turning away, it calls after that very thing, its terror, which I see there, standing behind it.
There is no last word on the subject of suicide. For his visceral, grueling engagements with the crisis of articulation as a profoundly existential one, however, Wallace will stand apart from his contemporaries. And there is a story, first published three years after Brief Interviews’ “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” that grapples with suicide as something more than an absence.
Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” was initially published in the American journal Conjunctions in 2001, later to be anthologized in his final collection of fiction, Oblivion, in 2004. In Wallace’s characteristically recursive monologue, the story’s speaker narrates from the other side of death. He relates an escalating crisis of felt fraudulence and cognitive isolation that has compelled him to take his own life by driving his sports car into a suburban bridge-abutment. Thirty-seven pages into the forty-page story we get this:
All right, now we’re coming to what I promised and led you through the whole dull synopsis of what led up to this in hopes of. Meaning what it’s like to die, what happens. Right? . . . The truth is you already know what it’s like. The truth is you already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know.
. . . Because listen—we don’t have much time, here’s where [the road] slopes slightly down and the banks start getting steep and you can just make out the outlines of the unlit sign for the farmstand that’s never open anymore, the last sign before the bridge—so listen; What exactly do you think you are? The millions and trillions of thoughts, memories, juxtapositions—even crazy ones like this, you’re thinking—that flash through your head and disappear? Some sum or remainder of those? Your history?…The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universe inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul. And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s called free will, Sherlock. But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali—it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.
So cry all you want, I won’t tell anyone.
But it wouldn’t have made you a fraud to change your mind. It would be sad to do it because you think you somehow have to.
The speaker reaches toward the reader. It is a great conceptual leap, a great act of empathy as imagination, this narrator stretching backward from the vantage point of death. But the reach outstrips that scope entirely, redoubles, and in a blaze of metafictional virtuosity, we have before us, catalogued, a instant of simultaneity in which nearly every character named in the story thus far is rendered in a glimpsed moment of discreet activity—including, now, one David Wallace, as he “blinks in the midst of idly scanning class photos from his 1980 Aurora West H.S. yearbook and seeing my [the narrator’s] photo and trying, through the tiny little keyhole of himself, to imagine what all must have happened to lead up to my death in the fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991 . . . trying, if only for the second his lids are down, to reconcile . . . ” A David Wallace “having emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself with quite a bit more firepower than he’d had at Aurora West.”
This is another framed story, doubly so, as it reveals itself in its final throes. But for me it exerts an intense level of pressure upon its own conception, and labor, and hangs in there—naming things, through the thrashing—rather than fleeing the scene. The story as an action, a movement in itself, and also toward the reader is, to my mind, much nearer, and truer to, in Wallace’s words, “the perfect love we expect only of mothers,” than anything in Brief Interviews.
I want to return to Sontag’s Gordimer lecture for a moment. She proposes the primary ethical component of writing as an act of definition: “To tell a story is to say: this is an important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.” Our spectral bridge, returning. In this story, Wallace takes the simultaneity of experience head on, and makes himself vulnerable to its linear expression, word by painstaking word—each successive word compounding the odds of failing his particular truth, and each word, equally, risking its being—going where it was not. Sontag suggests fiction may succeed in giving us what “lives (the lives that are lived) cannot offer, except after they are over. It confers—and withdraws—meaning or sense upon a life. This is possible because narration is possible.”
The most personal gift of “Good Old Neon,” to my own reading, is that it grants permission to cry. The author grants it to the character of David Wallace, and to his reader—in their co-subjectivity. I can’t read this story without crying and I can’t write about this story without crying. I’m not sorry. And I’m not interested in sucking it up or manning up or pulling myself up by my bootstraps or any of the rest of it. Because I’ve spent a lot of years not-crying. And I’m both young and old enough to learn how to cry all over again and to conceive of the value in that. Maybe this is a dangerous thing. Maybe breaking down means you dissolve. All I know is that not-crying assumes its own cost. Look, maybe crying will save your life and maybe it won’t, but neither will not-crying save your life. The same goes for writing.
“This matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you’ll ever do,” writes a younger, yet-vulnerable, Zadie Smith (a pre-Changing My Mind, pre-Wallace suicide Smith) in her 2007 Guardian essay follow-up to “Fail Better,” entitled “Read Better.” You’re right. Yes. But you’re not alone in it, I want to tell her. I, for one, am reading also; I, for one, am writing, too. If I am hard on you it is only because of our overlapping questions and our overlapping loves and because I have grown up being conditioned not to cry, not to be a girl about it, so consistently that I can’t help imagining you might share this with me; because my self is the imperfect source material I have to draw on in my imagining of you and everything else. If I am hard on you it is because I’m paying attention. When you said: “My reader holds writers to the same account as the rest of us; my reader does not allow writers to transcend the bounds of the human, because my reader recognizes that writers exist like the rest of us, as ethical individuals moving through the world,” I wanted to be your reader and so I read you:
To live well, to write well, you must convince yourself of the inviolable reality of other people. I believe that, and I believe further that this relationship can be traced at every level—a sentence can be self-deluded, can show an ulterior motive, can try too hard to please, can lie, can be blind to everything and anything outside itself, can believe itself to be of the utmost importance. To see things as they really are . . . to me this is always and everywhere, in writing, in life, a matter of morals.
I sat with your troubling words in my hands and my grasp fractured, expanded, re-knit by degrees; read better an imperative taken to heart, now held.
David Foster Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King, will remain incomplete, yet it exists in the world, with and through readers, in a state of indeterminacy. This is a worthy state to acknowledge, to document, and to grieve. Nothing will diminish Wallace’s gifts or traces, and I can’t believe in suicide as some self-fulfilling act, only in a lived experience which reveals to me that we don’t pick most of our own fights, although we choose our terms, and we fail to win all of them. I can’t believe there is anything any of us must assume about David Wallace, about what events have shown, or about wishful thinking. I don’t read it that way.
“We do not know people as we think we know them. The world is not only as we say it is,” an uncompromising Zadie Smith once wrote in “Read Better.” This moves me still, for what it might or has come to mean, under the narrative weight of time and distance, to any life built on relationships, which is to say, all of them. Our readers, otherwhere friends, may become in the sudden cold light of a new next day our mourners. They are the ones who take on the rituals of observance, the ones who strive, subjectively, to inhabit as best they can the stories they are charged to carry forward. Intentional fallacy aside, we write from what we are, and read from what we are, also. As Smith expresses so lucidly: “Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can’t help tell if you write well; it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of consciousness.” We need fictional truth. We need access to narrative complexities carried both deeper and higher than reason or fact. Only fiction can give voice, as Wallace did in “Good Old Neon,” to a possibility that: “The reality is that dying isn’t bad, but it takes forever. And that forever is no time at all. I know that sounds like a contradiction, or maybe just wordplay. What it really is, it turns out, is a matter of perspective.”
In life, as in fiction, other people’s words can help you go where you were not. A prospective friend will say, clearly and unsimply: You need to write the thing—whatever it is, your solemn, theoretical book about writing—because I need to read it. She will say: You’re not dead, or immortal; you’re human. She will say, extending her hand, as a ferryman might in the oldest of epics: Don’t be afraid to change your mind and don’t be afraid to cry.
Then Gilgamesh sat down and wept, the tears ran down his face, and he took the hand of Urshanabi; “O Urshanabi, was it for this that I toiled with my hands, is it for this I have wrung out my heart’s blood? . . . I found a sign and now I have lost it. Let us leave the boat on the bank and go.”
He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went a long journey, was weary, worn out with labour, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story.
 Smith would go on to publish her novel NW in 2012.
 From the N.K. Sandars translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin Classics, 1960.