Article

Alissa Wilkinson


"Everybody Worships"

On David Foster Wallace.

Once, I was a David Foster Wallace doubter. For years I assumed he was an ironic, self-absorbed writer of novels too heavy to carry in one's purse, an egocentric precocious brainiac entranced by his own awesomeness, beloved only of overeducated young men. After he hung himself in 2008, the Internet eulogized him as the voice of his generation, a prophet of postmodernity. He was all but canonized. He sounded awful.

A couple of years later, I was caught bookless while traveling. In desperation, I opened a copy of Wallace's first essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. And it lit me on fire.

I fell violently in love with the narrator, because any person who can say what you're thinking before you find the words is irresistible. He wrote long, beautiful, tumbly sentences and invented adjectives like "methamphetaminic" and made me laugh till I hiccupped at inappropriate jokes. Then he turned around and said something about what it was like to be a person, and I'd forget to breathe for a while. He wrote about David Lynch and math and tennis and TV and despair induced by a luxury cruise, and I thought someone had pointed a firehose directly into my brain and—soon—my soul.

A cradle Christian, I find everyday belief elusive. I don't feel an otherly presence, much; I doubt when I ought to have faith; I pray badly. For years at a stretch, I've gone to church only because that is how I continue to have faith. Wallace himself never succeeded in joining a church, though he was an intermittent regular attender; he tried to become Catholic twice, partly because he was in love for years with Mary Karr, but the priest finally told him to go away because he asked too many questions. And yet, you'd be hard pressed to find another mind so obsessed with and honest about everything religion asks us to wrestle to the ground all our lives, and the answers he found were often rooted in something like faith. Wallace could be funny and cool and a little bratty, but he was rarely ironic about the stuff that really mattered: what we think, how we treat one another, depression, desire, addiction, kindness, wonder.

Wallace's death prompted a stream of posthumous publishing that hasn't yet petered out. His unfinished novel The Pale King was nominated for a Pulitzer; there was the nonfiction collection Both Flesh and Not and a bunch of selections from his archives (housed at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin) and D. T. Max's biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. An undergrad thesis Wallace wrote at Amherst was published by Columbia University Press in 2010 as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, and Columbia has just published Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace.

In May 2014, David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words appeared, a set of recordings of Wallace reading some of his own work, including selections from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, "Big Red Son," "Consider the Lobster," and the recording of his Kenyon College commencement speech "This Is Water." Wallace's voice adds an unexpected dimension to familiar work. Coming from a writer whose sentences trip over themselves in their eagerness, his midwestern drawl is a surprise—but it also fits a sort of naturalness to the words, and helps you understand how they must have sounded in his head. Jokes about porn stars and fairgoers become less jokey, more thoughtful, as if you're listening to him talk over a campfire or on a long road trip.

The David Foster Wallace Reader landed in November, an Infinite Jest-length volume that begs to be assigned in college seminars, with selections from all of Wallace's nonfiction and fiction, some syllabi, emails to his mother, Sally Foster Wallace, with grammar questions from his teaching days, and a few previously uncollected works (including the stunningly sad undergraduate story "The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing"—the "bad thing" here being depression, and Trillaphon being a depression med). The selections are bookended by short reflections from friends and admirers.

And at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour premiered to relieved critical acclaim, and was picked up by A24 for release. Based on David Lipsky's book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, itself published after Wallace's death, the film weaves Lipsky's transcripts of his five-day roadtrip with Wallace near the end of his Infinite Jest tour into a deeply sad, deeply moving portrayal of what it must have been like to be Wallace (with a scruffy Jason Segel in the lead).

In a way, these works present a new Wallace. Mostly controlled in the past by the man himself in collections and novels, now his work is appearing in new forms, and for a writer who paid at least as much (if not more) attention to form as he did to content, this seems as if it would be terrifying. The film, especially—which, though pretty perfectly capturing the man's ethos, was made against the wishes of the Wallace estate—would, I think, have scandalized him. He would have hated it, in fact, and he would have loved that we love it, and then hated himself for loving that. It would have tied him in knots.

What keeps coming through, though, no matter what configuration his work appears in, is Wallace's status as a writer haunted by religious questions, by the line between belief and unbelief and how it makes us live—by the struggle of living decently as a person surrounded by other people and maybe watched over by a Presence. It is this that still leaves me breathless now and then, along with the sentences and the laughter. There's nothing glib in Wallace.

The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that the difference between believers and unbelievers is not what they think as much as how they deal with three things humans experience: fullness, that feeling of euphoria and rightness you get when you're happiest; absence, the exact opposite; and the middle condition, the things-are-pretty-okay place in which many of us are fortunate enough to live our daily lives. Everyone wants to experience fullness, and most everyone structures their lives around that pursuit, Taylor argues. But to believers, the place to find fullness is God, or something godlike; for unbelievers, it's to be sought within ourselves.

Wallace hung himself while his wife was out for a walk. He did this after a life-time of struggling with depression, which might be best described as the unabated experience of absence. In his most popular work, "This Is Water," a commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College, he talks about the struggle of living in that middle condition, the everyday banality graduates were about to enter—the harried commute, the line at the grocery store, the grumpy cashier—and the "myriad petty, unsexy" choices one must make, every day, to live as if other people are real beings with feelings.

When you read the rest of his work, you realize that speech functions as Wallace's ideal of what he wishes life could be. It lays out his own yearning for fullness—for a world in which everyone is aware of and careful with others. Be mindful of those around you, he says—something that sounds a lot like the unbeliever's tactic for dealing with it all. "None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death," he says near the end of the speech.

Except it totally is, and he knows that, because he also says this: "Here's something else that's weird but true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." You can read his earlier declaration about religion at face value, or you can know that Wallace is always trying to connect with his audience, and detect a characteristic hyper-awareness of his listeners' prejudices in his stretch to imprint something on their brains. What we worship, the thing we stretch for beyond ourselves that gets us closer to fullness, is his obsession.

Infinite Jest, his magnum opus (at just shy of 1,100 pages), is a novel about addiction, something Wallace knew well: after he completed his MFA at the University of Arizona, he enrolled as a philosophy PhD student at Harvard, only to land in rehab months later and, from there, a halfway house and a twelve-step program. Addiction is a state of wildly vacillating fullness and absence, a high and a crash. To Wallace, it was the default mode of contemporary life: addiction to substances, to fame, to sex, to being liked, to mindless entertainment, to the sound of your own voice—most everything can be an addiction, something to fill the emptiness or at least punch up the boredom.

Wallace, cursed with an addict's personality compounded by clinical depression, never really did get past all that; having repeatedly come back from the brink, he viewed his sudden rockstar status after Infinite Jest warily, even so succumbing at times to its attendant pleasures (particularly when it came to women)—something The End of the Tour poignantly shows.

In one devastating Infinite Jest chapter, the reader is introduced to things you might experience if "by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility"—and among those things:

That the cliche "I don't know who I am" unfortunately turns out to be more than a cliché… .
That other people can often see things about you that you yourself cannot see, even if those people are stupid … .
That cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with … .
That perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it … .
That it is permissible to want.
That everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else. That this isn't necessarily perverse.
That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.
That God—unless you're Charlton Heston, or unhinged, or both—speaks and acts entirely through the vehicle of human beings, if there is a God.
That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there's a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it's interested in re you.

Then there is The Pale King, reconstructed by his editor after his death, the "Long Thing" (as he called it) that some people think may have led him to his final despair. The book in some ways is a natural outgrowth of Infinite Jest, which posits that it is the daily grind of ritual that grows us into mature humans—against the easy way to live, which is to wallow in mindless, addictive entertainment. Infinite Jest has two main locations: the recovery halfway facility, Ennet House, and the Enfield Tennis Academy, and the passages on them explore how practice makes the man.

So it's only natural that the practice of boredom and middle-condition mindlessness of The Pale King's IRS is contrasted with the narrators' hyper-attention to individual people's lives. If the good life, as outlined in "This Is Water," is one in which we make myriad unsexy choices to be kind to those around us (who are struggling through their own banalities), then it is through the practice of attentiveness that we reach fullness.

The Pale King champions "minute attentiveness to detail as a way of reconnecting to a life that's been battered by the routines of modernity," as Lee Konstantinou wrote in 2011 in the Los Angeles Review of Books. "It becomes the central insight of what amounts to the novel's spiritual ethic, a compassionate concentration on the details of minute-to-minute experience that's perhaps best limned by Simone Weil's famous line: 'Attention is the highest form of prayer'—studious awareness as the penetration of Being." And that same sense of formation through ritual and attentiveness is all over Wallace's nonfiction, from the cruise ship that entices you into dissatisfaction onward to the conclusion, in the seventeenth footnote (you must always be paying attention to footnotes, in Wallace's work), of his essay "Federer Both Flesh and Not," in which Wallace—who was a nationally ranked tennis player as a teenager—watches Roger Federer play:

It's hard to describe—it's like a thought that's also a feeling. One wouldn't want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it's any sort of equitable balance; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.

That practice of attentiveness as an antidote to the narcissism that leads to addiction, I think, is what pushed Wallace into his lifelong pursuit to connect with the reader. In the best interview he ever gave, published in 1993 in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, he told Larry McCaffery that "we all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy's impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character's pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own."

That need to connect—to bridge the divide between reader and writer, between me and you, between me and everyone—is there from the first. In Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System (which also started life as an undergraduate thesis: he was double major, in philosophy and English), one man is so scared of loneliness that he intends to eat until his body fills the entire world, so he won't be alone anymore. The novel betrays a clever author very pleased with his own cleverness, but you can forgive a 21-year-old the narcissism when you realize the question at the book's core—can we ever really connect with other people?—was an obsession for Wallace, even as his style matured from a theory-based sophomoric snickering to an empathetic, impassioned searching.

"In dark times," Wallace told McCaffrey, "the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it."

I guess you can't properly call David Foster Wallace a religious writer, at least not with the definitions of religion we usually employ. Then again, when I first read him, I sensed a presence beyond the words on the page, a writer who was desperate to connect with the reader but also said what needed to be said. His questions are what I struggle with, too. Who am I? How do I connect with other people? What or who are we headed for, together? How do we get there? What is the best life?

Last February, Joseph Winkler wrote in the Jewish magazine Tablet about how reading Wallace led him back to the Talmudic study he'd left when he abandoned Orthodoxy. "Wallace … was always a rabbi to me, in a post-postmodern world where old values only meant anything if you so chose," he wrote. "In a new world in which I couldn't believe in old dogma, his work still tackled morality, the nature of belief, obligations, responsibility, and the human spirit." Re-encountering Wallace, Winkler relates, actually led him back to reading and studying the Talmud.

I had a similar experience. In a time of confusion and loss for me, I read a man who wanted desperately to believe even as he was plagued by unbelief and absence. I was adrift in absence, and his questions gave voice to my own. They gave me some CPR when I most needed it, and helped me start to believe it was possible to be "alive and human" in the world. They sent me back to the Word, made flesh.

It is hard to say that now, because I know that those same words didn't give Wallace himself space to be alive and human. How did they fail him? I know all the right answers to those questions, but they're mostly just words. David Foster Wallace wasn't the Holy Spirit, and he wasn't a prophet. He wasn't a seer. He was a guy in a bandana and a scruffy beard, and he hung himself when the absence got too big for him.

But it is a special sort of grace that lets someone's words on the page become flesh, that makes essays and stories into icons, no matter their deficiencies. Wallace is going to be with us for a long time, because he poured himself onto the page, showing writers how to turn out great sentences and also get off our self-constructed soapboxes.

And maybe he got something in return. In his notes for The Pale King, the book he never finished, he wrote this: "It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom … . Constant bliss in every atom."

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City.

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