Bart Cameron on the death of American writer David Foster Wallace and the state of US-literature
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008, the news hit literate America like kick to the gut. We tend to point at the last seven years as particularly rough, and September as a month to get through anyway, but to throw this on, to lose our greatest living writer, was hard to take. Then, with the obits of this writer having just left the American book reviews and magazines, we got a casual aside from Swede Horace Engdahl, speaking as permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury:
“There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States. The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature …That ignorance is restraining.”
The paragraph sums up what a good number of Europeans feel about our literature. They read something like Philip Roth, or John Updike, or, dear God, Paul Auster, and think they’ve seen what we have to offer—simple sentences about upper middle class middle-aged men and their erections, maybe with an internal monologue on a train or subway about mistresses—and they figure we live sad, disconnected lives surrounded by the white noise of suburban existence.
Some of us do. Most don’t.
To be American as long as I’ve been alive has been to be at the top of a fading, maniacal empire, and to have been hyper-conscious of it. Track down Jimmy Carter’s Malaise speech and chase it with the image of Ronald Reagan’s ad featuring farms he had forced into foreclosure with patriotic music and the line “It’s morning again in America”… in the face of all logic. We have been in the presence of self-loathing, self-denying, exuberant psychosis for all of my 32 years on this earth.
David Foster Wallace caught this experience. In his two novels, Broom of the System and Infinite Jest, in his interviews and nonfiction, in his groundbreaking short stories, Wallace characterized that hyposensitized bundle of nerves that an awake American became in the 1980s and 90s.
And how do I explain this to a readership of non-native speakers? Do I point out that in his debut collection of fiction, Wallace usurped the biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson to characterise the self-conscious, overprotective role of America as empire? Opening with “I own the fucking floor you stand on, boy,” he takes the character of Johnson from an autocrat to an aching, sentimental homosexual dying of AIDS. What does it mean to own the floor, to control the world essentially, as the US attempted to do, under Johnson? It is to be overcome by the burden of leadership: “I done told Bird just lack week how responsibility, why, it is not even a feeling… it’s like the sky, boy…. It’s there, over your ass, every fucking day. Matter where you go, boy, look on up, and on top of every goddamned thing else she’s there.”
And as Johnson slowly explains his burden, all beneath the actual sign that the president once featured “NEVER ELABORATE”, the empire falls outside, and we see how any other existence, any attempt to treat the burden of being an American in the post-modern world, is all put on. Our hero in this one story is incapable of doing this with grace, and the work closes with dying words from Johnson, a coy “Hello up there,” flirt to his openly gay aide.
That’s a thematic telling of just one Wallace work. I can’t convey the playfulness and mastery of language in every paragraph, nor the incorporation of images that the author pulls from American pop culture in taking the most bewildering symbol of liberal achievement in American history and making it into the living, breathing symbol of imperialist existence.
All of the work Wallace put out achieved such overwhelming heights—described by a peer, Madison Smart Bell, as “inhuman brilliance.” This hinted at the depth of the intelligence in the writing: Wallace’s work was challenging, and work deeply embedded in time, place and language.
Hopefully, someday, Wallace’s writing will get out to Europe, even if it needs to be pulled free of the time, place and language that formed it—he is akin to Thomas Mann, so unrelenting, fearless, and overwhelming.
Until then, I want to point out that most of the readers and writers of America learned how far the craft could take them from one man, and if an American is noticed by a European cultural gatekeeper in some distant future, it will likely be someone standing on Wallace’s work, a man whose death caused a national gasp, and didn’t earn a blink in the “centre of the literary world.”