by Scott F. Parker
Because of the degree to which David Foster Wallace articulated his own project in his interviews and nonfiction (and in his metafiction)—and because of the strength of that articulation—the standard most readers judge him by is his own. The most prominent example of this is in the judgment of how his work fits into the contemporary canon; the consensus among critics and readers is that DFW is in the vanguard of a movement responding to postmodernism, but of course, it was DFW who first told us that’s what he was doing. It’s a good reading regardless of whose it is, but it would provide a welcome sense of intellectual integrity and objectivity if it were someone else’s.
Enter "Footnotes: New Directions in David Foster Wallace Studies," a conference whose purpose is boldly stated in its program: “The critical discussion of David Foster Wallace has thus far been limited to a few aspects of his most popular works. Our conference seeks to expand the response beyond the popular imaginations' categories of 'difficult,' 'postmodern,' and 'genius,' as well as beyond the author’s own articulation of his project as a response to irony. We hope to encourage reconsideration of Wallace with an emphasis on new perspectives of his entire oeuvre.”
Curious if this would be possible, I went to New York in November hoping to discover new ways of thinking about a body of work that has repeatedly busted my head, my world, and my relationships with language and literature wide open. I’m far from alone in this. People who dig DFW tend to dig him pretty deeply and be fairly devoted to trying to understand his work better. This is made abundantly clear to me when, at the conference, I realize that despite having read everything DFW has written (most of it twice, the stuff I really love more than that), I am still on the casual end of the spectrum of attendees.
Organized by two English PhD students from the City University of New York, Alexander Engebretson and Judd Staley, the conference takes place at the Martin Segal Theater in the CUNY Graduate Center, across the street from the Empire State Building. Upon entering the Graduate Center I encounter a doorman, and our exchange goes like this:
Him: Hi. Which event are you here for?
Me: The David Foster Wallace conference.
Him: Sorry. Which one?
Him: This one? (Pointing to a list of rooms blocked out for something called New Hope Conference.)
Me: Maybe in a way, but no that’s not it.
I start to panic, stunned the doorman doesn’t recognize what a big deal this conference is, but a woman walks by and says something to someone about "Footnotes." I catch up with her at a folding table where Engebretson and Staley are telling the early arrivers that the room isn’t ready yet. I walk over to the café and try to start feeling like a journalist, though I have studied neither English nor journalism. I have a notebook that amateurishly has “journal” printed across the cover; I’m jotting furiously in it. When I emerge from the café fifteen minutes later I know full well the encounter with the doorman is significant.
The folding table outside the Martin Segal Theater is covered with books and staffed by grad students. For sale are most of DFW’s books. I notice only two missing. Signifying Rappers, co-written with Mark Costello, one of two DFW books that never really gets discussed—Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity is the other—is hard to find, which explains its absence from the table but not its absence from discussion. (It should be required reading for anyone who’s ever owned a hip hop album.) The other missing book, strangely, is the hugely popular Kenyon College Commencement Speech that was published as the book This Is Water after DFW’s death. This speech is widely read and discussed, so why it isn’t here I can’t even really guess. (After the conference I’ll have to go elsewhere to buy a copy for the friends I’m staying with in Brooklyn.) I check in at the desk and casually place my name tag over the nerdy cover of my notebook.
Inside the theater are seven rows of five chairs on either side of an aisle, making for seventy mostly full chairs. (Later the room will be totally full, with people standing in back.) I snag the only available end seat and look around the room. Of many scruffy beards in attendance, only one grows beneath a brown ponytail. Of many howling fantods in attendance (including Nick Maniatis, host of the DFW website of the same name, seated directly behind me), only one would-be exploding head is fettered by a tightly wrapped bandana. And most anyone who isn’t affecting a DFW facade maybe could be without much trouble. For a literary conference there are very few gray heads of hair present,1 though there is one man who very well might be the inspiration for Infinite Jest’s Lyle. I have no more time to see who else is lurking here, because Alexander Engebretson is introducing the conference and setting the day’s goals: to promote a long and fruitful discussion of DFW that moves beyond the reductive terms our mass media has used to define him (“genius,” “troubled artist,” etc.), and beyond DFW’s own dictum that his project was largely a response to ironic postmodernism. “We have a responsibility to consider him,” Alex says. No one in the room needs convincing.
The first panel, “Consider the Career: Early Fiction to Late Nonfiction,” gets the day off to a scholarly start with Connie Luther’s discussion of DFW’s use of poetic allegory as a method of connecting with audiences who are too jaded to read stories in an emotionally sincere way. It occurs to me I might have done well to make time for an English class somewhere along the way. Elizabeth Freudenthal goes next and, among other things, contrasts the identities of the two main characters in Infinite Jest. Hal’s identity is oriented inside out, while Gately’s is outside in. A main theme of the novel is that Gately’s method is a viable way of dealing with human suffering, while Hal’s way will only perpetuate sameness. This isn’t a shocking reading, but the terminology seems useful and relevant to what we’re doing here today. Adam Kelly uses his talk to look at DFW’s essays, which divide into three categories: narrative essays, where DFW is a professional noticer; discursive essays, where DFW tries for a renewed moral sincerity after postmodernism; and political essays, in which DFW sought, à la Richard Rorty, to give democracy primacy over ideology. Filters (and now aggregators) serve as coping mechanisms in the information age, but they, almost by definition, put beliefs before information—an anathema for DFW, and the reason he, unlike many liberals, was willing to take the right wing seriously. As Kelly puts it, “his ‘we’ stands for the public as a whole.”
After a ten-minute break—during which I accidentally break the tongs for the fruit plate—everyone sits back down for the “Filmic Entertainments” panel. If there is a low point in the day, this is it. The papers aren’t uninteresting, but they lack—to use Zadie Smith’s term—the urgency of the rest of the day. A couple bits of interest from David Hering’s talk: Oblivion is the first book of Wallace’s in which he is confident enough not to be authorially present in the text, and in it there are no explicit mentions of literary precursors.2
During the next break between panels I don’t bust anything, but I do notice approximately half the presenters are male and half are female. A quick glance around the room reveals men outnumber women in the audience roughly seven or eight to one. Why the discrepancy between presenters and attendees? Does DFW appeal to male readers? If so, why? One woman who is clearly excited by DFW is Maureen Eckert. She’s sitting just in front of me and has been bouncing in her chair and nodding her head vigorously all morning. I didn’t know who Maureen Eckert was before right now, but I’m reading her name off the program as she steps behind the lectern to begin the next panel: “The Philosophies of David Foster Wallace.” Turns out she’s one of the editors of the forthcoming book version of DFW’s famous undergraduate philosophy thesis. I’ve been looking forward to this panel, and find myself disappointed and put off when Eckert condescends to explain the philosophy so that we can understand it. Maybe that’s why the most interesting note I take down during her talk is “animated speaker.”
It’s the next talk and a so-what feeling is coming over me. The "Footnotes" program quotes from Infinite Jest: “These academics’ arguments seem sound as far as they go . . . ” This isn’t fair to Thomas Tracey, who is doing good work on moral responsibility in DFW’s fiction, especially in Girl with Curious Hair, but I find myself thinking I’d rather go read the book. The moderator looks terribly bored and I can’t find any urgency anywhere. Next up is Joshua Sperling, a young kid from Yale, who is surprisingly the most engaging presenter of the morning. When he gets to questions at the end, he answers them thoughtfully, rather than with prepared remarks, and has no problem saying “I don’t know,” which earns him a great deal of credibility when he does know something. Among what he does know (or at least contend) is that subservience to addiction in DFW is like subservience to industry in Heidegger: we end up working for what’s supposed to work for us. Not that DFW is a Heideggerian; while Heidegger says “questioning is the piety of thought,” there is a prominent anti-intellectualism running through DFW’s work. Fittingly, this is the talk in which a cell phone rings. Everyone gets a good chuckle out of the timing. I use the pause as an opportunity to note that many in attendance are using little electronic gadgets for note-taking. In my old-fashioned notes, I write, “What other author could generate this kind of discussion? [illegible]? Dostoevsky?”3 At this point in the day it doesn’t occur to me to note that no one has yet cried. It doesn’t seem relevant.
After lunch, which only relates to the conference insofar as the guy next to me afterward wonders what kind of sauce I spilled on my pants,4 I sit down for the next panel: “Biography, Reception, and the Role of the Internet.” It is during this panel that the emotions start to come out, by which I mean the sadness that everyone in this room has carried inside themselves for a little over a year now releases into the air, and suddenly there is perfect attentive silence from the audience. No one is tired, despite it being right after lunch and the coffee having been put away. And it’s because of one thing: the suicide. It goes against the integrity of the academic attention we owe DFW, but the truth is, this conference is a kind of public mourning for readers who have lacked closure since his death. We’re reluctant to admit it (the conference could have been held all the same if DFW were still alive) but his death is a significant part of today, and this becomes obvious during the biography panel. The big question is how do we read the suicide: medical illness or cultural symptom? If one of the major themes of DFW’s writing is to trust in the face of doubt, it can be tempting to read the suicide as a failure of the writing to convince the author: Wallace couldn’t receive the gift of his own writing. I can’t imagine a bleaker story than this one—thankfully I don’t think it’s the right one.
Matt Bucher, in his talk, quotes George Saunders saying, “He was the first among us.” It’s such an earnest and vulnerable and true thing to say, and sad thing to hear, that this is when the tears start coming, from Matt, from me, from others—but that’s not what matters. What if, instead of killing himself, he’d gone J. D. Salinger on us? We wouldn’t have the same reaction. It’s not just the unwritten words we’re sad for. His entire project (again, self-defined) was about connecting us to one another, giving us hope, showing us that we don’t have to suffer alone: loving us. And we love him because he loved us. And so there’s an opportunity now to think that love wasn’t enough. For him. And where does that leave us? During the Q&A Matt will say, “People are raw. There’s more to come.” And maybe, because of the suicide, it’s too soon to have a conference like this. We know we should take Christine Harkin’s advice and pick a narrative for his death, set it aside, and get back to the text, but we kind of can’t yet. We’re still raw.
The next panel is starting. “Language, Communication, and the Project of Wallace’s Fiction” is probably the best of the day. Mary Holland begins the session by looking at where DFW’s fiction fits in with postmodernism. Coming on the heels of the biography panel, it’s wonderful to hear her say, “Wallace’s voice in this essay [the McCaffery interview] is shocking, willing to risk sentimentality and bare a beating heart in order to argue the necessity that fiction do the same.” Because Wallace’s fiction succeeded at this,5 he helped us—to borrow from the title of Holland’s paper, which is borrowed from the McCaffery interview—understand better “what it is to be a fucking human being.” I think it’s because we’re so sincerely thankful for this lesson that even now, returning to a text-based, academic talk, speaker and audience are in tears. What makes Holland’s paper the day’s highlight6 is that in addition to being interesting it is also vital, urgent. It's a passionate reading of Wallace that helps us readers understand the texts and our readings better. It’s an academic paper that seems to somehow care for its audience, which is one way DFW defined art. But as inspired as this reading is, is it a new direction in DFW studies? When Holland says, “Wallace’s whole project in fiction can be summed up as an attempt to enact empathy in a world whose contemporary culture of narcissism, along with the infantile narcissistic nature of the human self, acts at every turn to prevent it,” I agree, but this is a reading of Wallace derivative of Wallace himself. Later on, though, I will feel like something has most certainly been clarified:
I have argued that this was his project all along, to get outside of his head by putting his distinctive, fully human voice in the heads of his readers, and in so doing to show us the pleasure, value, and necessity of struggling to get outside of our own. Then his acts of mediation via language, attention to the problems of language, and drawing attention to the very fact, form, and constructions of language in his fiction, function absolutely not to intellectualize the reading experience, to disaffect its characters or its readers, to wrench it from humanizing history, or to construct a fun house of ever-receding reflections of signification. Rather, Wallace through his pointed, earnest, urgent uses of mediation instead begins to show us again through language what it is to be, quoting his interview with McCaffery, “a fucking human being.”
It’s the middle of the afternoon and Timothy Jacobs is the last speaker before the keynote address. He acknowledges the tiredness in the room with a joke, but it’s not enough to keep the moderator from falling asleep during his talk. This is too bad for Jacobs, because his reading of Infinite Jest is wonderfully insightful and helpful. But watching the moderator doze is funny. He nods off slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, then as soon as his eyes close fully his head falls dramatically. He snaps awake, laughs it off, drinks some water, and does it all again. And then one more time. The guy immediately in front of me isn’t even trying to stay awake. Why is there no coffee after lunch? But back to the talk: “I’m in here” are the words of the wraith-narrator, according to Jacobs. The argument is convincing, I think, but the reasons come too quickly for me to write them down. So instead of recounting his argument, I’ll give one upshot from this interpretation that I find helpful as a reader: Jacobs’s raconteur theory says that the whole book is narrated by one speaker, who we should imagine is sitting across from us next to the fire and just spinning a fantastic yarn. What’s to gain from this reading? Exactly this: when the fire goes out, we don’t ask, Is everything resolved? We ask, Did you empathize? Did you identify? Does your heart hurt? As with Holland, this isn’t a new reading of DFW as much as a helpful one. Those are essentially DFW’s own terms, but I get them a little better now.
And now for the fireworks. Maureen Eckert, the philosopher who nodded in so much agreement during the morning panels, has nodded angrily throughout Jon Udelson’s talk. When it’s time for Qs, her hand is first up and first pointed at by the just-risen moderator. The problem for Eckert is that Udelson has overstepped his bounds in discussing Wittgenstein and Descartes. She’s marking her philosophical territory in a bizarrely aggressive way. The mood in the room moves from surprise to tension to amusement to annoyance to incredulousness in rapid succession. Her question is just a rant, really. Udelson tries to respond, but she’s still going and her voice is louder even though he has the mic. At some point Jacobs cuts her off and says, “Is there a question?” And there isn’t. Who knows if he even mistook whatever she’s accusing him of having mistaken? Who cares? I barely even want to read Wallace’s philosophy thesis now. Udelson is angry now, and he uses the mic to shout her down a bit, and he gets a chance to respond. Short summary: he didn’t do what she’s accusing him of. Her response: I’ll talk to you in private. No one is asleep at this point. It’s a relief when she disappears. I don’t know if she sticks around for the keynote or not.
If not, too bad for her; Stephen J. Burn is a fun and engaging presenter. He seeks accessibility in his talk, as he argues that DFW is among a group of writers composing post-postmodernism. It’s another DFW argument that can be traced back to DFW, but like those of Holland and Jacobs, it’s a good one. The way in which anything struggles to go against or in response to postmodernism is an interesting puzzle, because it is one of the tropes of postmodernism to co-opt whatever it needs to perpetuate itself. Barth’s fiction incorporating the death of postmodernism is a familiar example,7 but the point that even Barth’s nonfiction ends up being about Barth and writing is well taken. DFW’s nonfiction, in contrast, is much more engaged with the world outside the author’s head. This seems deeply related to every way people have tried to define his project. DFW is writing for us. “These academics’ arguments seem sound as far as they go . . .” This conference is about as academic as things get. Does it help us? Is it supposed to? Burn says DFW resists material reductionism. Does that mean he would have resisted the reading of his suicide that might have been most helpful: that there was nothing that could be done about it? Was that, in fact, part of the problem? If we’re going to talk just about the text, and try to figure out where or what or who DFW is, how can we? We’re too close. We’ve got no perspective ground to stand on. For everyone in this room at least, he is the water. We haven’t even read his final novel, let alone had time to process it. How can we consider his body of work? It’s not dead yet. He is the water. Until we get out of it, what can we say?
So, new directions in David Foster Wallace studies?—no. A challenging and instructive and cathartic day?—yes. But something is still confusing. DFW thought we read to feel not alone, which means he thought it was his duty as a writer to help us feel connected. Avoiding the intentional fallacy was one of the motivations for holding this conference, but since we know connecting people was one of this author’s goals, there’s a temptation, with his suicide hovering over his life and work, to feel abandoned right now.
That’s why how we read DFW’s suicide, at least at this time, is entirely relevant, given the nature of his work, to what we make of his work. If the cause was not in his brain, it would be hopeless for us. If it was a problem with his brain, his death was probably unavoidable, and hopeless only for him. The latter is easier to live with, and it’s probably more true. Jonathan Franzen said in his memorial speech that it wasn’t DFW vs. the disease. That’s right. The disease was inside of him, a part of him. It was one of the conditions of his life, and there was a significant chance all along that it would be the cause of his death. And the saddest thing of all is that the thing he wanted so much to give us (“I wish you way more than luck”) is one thing the disease prevented him from giving himself.
An academic’s job, a friend told me recently, is to keep the debate going. I don’t think the debate’s started yet. But there are a lot of us swimming around, and eventually we’ll get out of the water, dry off a little, and be able to consider the vastness of this ocean.
1 A possible explanation of this phenomenon from Zadie Smith: “There is a weird ambient sameness to Wallace’s work. He was always asking essentially the same question. How do I recognize that other people are real, as I am? And the strange, quasi-mystical answer was always the same, too. You may have to give up your attachment to the ‘self.’ I don’t mean that Wallace ‘preached’ this moral in his work; when I think of a moralist I don’t think of a preacher. On the contrary, he was a writer who placed himself ‘in the hazard’ of his own terms, undergoing them as real problems, both in life and on the page. For this reason, I suspect he will remain a writer who appeals, above all, to the young. It’s young people who best understand his sense of urgency, and who tend to take abstract existential questions like these seriously, as interrogations that relate directly to themselves. The struggle with ego, the struggle with the self, the struggle to allow other people to exist in their genuine ‘otherness’—these were aspects of Wallace’s own struggle.”