Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Controlled Lack Of Control

Posthumous accolades can be a tricky road to navigate at times. In relation to deceased artists, the recollections seem to hit a high for roughly two weeks following the person's passing, and then quieting down. Once the reality has set in, once a (for lack of a better phrase) period of healing has been dealt with, more honest assessments can be made. In those two weeks (this is not at all a scientific time frame, nor is it meant to trivialize or quantify someone's death), the tributes can be clouded by honest, raw emotions, almost out of a disbelief of the death in question. One example is the death of Heath Ledger and his following performance in The Dark Knight. At first, the film was hyped because of Ledger's death (whether one wants to admit this or not), which quickly turned into honest praise once everyone saw his incredible performance. This led to sadness, given his talent and what he would have accomplished in the future. These ideas happen to lend themselves easily to David Foster Wallace. After his suicide, I wrote a pretty short tribute to him, under the influence of the aforementioned raw emotions. However, six months later, his work and life have taken on a new focus, thanks to the March 9th issue of The New Yorker.

The magazine ran a wonderful, touching biographical/professional tribute to Wallace, written by D.T. Max. This was followed by an excerpt ("Wiggle Room") from what would have been his third novel (the remaining manuscript is going to be published in the very near future). Max's essay, entitled "The Unfinished," is both a look at Wallace's talent and a look at his crippling depression, which were both related and separate at the same time. In what at first glance appears to be a straightforward essay, the reader is given the most honest, detailed look at Wallace's demons, both his mental illness and his feelings that his writings were never good enough. Granted, rare is the completely satisfied writer, but given his still devoted audience, it's shocking how Wallace's quotes paint the picture of someone who was both talented beyond measure and unequivocally unsure of himself in that same light.

"Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. 'Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being,' he once said. Good writing should help readers to 'become less alone inside.'"

The debate over what constitutes good fiction will never end, but Wallace's almost generic explanation gives an apt definition. However, the work he left behind goes into the painstaking detail that his quote does not. "Wiggle Room" shows what it's like to be a human being under the constraints of extreme monotony, namely as a tax reviewer. As Wallace was skilled at doing, he takes a serious emotion, expands it in precise detail, and occasionally renders it darkly hysterical.

"Then three more, including one 1040A, where the deductions for A.G.I. were added wrong and the Martinsburg printout hadn't caught it and had to be amended on one of the Form 020-Cs in the lower left tray, and then a lot of the same information filled out on the regular 20, which you still had to do even if it was just a correspondence audit and the file going to Joliet instead of the District, each code for which had to be looked up on the pullout thing he had to scoot the chair awkwardly over to pull out all the way. Then another one, then a plummeting inside of him as the wall clock showed that what he'd thought was another hour had not been. Not even close. May 17, 1985. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner."

This piece goes on fluidly to analyze etymology as well as to introduce a ghostly character. Wallace (as Max explains) did a lot of research into the lives and work of tax officials, and the product he left behind is evidence of that, yet it feels spontaneous and real. Max, reminiscent of Wallace's own definition of fiction writing, offers this tidy (yet dead-on) view of Wallace's work: "His prose slid forward with a controlled lack of control that mimed thought itself."

The notion of posthumous writing also showed itself in the same issues of The New Yorker, in the form of a book review written by the late John Updike. The magazine ran tributes to him shortly after his death, and the appearance of this review was strangely comforting. Even though he's gone, there was still something new to publish, since he contributed many reviews to the publication. There was no need to add any other acknowledgements of his death, and the review stands on its own. I might be expanding on this next week, when I write about Roberto Bolano's unfinished, posthumous novel 2666. I've been reading it for quite a few weeks, and as much as I'm enjoying it, sometimes I have the feeling that I'm not making any progress towards the ending. The mere existence of this piece of art, written when Bolano knew full well that he was dying of cancer, makes reading almost imperative, since the author wanted to get the work completed to be read and enjoyed. The same goes for Wallace's final works as well. While it's impossible to know how long his suicide was premeditated, there's the distinct understanding (as evidence by "The Unfinished") that he knew, deep down, that it was a possibility. This post might appear morbid, but in all honesty, there's still a lot of original work to savor, in spite of untimely passings.

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