I’m not sure I can stand to look at another photo of David Foster Wallace. The one that especially kills me is the one where he’s outside, in shadows, staring down. He looks like he can’t wait to do what he finally did in September of this year: hang himself. He was 46.
I can name a dozen writers, purveyors of bad writing all, I wish would also follow through on this solipsistic death wish, but don’t. (Not yet anyway). And then there’s DFW, who did. He was a manic depressive and fought this most of his life. He went off his meds, from what I can tell, and was never able to live life in any way that could fulfill him and make him happy. He never thought he was good enough. Even though he was more than good enough in his students’ eyes and for his devoted readers.
The end of a year brings reflection for what has come in the last 300 fifty whatever days. Only because magazines and newspapers make us reflect. Because they have to fill in the few weeks at the end of the year with fodder that can be written ahead of time while the staff takes the holidays off. But, I’d be lying if I said I don’t read over the top ten lists and the notable deaths with interest.
Mixing all of this (deaths, top ten lists, writers) comes Roberto Bolaño and his latest posthumously translated novel 2666 (mentioned three times now in the past month on this blog). Bolaño didn’t kill himself. At least, not intentionally. But he died young. At age 50. In 2002. He did not live to see the translation of 2666 reach the American bestseller lists and numerous top ten best of end-of-year greatest-thing-ever until-next-year award mention notice countdown.
DFW and RB are dead. But they have more in common than being praised, lauded writers who died young. They both wrote at least one behemoth novel that scraped at greatness, whether by design or marketing savvy. 2666 is over 900 pages long, published simultaneously in hardcover and in a set of three paperbacks. DFW was in his 30s when his doorstop of a book, Infinite Jest, was published.
Over a thousand pages long, with almost two hundred more pages of end notes, the thing was a brilliant mash-up mess of meta entertainment and faux history (and it took place in Massachusetts. Bonus!). Well, that’s what I hear anyway. I didn’t actually read it. I got to about page 150 while trying to keep up with all the end note references (the only book I’ve read necessitating two bookmarks working simultaneously). I eventually traded it in for credit at some used book store that is probably closed now. I caught up with his work when I read his wonderful collection of essays, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Where DFW goes on a cruise and to a state fair and does nothing more, and nothing less, than write about his experiences. Along with maybe some relevant history and research. Entertaining and enlightening. Maybe everything he ever wanted to be, he was already.
And so then I went on two Internet dates in the late nineties with a grad student who had been a student teacher at the same school where DFW taught writing in the mid-nineties. She said he was a nice guy who was attracted to gregarious women because he was basically shy and introverted (Really? A writer who’s introverted?). She described witnessing women (or overhearing about? Or possibly trying herself?) crowbar-ing their way into his life, trying to grab his attention in the most ‘outgoing’ ways. One woman climbed his fire escape and threw dog shit through his window to get his attention. It worked and he let her in. I tell this story for no reason but to show that the celebrity of a writer, the cult of a writer, has nothing (should have nothing) to do with his writing. The writer should be invisible and the writing should stand up for itself. I avoid looking at author photos. It deflates the experience of reading a book even before I’ve read the first line. I don’t really want to know what the writer looks like, where he lives, where he went to school, how many publishing credits he has to his name, and how many years younger he is.
DFW was already pretty famous before he died. Bolaño has become relatively famous in American in part because he’s dead, and dead writers (especially dangerous Chilean writers with an abundant, posthumously translated back catalog) hold an undeniable mystique that all the Oprah and NYT bestseller list appearances can’t assuage. But in death, both writers are being canonized, lionized, lovingly glanced at over the shoulders of bestselling, genre writers by an adoring reading public that includes gregarious flirty girls, readers who connect on some generational level with these authors, lovers of damn good writing, and the curious who have come to these writers after the fact, either to chase the ambulance or to see what all the literary fuss is about.
If nobody knew about DFW and RB, would their deaths matter so much now? I guess if I follow my own theory, my own sick logic, then the only thing that matters is the writing, the work, and the author can kill himself ten times over while the writing stands on its own merits. But I know what both writers look like, I’ve seen the author photos, the dust jackets depicting their tragic, elegiac images at different ages and times, and I know how each died (Bolaño died of liver failure, possibly deriving from complications of early heroin use) and all I can say now is I wish both were still alive to feed us hungry readers, us craving fans, just a bit more of that sweet great good writing.