How Will the David Foster Wallace Legacy Survive Itself?
I have been avoiding writing about David Foster Wallace since he killed himself in September 2008. His work has always meant a great deal to me. Besides being one of the first contemporary authors to spark my interest in reading again, his presence as a mind and touchstone in the current constellation of literary art seemed both inspiring and vital—a thing to age with, to watch manifest over time. Perhaps some of the pressure of that position, which Wallace was no doubt skittishly aware of, was at least a portion of the surface that continually pressed down against his brain until finally he decided he could no longer, or would no longer, carry on. For some time I felt I did not understand that. As time passed, I began to feel that maybe I understood it, and now I really have no idea, and no amount of consideration will change where we are now.
Where are we now? Things seem much different even only five years since Wallace’s death. That feeling of “difference” is related not only to his absence, but to a bigger kind of absence where the author as an entity unto itself is no longer quite as possible as it once was. The current flood of news sources, independent presses, self-publishing possibilities, social media, and the like have in effect flattened the borders between the market and the source, making the existence of the artist-as-monolith a more impossible—or at least very different—thing. Often the writer is now as accessible as the work itself, and even those who make an effort to avoid that effect by staying offline seem carried forward in a very different kind of general light: one sort of buried by its own amassment. Whether all that is true or not, or good or bad, isn’t what concerns me; where we are is where we are, and no amount of brain-scanning or consideration can undo what is to come.
But what’s really bothered me in the wake of Wallace-as-person is the transport of his remainder. That is, the work he was not around to see finalized into what it would be. Since his death, there have been four works published in his name—2009’s This Is Water, essentially a vanity-styled repackaging of a would-be uplifting speech he gave at a commencement in 2005; 2010’s Fate, Time, and Language, his undergraduate philosophy thesis; 2011’s The Pale King, dubbed a novel, and framed as a manuscript Wallace intentionally left out to be found before he died; and last year’s Both Flesh and Not, a gathering of previously uncollected essays, gathering a range of work from 1994-2007. Not to mention the range of works by other authors taking on his life and mind in various forms, most notably D.T. Max’s unfortunately-titled first-dibs biography, Every Love Story Is Also a Ghost Story. I could tally the other surely mind-boggling number of treatises and explications already existing or slated to exist, but honestly I just don’t have the heart. Let’s just say if you want to pretend you’re getting new Wallace material every six months, you’re in luck. The question for me is: what does it cost?
All delivered in barely four years since his passing, my personal feeling in the wake of the mass output of the Wallace estate is a relic-swamp, the further into which we run the more the remaining signal is obscured. As someone who treasured the experience of every new Wallace title while he was living, I feel his body of work, as a whole, is diminished with each new archival fragment. As we drop our greedy buckets deeper and deeper into the well, what we bring to the surface is not only less-intended by the author and thus lacking his polish, but clouds the signal of what had come before, making it hard to remember who that person was at all before they ceased existing. Though of course this is nothing new; this is what often happens in handling the death of an artist, and we are meant to understand that all of this is a gesture toward total completion—they will go on long after the well has been run dry. With Wallace, though, it seems a particularly hasty case of manipulation, of too many mangled mirrors aimed toward the genius of the dead, as if the moneymakers are afraid that we’ll forget too soon.
Among the increasingly rising posthumous Wallace pantheon, The Pale King is for me the most painstakingly hurtful, in that it is closest to what would have been coming had he lived. It was for years a thing rumored and anticipated, a collection of semi-likeminded pieces that might have one day been a novel if the author had held on long enough to meld it into one. Once he passed, it was shaped by his longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, who included a disclaimer stating, essentially, “this is the best that I could do”—because in the end, it is in no way a novel, and nothing like one; more so a beautiful alien mess of ideas that want to stick together and yet cannot, and to call it finished, under whatever context, is to damn it a body not its own. The book as “novel,” even “An Unfinished Novel,” as a mechanism leaves me cold. The Pale King’s mind seems lost among the rubble, perhaps due to the author’s absence from its form; the idea that this is not what was meant to be.
Worse yet in the category of “what should have been left wild” are the gathering of essays, Both Flesh and Not, which, again, is made up of pieces brilliant in the way we expect Wallace to be singularly Wallace, but also not quite carrying him there, and this time not because he has passed but because they are minor items. These essays were previously uncollected, one would imagine, for a reason: so why now? So that we can have one more thing to cling to? Is it fair to do this to anyone, much less an author who was so concerned about each and every line? It seems that history demands a completeness to the body, in that reading even the minor scribblings of a great mind contains credence, but somehow here I can’t shake the feeling of something dire being done. That somewhere in all of this what’s being altered is not only worse for the author’s legacy, but worse for us: for art and understanding, for going forward, for preservation of spirit beyond cash, for exactly the kind of nameless shapeless turmoil that seemed to be coursing through Wallace’s late blood.
And still I can’t help myself from reading these books. In some way I want to have them, to be given more mirage to wander around in. Yet at the same time I can’t stop wanting to burn all of these words that were not placed finally together by Wallace himself. The question of whether it is better to get a look at the half-housed orphans of a visionary or to remember what was as it was isn’t something I can answer for anyone. Personally, the feeling that has risen in me in the wake of all these posthumous attempts at preservation is a sense of immense desolation, one much different from the feeling of someone even ending their own life.
Perhaps the grossest case of all is the D.T. Max biography. For several weeks after reading that book I had a hard time even thinking about Wallace in any way; something about him seemed to have been brutalized, reflected in a light that did nothing to weigh the ostensible social acts of a man against what he created. I don’t understand the need for such an object here so soon, so flat and formal in its assessment, so commercial, verging on tabloid, when what’s at stake here is more than the creative worries of a man.
If nothing else, and as much as I despise the thought that all this post-death doing is killing what was wonderful about what had been, it is a good reminder to anybody that what you do or say or create often only begins to define what you always are. We will read or not read what is given and all the rest around it will go on. Time is alive. Regardless of what ends up remaining of Wallace, I will remember him as a great and endless mass of brightness, the rarest sort of maker, whether he would have wanted me to or not.
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