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David Foster Wallace, Six Years After the Bad Thing

September 11, 2014

I post this as I wake up, around 3:00 in the morning where I am on the East coast, just outside Washington DC. In a few hours, I will board a plane on its way west, stuck — or so it seems at the moment — in a cramped middle seat and unable to look outside as I love to do on those few occasions I do fly. I will also be aware that it’s the anniversary of a day that other people on other planes were concerned with a great deal more than whether the greedy bastard in front of them was about to recline into the last few cubic inches of personal space the airline gods had seen fit to allow a coach-class peon like myself. Maybe that will help me keep some perspective, but problems seem to fall off a lot faster than the inverse square in distance and time: here and now always feels so solid and important; there and then so abstract and weirdly less real.

I’m heading to the West coast, where it is only just now “today”, in the sense that I mean it here and now. Tomorrow my brother is getting married. I haven’t been to a lot of weddings, mostly because those things seem to happen mostly in the mid-to-late twenties, and I spent those years in grad school, surrounded by other grad students who didn’t have time for life-long commitments either, much less to find not only one but two increasingly rare academic jobs in the near future. I don’t see many more coming, and probably not even for myself in any traditional sense; these kind of expensive, impractical celebrations are a younger man’s game. Or so it seems to me now.

Tomorrow is also six years since David Foster Wallace hanged himself in the garage of his Claremont, California home. His head that day is so long ago and far away from my own that it’s impossible to understand what was inside it that felt this was the best choice. All I can understand is that he believed it.

Wallace is often quoted as saying that fiction — including, it would seem, his own — is “about what it is to be a fucking human being”. A big part of that as he wrote it is about perspective. I don’t mean in the diminishing, demeaning, “have some perspective” that scolds and moralizers employ; it’s about getting a sense of your place among and in relation to the rest of the world.

Wallace’s best-known work was probably his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, later published as This Is Water. He spoke, in part, about the strenuous effort involved in bridging the empathic gulf between any two people, especially on a day-to-day basis, and especially without an existing relationship to help contextualize the momentary interactions. He suggested that the ability to make that choice was the true result of a well-rounded education.

The near-coincidence of the dates means the two tragedies always come up together in my mind. And since I didn’t live in either New York or DC at the time, Wallace’s death always feels the closer and more real and affecting to me. But, in his way, he manages to point back towards the day that is seared in the memories of all who were aware of anything at that point.

At the time, he was in Bloomington, Illinois, even further removed from the unfolding events than I was in New Haven. The impact was psychically huge, but out in the midwest it was mediated purely by radio waves; physically it was only as big as the nearest screen. What did it feel like to be so far away, and yet paradoxically so close? Wallace recorded it — “very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock” — for Rolling Stone magazine as “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s House”.

Six years after his death, the world indeed continues to spin without Dave Wallace in it. One man more or less is so small, and yet every time I remember the loss it feels enormous. It’s all a matter of perspective, and I remember that everyone else’s is different from mine.

And so, if the gate agent (harried with so many selfish demands that I hate to pile another one on her plate) isn’t able to find a way to put me next to the window, and if the man on my left bulges over the armrest (with a pang of self-loathing after the flight crew debate whether he needs to pay another humiliating surcharge), and if the kid on my right is fussy (the first time she feels the pressure change in her ears it’s bewildering and terrifying), and if the person in front of me reclines (seeking what little respite is possible for their bad back in these cramped quarters), I’ll pull a little deeper into my reading of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and repeat to myself that this is the water we’re all swimming in.

And when Patrick and Eleanor stand up tomorrow I’ll put Dave and Claremont and the plane and the twin towers behind me, at least for a while. They may exist for the most part as abstractions to me right now, and their experiences and motivations may be alien to mine, but I will choose to be there and then with them, in that moment.

And, of course, I will wish them way more than luck.

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