Friday, 1 September 2017

david foster wallace: where i was when i heard

If a public figure has been an inspiration to you, you’ll remember how and when you learned of their death, particularly if that death was sudden and/or premature.

This obituary for David Foster Wallace, who died nine years ago this month, was originally published in November 2008 in Banana Wings, the long-running Nova- and FAAN-winning science fiction fanzine edited by Claire Briarley and Mark Plummer. Its original title was Where I Was When I Heard That David Foster Wallace, An American Writer Some of Whose Short Fiction I’ve Read, Had Died and How The News Sits Within My Overall Life Matrix Right Now.

I learned the news that David Foster Wallace had died when a friend of a friend who’d become just, a friend, joined a group called ‘RIP David Foster Wallace’ on Facebook two days after new Facebook became the only Facebook. A change for the worse IMHO but what would I know, I’m still bitter that (pace Tomorrow’s World) I can’t spread jam on CDs. I’d spent the evening chasing paperwork in order to send off my job acceptance. I’d spent the day shopping for new suits as the last time I wore a suit on consecutive days I was also the owner of a ex-Soviet Army greatcoat, a Sony Walkman and a subscription to the Modern Review, ed. Toby Young; the Inspiral Carpets were in the charts; I lived in Leeds, which still exists. It was 1991. I’ll be wearing a suit on approximately 227 days during the twelve months beginning 6th October 2008, officially my start date for the purposes of possible future redundancy.  To be honest, it’s about time.

To tell the narcissistic truth, at least one of the sentences in this obituary started life earlier this afternoon in my mind at Suits You or perhaps Debenhams as a potential Facebook status update before I heard about DFW’s death; I hope that I’ve now set the potential ‘look at me’ nugget in a broader context (if nuggets have a context) which hat-tips grief and fulfils the vow I renewed at last week’s Southampton Writers’ Circle, which meets at Crusader House in a room full of Bibles and whose (i) sweaty desperation (ii) biscuity pheromones and (iii) ‘non-respect of persons’ - in the Authorised Version sense - puts me in mind of Narcotics Anonymous of which, oddly and it would be erroneously, I want to suggest membership (all that doomed outsider bullshit; all that heroic self-restraint). This vow which I first made a decade ago is to write for at least fifteen minutes a day “even if it’s gibberish.” [Pheromone = a chemical that triggers a natural behavioral response in another member of the same species].

The last writer’s death I thought a lot about was Douglas Adams’s. He died on a Sunday newspaper hoarding as I stepped off the Isle of Wight ferry; it was a sunny spring day, Sarah and I had just started seeing each other, and I’d only just formed the idea of leaving London and moving to Jane Austen Country (Isaac Watts Country, Benny Hill Country). It’s a shame that David Foster Wallace died as American literature needed his intelligence and ambition; British literature more so but, crap, he wasn’t born here. I mean, I may be talking out of my arse having only read his short fiction but for my money ‘The Depressed Person’ is up there with anything that Swift wrote. Now someone whose critical judgement I respect very much dislikes DFW enough that she once wrote a long LiveJournal entry about it...  but I’ve borrowed Portswood Library’s big blue copy of Infinite Jest twice now, once when I first moved here and once recently, renewing it a couple of times on each occasion; television, paperwork and involved parenthood keep me away from it presently but not having read it’s one of the smaller reasons not to die yet. Bigger reasons include wanting to grow old with Sarah, hope of career success and/or adulation, intermittent sense of personal mission (faith-based) and a strong continuing emotional investment in parenting.

Talking of parenting: when I put Megan my small daughter to bed the other night, she looked at the family photos on the stairs and asked when her teenage brother would be a little boy again. “Sam’s never going to be a little boy again,” I said. “That happened in the past.” At around three years, our minds reorganise all their categories, executing a kind of slow reboot and burying memories previously available to consciousness in substrate. It’s as though we have to leave an infantile world behind in order to join the consensus reality that older children and adults inhabit. The Eden archetype is fertile with this awareness; the sense of a lost paradise has haunted poets (Coleridge?). It’s only after this unplanned garden expulsion event that the human mind can model the fact that (i) no sibling or parent ever gets younger (ii) no investment bank goes unbust with the instant restoration of tens of thousands of jobs in the financial sector (iii) it’s never going to be 2008 or 1991 or 1666 again (iv) no colossus of American fiction ever unhangs himself but, heck, at least no-one unwrites books.

Postscript: time continues to pass. ‘Small daughter Megan’ prefers to be called Meg now and starts secondary school in a few days. Sam has a Master’s degree, lives in London; we see plenty of him but not enough. Leeds still exists. I’ve since seen Tom Hingley (frontman) perform Inspiral Carpets material: it was at the Watchet Music Festival in 2012 where Sarah, Meg and I and a thousand others singing along with “this is how it feels to be lonely” certainly felt like a moment. Tom follows me on twitter, hi Tom [*waves*]. Once in a while, I still find myself missing that greatcoat [‘that greatcoat’ = synecdoche]. Have I read ‘Infinite Jest’ yet? Well, it’s a long story…. 

[See also: DFWCon]

 it's bleak out on those moors

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