Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"You get to decide what to worship."

My Time Outside the Womb - Titus Andronicus (mp3)
Write Your Own Song - Matthew Sweet (mp3)

Is it possible to be haunted by someone you've never really met, someone whose work you've only marginally encountered? Can a ghost have just enough form and substance to gnaw at your conscience when you had no sense of the actual person? If so, I'm being haunted by the ghost of David Foster Wallace.

If you don't know anything about David Foster Wallace, you're not alone. Hell, prior to his suicide last September, the only thing I knew about him was that he wrote Infinite Jest, the scariest-looking book I've ever perused in a bookstore. It's the kind of book, the size of book, someone like me sees and thinks, "I'll read that thing when I lose all of my limbs in some tragic accident involving a deer stand and a gallon of rye whiskey." It's 900 pages (plus another 100+ pages' worth of footnotes and asides). If Stephen King's tomes are milk chocolate, then DFW's prose is triple-chunk German dark, so rich it's almost impossible to digest.

The March 9 issue of The New Yorker includes a fascinating piece on DFW (yes, like all New Yorker pieces, it's long as hell). The piece seems to suggest what I've been afraid to discover, which is that the man's humanity and his psychological struggles were even more fascinating than his writing.

Because I, too, wrestle with the timeless challenge of moving beyond a universe where I'm the center of everything -- Paragraph #7 of Wallace's 2007 Graduation Speech at Kenyon College, if you please -- everything about the DFW's writing and life feel like a giant, super-sized cautionary tale of wish-fulfillment for my own deepest and darkest imaginings. Intellectually, I am but a gnat stuck in the tail hairs of the ass of his Clydesdale-esque brilliance. My ability to structure sentences, to communicate via type what circulates in my synapses, feels infantile by comparison, as if I were trying to write in calligraphy with my son's diaper droppings.

Despite his brilliance and skill, most critics and book-lovers seem to agree that DFW was a highly-flawed novelist at best. "Ambitious" tends to be the highest praise he earns from most folks. His essays and "journalistic" writings, on the other hand, tend to be held in much higher esteem. One of his most-famous pieces, "Consider the Lobster," fills me with seething admiration for the man. His brain was so all-over-the-place, so schizophrenically filled with thoughts and insights and Ideas, that he really needed a concrete and finite subject -- non-fiction -- around which to focus them. The minute he shifted into the world of non-fiction, where he was required to make his own rules and create the concrete-ness, he got a little carried away. Methinks it must have been like trying to lasso a comet.

That I would dare to think I could even just barely be a sidekick to his level of capability, a Robin to his Batman, makes me feel like I'm moronically flying toward the sun with wax wings. Beyond my secret burning hope that I could even hold a slight candle compared to DFW's sky-penetrating spotlight is a fear, the fear that artistic brilliance of such magnitude almost always exacts a damning price on its owner, and more often than not the owners of such brilliance tell anyone who will listen that they are not artists by choice, that they frequently wish they didn't have the burden, the weight, the need to express themselves via paint or writing or acting or whatever medium pulsed through their veins. It's not a choice for them, but rather a compulsion, a driving aching itch that must eventually be scratched.

DFW's brilliance also came at the expense of his emotional stability. A man who by most accounts was incredibly empathetic and attuned and generally considerate, he was also constantly fighting to tread the waters of his own depressive despair. He wanted so badly to write things that offered some hope and shed some light upon our existence, all the while fighting desperately to convince himself any of this was worth doing.

I feel I share Wallace's penchant for rambling, for swimming (perhaps egotistically) in my love of language, for making stupid and wild references about which few souls could remotely care. I feel I share his struggle to rein in my fiction writing even while my goals and hopes are nowhere near as ambitious or fascinating. I've even begun to suspect I share a little of his emotional struggle, perhaps an amount precisely proportionate to my inferior level of ability.

I don't want to be David Foster Wallace. Of course I don't. But his spirit lingers, floating around between my ears and outside my window and in the music I hear. He's not the first artist or writer to drown in substances, in demons, in psychological turmoil, but he's the one haunting me at this moment in time, and in a big-time way.

Do yourself a favor and read one of those two links of his. You might find David Foster Wallace haunting you as well, but you'd be grateful.

Titus Andronicus' debut album can be found on iTunes, Amazon.com's mp3 site, or eMusic. Matthew Sweet's In Reverse, perhaps his screwiest most ambitious album of the 90s, is only at Amazon.com for some reason.

POSTSCRIPT: I shit you not, I went to Ted.com to watch whatever tickled my fancy right before I would go to bed tonight, and I stumbled across this Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) speech about creative genius. Totally serendipitous. It's 19 minutes long, but it's a beautiful balm to my panic, and I hope it made DFW's ghost smile a little:


John said...

Really enjoyed reading Eat, Pray, Love so this video was a blast. Her story about Tom Waits and the creative process alone is worth the 19:29 of your life.

Daisy said...

You certainly do know your way around an anaolgy...diaper calligraphy? A for originality on that one. Seriously I really enjoyed botht he writing and subject matter of this post!