David Foster Wallace and Harper Lee Are Dead, and My Feelings Are Complicated

1. Twenty years ago, I was a senior in college, majoring in creative writing, when I ran into one of my professors, Stephen Dixon, on one of the quads. For whatever reason, he was excited to tell me about a new novel, something called “Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace.

“You’ve got to know the competition,” he said with a conspiratorial smile.

Back then, I still harbored dreams of being a novelist myself, so I bought the book, the biggest, heaviest novel I think I’d ever attempted to read, and over the next nine months slowly made my way through it*. I loved it, for much the same reasons everyone else loved it, and for a while, in stories I wrote for workshops, I’d start sentences with “And but,” and I’d sneak in endnotes, and my readers would generally rebel at anything I tried to do that smacked of DFW-ness. Didn’t they get it? I asked myself. Hasn’t anybody else read this thing?

The thing was, though I was trying to be DFW, I was also trying to beat him. He’d been introduced to me as my “competition” at a time when I imagined fictional greatness for myself, and even long after I gave up writing fiction, I saw him, subconsciously, as the guy I needed to top. Not that there was any competition, or even that competition made any sense at all. Fiction is not a zero-sum game.

And yet, when I heard he’d died, in 2008, my first feelings were of relief—relief and victory. At last, my competition was gone, and now no one could stand in my way. Obviously, I felt guilty, too—I didn’t like feeling the least bit happy over anyone’s suicide, but there that feeling was, in my heart whether I liked it or not. I didn’t write anything about it at the time, when everyone else was mourning his loss, but now, seven and a half years after his death and twenty since “Infinite Jest” came out, I’m less ashamed.

Partly that’s because I miss him as a nemesis. Without him and his words, I’m a little adrift, like Superman without Lex Luthor, or Spiderman without the Green Goblin. (Though who’s the hero and who’s the villain, I have no idea.) He was my competition, but instead of beating him—whatever that could have meant—I’ve won on a technicality. Come back, DFW, please?

2. Now Harper Lee is dead. Again, I take no pleasure in her death—just maybe the merest bit of relief. Because for a month or so back in 1984,“To Kill a Mockingbird” made fifth grade unbearable. We had to read it in English class (or “language arts,” as it was called in Amherst), and I remember being terrified. It wasn’t the writing (I was a good reader), it was the subject matter: The novel revolves around a rape. And I was 10 years old at the time, barely conscious of what sex was, even less capable of discussing the idea of rape, and still, that was what the book was about. We had to confront it, to talk about the story in class, and I clammed up, couldn’t do it. I remember almost crying, so unwilling was I to speak in class. (I may be misremembering.) Eventually, it got so bad that the teacher suggested I shift down to a less challenging language-arts class, which was sort of humiliating but also weird, because I read and wrote without any problems. And in any case, that lasted only a month, and then I rejoined my original language-arts comrades, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” was never brought up again.

But it lingered! I never read the book again, never saw the movie, read almost no articles about it—it was a symbol of my difficult transition from childhood to adolescence, and I couldn’t confront it. Every time I thought about it, I felt the same shame rise up in me from 10, 20, 30 years earlier. It shouldn’t be a big deal. That was all a long, long time ago. Maybe I’m too sensitive. Maybe I remember too keenly.

Still, today there’s that relief. Harper Lee is gone, and with her goes a bit of that deep pain I’ve held onto. Her work may have hurt me, but I’ve outlasted her. It’s an ugly feeling, and one I’m not proud of, but it’s there.

But, I hope, not for much longer.

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