Remember the time in Infinite Jest when teenaged Orin Incandenza took a joy ride, stoned, not noticing the family dog leashed to the car? The scene was so grim and surreal that we kept laughing, uneasily, until nothing remained of the poor family pet but a “nubbin” of fur. Despite the scene’s bizarreness, the dynamic between the reckless, spoiled son and his doting, endlessly enabling mother was so real that it made us ache. The tears began welling before our bellies quit bouncing with amused disbelief.
There was nothing so dark David Wallace couldn’t make it funny.
“I know I should have told you some of all this about me sooner, and the pattern, before you moved all the way out here,” one guy tells his girlfriend in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. “School, your apartment, having to get rid of your cat — just please don’t misunderstand — your doing all this means a great deal to me, and it’s a huge part of why I really do feel as if I love you, and care so much about you, too much not to feel terrified about in any way yanking you around or hurting you somewhere down the road, which trust me, given my record in this area, I’d have to be a total psychopath not to consider.”
This was Wallace’s seductive trick; he’d keep the reader laughing and hurting all at once. His writing, like the imaginary video in Infinite Jest that compels people to keep watching, entertains so effectively that we are willing to follow him to very dark places. He takes us into conversation with junkies, egomaniacs and depressives to hear about suicide, addiction, and depravity. He takes us into the heads of cheaters, not to mock them but rather to see ourselves. We break free of our judgmental narcissism as Wallace persuades us to identify with the down-and-out.
“At this point in the sharing, the depressed person took a time-out to solemnly swear to her long-distance, gravely-ill, frequently retching but still caring and intimate friend that there was no toxic or pathetically manipulative self-excoriation here in what she (the depressed person) was reaching out and opening up and confessing, only profound and unprecedented fear,” Wallace writes in a pitch-black satire of talk therapy culture. “The depressed person was frightened for herself, for as it were ‘[her] self’ — i.e. for her own so-called ‘character’ or ‘spirit’ or as it were ‘soul’ i.e. for her own capacity for basic human empathy and compassion and caring — she told the supportive friend with the neuroblastoma.”
If you take your comedy black, you’ll finish that line with a morbid “ha” of delight.
Wallace’s characters are not just the poor or damaged, but the broken spirited, and the sick in the head. They are people driven to hurt one another, including their loved ones, out of loneliness, sickness or lust — the same tough emotions that lurk in us all. Humor, Wallace’s writing proves, has the same sly power as charm, fiction and song, all forms of the Trojan Horse. Each lowers our defenses, rendering us open to losers; open to sad, compulsive, lonely people who could, he convinces us, just as easily be ourselves.
We laugh the same way we fall in love: nakedly, with trust and empathy. Funny, surprising language makes us empathize and see ourselves in the unlikeliest others. Wallace used this soft-power weapon to win us over, inviting us to mental wards, AA meetings, therapists’ offices, the beds of unhappy lovers on the brink of breakup, and into the minds of isolated people.
Behind even the rawest, most painful line of Wallace, there is a familiarity, a quirky particularity that cracks us up. And after that, he has us: nothing can burn us out. We’ll follow him out into new heads, no matter how foreign from our own.
Taylor Beck is a writer in New York. He has written for The Atlantic,
Fast Company, GQ, The Week and other publications.