Very Few Innocent Sentences
The Personas of David Foster Wallace
by Taylor Beck
Think of the reader: how to please, surprise and move her. That’s the writer’s job. On the road to promote Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace told reporter David Lipsky, “Part of the shyness for me is, it’s very easy for me to play this game of, What do you want? What will the effect of this be on you?” Getting good at storytelling, he knew, comes at a price. It is dangerous and easily intoxicating. And once you learn how words affect people’s feelings, you can’t stop using what you know.
“It’s this kind of mental chess,” Wallace went on to tell Lipsky, of Rolling Stone, “Which in personal intercourse? Makes things very difficult. But in writing… there are very few innocent sentences in writing. You’ve gotta know, not just how it looks and sounds to you. But you’ve gotta be able plausibly to project what an alien consciousness will make of it.”
The thirty-four-year-old Wallace said he hoped his big book might get him laid — a joke, kind of, probably. But in the end, he told Lipsky that he didn’t get any on tour. This may be the truth. Or it could be one of the faces Wallace projected, as we all do: the likable aw-shucks earnest guy from the Midwest, who was also a tennis jock, a math and philosophy nut, and a former pothead. Truth, spin, or myth, there’s no question Wallace would have worried later about his words, as he always did, and regretted them if he read them in print: the false single-frame of a self in flux. Games of social posture, ego taming and authenticity, performed or real, played out in his head, as they do in the heads of most writers. Few, though, are as sharp at describing the mind-fuckery, the “shark-infested bathtub” of the literary world, and the ego’s corrosive impact on happiness.
If Wallace knew how things turned out, that he’d been nearly sainted in some circles, would he be happy? Or would he feel reduced to a trendy cartoon of angsty virtue, a name to be dropped as social capital. Would he see in his legacy anything of the hot-blooded mammal he was? Or would “DFW” feel like a symbol?
“The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms,” — Jonathan Franzen
Wallace never wanted to be sainted, as is clear in his writing. In his famous essay “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” DFW called the Russian writer “a literary titan, and in some ways this can be the kiss of death, because it becomes easy to regard him as yet another sepia-tinted Canonical Author, belovedly dead.” What Wallace wanted was to feel, and to make us feel, less alone, more human, and more together. He did not want to be a symbol to be used. “To make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people.”
“The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms,” novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote about his friend in The New Yorker a few years after Wallace’s death, in an essay titled Farther Away. In life,Wallace was bawdy and playful, Franzen points out. When it suited him, he was the world-weary writer, savvy about drugs and casual about sex. He liked hip hop records as much as Pink Floyd and The Flaming Lips, and knew his way around both Midwestern country fairs and porn conventions in Vegas. Once, in a signed copy of a book that Wallace gave his friend and rival Franzen, he traced his hand inside, like a kindergartener’s turkey. Inside a second book was a giant picture of a penis with an arrow pointing to it beside the words “Scale 100%.”
So why is Wallace so endearing to us? “The curious thing about David’s fiction,” as Franzen wrote, “is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it.” The thing about his writing that made us less alone was not idealism, but grit. It was the dirty sad funny truth of addiction, depression and manipulative lust. What made us feel better was that Wallace made himself vulnerable, like the character in Brief Interviews who showed women his flipper-like shrunken arm and won them over. We saw that the “hideous” impulses lurking in each of us weren’t so grotesque after all, and felt a bit forgiven. As Franzen has written, you don’t become intimately familiar with the mind-workings of “hideous men” — desirous, needy, mortal people, telling such convincing stories that even they believe they act out of love, and not their own ego and self-interest — without having some “hideousness” inside yourself. As we all do.
Dave Wallace told us stories. He seduced us into trust, as his characters do, and writers aim to. But we wanted to be used, and we were happy to be taken for a ride.
Taylor Beck is a writer in New York. He has written for The Atlantic,
Fast Company, GQ, The Week and other publications.