Some observations on the piece "The Unfinished," by D.T. Max, in the March 9, 2009 issue of The New Yorker
"You shouldn't read it," my wife Claire said, just after making me aware of the piece's existence. "It's just too sad."
But Claire of course knew that I would read it anyway. And yes, it did make me cry. Not just for David Foster Wallace, but for...
...and already I sink into the banality that all of Dave's writing life was a fierce and all-consuming battle against, and by the same token I know that what Dave was searching for most in his writing life, and most in all the aspects of his life that he could get a handle on when they weren't being compromised by his disease, was a sincerity—but a sincerity that wasn't dumb. Not to put it reductively, but that really was the rub. When I got the card from Dave announcing his marriage, it finally hit me, that Dave was not against happiness per se, but that he was deeply suspicious of it, or rather what was passing for it, because of all the pernicious simulacrums that PRETENDED to be happiness. In this respect a lot of Dave's work reminded me of the Velvet Underground's third album, with all its obsessive questioning of love and its finally finding some truth in a pair of pale blue eyes or just...well, now I'm sadly rambling.
D.T. Max's scrupulous, sensitive piece in the current New Yorker isn't the whole story—for one thing, it ruthlessly compresses Dave's non-fiction writing, which of course you would expect me to point out, having been one of the custodians of said writing...but still—but it's a true, compelling, awful one. And still some of it made me smile, and some of it made me remember the affinities Dave and I shared. Max, it's clear, carefully read, and re-read, every published word Dave wrote in the process of reporting the piece. Early on, he quotes from a third-personed Don Gately interior monologue in Infinite Jest: "What's unendurable is what his own head could make of it all...But he could choose not to listen." Yes; this certainly applies to the noise of the internet today, and while I sometimes argued with Dave's choice not to listen, I always knew he had more than a point. I won't be so vain here as to trumpet what I'm no longer listening to in order to clear my head and keep my blood pressure down, but the matter of choice is really paramount here.
Other parts of Max's piece made me smile, if not laugh out loud. A passage from a letter to his great friend Jonathan Franzen, wherein he confesses his envy of "you and [WIlliam} Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David fuckwad Leavitt." Yes: Dave and I never ever had to even discuss it, we both knew what a fuckwad Leavitt is, and Leavitt, who's still alive, should never stop being reminded of what a fuckwad he is. There's envy, there's spite, and there's truth, and...well, you know. The only time I personally ever heard Dave use the term "fuckwad" was in reference to a Premiere fact checker who was sitting on the Batman notebook that he used to take notes for his David Lynch piece. Said notebook having been sat on by said fact checker in the L.A. office for about 8 months, and Dave needing it for the new version of the Lynch piece he was preparing for A Supposedly Funny Thing... It is delightfully funny to read, in Max's piece, about Dave having had a My Little Pony notebook at one point.
And less funny to read other things. "Ever since he had ended his addiction, drugs had been anathema to Wallace; Don Gately's refusal to take narcotic painkillers after he is shot makes him the hero of Infinite Jest." That brought back the memory of a night in January 1998, walking out of the Adult Video News Awards at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and Dave begging off from going to a party at Vince Voyeur's suite at the Luxor, because he had the flu, and bad; and him deputizing me and Evan Wright and Nat Welch to go and do recon for him. "Isn't there anything you could take?" I asked him, reflexively, stupidly, knowing, at least vaguely, of his own struggles with addiction (including an ongoing one, to fucking chewing tobacco). "No," he said, abashedly, no doubt feeling he was letting me down as a journalist, whereas I was, in reality, mostly feeling bad at being deprived of his company.
The other stuff...well, makes me feel rather stupid. My last conversation with Dave, in May of '08, was one in which he commiserated with me on my job loss, and fed me a line not dissimilar to one that Max chronicles him feeding to friends at a dinner at a Los Angeles bookseller's convention shortly thereafter, about a physical illness. I'm not angry at him for lying. And I'm not so vain or self-delusional to think that had I known the whole truth I could have helped him. In the end, it's just like Claire says: just so, so, fucking sad.