This NPR show features an interesting discussion about David Foster Wallace: his fan base, his cronies and his archive. The guests were Donald Brown (New Haven Review), Evan Hughes, Ryan Walsh (who created the David Foster Wallace Audio Project) and Maria Bustillos. Evan Hughes recently wrote a piece in New York that I’ll look at tomorrow and Maria Bustillos wrote the main piece for today’s post. The other two guys I admit I don’t know.
This show looks at some interesting aspects of DFW’s life in the wake of his suicide and the release of The Pale King. Although really the impetus seems to be Hughes’ article (which was published in Oct). McEnroe asks him about the state of literature today and how both Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides have created characters that “resemble” DFW in some way.
They talk about the cult of DFW and play some audio clips. Brown is an older reader and so does not embrace DFW as much as others. He is of the same age as DFW and so loves the people DFW loved more than DFW himself. I get the feeling that he is a curmudgeon.
But they can all agree that fans of DFW feel that he was their buddy. Super-intelligent but very human, almost speaking like they would (if they were that smart). They conclude that the Kenyon commencement speech is something of the pinnacle of his project of earnest warmth in humanity.
At the half way point, Maria Bustillos comes in to talk about going to the archive (which you can read about below). She explains her own interest in self-help books and how DFW was a person who needed help.
The end of the episode has them talking about DFW’s voice. They wonder why DFW has an “audio project” but other writers do not. They talk about DFW’s voice and his presence during interviews and how he is very warm, even when he’s being cold (it’s an odd clip they choose). I’ve mentioned the Audio Project before. It’s wonderful.
For anyone interested in reading books that are in a similar vein to Infinite Jest, Bustillos recommends Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry) and wholeheartedly recommends The Last Western (Thomas Klise).
A fascinating thing about this show was finding out that McEnroe was the author of a pretty funny piece in McSweeney’s many many years ago called “I Am Michiko Kakutani.” He offers an anecdote about originally mentioning DFW in the story but that the McSweeney’s guys asked him to change it to someone else.
But I have to say that the show seems a bit too much about Colin McEnroe (the McSweeney’s anecdote was just one of many involving McEnroe). He talks a lot about himself and about how he’s “afraid” that the Awl will make fun of him or that Franzen (who was with McEnroe in a green room backstage at some show) will put him in his next book (because he was discussing Neti Pots). But I’m just not sure that Colin McEnroe rates enough to warrant the concern.
It’s an enjoyable show, although unlike other interviews by people like Charlie Rose or Michael Silverblatt, McEnroe’s questions and comments aren’t very well informed. If you know a lot about Wallace, this show is a bit frustrating because it takes a tone that Wallace is basically a “postmodern ironist” or that he sees everything as “a big dark joke.” And even when the guests are showing that that is not the case, he seems to try to keep reverting back to this trope.
Oh well, it led to some interesting articles at least. Like the one below.
[READ: December 7, 2011] “Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library”
For no reason in particular, I’m devoting this weekend to articles that are specifically or tangentially about David Foster Wallace (it’s been awhile, and I have yet to finish my Consider the Lobster project, so, why not).
I actually read this because of the above radio show. I know Maria Bustillos because we’re both in a newsgroup. “Newsgroup” is so 90s, I wonder what they’re called these days). Anyhow, Maria has always proven to be smart, funny and very articulate. And the only reason I didn’t read this article when it came out was because I wasn’t sure I wanted to dive into this topic.
After listening to the above radio show, however, I felt that this would be a very interesting article. And so it was. It’s available at The Awl.
As it opens, Bustillos lets us know that she visited the DFW Archives Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin and pored over all of the materials they have there (undergrad papers, drafts of fiction and non-fiction, syllabi, tests and quizzes, and juvenilia among other things).
Wallace was a major note-taker. And he loved to take notes in a book as he was reading. Just look at some of these books.
But what surprised Maria (and me) is that among Wallace’s collection of wonderful fiction was a collection fo self-help books which were equally annotated and marked up.
Much of the set up of the article concerns why DFW had self-help books at all. The answer is, of course, because he was a depressed person (obviously) and because he had been in rehab for a pretty long time. None of this background information is new, but Maria offers insights into DFW and his life that I had never heard before (Maria and DFW had corresponded, although I don’t know if they were “friends” or not).
Before getting to the meat of what I wanted to mention, Maria gives some useful background about DFW’s fragile ego and how rehab and the self-help books allowed him to stop thinking of himself as a genius (despite receiving the genius grant) and to stop thinking he was smarter than everyone else in the room, although he probably was) and to start thinking of others as real, honest human beings, just like himself. Bustillos writes, “Wallace seemed always to be trying to erase the distance between himself and others in order to understand them better and trying visibly to make himself understood.”
And it’s hard not to argue that this empathy made him a better writer. For all everyone talks about his long sentences and “irony” or whatnot, he characters are all very rich and real (whether they are emotionally available or not).
Two self-help books which Maria really delves into here are DFW’s copy of John Bradshaw’s Bradshaw On: The Family and Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child.
Bradshaw’s book was a #1 NewYork Times Bestseller–a pop culture phenomenon in the 90s (although I hadn’t heard of it). And it seems surprising not only that DFW had a copy (although I have some crazy books recommended by people) but that it is as marked up as the fiction he read. As stated. DFW took copious notes in his books. Bustillos identifies at least 8 different pen/pencil notes in the books, suggesting that he read and re-read passages.
For me the most interesting revelations in this article are about DFW’s mother. Anyone who has read Infinite Jest can imagine that Hal is roughly DFW. Anyone with a basic knowledge of DFW’s life knows that his mother was a grammarian (she even wrote a book called Perfectly Painless English, which sounds wonderful and which I think I may need to track down if for no other reason than to see the earliest usage of the exquisite phrase “howling fantods.” That’s right, before it was used in IJ, Sally Foster Wallace wrote “17. Snakes give me the howling fantods.“)
The examples that Bustillos cites show a fun woman who enjoyed being right but enjoyed having fun about being right. Bustillos talks about Sally’s sense of humor and the kind of silliness that even this pedantic book allowed (lots of Tom Swifties and a continuing story about the impossibly named Fedonia Krump).
Sally was also a major stickler for precise linguistic behavior (there’s an oft-told anecdote in which DFW’s mother would pretend to choke when one of her children made a linguistic gaffe at the table. She wouldn’t say who had done what, but she would continue to choke unless the child corrected it. It’s Fun! DFW says she was the best proofreader in the world.
It’s obvious that he looked up to her and emulated her in many ways. But, as Bustillos points out, this led her to get stuck in “the cross-hairs of his self-hatred.”
In Infinite Jest, Hals’ mother Avril doesn’t come out in the most flattering light. While I never thought that Avril was supposed to be DFW’s mother, it’s hard not to imagine that there is a basis for her in his own mother. [I have to wonder what it’s like to read a work from your son in which his mom is a major slut].
So DFW sought help in self-help books. And both books seem to place blame somewhere. While Bradshaw’s book does this somewhat, it is Miller’s book that aggressively attacks a child’s mother for all that went wrong in his life. So Bustillos paraphrases Miller: “high-achieving children are damaged because their mothers did not allow them to be themselves, but instead through their own insecurities gave their children the impression that only achievement could win them love. That any deviation from right behavior was unlovable, that they would be rejected unless they performed well.” Wow, that is harsh.
In the next several pages of the article, Maria shows portions of these books that DFW highlighted as well as notes tha DFW wrote in the margins. And they are rather disturbing insight (both from Miller herself, but also from the fact that DFW so greatly identified with them).
I have to interject at his point and say how badly I feel for DFW’s mother. As a parent, I know how hard it is to do the right thing and how often I question everything I do when disciplining or even praising my kids. To have this kind of thing dragged out into the open must be very hard (and no, I don’t blame Bustillos for doing this, it’s out there for anyone to see and it would all come out eventually). Bustillos even writes, “When I was reading this I felt very bad. Like my hair was standing on end, thinking how this literary sleuthing is also just prying.”
She comes to DFW’s defense (in other words, trying to argue that he is not as worthless as he seems to think). But also thinks that maybe someone should have taken him down a peg (rehab seemed to do that and it worked wonders for him). Bustillos has a wonderful logic that I don’t know if it would actually work but which seems like it should, especially for an intelligent person: “if you are such a worm, so false and worthless, unfit to live, then why are you even listening to yourself? You are the very last person anybody ought to be listening to, apparently?”
Once Bustillos gets past this stage of the essay, I feel like the germ of a future article, essay or book really comes to the fore. Because while it is of course interesting to see what DFW has to say about self-help and how these things apply to his life. The really fascinating thing comes from her observations about Miller, mothers and self-help in general.
And I think that DFW is an interesting springboard for a look into the actual harm that self-help books can cause. This is not to say that they are no good at all. Indeed, many self-help books do help. But as Bustillos writes, The Drama of the Gifted Child has “something essential missing from it…these books seem to present a lopsided view.”
I imagine that a full-scale investigation of the world of self-help books would be more than anyone would be wiling to take on. But as I said, with DFW as a springboard, I think it could generate a really interesting book. How to help the self-help books.
I know that I will never get to the Ransom Center Archives. I have no reason to. And, unless I was doing research, it seems like a creepy fanboy thing to do. So I can thank Bustillos for doing the work (creepy and otherwise) for me.
This article isn’t all doom and gloom ,though, she ends with some very funny little segments that DFW got up to in college and even a quiz to test your linguistic mettle (it’s a tough one).
This is an interesting and insightful article, essential reading for anyone looking to delve into the mind of DFW.