June 2, 2014
Dear David Foster Wallace,
Hi. Sorry to bother you. I know you probably get a lot of these.
But listen. This is not just your typical I-read-Consider-the-Lobster-and-thought-it-was-really-funny letter. This is not your standard my-friend-reposted-your-Kenyon-commencement-speech-and-it-changed-my-life letter.
No: this is an I-read-everything-David-Foster-Wallace-ever-wrote-and-that-changed-my-life letter. Yeah, one of those.
I remember reclining on my extra-long twin bed in college holding Brief Interviews with Hideous Men over my head, reading “Octet” and flipping out at the sheer meta-ness of it. I read “Forever Overhead” and couldn’t believe you knew.
And OK. I’ll admit it: I wrote my undergraduate thesis about you. It was called “Post-postmodernism and Fiction’s Front-end: Reader-orientation and -reformulation in the work of David Foster Wallace.”
It was 110 pages. There were 224 footnotes.
I might even owe my name to you. I hate lugging around the whole three-name thing, but I remembered reading once how you threw the “Foster” in there to distinguish yourself from some other David Wallace who was writing books. I did the same with “James,” to avoid being confused with this guy. It felt pretentious, but I thought I remembered reading that using your own middle name had felt pretentious to you too. There was something delightful in being saddled with the extra name—in being a little resentful of it, just like you.
To put it briefly: as with so many writers of my generation, you’re the reason I started to think fiction was cool.
Man. That feels vulnerable.
Thing is, I’ve moved away since then. Metaphorically, I mean. The DFW-mania reached a fever pitch with the posthumous biographies, the publication of your own undergraduate thesis, the publication of “This Is Water” in the Wall Street Journal followed by its appearance in one of those stupid hardback commemorative books. I didn’t buy or read any of them. I think Blake Butler was right about all this. It had gotten out of hand.
Except I did read The Pale King. For a month, I wrote stories that tried to sound like it. They sucked. But I’ll say it: that was a great book, unfinished as it was.
See, though, there’s a purpose for this letter. There’s another thing here. It takes place tonight.
In Corvallis, we do this thing we call the Dead Author Reading. It’s a celebration of the end of the school year at Oregon State. Everyone dresses up as a Dead Author. Gabriel García Márquez will make an appearance this year; so will Vonnegut; so will Twain. Anaïs Nin is going to be there, as will Willa Cather, in drag, and Shirley Jackson.
I am going as you.
I think I’m going to wear a pair of jeans and an unbuttoned plaid shirt and my glasses and some tennis shoes.
As my friends tell me, that’s what I normally wear. But I’m going to wear a bandana, too.
What I need help with, if you can help, is the spirit. I plan to ask “Does that make sense?” a lot. I plan to speak haltingly, softly. Maybe I’ll stop in the middle of sentences every once in a while and recalibrate, think about what I’m saying.
But I need the aura.
I’m going to read part of The Pale King, one of those strange, random but painfully real-sounding quotes about being in the IRS. Section 17.
That’s kind of weird, now that I think about it. Reading from the posthumous one. Ghostly. Maybe even too soon.
But if I can have your blessing, then maybe it will be OK.
Here’s to faking it.
Wish me luck,
June 3, 2014
Dear David (is that cool? can I call you David now?),
Well, I did it.
I read after a person pretending to be my very much alive roommate and before a person pretending to be Lester Bangs.
I walked up to the stage when my (your) name was called and made myself very nervous. I stood at the microphone quietly for a couple seconds and then said, à la a recording I heard of you reading excerpts from The Pale King, “I have this thing where when I look up—when you’re reading out loud you’re supposed to look up, it’s a psychological imperative—I then immediately lose my place. So I have to assure you that I will not look up, but I am acutely aware that you are here.” People laughed. I paused for a second. Then I said, as per your timing, “I also have a saliva issue.” People thought that was even funnier.
Then I read, and I’ll quote at length, because it’s not in fact that long, the first part of section 17 from The Pale King:
I’d always from early on as a child I think somehow imagined Revenue men as like those certain kinds of other institutional heroes, bureaucratic, small-h heroes—like police, firemen, Social Service workers, Red Cross and VISTA people, the people who keep the records at SSI, even certain kinds of clergy and religious volunteers—trying to stitch or bandage the holes that all the more selfish, glitzy, uncaring, “Me-First” people are always making in the community. I mean more like police and fire department office and clerical personnel rather than the ones who everyone knows about and get in the newspaper for what they do. I don’t mean the kind of heroes that “put their lives on the line.”
Then I stopped, although I was still in the middle of the passage, looked up, and asked, “Does this make any sense?” The audience liked that. I don’t know if they knew what I know, which is that you used to say that a lot, especially in your Bookworm interviews with Michael Silverblatt, which I listened to over and over when I was transcribing parts of them for my obsessive undergraduate thesis. But the audience did know that my (your) nervousness and the sweating I was failing to do but which is such a well-known component of your mythology and the bandana barely holding my brain in added up to a profound unsureness as to whether communication could even ever occur at all, and it was funny to acknowledge that.
Then I read the rest of the passage.
When I finished, I didn’t say anything. I just put the bookmark slowly in the book and crept offstage. Was that right? I think you would at least have said “Thank you.” But I didn’t. The character had gotten away from me. He was nervous almost to the point of non-functionality.
A caricature maybe.
Did I do OK?
My bandana wasn’t on right. I know that. Your forehead is bigger than mine so you always had that really wide swathe of bandana, whereas I can only fit a narrow strip. You’re also a big guy, and I’m a small guy. I didn’t sweat, as noted, although it was suggested that I splash some water on my face before going up. I didn’t. Does that make me a bad person or a good one?
After I went, I sat down next to Hunter S. Thompson and ordered another cider. I didn’t feel full, or empty. I felt happy, because people laughed.
But I realized I wasn’t you. I would never say the phrase “psychological imperative” in banter before a reading. I would never be as nervous as you at least have said that you become. I barely sweat. I am not a genius.
And although I did not have to change my t-shirt or my pants or my unbuttoned flannel shirt to be you, when I put on that bandana I started to learn that maybe not in fact being you was all right.
Maybe I’d rather imitate a genius than be one.
I don’t want to be stuck in my head. I’d rather pretend I am stuck in my head.
Today, the day after I pretended to be you, I woke up and wrote and went to the computer lab and designed a poster and when I went to the grocery store on the way home I almost imploded speaking to the cashier and the people whose bagging process I was impeding by trying to jam twenty pounds of non-perishables into my miniscule hiking backpack.
The woman said, “No worries, we don’t bite,” the cashier said, “It’s good to be friendly,” and the man said, “Man, that’s a full backpack.” “Yeah,” I said to the man, and tried to laugh like a normal person might do.
I didn’t convince anybody. I may have ruined some days.
Maybe there is some of you left in me, then, the part in the Kenyon commencement speech that almost radiates with anxiety in the supermarket check-out line.
I may have listened to that speech one too many times.
Maybe now is the time to stop.
Thank you, David Foster Wallace, for making me write.
But now I’m going to go away for a while.
Sorry. For everything.
*first Dead Author Reading photo courtesy of Dahlia Seroussi; second courtesy of Max Rubin