Wallace was my hero.
Hero may seem inappropriate for a writer. Heroes enter burning buildings, raise families by working two jobs, throw game-winning touchdown passes, or patrol the mountains of Waziristan. They don't sit around in their office or a library and brood. For the most part, this is right. Writers (or at least the writers I like) in general are reclusive folks who very often lack the ability to sustain significant conversation or immersion in what we generally call everyday life. So this is cowardly, then, right, to withdraw into oneself instead of facing up to reality?
Not exactly. There is a quote from J.M Coetzee that captures the heroism I think Wallace exhibited. Coetzee (or, his character), in Diary of a Bad Year talked about how an individual can respond to the world around themselves, whether it's the injustices, the absurdities, or the just the all-around soul-killing moments of life. Generally, we think of two choices: passive submission or active radicalism; basically, sell out or pick up a Kalashnikov. But as Coetzee wrote:
The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.
Wallace, as befitted the novelist of this generation, was extremely self-conscious. His interviews on the Charlie Rose show (linked below) were extraordinary in documenting a person who was so aware of who they were and what they are doing at every moment, of someone who constantly was in the process of self-evaluation. When I watch TV, especially interviews or news programs, I'm amazed by the skill and ease with which people conduct themselves. I've seen what a studio looks like, and what it's like to have a camera in your face, and it's the most disorienting thing you can imagine. Every time I watch an interview with some actor or spokesperson or pundit, I think, "my god, everyone is so strange - how do they do this?"
And then there was Wallace, who talked and acted almost exactly how I thought one should talk and act in such an odd situation, and life seemed a bit more understandable. It was a courage not to let himself slink into the false smiles and and banal language that the TV cameras almost will upon people. He may have appeared to be spasmodic, or uncomfortable, or pretentious in these interviews, but he was just acting in the incredibly strange and self-conscious way one should act in such an incredibly strange and self-conscious setting. It's the people acting 'normal' who are the most pretentious, the most willing to adopt a completely false persona for the purposes of fooling an audience. And of course all these people affecting normalcy make us feel even stranger, because we know we don't talk and act like that. Or, as Wallace described the cheap advertising essay from Frank Conroy in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:
An ad that pretends to be art is-at absolute best-like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what's insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill's real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared; it causes despair.
And so too, I would argue, the despair of the false ease of television personalities, which we both know are false and accept as genuine. Any truly normal person should have breathed a deep sigh of relief upon seeing Wallace talk in a public setting.
Wallace's heroism came in the fact that he persisted in his efforts to try and remain a normal person in the face of so many absurd things. He was 46, and I am still shocked at how much he constantly questioned and evaluated media, technology, drugs, and all the other kind of things that vastly change our perceptions of ourselves and others. In my early twenties, I could keep up this fight, subjecting my every choice in entertainment and consumer products to a long series of questions about what it would do to me - mostly questions like: Will I be a more shallow person if I do this? Will I hate myself for this? Will this make me a more petty person? Is this dignified?
But as I get into the quasi-adulthood of the early thirties, I've had to stop asking so many questions and just accept a great deal of what I formally took to be nothing short of an absurd and greedy world pecking away at my soul. I don't rip the corporate labels off of my jeans anymore. I don't grumble when NPR airs what can only be called commercials. I accept that a beautiful and timeless game like baseball is pimped out as just another shiny box of cereal in the store aisle. I watch television. In short, I'm slowly losing the war. But if I'm losing the war, I'm also winning some small battles, like being (hopefully) a less annoying person to friends and family and creating (again, hopefully) some sense of stability in life. Stability may be bourgeois - or more likely, a lie created by people to sell you the means to effect it - and I curse myself for it sometimes, but I've noticed that I'm getting better at withstanding the barrage of election results, whorish television adds featuring my favorite songs, and the general onslaught of advertising and technology that was such a constant theme in Wallace's work. Thanks to reading Wallace, I take almost every step into this world cautiously, but I am stepping into this world nonetheless.
I don't know if I could have done otherwise and make it to 46. Wallace had shown some signs of a detente with the buzzing world of corporate media, allowing some of his works to be adapted for films, and recently seeming the refined political commentator in the Wall Street Journal, but his most recent work in Oblivion was evidence that the sad way in which human beings have created and ordered the world for themselves was still on his mind. I had thought Consider the Lobster showed that he was backing away from the really dark and scary stories of Oblivion, but it probably makes sense to look to a man's fiction rather than essays to get at the truth.
The fact that Wallace was out there made my own gradual acceptance of absurdity a little easier. Hell, I wasn't going to write one-tenth as well as him, and he was hardly known outside of literary circles and his core audience. I went on in a fairly nice and orderly existence and left Wallace to keep writing. I would still read him - still the only author whose works I bought in hardcover - but I knew that the world he described was a world I remembered like a dream. It was a world where everything you think is meaningful was being taken away, and the only way you think you can cope is to give up more of yourself. I don't think that way anymore - in part because of Wallace and in part because I just couldn't. That he could still think that way, and think that way for all of us, is the real testament to his heroism. Anyone who took all this world in with even a fraction less talent and bravery would have been gone a long time ago.
The Kenyon Graduation Speech
Charlie Rose (Solo)
Charlie Rose (w/ Franzen and some writer who appears to be a massive fraud)
Connection Radio Interview
'Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All''