September 14, 2008


by Scott Rettberg · , 5:18 pm

David Foster Wallace was a great teacher, in his own particular way, and he was a gifted writer who maybe got a little hung up on things, on interiority, on the prison of his own consciousness. He could write the shit out of you. He feared and was fascinated by the twisted. He knew grammar and could speak it very well. He knew theory and didn’t want you to try and teach it to him. He was so fucking postmodern that he grew sick of contemplating his own existence. He was not moderate. He wrote long and loved footnotes but hated the fact that he felt compelled to use them. He loathed that he loathed. He told tasteless jokes about death. He managed to write a monument and then he never could quite escape its shadow. He was a genius. He used smilely faces for grades. He was greasy. He would sweat. You would smell him in the room. He was conscious of his own body odor. He would scratch at the side of his face absent-mindedly but not absent of mind, if that makes sense. He would ask you if things made sense in a way that was both sincere and dismissive. The questions primarily rhetorical. He had a great desire to be a good human being. He had acne and feared it. He was athletic. He would see you and wonder if you had once played tennis with him. He had a very intense stare, you could say piercing but that wouldn’t be quite right, it didn’t pierce, it did something else. It worked in conflict with his body language. He loved writing and was humiliated by it. He was sympathetic to any creature in pain and sympathetic to anyone who caused pain. You need to wonder if he might have been better off if he had stayed on drugs. He was large and filled a room with language. He was complex and verbose and often right. He made errors. His eyes were evasive but he would work his way to telling you what mattered. He feared middle age and deterioration. He was a man of his time and he limited it. He feared the image. He loved the idea of celebrity in reclusion. Pynchon, DeLillo, Dostoevsky. He drank those carb milkshakes that bodybuilders drink. He read self help books in order to both help himself and to see how contrived and pathetic and self-indulgent the American mind had become. He confronted each of his addictions, one at a time. He never really learned how to dress himself properly. He sometimes wished he had become a philosopher instead. He studied sentences. He edited mercilessly, but found the text grew longer with each incision, fresh trees sprouting from every wound. He hated fluorescent light, and the buzz of technology. He loved his dog. He was a precocious child, and lonely. Humanity is a difficult subject, a dying life form. He told a string of jokes about the Branch Davidians. He wanted to make you laugh and cry at the same time. He thought that was the problem, that we could no longer get past our by-now-ingrained habits of looking at our own situations from a raptor’s-eye-view of irony, of postdeconstructive psychoanalytic abstraction, from a post which would make everything cool to the touch, that it had become impossible to feel. The need to be cool. The need to be cool consuming and leading to the failure of the heart. The heart has become impossible. The need to disconnect the brain from the heart. The dread. The sound of the tapping keys, the leaky faucet tapping, the reader, the viewer. The fear of the red pen. The jailer. The purpose of the novel to disturb and entertain. The impossibility of the subject. He wished he had chosen to become a mathematician, a physicist. He was devoted to the word and lived within the claustrophobic walls of its temple. He tried to deconstruct manhood. He was trying to explain something in way that even you could understand it. He could not explain. You could not understand. This incredible awkwardness. He feared himself, reclining by a pool, dripping with sweat, completely satisfied and empty. The reductive cockroach, the expansionist lobster. The most complicated problem you could throw at him. Eating a corn dog at the state fair. Interviewing porn stars with an awkward erection. Destroying the television because you are addicted to it. Never really leaving home. He wanted to save something. He thought that life was too short, or ought to be. The desire to find a humorous way to get to something real. The desire to extend. The understanding of the psyche of the man facing the firing squad, the desire to dwell on it. The impossibility of the word love. The impossibility of ending. The metaphor of getting into the ring to fight. The desire to remove oneself from the arena. The trouble with closure. Finding a voice. Finding a note. The decision of whether or not to leave. Recognizing that voice is a sentimentality. The sense of failure. Finally just tired. Leaving a tragedy. Did he think to erase his hard drive? Probably not, you poor bastard. Given the possibility of forensics. Burning the manuscript. Throwing the pages into the fire. The eventual film. The desert. The spider, the variety of it. Diseases that eat the flesh. This move across the dark room, this groping with alien fingers. What one does after being bitten by a brown recluse. Walking in the desert. Remembering the clouds. A ligature. Suspension. Constriction. The most common method after firearms. Read the footnotes. Have you read it, and yet you still don’t get it? The very long joke. The partial weight of the body. The sense of an ending. The conditions related to the event. The argument at hand. The desire to leave a little mess for pain but not so much as to trouble your love. Your sense of love. The awareness that your body will likely shit itself. The contemplation of that shit as you tender the cord. The awareness that you are loved and yet not able to de-abstract it. The occasion an excuse. But deep. You loathe the very idea of the sublime and you want to express it. The rise and the leap. You cannot ultimately communicate. See the notes. Finding the other and still knot. You hear yourself gag and you smell everything as your nostrils flare. Time is relentless and it will not slow for you now. Agency was had. A certain type of determination. A private novel on a machine of one’s own. No intentional fallacy. Flee from me. Reaching for the cord. To pull it away. To scratch at it. The survival instinct. Merciless. Cruel. Inevitable. Brave. Cowardly. Wanting. Full stop.

6 Responses to “DFW”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Oh man.

    I arrived in Normal a year after you graduated and the Dave you describe here is absolutely The Way I remember him. Thank you for posting this.

  2. Nick Montfort Says:

    Thanks for this post, Scott. I think it’s a much better obituary than was provided by the staid New York Times.

  3. Bertrand Says:

    The sense of an ending… It couldn’t have been said better.

  4. Learning Aesthetics - We are Diminished Says:

    […] the random meanness of the world. I am persuaded but no less confused; here is something like an obituary for David Foster Wallace from Scott […]

  5. Tom LeClair Says:

    Scott, This could be the best thing you’ve ever written, but you’ll never get a job writing obits in the Danish Daily News. Thanks for this. Lets one start to understand why DFW would hang himself. TLC

  6. Amit Ray Says:

    Wow. Just wow. Thank you Scott. Thank you DFW.

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