More About David Foster Wallace

It’s 9:58 at night and I’m on my back porch, with two cat carriers — one open, one closed — sitting on the concrete about a meter from my feet, both facing away.

I’m thinking more about David Foster Wallace and his suicide. I’ve looked at the considerations and obituaries in their various venues; thumbed back through some volumes. I’m dismayed (albeit unsurprised) by NYT reviewer Michiko Kakutani’s true-to-form small-souled nastiness, and find Laura Miller’s writing on Wallace for Salon probably closest to a true, careful, and generous account of what he seemed to be trying to do.

There’s a kitten in the closed carrier. The other one’s empty. There’s a breeze, and the temperature’s dropping.

Spencer gently chides the NYT and the Washington Post for superficial imitations of what they perceived as Wallace’s style. I worry that I’m probably doing here something like what Spencer decried: trying hard to think like Wallace; trying to work through — via feeble approximation — why his writing was important to me.

I talked to K. at the market tonight. I asked her if she knew anyone missing a kitten. No, she said. But there were five down at the laundromat last week and one got its paw stuck under the machine. Just wandering around.

Wallace’s prose avoided the bathos I’m performing here. The appeals to emotion he made tended to be complex, nuanced, and — for me — embarrassingly honest in his nonfiction. That essay about the cruise? My immediate, gut reaction: what an arrogant prick. It took me a while to figure out how hard one had to work for that unvarnished an account, and how what seemed like narcissism was its opposite, its undercutting. And not just its opposite, but something more: a scrupulous, sometimes obsessive concern with what was ethical in writing.

Saturday night, my own cats were all a-bristle, so I wandered outside with a flashlight. Three pairs of amber eyes reflecting back at me. Gray mama and two black tortie kittens in the side yard. No collars. I asked the neighbors: nothing. The next afternoon, in the garage, one lone black tortie, maybe six weeks old. Right now, she’s sitting out here in the closed carrier, getting hoarser as I type with how much she’s meowing.

I re-read Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” today. It’s remarkable: a meditation on suffering, written for a culinary magazine. And it got me thinking: that’s really what everything he wrote was about. As far as music goes, my generation’s artist was Kurt Cobain, for whom nearly every song was in some way a suicide note. Our writer is Wallace, and everything he’s written, in one way or another, has been about suffering.

The gray mama’s been back twice. She’ll approach within about two meters if I bait her with food. No second kitten: five down to three down to two, and now, here, alone in her carrier, one. And me sitting beside that lone kitten, typing away, using her as bait, as well. Hoping to trap mama. I went inside about an hour ago, and peeked out from the kitchen window. Without me there, mama was there at the carrier, paw out, touching kitten; kitten with both paws out through the grate.

Again: bathos. But trying to negotiate that line between emotion and critical self-consciousness. And that question of emotion and its associated concern with cognition is at the heart of “Consider the Lobster,” just as cognition and its association with suffering travel throughout Wallace’s work. Tomorrow morning, I’ll take the kitten to the shelter, where she’ll be spayed and tested and get her shots, and — I hope — perhaps eventually forget that, as angry and bitchy and hissy as my cats were to have her in the house, she could not stop from wanting to go toward them, could not stop from being lonely, could not stop from wanting to be with beings that looked like her. Or that I used her to try to catch her mama, out here, tonight.

I began this wanting to make a point about how Wallace wasn’t our Pynchon or our Gaddis. I wanted to use that quotation pseudo-literati like me think nobody else has heard, that “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” to assert that Wallace was, in fact, our Kafka. But that feels like a pale and small assertion to end an overly long and maudlin post with.

I’ll go to the shelter tomorrow.

More About David Foster Wallace

6 thoughts on “More About David Foster Wallace

  • September 16, 2008 at 10:10 am

    I wouldn’t characterize this as maudlin–it’s painful. Painful to think of the cat family separated, painful to think of the lobster and of, of course, the pain that drove Wallace to kill himself. Words seem like such gross (in the old sense of the word) material to use to describe feeling which has always seemed rather oblique and almost-beyond grasp. “That line between emotion and critical self-consciousness” is a tantalizing thought–does awareness of emotion lead to thought and then taint it?

    I don’t know. I also have to admit to never having read Wallace, so I am going to end here.

  • September 16, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    I read _Girl with Curious Hair_ in college and I thought that he was a genius, and possibly dangerous. I was upset by the title story. But then I read “Little Expressionless Animals” and I thought, here is a person who is perhaps crazy in the same ways that I am, and it gave me hope.

    I read “Shipping Out” (is that the title of the cruise article?) and thought, my students (I was teaching creative writing at the time) need to see this. This is word choice as ethics. They complained that it was too long, and they didn’t see the point, and I felt helpless and frustrated.

    I lent my copy of _A Supposedly Fun Thing_ to someone years ago, and I don’t remember whom, and I want it back.

    My first cat, Niamh, was a rescue from the woods near Ann Arbor. When I first got her, she wouldn’t let me near her. She lived in the bathroom (I had an efficiency), and I used to sit in there and read to her while she huddled behind the toilet. Later, when she became my constant companion, I got two more kittens and she taught them both to hunt. She would catch a mole and then let it shamble around the driveway while the kittens, Alice and Flyer, clumsily tried to pin it and kill it. Every time the mole began to escape, Niamh would grab it and bring it back for another round. It was bloody, but I didn’t stop them.

    :: hugs :: to you.

  • September 21, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    when you say: “[…] how hard one had to work for that unvarnished an account, and how what seemed like narcissism was its opposite, its undercutting. And not just its opposite, but something more: a scrupulous, sometimes obsessive concern with what was ethical in writing […]”, you get after it, Mike. agreed.

  • September 25, 2008 at 10:18 am


    see, when i read your post i think that you *must* read DFW — to see what you are missing and how your comment might be missing out and that “That line between emotion and critical self-consciousness” is the razor-thin space from which DFW most often writes, and it’s not even a line because he does such a fantastic job of creating a more expansive space for the work that goes on there. i find DFW masterful at *both* offering a critique (of, say, the Maine Lobster Festival or Cruises — oh, and that story is, i’m pretty sure, also the collection’s title, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) *and* intense, personal reflection, earnest reflection that conceds and wanders and postures and then implodes so that is maybe says “i don’t know,” but here’s what it seemed/ felt like to expeirence it (said feeling and seeming fully detailed so that readers might begin to consider the matter instead of simply accepting his take). the reflection comes at the cost of authorial confidence, but isn’t authorial confidence so often repugnant? i teach, instead, as we all likely do, a rhetoric of inquiry that works to craft writing that performs the deep moments of insecurity about a subject, moments that enable *actual* critical reflection instead of merely posturing or ranting or narrow, cliched padding.

    i hope you read Consider the Lobster, or SFTNDA or *anything* from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (we have that on tape, DFW reading; i haven’t listened since the news of his suicide, which is still wrecking me).

    but so.

  • September 26, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    I’ll give him a try, Bonnie. Honest. I will. I’m pretty impressed with your post.

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