The American Society of Magazine Editors have just named this year’s nominees for their annual awards. They’re called “the Ellies” because their trophies, designed by Alexander Calder, are stylised elephants. Calder is something of an obsession of mine but that’s a post for another time.
I’ve been luxuriating in the ASME’s 2009 compliation of The Best American Magazine Writing. Nobody, but nobody, does long-form magazine pieces like the Americans. Highly recommend this piece from Esquire‘s Chris Jones, “The Things That Carried Him”, which tracks the body of US soldier killed in Iraq through all the protocols of being sent home for burial; it then delves backward in time into how he died, and why he joined the army in the first place. It’s exquisite, moving stuff – Esquire has a great history of stylish but very substantial war reportage, from Hemingway to Michael Herr.
But the piece that’s really stuck with me is David Lipsky’s Rolling Stone profile of an incredibly talented writer who killed himself in 2008. It’s a lengthy read but please check it out: “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace”. It was all I could do not to burst into tears on the bus while finishing it. One of those pieces of writing you don’t want to read another word of anything else after, to hold onto the way it made you feel.
More than just an investigation of a writer and what made him hang himself, it’s a pretty profound study of depression, despair and how harrowing the writing life can be. Wallace was the son of a philosophy professor father and english teacher mother, and grew up precocious and articulate. But far from a bookish type, he was tall, rangy and dabbled quite seriously in football and then the junior tennis “show”.
A lot of those personal experiences are poured into Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest. I’ve honestly lost count of how many copies of Infinite Jest I’ve bought, lent and gifted. It’s not light reading in any sense – a labyrinthine, unwieldy work of genius, 1000-odd pages, the size and weight of a housebrick. Studded with elaborate footnotes, spanning a future north American continent and questions of environmental destruction, Quebecois seperatist terrorists, elite tennis, mind-altering drugs, avant-garde film-making, rehab facilities, family tragedy and so much more.
The meandering narrative is driven by a film called Infinite Jest. It’s circulating on videotape in unmarked brown paper packages, marked only with a hand drawn smiley face, as a weapon of said terrorists – because this is a fatal entertainment. The video is so good those watching it cannot walk away from it, and sit, soil themselves, starve and eventually expire in a state of catatonic bliss while the tape rolls on.
The book follows a fairly vast cast of characters who at first seem to have nothing in common; the narrative rolls on in ever-smaller circles until toward the end you see just how interconnected the seperate story strands are. At that point the reading process takes on a kinda religious fervour, as you start to see how breathtaking the scope of the story is and the book builds toward its climax. As it explores themes of obsession and addiction, reading Wallace’s prose becomes an addiction in itself.
Back to Lipsky’s profile. I think it captures really well the writer’s terror of inertia, and the dangers of insecurity. A friend from college days, Mark Costello recounts a bleak period for Wallace.
Not writing was the kind of symptom that presents a problem of its own. “He could get himself into places where he was pretty helpless,” Costello says. “Basically it was the same symptoms all along: this incredible sense of inadequacy, panic. He once said to me that he wanted to write to shut up the babble in his head. He said when you’re writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices. The ones that are saying, ‘You’re not good enought, you’re a fraud.'”
Found it freaky that Wallace had his own version of what I call the Five Year Cycle:
“I’m this genius writer,” he remembered. “Everything I do’s gotta be ingenious, blah, blah, blah, blah.” The five-year clock was ticking again, He’d played football for five years. Then he’d played high-level tennis for five years. Now he’d been writing for five years. “What I saw was, ‘Jesus, it’s the same thing all over again.’ I’d started late, showed tremendous promise – and the minute I felt the implications of that promise, it caved in. Because see, by this time, my ego’s all invested in the writing. It’s the only thing I’ve gotten food pellets from the universe for. So I feel trapped: ‘Uh-oh, my five years is up, I’ve gotta move on.’ But I didn’t want to move on.”
He describes a depressive crisis.
It was the worst period Wallace had ever gone through. “It may have been what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis,” he said. “It was just feeling as though every axiom of your life turned out to be false. And there was nothing, and you were nothing – it was all a delusion. But you were better than everyone else because you saw that it was a delusion, and yet you were worse because you couldn’t function.”
Wallace could be recognised by the bandanas he started wearing while studying at University of Arizona, where it was so hot he was sweating over his pages as he wrote. “I began thinking about the phrase ‘keeping your head together’. It makes me feel kind of creepy that people view it as a trademark or something – it’s more a recognition of a weakness, which is that I’m just kind of worried that my head’s gonna explode”.
Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, was one of Wallace’s best friends.
“I remember this being a frequent topic of conversation,” Franzen says, “his notion of not having an authentic self. Of being just quick enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever he was talking to. I see now he wasn’t just being funny – there was something genuinely compromised in David. At the time I thought, ‘Wow, he’s even more self-conscious than I am.'”