Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Death and Afterlife of a Modern Novelist

When David Foster Wallace committed suicide I was profoundly shocked, but hadn't really thought much about him as a man, rather than a writer. I knew him only from his books, including the big one, "Infinite Jest", that I'm still to read. In death - or rather in the afterlife of an artist who's died tragically - much more focus comes to the man than the work; though the two become linked when his unfinished novel "The Pale King" was released with much fanfare.

This week we will have the first biography of DFW, (by D.T. Max)  and in some ways it was more of a shock reading a review and then an extract of this than by the "fact" four years ago of his suicide. Whereas I once knew just the writing now I know something of what is underwriting it. I've ordered the autobiography and will no doubt review that at some point; but it got me thinking about him as a writer.

We no longer "revere" writers as we may have sometimes done in the past, though occasionally a book surpasses all sales expectations. DFW seems almost like a throwback to an earlier age; a contemporary writer who is praised in his lifetime as being not just a connoisseurs choice, but as someone who has had some impact on the literary culture. How many of our peers are influential? Maybe one or two a generation.

For DFW would be 50 this year had he lived; he's in that middle generation, just about a 2nd generation baby boomer, at university just before our "modern age" was formed (Thatcher/Reagan/computers), but a little young for the faded dreams of the sixties. In this he is both my "peer" and not; and I'm thinking here of him as a writer (and of me as a writer.) He certainly writes about a world that I recognise. Reading Mailer or DeLillo or Roth or even McInerney, I've not just got the distance between American and British writing and culture, but of a different generation, and that's often a difference of morality as well as language and context.

But DFW died aged 46, the age I'll be in March. I've been writing for as long as he was, obviously with much less success, and this piece isn't meant to suggest any comparison in terms of us as writers; other than from the little I've read about him, I think we share the same sense of ambition for writing; and the same sense of how hard it is, how brilliant it is when you get it right, and how important it is not just to write but to write something that matters. (And that's contentious enough: it can take twenty years just to get to the point that you might have a clue what you're doing.)

What I think I'm trying to say is that here's a writer, not much older than me, had he lived, who had not only accomplished quite a lot, against a whole range of difficulties, but had he lived would surely not be "finished." The idea that my writing could be finished at 46 - however unfinished the actual work is - would seem absurd. Whereas in the past writers died young, nowadays, surely, they shouldn't? I hadn't known, to be honest, about DFW's depressions, alcoholism etc. until I heard of his suicide; and I'm going to read the biography not to wallow in those, as to get a closer look at the intellectual and imaginative anatomy of
a writer close to my generation. I can't imagine that many writers of his age being ready for a biography and he has one now for two reasons; one, because the life is definitively finished (and therefore with it goes the writing life - we have all there is), and two, because of all the writers of the last twenty years you'd have wanted to be writing for the next twenty years, DFW is certainly one of them.

It's as true in literature as in music that death can be a good career move. There certainly wouldn't be a biography (and in the near future, the "letters" of DFW) if he was still with us. The "unfinished" and "repackaged" work comes into its own. The scholarly mechanism as well: already I know of someone in Manchester completing a DFW PhD - I doubt there are that many living writers getting the same treatment.  Ghoulish as that is, and whatever a writer thinks about the "posthumous" or the "afterlife" in letters, we know it happens - and that a name that could be lost becomes better known because of the tragedy. There's something else of course: we don't have to deal with the disappointment - the Martin Amis of "Yellow Dog"  is no longer something that we have to contemplate with DFW, for instance. It makes writers' lives, and their writing lives, more manageable, more compact.

What I hope it doesn't do though is reinvigorate the cult of the "mad" writer, the doomed artist. We know that writers are often troubled souls, but actually DFW seems to have been particularly so: a rarity in my experience, most poets and novelists I know have their moments but are somewhat grounded; they have to be. The work isn't glamorous. Nowadays it seems more likely that accountants and web designers will be drug fiends, that writers - the counterculture is for everyone, not just the "artist."There are enough writer suicides out there, but in the last fifteen years I've known a steelworker suicide; a computer analyst suicide, and yes, a writer who killed herself before she'd had a thing published.

More positively, we have the acclaim. Here is a writer who was self-consciously clever. Who was highly aware of the literary history he wanted to be part of, and, as great writers often do, had chosen his own antecedents - writers like Pynchon and Barthes who were probably somewhat out of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s.  An American publishing industry not only found room for David Foster Wallace, but nurtured him, allowed him to develop the "great novel", and to publish a diverse selection of fiction and non-fiction. It is hard to imagine British literary culture being quite so accomodating. Difficult writers are highly marginalised here: are almost doomed to teach or to research. We lack publications like "The New Yorker", and we tend to hold on to our old names like a comfort blanket.

For though his suicide remains such a tragedy for his friends and family, the interest in his life - in his unpublished works - in his letters - is because he was a writer worth reading; and therefore a writer worth writing about. I'll look forward to the biography and review it when I've read it.

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