November 28, 2008

David Foster Wallace, Rolling Stone and the leaving-be of dead geniuses

I guess the Rolling Stone piece on David Foster Wallace is old news in the States, but the magazine doesn't carry quite the same cultural weight over here so I only read it last week. It's a well-written, well-meaning piece, I think, very readable - almost compulsively so - and with some quotes from DFW, that would be cherishable in other circumstances ("if I'm hanging out with you, I can't even tell whether I like you or not because I'm too worried about whether you like me"). But there's something vaguely distasteful about the whole thing, this urge we have to pry into his life and the lives of those who loved him (loved him, not his books!). From the title onward ("The Lost Years & Last Days of..." - what "lost years"? the guy seemed pretty fuckin' productive to me...), the piece also plays the "tortured genius" card to the max, which is how we like our real-life geniuses, it seems, perhaps deep down because we want to punish them from being cleverer than us. But surely you reduce DFW as a writer and as a human being by shoe-horning his life and work into such a cliched old narrative? At times the article treats him like Hal (the computer, not the young prince) - an oversensitive uber-brain that eats itself. In fact he was a great writer who also happened to suffer from and struggle with mental illness, much as Charlie Parker was a great musician who had to suffer from and struggle with heroin addiction. The one doesn't make the other, or illuminate it.

I'm not sure what I'm trying to say here. I guess just that there's nothing we all like better than a dead writer, preferably a brilliant one who has been given a genius medal. It gives us something to write about (like this equally despicable little piece) and in doing so we all get paid - either directly or through basking in reflected glory, or just generating a few more hits for our pathetic little blogs. Really, we should all just read "Infinite Jest" again and shut up. Or not read it. But definitely shut up.

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