Is This Water?

Published in Books - 9 mins to read

Content warning: suicide.

You meet someone who claims to be a prophet. You’re skeptical at first, but over time, you notice that the contrarian things he says match your lived experience. He articulates complex, nuanced feelings that you’ve never been able to put into words yourself. He sees the world with a clarity that you’ve not come across before. You start to believe he has answers to the kinds of questions you don’t even know how to ask, the questions that haunt you in moments of boredom and sleeplessness. You’ve always felt like something was fundamentally off about your life, and this guy is the first person with the vocabulary to even describe how that feels, so maybe - just maybe - he has the wisdom to help you fix it.

But before you get any of the answers, he hangs himself on the back porch.

Obviously I would like to immediately backpedal from labelling David Foster Wallace as a “prophet”. He would’ve hated that; many of his fans make similar claims, and attract an appropriate amount of derision. The author and his work also attract a great deal of contempt; the former for allegedly being abusive, and the latter for being pretentious. I struggle to self-select into groups that draw the ire of anyone, let alone that of the many DFW anti-fans. Nonetheless, I have finally summoned the courage to admit; I think Wallace’s work is the finest collection of writing I have ever read.

He was not a prophet, but he does have a lucidity and humanity that other writers don’t. There are sections of his work that make me feel seen, like I am not alone, that at least one other person on this earth has experienced the same bizarre and esoteric suffering. This brings me great comfort. Knowing all this, as I consume his work, it’s hard to reconcile this sense of camaraderie with the knowledge that, no matter how clearly Wallace seemed to see, ultimately he decided to end his own life. I had this feeling most acutely while reading The Pale King, his unfinished novel, published posthumously, the manuscript for which he arranged as one of his final living acts.1 As I read on, I knew that there would be no resolution and no redemption. It almost felt like he wouldn’t be dead until I turned the last page. It represented the chance for me to figure out what was missing from his model of the world, so that I could have a better one; one where I chose life.

And, fortunately, I did.

The following contains spoilers for many of David Foster Wallace’s works.

Everything Wallace writes is about suffering. He seems obsessed with it; it’s his muse. In Infinite Jest, an unnamed woman has her bag stolen by a criminal addict. The bag contains her “Jarvik IX Exterior Artificial Heart”, without which, she dies. The addict in question is Poor Tony Krause, who later spends several days in the toilet of a public library while going through withdrawal. Thirteen years old Hal Incandenza discovers his father’s body after he has committed suicide by putting his head in a microwave that he’d specially modified for this purpose. Hal recalls that while descending the stairs to the kitchen, he’d been intrigued by the delicious smell. The final scenes of the book follow Don Gately as he drifts in and out of consciousness on a hospital bed, in unimaginable pain from an infected bullet wound. He repeatedly refuses the nurse’s offers of morphine, believing it will lead him to relapse into his own addiction.

In The Pale King; Claude Sylvanshine’s father in the door of an accelerating subway car. Young Claude watches from mere feet away as his padre is fatally dashed against a ladder at the end of the platform. Everyone Leonard Stecyk meets immediately and irreversibly detests him, through little fault of his own. Meredith Rand is so pretty that nobody ever sees her as anything else; leaving her unable to have any kind of meaningful human connection.2

In Oblivion, Incarnations of Burned Children gives me the howling fantods to such an extent that I won’t include its premise here. Take whatever you might guess from the name, and then make it worse. The Suffering Channel appears to be self-aware, addressing contemporary America’s voyeuristic enjoyment of the suffering of others. In Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, The Depressed Person recounts the viciously cyclic and wholly self-imposed pain of someone who gravitates to the most negative possible interpretation of anything and everything.3 Even in his non-fiction, his most well-known piece is Consider the Lobster, which reflects on the cognitive dissonance between diners enjoying delicious Maine lobsters and home chefs who cannot bring themselves to be in the same room as the lobster they are boiling alive bangs noisily against the sides of its pot-cum-coffin, presumably in a desperate plea for salvation.

You get the idea. I could break down all of Wallace’s writing in this way, but presumably you would’ve closed this tab long ago. Indeed, one of the things I didn’t like about Consider the Lobster was that most of the pieces were strongly negative - it felt unnecessary to include two critical reviews of bad books, for example. There are untold numbers of bad books written every year, and if one were to focus solely on them then surely they’d come away with the overwhelming sensation that we were in a state of rapid literary decline.

Wallace’s stated goal for The Pale King is to explore the intertwined concepts of sadness and boredom, believing they underpin what it is to be human. His thesis is that we all have some amount of low-level ambient pain, which we anaesthetise at all costs. And I fundamentally disagree. I think we have a low-level, ambient sense of peace, content and tranquility, and it is the process of repeated self-administration of anaesthesia that causes us to lose touch with that base state.

Reading the novel, it hit me that Wallace’s problem is his passivity. He views himself as a keen observer of humanity, more anthropologist than author, but he fixates on the negatives. Given his particular talent for thorough and patient examination, he finds himself overwhelmed with the quantity and quality of the suffering in the world around him. Worse, he believes himself to be unable to do anything about any of it, other than sounding the alarm with his writing.

I think this really shows in his (in)famous commencement speech, <em>This is Water</em>. He implores the fresh-faced graduates not to “go[…] through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out”. Wallace sees most people living like zombies, and maybe Wallace is living like a zombie himself, albeit one trapped by his mind rather than living mindlessly.4 The cliché example that “maybe the person who cut you off in traffic is rushing their infant child to hospital, so you should not be angry about it”, plagiarised from every CBT textbook ever, is simply the wrong approach. If you make up an excuse on someone else’s behalf every time they wrong you, people will learn to constantly wrong you. You will not set healthy boundaries for yourself, you will not respect yourself, you will be maximally exploited by your peers with higher self esteem and better intuition for game theory. If you’re Jesus then perhaps you have the depth of compassion required to turn the other cheek for your whole life, but I’ve already retracted my suggestion that DFW was a prophet.

Anger can be cathartic. It can breed agency, as can any other emotion. Pain, sadness, boredom, all of it can be channeled into a force for change. It’s heartbreaking that Wallace didn’t seem to grasp this, at least not viscerally. His characters are more human than any other writer I’ve come across - I feel like I might bump into Shane Drinion or Johnny Gentle on any given day. His dialogue invariably seems completely plausible. He understood how people think, how they feel, and how they fit together. I so dearly wish he’d understood that they could change too.

The first question of the well known 36 questions to fall in love is “if you could invite anyone, alive or dead, to dinner, who it be?” and my go-to answer for a long time has been David Foster Wallace.5 This is still absolutely true, I’d love to have a non-alcoholic beer with him, if I could. But I don’t think I would be as star struck by him as I would’ve been a year ago. Yes, he could see many things that I can’t; but the reverse is true too. Maybe in a future life I’ll even get to play a set or two of tennis with him.

  1. At least, according to his Wikipedia page. ↩︎

  2. As far as I can tell, Meredith Rand is pretty much the same character as Joelle Van Dyne/Madame Psychosis from Infinite Jest, who faced a very similar predicament. ↩︎

  3. This reminds me of the many instances of members of Joy Division saying that they assumed Ian Curtis’ depressive lyrics were somehow just-for-show, and not actually representative of his feelings. Naturally DFW was a lot more forthcoming about his struggles with addiction, depression and suicidality than Curtis appears to have been, but one can’t help but wonder if the depths of his despair was as obvious to the people around him as it is to the people who merely read much of his work in a condensed period of time. ↩︎

  4. Admittedly the part where the audience enthusiastically applauds in agreement with an example Wallace cites as the wrong way to think is pretty strong evidence in favour of his worldview and yes, I would’ve lost a little faith in humanity in that moment too. ↩︎

  5. Yes, I know the original paper had slightly different questions to the NYT version, and that the paper also included periods of prolonged eye-contacted between prospective lovers, and that it was a generally poor-quality paper, and yes I am similarly uncomfortable with promoting anything to do with the NYT. ↩︎