I read Jonathan Franzen’s second book of essays last week and they are well worth the time, they’re erudite and thoughtful and engaging. I spent a lot of time reading the title essay, Farther Away, which is a meditation on the romance of the self and how useful that might, or might not be for everyone else. The two key selves in question are Robinson Crusoe and David Foster Wallace (DFW). Crusoe is a kind of victory-self, a survivalist on the ramparts set on defeating doubt and overcoming the horror of solitude. Regarding Wallace, the case is quite the opposite.
I must admit to feeling a little stung as I read Franzen’s defence of his reaction to other people’s reactions to Wallace’s suicide:
People who had never read his fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in the Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul. A literary establishment that had never so much as short-listed one of his books for a national prize now united to declare him a lost national treasure. ..He didn’t “belong” to his readers any less than to me…The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms.
I thought about these remarks a lot at the weekend, wondering if Franzen was rendering my adoration of DFW into some kind of petty fandom, just a grown up version of wearing tartan pants and singing along with “Shang-A-Lang”. I do love the Kenyon College address and I confess to having evangelically sent it to many people, as if it was the world’s wordiest internet meme. I felt that kundalini rush when they got it.
I also felt some kind of satisfaction that I’d now have some people to talk to about DFW. In light of these I wondered if this process was just a kind of vainglory, a vulgar shine reflected onto me, pantomime affection at best. Maybe, I thought, walking through town yesterevening, I’m just really shallow and my adoration is just like all those teens who fetishize celebrity and just wannabe Britney, or Rihanna, or Lindsay Lohan.
But, I stammered to myself, I read Infinite Jest in 1997, I reread it when he died. I spent days on the footnotes. I bought the short stories. I printed off dozens of pieces of journalism before I bought the essay collections. Fuck, I even annotated things. I read Broom. I tiptoed through The Pale King like a man going through his grandparents’ underwear drawer. I even read Everything and More and his really very dull dissertation “Fate, Time, and Language.”
I have audio book copies of the novels; I’ve downloaded talking book versions of the essay collections. I’ve listened to them. I have also bought and gifted quite a number of copies of DFW works: proselytizing amongst persons that might, maybe, take some pleasure from the labyrinthine comforts that his prose and journalism offer. Some have read the works, some haven’t. There have been some converts, and some seriously raised eyebrows questioning my literacy and/or sanity.
Walking home thinking about Franzen I felt a great urge to protest too much: I’m not some penny ante consumer, some compulsive purchaser of DFW lunchboxes and action figurines. But thinking about the DFW books on my shelves, the accrual of DFW product around my house, and my tendency to quote from the Kenyon College address when considering the many unfortunate aspects of late-capitalism (the horror, the horror), I must admit to feeling a certain propriety interest: I bought it, it belongs to me.
Franzen makes this point: “we feel the love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it.” Franzen is right, DFW has given his gift, and he’s poured all that love into all those books. Reading them, thinking about them, I feel the love. So I guess the bigger question is not if I love DFW but what do I do with that love, how I can use the products to do something more than highlight my literacy, my erudition, and my vanities.
What Franzen is really objecting to is that DFW’s suicide is taken as a sign of his genius, his tortured soul, his humility of character, the fragility of his being. In this equation his suicide leads to fandom, the vacuous fetish for narratological completion. This is what stung me, that my fandom was derived from the fact of his suicide. It’s an understandable defensiveness, from Franzen and me, him defending the memory of a friend and actual talking person, and me defending the actual talking and reading me.
I know that DFW doesn’t belong to me: the person wasn’t mine, the words aren’t mine, the work isn’t mine. Only the products are mine. But I didn’t buy & collect all that stuff because I wanted more product, wanted more things to store in my house. It’s because the works are all about being love with being in the world. This is the heartbreak at the heart of Farther Away, how could he write so much love and feel so little of it that he didn’t want to stay? Franzen tries to answer, he knows that we are all Robinson Crusoe, we are all “stranded on his or her own existential island” and that managing that solitude is challenging for everyone.
But Franzen also knows that meeting the challenge is both joyous and menacing, menacing enough to want to run away and joyous enough to want to love: “all it takes is one footprint of another real person to recall us to the endlessly interesting hazards of living relationships.” The point that Franzen doesn’t make, perhaps can’t make given his investment in being DFW’s friend, is that when we read the works of DFW we see footprints that he left for us. He didn’t know us, didn’t know if we were listening, possibly couldn’t imagine some but all those words, all those jokes, all those footnotes and endnotes, all those puns and puns about puns: every single one is a footprint on a beach calling to mind the complexity of our world and our place in it.
Loving those footprints isn’t simply fandom, it isn’t just late-capitalism in action, and it isn’t only vanities. The works remind us that even on our islands we aren’t on our Pat Malone.