Reading Wallace Reading
With a fellowship to study his personal library, I wanted to get as far into David Foster Wallace's head as possible. But what I found there was more than I'd bargained for.
I have David Foster Wallace’s personal copy of Don DeLillo’s novel End Zone. It is in my hands. It used to be his, and now it’s mine, albeit temporarily and under careful supervision by credentialed professionals. It is teeth-chatteringly cold in this room and brain-fryingly hot on the street because it’s July in Austin. People are baking cookies on their dashboards, and they’re delicious. It will not rain until September.
I am relaying this information to you from the Reading Room of The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which in addition to housing the most powerful air conditioner in North America, houses pretty much every literary archive that you could dream of having access to, including the David Foster Wallace Archive, which, along with Wallace’s manuscripts and correspondence, has about 300 books from his personal library, 250 of which contain copious annotations in Wallace’s miniscule handwriting. I am actually being paid, or, more accurately, subsidized, to read his annotations.
There’s documentation for this. The Andrew Mellon Foundation granted me a fellowship (and a private office) for a proposal entitled “Reading Wallace Reading: David Foster Wallace’s Glosses and the Aesthetic Benefits of Close Reading.” While this may threaten to sound impressive, both the proposal’s title and its contents are in reality complete and utter bullshit. There is nothing academic about my reasons for being here; I am in Austin always and only as a fan. Mere fandom, however, is not enough to convince your wife to allow you to leave her and your two toddlers behind in the mild climes of Los Angeles so that you can jaunt to the burning pit of Hell that is Austin during the drought of 2011 just to pore over the marginalia of a major American writer you’re obsessed with. Phrasing it like that makes you sound irresponsible and selfish, but when you call yourself a Ransom Center Fellow and you flash some Mellon Foundation coin, you’ve got academic immunity and are more or less free from all other obligations.
If all this sounds a bit strange, let me try to contextualize this: apart from one of his sweat-soaked bandanas or used chewing tobacco, David Foster Wallace’s annotations are probably about as sacred to his fans as a piece of the True Cross is to Christians. No Wallace fan could resist an opportunity, especially a subsidized opportunity, to touch the literary equivalent of a medieval holy relic.
If that analogy makes it sound like I consider myself a pilgrim, let me bring things back down to earth because the truth is far less lofty and noble: I am not a pilgrim, and my trip to Austin is no religious pilgrimage. I came to Austin as a stalker, the kind of person who ought to be the recipient of a restraining order, not a research fellowship. The fellowship faintly disguises the fact that I am here to invade David Foster Wallace’s privacy, and that I took advantage of the Mellon Foundation to satisfy my personal compulsion to get as close to the inside of Wallace’s literary head as I could possibly get. What I failed to anticipate during all my academic grifting was how much peering into the dark recesses of Wallace’s skull would give me the howling fantods. What I wanted, I learned, was much more than I bargained for.
This realization came fast and hard the moment I opened DFW’s copy of End Zone. I knew the DeLillo books would be juicy because DeLillo was pretty much Wallace’s favorite author, but that was no preparation for the words that greeted me when I carefully opened the book’s brittle paperback cover:
“SILENCE = HORROR.”
My breath tripped in my throat. I was hoping for revealing annotations, and Wallace exceeded my expectations with his first gloss. Freaky things like “SILENCE = HORROR” are not the first thing a researcher stumbles across anywhere outside of a TV show. Wallace may have been talking about End Zone, but the context was totally different now; these were words from beyond the grave, written in a dead man’s hand, and even though I’d never met him, here I was holding his treasured book, staring his mind in the face, and his first utterance to me is “SILENCE = HORROR.” Wallace, the self-described “math weenie,” had written the perfect equation, one that has come to represent his silence, the horror of his death, and, as I realized later, my silence, my horror. Equations, after all, work both ways.
And this was only the beginning.
Three books after End Zone, I opened a book whose annotations chilled me deeper than the HRC Reading Room’s cooling system could ever aspire to. This was the moment when I confronted the letters that have preoccupied me for the past three years and filled me with more creative fear and personal dread than I’ve ever felt before.
The letters appeared beside the following passage on page 87 of DeLillo’s Great Jones Street:
“There’s nothing out there but a dull sort of horror. You can’t just churn it up into your own fresh mixture. Hero, rogue and symbol that you are.”
“Maybe I don’t want to churn it up at all. Maybe I want to make it even duller and more horrible. I don’t know. One thing’s sure. I can’t go out there and sing pretty lyrics or striking lyrics and I can’t go out there and make new and louder and more controversial sounds. I’ve done all that. More of that would be just what it says — more of the same. Maybe what I want is less. To become the least of what I was.”
Wallace underlined that entire passage. Then he drew a line down the margin. Then he wrote these three letters: “DFW.” And then he underlined them. Twice.
It’s that “DFW” in the margin that haunts me.
I only thought I knew what “DFW” meant before. It was fanboy shorthand for the literary icon and hero that is David Foster Wallace, but to Wallace, “DFW” stood for the literary entity known as David Foster Wallace, his writerly persona that existed only on the page, apart from the living-and-breathing Dave Wallace. Wallace satirizes his literary moniker-cum-identity in The Pale King, where he writes “once you’re fixed with a certain nom de plume, you’re more or less stuck with it, no matter how alien or pretentious it sounds to you in your everyday life” (297), but this discomfort with his full name existed long before The Pale King. In a postcard to Don DeLillo, Wallace explains that
“ ‘Foster’ is my middle name, foisted on me as part of my N.d.P. by my agent in 1985 — he said there was ‘already a David Wallace.’ I was 23 and would have called myself Seymour Butts if he’d told me to. … Seeing my full name used in print makes me feel like Lee [Harvey] O[swald] did in Libra — another reason that book is probably my favorite of yours …”
In this postcard, Wallace connects the inclusion of his middle name to his hunger for success and approval—the name represents a business decision, a means of standing out in the book market, a decision that was not his and that he has come to feel trapped by years later. It is an identity that he cannot escape — it’s been “foisted upon” him — especially on the page. And what does this have to do with Lee Harvey Oswald? It seems like an extreme comparison, but look at page 416 of DeLillo’s Libra:
“It sounded extremely strange. He didn’t recognize himself in the full intonation of the name. The only time he used his middle name was to write it on a form that had a space for that purpose. No one called him by that name. Now it was everywhere. He heard it coming from the walls. … It sounded odd and dumb and made up. They were talking about somebody else.”
But when Wallace came across a passage in someone else’s fiction that he identified with, he wrote his initials in the margin. Most of the time, he elected to use “DFW” rather than “DW,” implying that he was relating these passages to the literary persona that he felt both shackled to and alienated from.
I’m sure most of us identify with or are touched by passages in the things that we read. That is, after all, one of the reasons that we read. Some of us — diehards perhaps — may even underline them or copy them into a notebook or commit parts of them to memory. But I have never heard of anyone writing his/her initials in the margin of a book. And I’ve certainly never heard of someone doing all of the above and then some. This is obsession, capital-I Identification, the kind that seems excessive and bizarre because that’s exactly what it is.
After finding my first “DFW,” I wasn’t interested in finding anything else in his books. As a Ransom Center staffer delivered each new stack of books to me, the only question I found myself asking was “will this one have a DFW in it?” I never questioned whether seeing a “DFW” might not be a good thing to see, that the presence of one on the page might mark a painful, private moment in Wallace’s life, one that I had no business seeing, let alone being eager to encounter.
Wallace’s initials appear twenty-one times in seventeen books, books ranging from novels to memoirs to literary anthologies to writing guides to philosophy and self-help books, and nearly every “DFW” or “DW” in Wallace’s archive appears next to a passage about creating, or, more precisely, the failure to create. And the “DFW”s that don’t appear alongside gut-wrenching descriptions of arrested creativity accompany withering descriptions of imbalanced, acutely self-conscious mental states, which only adds to the overall impression one gets of Wallace’s mental image of himself as a solipsistic failure, a gifted person who has lost control of his gift and now lives as a prisoner to “DFW” and all of its demands, demands he fears he will never be able to fulfill.
“DFW” represented a classic Wallaceian double-bind to Wallace: it encapsulated his talent and his limitations, the force that blessed him with creative stardom and cursed him with aesthetic failure. His talent, the very thing that held the world in awe of him, was what Wallace viewed as his greatest antagonist, the elusive force that continually threatened to abandon him, leaving him mediocre, forgotten, silent, left with only the horror of failed genius.
Joseph Frank’s book Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation captures this double-bind rather well. Even though Wallace was reading Frank’s bio as an assignment for The New York Times Book Review (during his time aboard the cruise ship he would later christen the Nadir, no less), he still wrote “DFW” next to this passage on page 334 discussing Notes from Underground:
“The underground man’s vanity convinces him of his own superiority and he despises everyone; but since he desires such superiority to be recognized by others, he hates the world for its indifference and falls into self-loathing at his own humiliating dependence.”
Wallace also underlined a related sentiment on page 117 of DeLillo’s novel Ratner’s Star: “The work’s ultimate value was simply what it revealed about the nature of his intellect. What was at stake, in effect, was … his identity …”
And then there’s this one from page 55 of Apostolos K. Doxiades’ novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture: “How terrible it must have been for him, if after such a brilliant beginning he suddenly began to feel his great gift, his only strength in life, his only joy, deserting him.” In the margin, Wallace wrote “DW; Self-pity; Faint ☹."
In his copy of R. D. Laing’s book The Divided Self, Wallace drew a parallel between himself and one of Laing’s case studies. For one individual, Laing wrote, “the loss of an argument would jeopardize his existence,” and Wallace wrote that this would be “Like DFW’s loss of ability to write fiction.” When Wallace sat down to write, this is what lay on the line for him. He had to be “DFW” or he was no one at all.
To give you an idea of how concerned Wallace was about being unable to live up to the image of “DFW,” one of his books in the HRC library is On Writer’s Block. That’s not a typo: David Foster Wallace, author of the 600,000-word maximalist opus Infinite Jest, owned a book about overcoming writer’s block. Several of his letters to Don DeLillo express his envy of writers like William T. Vollmann and Joyce Carol Oates, who had the ability to crank out a new novel what seemed like every six months while Wallace struggled to produce a novel each decade. These letters even pepper DeLillo with amateurish questions such as “Do you have like a daily writing routine?” And this was after he’d published Infinite Jest!
Wallace relays his struggle to produce work in a consistent and disciplined manner in a letter to DeLillo: “… it’s frustrating to feel that I’m getting mature and more disciplined in some areas of adult life and yet still seem a slave to my moods and emotions when it comes to work.” Later in the same letter, Wallace even relates the shame of how private and isolating this struggle actually is when he describes the “sad manically charming and loquacious letters” he receives “from young writers who struggle” with writer’s block “and tell me that they regard me as some paragon of steady drive and discipline, which letters I try to answer politely but they make me feel fucked-up and Unknown.” This feeling is perhaps best expressed in something he wrote in the margins of On Writer’s Block: “style-self perjury nicotine trip double bind re: IJ [Infinite Jest] — want both to guarantee similar reaction and to avoid being repetitive, derivative of self.”
Wallace’s challenges with maintaining discipline as a writer caused him to experience a sense of alienation from his own prodigious talent, as these two passages in Walter Kaufmann’s introduction to Richard Schacht’s Alienation amply show:
“The student who chooses to become a scientist or writer, painter or philosopher, is apt to feel that the competition has become so deep that it defies comparison with previous ages. … he has no assurance that he will be able to make a living in his chosen field, and there is much less reason to expect that he will ever make his mark by doing something really worthwhile. And this is one of the most crucial experiences associated with alienation.”
“… the creative life is full of depressions, and very few have talent enough to find an overall sense of satisfaction in it …”
These two passages appear on the same page. Wallace underlined them both. He also wrote “DW” beside each of them. Two on the same page.
Reading these annotations in the frigid HRC Reading Room filled me with the same disbelief you probably feel now. Wallace’s creative angst affected his entire view of himself and his grip on reality. For instance, look at this passage from page 211 of DeLillo’s Libra:
“… the language tricked him with its inconsistencies. He watched sentences deteriorate, powerless to make them right. The nature of things was to be elusive. Things slipped through his perceptions. He could not get a grip on the runaway world.”
Wallace underlined this and wrote “DFW” beside it.
Page after page, book after book, the annotations in Wallace’s library fixate upon Wallace’s deepest creative fears, fears that begin with his identity as a writer but end up questioning his existence as a human.
In “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Wallace claimed that he generally found sports biographies “breathtakingly insipid” pieces of writing, but that does not appear to prevent him from finding himself revealed on page 139 of Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder by Samuel Wilson Fussell:
“I who could remember every test score I’d ever received back to the second grade, yet couldn’t remember half of my teacher’s names. I who had cynically selected every academic institution I’d attended not for its offerings but for its reputation. I’d been far less interested in an education than in documented proof of scholarly success. Even Bamm Bamm’s search for war wasn’t too different from my own entry into the gym. As long as we created for ourselves a rite of passage, we could instill our lives with meaning.”
He drew a line down the margin and wrote “DW” beside it. Not “DFW,” the writer, but “DW,” the person. He wrote the same initials beside this passage from Robert Stone’s Dog Soliders, page 42:
“Fear was extremely important to Converse; morally speaking it was the basis of his life. It was the medium through which he perceived his own soul, the formula through which he could confirm his own existence. I am afraid, Converse reasoned, therefore I am.”
But the most devastating passage of all, the one that over time has caused me to reconsider the purpose and worth of this whole project, comes from page 307 of DeLillo’s Americana:
“There is no book, Davy. There’s eleven pages and seven of them don’t have any words on them. And I’m not making any great claims about the other four.”
“I thought you were writing all the time you were up in Maine. How long were you up there?”
“Almost a year,” he said.
“What did you do all that time?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t remember much of it. I guess I was stoned most of the time. I think I blew a fuse or something. My head went dead. That’s the only way to put it. Something in there burned out and blew away. Went dead.
“And you were in that garage for a whole year. And you weren’t doing anything?”
“I was doing something. I was killing my head.”
He underlined this passage and wrote “DFW” next to it.
It does not take many interpretive leaps for one to see the parallels between this passage and events in Wallace’s life: substance abuse, writer’s block, self-loathing, mental breakdowns, right down to the garage-turned-living room. Although the writer in this passage is not the one named David, the passage in this context takes on the quality of Wallace having a conversation with himself. This, it seems to me, is as close a view of Wallace’s mind as you can get. This stuff is as private as private gets. The impulse we feel to avert our eyes is no accident.
I think this passage helps me to see why I balked earlier at the idea of calling my quest in Austin a pilgrimage. These annotations are not holy relics because they restore nothing. Rather, they are simply the fears and obsessions of a damaged soul laid naked on the page, pushed to the margins but hardly marginal. A close encounter does not provide more salvation.
No one ever talks about how identifying with something you read might not always be a good thing. Saying “that’s like me” is not always an affirmation — it can be terrifying and make you feel “more fucked-up and Unknown.” Critics and fans alike rhapsodize about identifying with David Foster Wallace’s writing as though it can only be consoling and empowering, and I used to think so too, until I got too close and discovered what may be the most important truth about literature, the true “aesthetic benefit of close reading,” though I doubt the Mellon Foundation would be all that interested in hearing about my discovery, as it is beneficial only in the most cautionary of senses: there is such a thing as reading too closely.
Wallace’s annotations suggest that he had been reading too closely, searching for too much validation, guidance, or comfort in the books he read, to the point that his reading only wound up reinforcing his worst tendencies. Wallace found no escape from himself while he was reading; rather, his personal library remained just that: personal, continually bringing him back to his own struggles and inadequacies.
And I found myself in danger of following him. Yes, this begins and ends as being about me, the guy in the frosty reading room in Austin, for fandom is always about the fan; the self is always the subject. The artist is, at best, the mask fans wear to distract themselves from the fact that they are looking into a mirror. I learned far more about myself through reading Wallace reading than I learned about David Foster Wallace. I discovered I had been reading Wallace too closely. For years I looked to Wallace for answers to just about everything — how to think, how to live, what to read and how. Turns out, I got what I wanted, if what I wanted was a more erudite way to criticize myself or a higher, more crippling level of self-consciousness than I already had. I did wind up understanding myself better, if only to understand where I might be headed and what I must avoid becoming.
This is why I’ve taken over two years to finish writing this, why I’ve stalled out time and time again in search of the right voice or style or insight into something that feels both too large for me to take on and too close for me to see clearly. This “DFW” persona, this mental state of Wallace’s, was a reflection of mine as well, albeit distorted and exaggerated through a funhouse mirror darkly. Wallace’s work reads like a more articulate, insightful version of the ticker-tape running in our own skulls — this is the cliché that everyone employs to describe Wallace’s writing, and for me it is absolutely true. However, no one really interrogates what that statement means or how far something like that goes. If I keep reading Wallace this closely, will I end up resembling him even more closely? Do the devices I borrow from him here — self-aware reportage, direct interrogation, hyperbolic jokes about mundane locations — show that I have moved beyond him or simply fallen further under his influence? If I continue on this path of emulation, will I reach the same conclusions about being alive as he did?
In his work In Quest of the Ordinary, Stanley Cavell writes “to acknowledge that I am known by what this text knows does not amount to agreeing with it … To be known by it is to find thinking in it that confronts you.” Wallace wrote “DW” next to this. I must agree, and the confrontation I had with Wallace’s thinking is one I fear that I’m not resilient enough to endure in the long term. What I saw went beyond fandom, beyond hero-worship, beyond sympathy — it was simply pure fear and horror. And it has often shocked me into silence.
I know Jonathan Franzen has led the lynch mob in criticizing Wallace’s fans for elevating him to the status of “Saint Dave,” and although the truth is important and I should be working to overcome sanitized, heroic depictions of complex human beings, I cannot live with the Wallace I saw, the private Wallace, the one Franzen’s talking about. I can live with Saint Dave. It’s a lie, I know, but a necessary one for me if I can ever hope to continue reading his work. Doing the work of getting to the truth about Wallace gets me too close to truths about myself that I am healthier for not obsessing over, at least if I want to live to see fifty. Not every truth ought to be lived with. Some truths must be overcome.
Among all Wallace’s annotations, I found several that I would also have written my own initials next to, if I were so inclined, but doing so would be too revealing, too frightening, like saying the name of someone you’re trying to forget.
But there is one I feel comfortable with, though for entirely self-serving reasons. It’s from DeLillo’s Americana, page 336:
David Foster Wallace underlined this passage. I don’t know why he didn’t write his initials next to it, but I know that his not doing so has made room for me to add mine. DeLillo’s words give voice to my conflicted feelings about DFW, feelings that I cannot bring myself to utter in my own voice, despite the fact that their truth and intensity grow daily. I don’t have the guts to speak them; I can only underline, transcribe, highlight; leaving my emotions strewn along the margins. •18 August 2014
Mike Miley teaches Literature and Film Studies at Metairie Park Country Day School in Metairie, LA. He is a graduate of Loyola University New Orleans and The American Film Institute. His writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film International, Moving Image Source, Music and the Moving Image, The New Orleans Review, and Scope.
Images courtesy of the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust and The Harry Ransom Center. All materials quoted in the essay are the property of their authors.
Excerpts from Americana, Great Jones Street, and Libra are © Don DeLillo and appear courtesy of Penguin Books. The excerpt from Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture is © Apostolos Doxiades, 2001, and appears courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing. The excerpt from Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 is © Joseph Frank, 1988, and appears courtesy of Princeton University Press.
David Foster Wallace's annotations are used by the generous permission of the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.