Haunted Books: DFW

Posted on November 29, 2010


What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? The human shambles that follows it around? What’s left of the man when the work’s done but the shambles of an apology?

-The Recognitions.

Some colleagues and I have chosen to embark on a group study of David Foster Wallace’s 1100 word novel Infinite Jest. As of now I have read only the preface by one Dave Eggers. Eggers has a simple and potent sentimentality. I recall feeling the first of this twingy gooey heart tingling with that other long forgotten work, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Which, concerning mostly grief, was indeed rather heartbreaking, though not particularly genius. One notices the same straight forward warmth around the edges of Egger’s baby, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. There is something good about it, that warmth, for it’s not cheesy, nor contrived, nor overdone, and it has if I can say this without losing all credibility, made a few tears spill into my beers.

Perhaps it is even more remarkable that when Eggers wrote this preface in 2006, DFW was still alive and strong and writing the next doorstop, about tax code, called, wickedly, The Pale King. Unfortunately he is no longer with us; he took his own life in september of 08. Reading the preface now, post mortem, phrases such as “near madness”  and “a book that will outlast him,” and “that required such sacrifice,” give us the chills, because we know what happens. I confess that when he was alive, my interest in his work was minimal. But death makes figures more mysterious in the gloom and his ghost is in part why I choose to read now; as if I wanted to be haunted. (Simon Critchly has written a curious book concerning the deaths of philosophers. I shouldn’t wonder that literature is due for a book like in kind: How Authors Die). If an old successful author should die, the lowly negative reviews all fall away by rule of de mortuis nihil nisi bonum(speak no ill of the dead), and what remains is the beginning of the critical discourse concerning her work. An Author’s young death(particularly suicide) seems to not only galvanize and sentementalize their positive reception, but a romance is born, a gothic romance to be sure for the young dead author towers over the black moors like Heathcliff. If I said haunt before I meant it. For what could we say with more surety about Ariel than that it is haunted by Sylvia Plath, almost like we can smell the white gas. Of course in some sense all authors haunt their work-that’s an understatement-but DFW clouds the air and there’s not a book on my shelf that doesn’t glow with spectral presence the way Infinite Jest does.

Besides the spooky glow, my response to the book as an object is negative. I have the second paper back addition and it is heavy, unwieldy and flimsy; I feel that if I hold it the wrong way the book may just tear itself in half. I do not like the lime green on the blue sky background. I should have got the hard cover, but not to be found; it’s been snatched up no doubt, by the adepts.

What else can I say about the book before I read it? That someone crawled through hell fire and damnation to give it to me and then died? Perhaps. Because certainly it wasn’t just left to the world, it was wrapped up and given, like a present. Can the book make up for the un-lived rest of the author’s life? No it can’t. But there in the end, every end, that’s how it is, the author disappears and all that remains are books, like tombstones.


Posted in: Death, DFW, literature