Let’s call the average U.S. lonely person Joe Briefcase. Joe Briefcase fears and loathes the strain of the special self-consciousness which seems to afflict him only when other real human beings are around, staring, their human sense-antennae abristle. Joe B. fears how he might appear, come across, to watchers. He chooses to sit out the enormously stressful U.S. game of appearance poker…But lonely people, at home, alone, still crave sights and scenes, company.
– from “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” by David Foster Wallace.
During one of my MFA residencies, over beers and conversation, probably at one or two a.m., sitting in the dorm lounge, we were talking about our early successes as writers. I feel like I may have peaked before I even got to grad school, to tell you the truth, but in any case, we were talking about our early successes and I had already had an agent, had written a book that never sold, and people wanted to know how I did whatever it was I did. I answered with, among other things, “I know nothing.” One of my close, close friends took it as an echo of a seemingly Buddhist comment the writer Bret Lott made earlier that day during a “craft talk.” She said, “Whatever, Bret…” as if I were being pretentious, as if she thought I didn’t believe for a second that I felt even remotely insecure about myself and the answers to anything I had done or would do.
The difference, I think, between me and Bret Lott, was that I honestly believed I knew nothing about anything, that my time spent with people opened my eyes wider and wider to how strange I am, that maybe at first I kind of liked being odd and artistic and misunderstood and tortured, but after a while this shit gets old. Pretty soon you meet this subconscious desire to be misunderstood halfway, and you find yourself alone, watching everyone else move on by you. I’m not even talking about advancing from accomplishments, either. I mean watching people move forward in life like they’re supposed to. It’s like a bad nightmare, when you’re stacking things and stacking things, and you’re determined to finish stacking these things, but, somehow, none of it ever gets done. You’re spinning your wheels, counting to infinity, whatever. The point is that it never gets done.
I watched a “60 Minutes” segment last night about the Innocence Project, and there was a report on how the FBI recently discovered that a ballistics test done on lead bullets, a test that put hundreds of people in jail and had others executed, was an inaccurate test. This sickened me. How many people were put to death because some scientists hired by the government thought they knew everything, that this test was a failsafe measure of a person’s guilt or innocence?
How do I know this pill I take every morning with my orange juice isn’t going to wipe away my memories when I’m 60? Because a doctor tells me so?
The only thing I know for certain is that no one knows anything, and when I read irresponsible statements about David Foster Wallace’s suicide, I get angry. How can any of us have answers for what went down in that genius’ mind when we can hardly sort out what’s in our own.
The essay I quoted above was about the peculiarity of writers, how we stare at things in an awkward, “creepy” way (Wallace says) in order to get to the bottom of it, in order to absorb it completely and come out with some kind of purity or truth. The truth hurts me when I turn it over in my mind every day, and David Foster Wallace is at least twice as smart as we are.
So do the world a favor: Just say goodbye to him and save your misinformed opinions for someone who wants to babble along with you. Look forward to your kids reading him in American Literature Greats of the Twenty-First Century along with Chabon, Eggers, Lahiri, Franzen, Hempel, Alexie…