I’ve spent the last few days trying to process my grief over the loss of my colleague Dave Wallace, trying to imagine saying something even remotely significant about it. The phrase “words fail me” has never seemed quite so appropriate; the thing that I feel right now feels quite literally impossible to say.
But I want to try, if for no other reason than that I feel I owe it to him: so much of his life was devoted to trying to find ways to say the unsayable, to communicate a pain that simply cannot be communicated, to find a way inside something that won’t let you in, and to share what’s in there with the outside when the in there won’t let you out.
Dave was, in multiple ways, my culture hero — the single person whose creative work meant more to me than any other. His writing, both the fiction and the essays, represented for me the first really successful attempt to meld the pyrotechnic postmodern gamesmanship that I adored with something more — something real, heartfelt, and vitally important — something, if you’ll forgive the truism, deeply human. This is what I was attempting to convey to the reporter from the New York Times who wrote the first obituary they published: that while his work got described as ironic, it never used irony as a self-protective gesture, a mode of maintaining a pose of disaffection or distance from genuine emotions. Rather, his writing was always brave enough to wallow in the muck of real human life, with all its ugliness and pain. And it’s that bravery that made his work stand out for me — while his work had all the stylistic panache and uproarious humor and analytical savvy of the best of postmodern fiction, it also taught me, in a way that the work of no other postmodernist ever could, something about what it is to live.
I developed an unbelievably sappy intellectual crush on Dave when I was working on my dissertation, the project that later turned into The Anxiety of Obsolescence, when one of my friends handed me a copy of “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Though I disagreed with (and still do) his reading of the Most Photographed Barn in America scene in White Noise, the essay struck me then, and still strikes me now, as being exactly right — that if there is a danger presented to contemporary novelists by television, it has nothing to do with the usual fears of couch-potatodom and the disappearance of the reading public. Instead, it’s the distance that some modes of television work to create between people and their emotions, a hip, knowing, safe ironic distance that allows us to watch and sneer at the same time. Dave understood this kind of distance to be corrosive to the project of fiction writing, and said at the close of that essay that
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.
And this, for me, was the genius of Dave’s work — and the genius of his life at Pomona. His commitment to his students here was entirely composed of those single-entendre values, a determination to really know them, to treat them as actual people whose struggles were every bit as real as his own. But he also had the respect for them that led him to refuse them the easy way out, to forbid any laziness in their expression, to force them to wrestle with their sentences with the same ferocity that he did.
Dave was my hero, and I had for six years the unimaginable privilege of working with him. In the English department’s meeting, back in 2000, during which we first discussed our desires for the new endowed chair we’d been given, I tentatively floated the idea that the kind of writer I most wanted us to hire was someone like David Foster Wallace — someone in the midst of a formidable career, someone with a range of writing that would clearly translate into a range of teaching that would enrich the life of the department and the lives of our students.
Sometimes the universe hears your wishes, however briefly.
But during these six years, I never told Dave what his work meant to me, primarily out of the certainty that it would have pained him far more to hear it than not. As I wrote several years back, a significant percentage of my collegial relationship with Dave was founded on not-saying, on the polite fiction that, for instance, he didn’t know I was teaching his work, and that I didn’t know that he knew, a fiction necessary for both of us to avoid being mired in a kind of useless, paralytic self-consciousness.
I wish now that that hadn’t been so, but it was. I wish we were going to get the chance to finish the conversation we’d started about The Wire. I wish that he were going to be able to help the department think through the transformations it’ll be undergoing in the next few years. I wish that I were going to be able to work with many, many more students over the years who’ve been transformed by his classes. And I wish, utterly selfishly, that I were going to get the opportunity to read more of his work for the first time.
But I’m grateful for having had the privilege of those conversations, those students, that collegiality, and that work for as long as I have. And I’ve been grateful to see, over the last three days, the enormity of the response to his death — the sheer number of lives that his work not only touched but changed. The evidence — as if it were needed — that the unflinching courage that meant so much to me meant that much to others as well.