In Memoriam

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.

29 thoughts on “In Memoriam

  1. I hadn’t cried for Dave before this, mostly because I didn’t know him personally, or his work, all that well. This made your loss, and the loss of all those who felt close to his work and to him, much more real.

  2. Thank you, Kathleen. Tears come to my eyes again every time I read a reminder like yours of both the greatness of his mind and the greatness of his humanity.

  3. For those of us who only had the (admittedly large) privilege of knowing him as readers, thanks so much for this window into another side of him.

  4. Wallace was the writer who first inspired me to explore creative writing. I picked up Brief Interviews in a bookstore when I was fifteen on a whim. After three pages I already began asking myself questions about writing that I had never thought to ask before. His writing was seminal to my development as an artist and a writer.

    I used up my karma the semester before he arrived taking his advanced creative writing class with Fitch so I never got to take one of his classes. By that time I had already moved away from creative writing as a serious pursuit. When I’d walk to my dorm from Frary I’d sometimes see him biking home in some bizarre outfit and reflect upon how he and I shared bits of the same daily routine but experienced it very differently.

    I showed up outside his office one day, pacing back and forth with my worn hard-bound copy of Brief Interviews. I know in his heart he probably found my appearance a nuisance – Wallace made his feelings known about fans – but nonetheless he invited me to come in and sit down and before I knew it we were talking about art and literature and our families.

    He was warm and endlessly fascinated. He displayed a quality that I have come to appreciate in a number of former professors which is that he always paused before he spoke and you could see that super computer inside his brain processing raw data into finely crafted thoughts.

    When I heard the news the first thing I thought was how could someone who understands so much more about this world take their own life? I am still struggling to make some sort of sense out of it. He always wrote as an outsider but I never thought he believed that he was so alone.

  5. such sad news and such sad news that you were so close to it. but what a gift to be colleagues and friends with such a person. my best wishes to you and your colleagues and your students.

  6. I didn’t start reading any of his work until three months ago, but it has already altered my views on basically everything I consciously think about. It has made me a better person. It has inspired me to write and inspired me to read, hobbies I hadn’t seriously engaged in for 6-7 years.

    Reading this made me cry and made me sad that I missed the opportunity to know him. But it also made me happy to know that the beautiful humanity in his work is recognized and cherished. Thank you.

  7. I wasn’t going to comment when I found this yesterday, but since another Daniel has revived the thread I’ll make myself known here (as I already have here).

    I’ve been reading DFW since I studied literature in college — for a decade now, I guess. Thanks, Kathleen, for these remarks.

  8. Thank you for publishing this. It’s hard and weird to mourn someone I didn’t know, and somehow mourning vicariously through others that knew him helps.

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