Blogger Here. Andrew Harrell shares his first encounter with David Foster Wallace, reading David Lipsky’s piece in Rolling Stone Magazine, “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace.”
I don’t know how the magazine made the trip, but Greg and I got from the Piedmont to the mountains in his brother’s tiny black Honda two-door. The drive was almost perfect.
Out of the eight or so times we thought we were lost, only once had we actually gone the wrong way, ending up in a cramped town with narrow, wavering streets and a terrible pervading smell coming from the paper mill. For half an hour we drove in circles, looking for someone to ask for directions, only to find the town deserted. Eventually we were attracted by bright lights in the distance, and found the entire town leaving a high school football game. At another point in the journey, while searching for a grocery store to purchase s’mores supplies, an Ingles Market seemed to materialize in front of us out of nothing.
We drove in shifts of about two hours. The little thing handled like a dream. Or, at least, it handled like a dream compared to my car, which has inches of dead space to push through if you want to apply the brakes.
As a driver, Greg scared the shit out of me. His mind is never fully on the road, and he always leans on the gas too much, to the tune of, like, 20 mph too much. So I turned the tables while I could, ignoring the decreasing visibility and increasingly winding roads, taking turns too fast and throwing Greg against the passenger side door.
It was October or November and I was a sophomore in college. Greg was a freshman and for fall break we were headed to a family friend’s cabin, where my girlfriend and half a dozen or so others were already playing beer pong and flip cup. Greg and I listened to the new Keane album off of my iPod and edited a speech he had to give for some student organization or another when he returned. When it came to language and writing, this was an insanely exciting and formative time in both our lives. We’d both heard from teachers and peers that we were good with words. But now we were realizing that we wanted to be better. We were realizing that there is power behind words, that they are something you can be passionate about. The speech probably suffered from severe over-editing.
Unmarked from the road, the secluded cabin was nestled at the bottom of a steep hill and accessible only through a subtle gap in the guardrail. Even with all our cars, the front lawn was huge—acceptable ultimate Frisbee space, if that gives you any sense. A trail led to a nearby stream.
The drive there turned out to be the best part of the trip.
I was not much of a partier. At this point in my life I was able to count on my fingers the times I’d been drunk or high. I normally had trouble interacting with others, let alone when one or both of us in an altered state of mind. So when the weed and the booze came out, I was a little uncomfortable. The feeling was compounded over the next few days by cramped living quarters and too little food. I had a fight with my girlfriend, and she went off to get high with some of the others. I was left alone—at least, I felt alone, there might have been others half asleep in armchairs nearby—in the cabin.
A magazine was on the wooden coffee table.
Soon-to-be-president Barack Obama was on the cover, his tie the same red as the Rolling Stone logo. The headline level with Obama’s smiling eyes read: “DEATH OF A GENIUS: The Tragic Last Days Of David Foster Wallace.” I was in the mood for death and tragedy.
Not to mention my curiosity was piqued; what made you such a genius? I’d never heard of you. I expected an article dominated by technical explanations of the work done by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Maybe some small, amateur pictures of guys with pocket protectors in their garage laboratory.
The first picture took up an entire page. You didn’t look like a physicist. You looked like a college slacker. Bangs in your eyes. And is that a Basquiat shirt?
The opposite page called you “the greatest writer of his generation—and also its most tormented.” I was in the mood for torment.
Being in the mood for death, tragedy and torment does not always leave one in the mood for close reading, however. I only skimmed the article, reading enough to glean that you were a great writer, that you liked tennis and you loved dogs, that you committed suicide and that I had never heard of you or your work. The pictures, though, I examined closely.
There was something endearing about your rugged figure that reached out of those glossy pages. The long hair, the stubble with a lopsided shot of gray, the silly bandanna, the kind eyes. Glasses. Full lips like mine. How different you looked from picture to picture, which makes sense now but didn’t right then—it seemed like I was looking at different men, and maybe in a small way I was. You didn’t look like a fiction writer; you looked like a fiction character. It was the fall of 2008, so maybe in a not so small way you already were.
What I did read start to finish was a sidebar about a movie adaptation of one of your books. The blurb caught my eye because it said the actor John Krasinski was directing and producing the film. I was intrigued, and eventually I bought a paperback copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It wasn’t until summer 2009 that I read the book of short stories at the beach. It was difficult, funny and strange. And, for the most part, way over my head. I enjoyed the style and I recognized the writing as brilliant. But sometimes I didn’t really know what was going on. And I definitely struggled with the fact that I didn’t know what it meant. Krasinski’s adaptation turned out to be a great thing for me, because it spelled things out with Hollywood simplicity—or, at least, spelled out one interpretation of the stories.
Overall, though, your collection left me impressed but uninspired. The paperback made it onto my shelf of favorite books, partly out of respect and partly because of that cool cover, but, largely, you were put out of my mind. I probably went and reread Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the fourth time.
Months later, I was in the bookstore with a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. At the time I had no author or book I was itching to read. I was just browsing. A beautiful cover caught my eye, which is enough to make me want a book, even if I know I won’t like it. It was white and textured, with an illustration of a yellow cockatiel reflected upside down in an ornate hand mirror. The name David Foster Wallace was on the cover. I remembered my mixed reaction to reading you the last time, but it was a beautiful book, and the name recognition justified the purchase.
I began reading The Broom of the System as soon as I got home, and even though I knew nothing about Wittgenstein or postmodernism, it made perfect sense. Words had never felt so real to me. I realized you might not be as dead as Rolling Stone claimed.
In some sick way, did your leaving bring you closer to more people than ever before? I guess so.
Did your private struggle turn you into a public figure you didn’t want to be? I don’t know. Would I even be aware of you if you hadn’t ended things on your own terms? I don’t know.
What I do know, Mr. Wallace, is that you wrote and read at least in part to be a little less lonely. Evidently, for you the battle against loneliness didn’t only play out between covers.
The important thing to me isn’t if you won or lost that battle with loneliness. What’s important to me is that you were the only one who figured out what we’re fighting against.
Thanks for letting us know. Thanks for the company.
Andrew Harrell is from North Carolina and has written for sites such as Thought Catalog, Knews Corp and The Daily Heel. He is building a wiki to serve as a reference guide for The Broom of the System.