the self-portrait sessions
sex over 50
odds & ends
tisza river project
© 2011 by Susan Silas
For David Foster Wallace with Love and Squalus
I am writing to you. A useless activity; you are dead. I can't say I took enough interest in you when you were alive. I'm like a woman filled with remorse at a discarded lovers grave.
I discovered your death online. A notice for a memorial service. How can that be? Memorial services are for dead people. I'd been traveling for two weeks in Eastern Europe. I hadn't read the papers nor seen a television broadcast. Had I not seen that notice by chance I may not have known for weeks, maybe months.
You hung yourself.
How can that be possible? I wonder it over and over. I have become mildly obsessed by this wonder. How can it be possible? From this distance, one of a generation and of gender it seems barely comprehensible. He was so successful, a brilliant star in the night sky....
I have an acquaintance, a friend from my art school days, she blew you once, in a closet somewhere -- she nattered on and on about your penis -- she was a kiss and tell kind of girl (she wore black lipstick for heavens sake) -- you must have seen that coming. I think that was the first I'd heard of you; then Infinite Jest was published.
I didn't run out and buy a copy. I won't be able to read this book I thought. I read William Gaddis' Recognitions. I should say I read three-quarters of William Gaddis' Recognitions. I know you had it on your bookshelf -- you said so and I venture to guess that you read the whole thing; but I started to struggle half-way through. I would read a few pages and put it back on the window sill and try again later. Maybe the window sill was a bad spot. I probably read it on awakening and just before going to sleep. A woman writer I met at the Alliance Française, where I was trying to learn French, suggested I quit. Quit. I'd never put a book down this far in. Somehow her suggestion became permission and I put the Recognitions back on the bookshelf.
With Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow I read half. I never struggled but I didn't finish either. In 1989 I took Gravity's Rainbow with me on a sojourn through India. Take just one book - something to last you for the entire trip. A miniature garland of flowers on a gold string with a tiny red tassel found in the street became my bookmark. I was completely engrossed. If culture shock is a form of paranoia what more perfect accompaniment than the paranoid threads running through Gravity's Rainbow? I boarded the return flight from Delhi a month later. The flowers wilted, dried and were pressed between the pages at the midpoint of the book. I never read another page.
I wonder to myself how many women finished these two books. They make me think about the late sixties and early seventies when I often felt required to stroke male egos by listening endlessly with upturned face to clever, sometimes brilliant and often tedious talk; nodding my head, fluttering my lashes, giving approving smiles, marching back and forth to the toilet while consuming ever more pitchers of beer, besotted with boredom, finally giving way to exhaustion all to avoid the inadvertent insult to masculinity that flagging interest in matters of so little importance to me might have caused.
You hung yourself. I can't say that I have never encountered the suicidal thought. There are people who claim never to have. These thoughts often surface when assessing my commercial success or relative lack of it - when thinking that my chosen profession doesn't support me, when I feel hemmed in by the requirements of my "day job". You on the other hand, were wildly successful. Well -- you had a day job too -- you taught and now I will never be able to be a fly on the wall in your classroom. Of course I know by now that even the desire for success is about other things and there is no reason to imagine that the surface of your despair would have anything in common with the surfaces of mine.
I decided not to start with Infinite Jest. I hope you will understand. I feared Gaddis Pynchon syndrome and I wanted my first foray to be a success and not a getting lost in the guy guy thing and fighting the battle of give up or slog on, so I picked a book of essays; a book with a funny cover of a boy with his tongue out past his chin and steam coming out of his ears entitled A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again and that thing turns out to have been a Luxury Cruise -- a man after my own heart.
That was when I first saw you. On the back cover of the paperback edition is a thumbnail photo. It measures 1 5/8" x 1 7/16". I know because I took out my Schaedler rule and measured it. I did this in part because I couldn't believe how much there was to see in this very small nearly square back cover photograph. Your brown hair is pulled back from your face in what I imagine to be a pony-tail. You are sporting a five-o'clock, no make that a ten-o'clock shadow. The expression on your face is sweet, tender, vulnerable, boyish and quintessentially American.
If you were here; if you hadn't leapt off the stool or whatever it was that you rigged up for yourself, I am sure you would say in as kind a fashion as you could muster -- you should revisit your psych 101 textbook. Have you forgotten what projection is? Can you really see all of that in a barely 2" square image? Of course, then I could look at you in person and who knows what I would think. I wonder if Gary Hannabarger saw any of this when he peered through the lens to snap this photo. Many authors seem to be photographed by Dominique Nabokov. I wonder if Gary was a friend or if you weren't quite famous enough then to merit the Nabokov photo session? I imagine that you knew this guy because he captures such an open and guileless face, but maybe you always looked like this.
I don't end up agreeing with everything you say about television. Much of it is brilliantly observed and I know that you are weaving together the connection between the television generation and the literature they produce. I'm older than you were. I can claim to be the first generation to be raised on TV. I tend to think of you as closer to the MTV generation. Don't worry, it's not like I'm calling you a second-generation abstract expressionist. It's just that in my generation it is possible to disdain television and actually not watch any. That's not a type you take into account.
There is an added irony in my case in that I work in film and television. That's my day job. Years ago when I worked on Spin City I had to go home and watch an episode because I had no idea who Michael J. Fox was but I wasn't always like that. I really was raised in front of a tv set. I can sing the theme song to every show that aired in the 60's and can recite any intro speech - Superman's, Star Trek's, Dragnet's - you name it. When I arrived at college and got situated in my dormitory I met a girl across the hall who asked me which boy Clark Kent was -- could I please point him out -- everyone keeps talking about him. It was as if she had landed from another planet just like him. Her childhood was spent with her family in South Africa where her father was a consultant (read spy) for the Bechtel Corporation.
I can see a slight rolling of the eyeballs but I like you already way too much to mind. By the time I get to the Illinois State Fair with you I am totally won over. In all likelihood you would say to me,"This is about you, this is not about me" and I am tempted to wholeheartedly agree with you of course, except for the fact that I don't pine away for just anyone. Take Heath Ledger for example. He was young, extravagantly talented and by all accounts died accidentally out of sheer stupidity; a tragic waste. I lingered on that death for a few days but found myself wondering why the countless deaths in Iraq made less of an impression on the American psyche. I am overtired by celebrity. I work on the periphery of celebrity. I have a say in what a film looks like, the architecture it inhabits, the physical dimensions and limitations of the space. Occasionally as a consequence I have brushes with celebrity, 90% negative, 50% rumor, 2% interpersonal. I know about blow jobs other than yours. I know about the list of porn films the accounting department pays for on pay-per-view for the young mean-spirited comedic actor who watches in his trailer between takes. And it goes on and on and on like that. But celebrity is not the same as fame. A movie actor is not the same as an author. I suppose the biggest difference is that actors do what they do in public and authors do what they do alone. It is not that an author can't develop a public persona. One has only to think of Norman Mailer to know this. The same writer in my French class who suggested I stop reading William Gaddis sent me to a reading by Paul Auster many years ago. She said, "He writes well but you should see what he looks like. Be sure to sit in the front row." I did. It was the first literary reading I'd ever attended. It's not that his looks determined his writing skills but I think he knew how to use them. Still it isn't the same as tabloid celebrity. For one thing author fame is usually not of same magnitude. And it is what writers write rather than what they look like that finally matters.
I didn't know what you looked like until it was too late to pick you out in a crowd. I know you spent time in New York City. You mention the subway. The fact is that we could have been sitting side by side on the train and I would never have known it. The city is intimate in a curious way. I was riding the Lexington Avenue 6 train one evening when the garbled but familiar announcement began, "This train is going out of service. The last stop on this train will be Bleecker Street." Had we not all been forced off the train I might never have seen him. He was standing on the platform in front of me when I stepped out - as if he'd been waiting for me to arrive. The first guy I'd ever fucked and I hadn't seen him in over 25 years. He recognized me just as fast I recognized him. "There are eight million stories in the naked city." Anyway, the point is, I could just as easily have run into you. As is often the case with me, a late bloomer to be sure, I am a day late and a dollar short. I would gladly sit in on your lit class or nod politely over a beer but you have skipped town and you're not coming back. Except for the friend, whom I've lost touch with over the years, who claims to have blown you, I don't a soul who knew you in person. If you'd stayed alive I might not know you now -- something I'd surely give up to have you back.
In the cynical confines of the art world, suicide is a great career move. Death defines an oeuvre from its beginning to the last works, now finite in number, thus placing a concrete limit on the number of works that can come to the marketplace. I don't know if the publishing world is as cynical. Perhaps I only know it less well. But manuscripts if published have a more democratic life and therefore seem less susceptible to drastic manipulations. After all, A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again can be had for $14.99 US plus tax. One thing I do know; once the last unpublished manuscripts come to light if there are any -- there will be no more books by David Foster Wallace.
When I was nine years old I saw Gone With the Wind for the first time. Apart from The Red Balloon it is the first feature length film I remember seeing. In the 3 to 4 hours that went by I fell in love with Clark Gable. (I can't believe there are two Clarks in this letter - have you ever known anyone named Clark?) I went to see the film with my father and when I returned home I confided my new found love to my mother. Without a thought to my feelings she announced that I was too late -- he'd been dead for years. I was bereft. You brought that sucker-punched moment vividly back to me.
We have romanticized the connection between brilliance and despair for a long time and theorized the relationship between loss and creativity. You don't strike me as sentimental. Rather you strike me as sensible to the world and sensitive, but not in the "blucky" way that men are sensitive these days (read passive). Every cm of your 1 5/8" x 1 7/16" author photo is full of whatever that substance is. It inhabits every page, every sentence nearly that you wrote. Perhaps that sort of sensitivity predisposes one to both creativity and depression. There are certainly enough current day psychological studies investigating this particular subject.
It said in one of the articles I stumbled across online that you were treated with electroshock therapy. I worked in a mental hospital at the age of eighteen. It was around the time that electroshock therapy was being totally discredited as inhumane and barbaric. Then in the last ten years it made a come back in a modified form as the treatment of last resort. I want to repeat this quote to you about last resort. It was made in reference to war and not in reference to electroshock therapy but its sense seems to me to be the same: "In fact, war isn't the last resort, for "lastness" is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life: it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last." They don't call it electroshock therapy nowadays they call it ECT or electroconvulsive therapy and who knows if you were treated with this - it was just an internet story.
I'm not sure how a reasonable physician would have prescribed electroconvulsive treatment for you. Do we respect intellectual and literary gifts so little to have taken such a risk? We know of course, in hindsight, that your depression was the greatest risk but you were not the average adult. Did the prescribing physician stop to wonder how much more depressed you might become if you were at a loss for words? Words that suddenly were inaccessible or temporarily forgotten? What must that have felt like? Did it no longer matter? How deeply despairing must you have been to have given informed consent to such a proceeding? It is impossible to run great cataclysms in reverse. To put you back on the stool or ledge or whatever it was. Despite the deep sorrow that I feel, the last thing I would ever want is to change your sweet exquisite mind.
My love to you,
This piece first appeared in the online literary magazine Exquisite Corpse edited by Andrei Codrescu in New Orleans.