In Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen warns against the temptation to treat David Foster Wallace as some brand of postmodern saint, wrecked and hallowed by his mental illness. He argues that “the people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms” (39). Perhaps inevitably a compensatory impulse to hagiography followed Wallace’s suicide. This effect, Franzen thinks, may even have been part of what Wallace blackly intended.
“But if you happened to know that his actual character was more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, and if you also knew that he was more lovable—funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies—than the benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint that had been made of him, it was still hard not to feel wounded by the part of him that had chosen the adulation of strangers over the love of the people closest to him.” (38-39)
This may be true and Franzen’s pain is surely genuine. But it’s also hard not to hear something self-serving in his pitch. Wallace wasn’t just a friend, he was Franzen’s literary competition. Franzen will always bear the burden of being compared to Wallace and Wallace’s suicide, he indicates, has not only wounded him personally but rigged their game professionally. How can he compete with Saint David? Pushing back against Wallace’s posthumous image, Franzen aims to reclaim some control of his own celebrity. [Read more…]