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.
In doing so, Franzen is not alone. The End of the Tour, a recently released film based on the book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Roadtrip with David Foster Wallace, has occasioned a lot of hand-wringing about who controls Wallace’s public image. Examples aren’t hard to find. In the Los Angeles Times, Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, challenged the film’s “mythification” of Wallace and, in the same article, Wallace’s lawyer objected to their “selling David’s good name.”
In the Huffington Post, Colton Valentine stakes a similar claim to ownership, not on behalf Wallace’s literary estate but on behalf of his true fans—his literary fans. He derides those who may enjoy the film for two hours but lack the moral authenticity that comes from spending months hip deep in Infinite Jest. The film, he claims, is dangerous because it “commodifies someone who criticized the danger of media commodification. It bolsters Wallace’s celebrity aura instead of his writing or thinking. It is the epitome and essence of what is wrong with American culture in 2015. And it is all those things not in spite of being a good film—but because it is a good film.”
Wallace’s celebrity is like a phantom image that, with Wallace gone, now wanders the world untethered. The move to defend Wallace and his work from this phantom is understandable—the pop culture version of Wallace is doubtless a distortion and Infinite Jest really is worth reading—but, in the end, this defensive gesture mirrors the hagiographic move it means to counter. Both are making a bid to control the residual image. Both are staking claims to Wallace’s celebrity. And both are motivated by a desire to appropriate some part of Wallace’s popular image for themselves.
These efforts are bound to fail. Wallace was as worried about his celebrity as anyone and he wasn’t any more successful at wrangling his image than Franzen or the Huffington Post. This, though, is not a personal failure. The problem isn’t personal but structural.
The problems of celebrity are just a bigger version of a problem common to everyone. We all project public images that we can’t control. And we all try and fail to own the images we project. We spend lives and fortunes creating images, striving to identify with them, and failing to do so. The only difference with celebrity is the size of the audience.
Trying to own our images, our own local celebrity, we’re like the boy contortionist that Wallace describes in a tender and terrifying fragment from his unfinished novel, The Pale King.
“This one particular boy’s goal,” he writes, “was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body. His arms to the shoulders and most of the legs beneath the knee were child’s play. After these areas of his body, however, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf. The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him. He was six” (394).
Wallace then details how, kiss by kiss, the boy’s goal is to own his body. The boy trains with great intensity for years. Stretching his muscles and dislocating his bones, he inches closer toward the dream of coinciding with himself. “He did not yet know how, but he believed, as he approached pubescence, that his head would be his. He would find a way to access all of himself” (407).
But no matter how good the boy gets at twisting his body into new shapes, he escapes himself. Like the images we project for public consumption, his body refuses to be captured. Our own celebrity, however small, continues to refuse us just as surely as Wallace’s, however large, refused him.
Only a kind of willful naiveté keeps the boy going. Clearly, he will never be able to kiss his own head. But, however naïve, the absurdity of the boy’s efforts feels human. Wallace’s enduring appeal is tied to how his writing displays this absurdity with honesty and humor.
The point of a book like Infinite Jest, Wallace held, is to help us feel less alone in our experience of this absurdity. It’s not meant to heal us or make us whole. It’s not meant to boost us into self-actualization. It is, rather, meant to display this fracture at the heart of what it means to be human.
It’s meant to show that this absurdity, though it prevents us from being self-sufficient, is the very thing that leaves us open to other people. In particular, it’s what leaves us exposed to a bone-deep sadness that we might, with laughter, share.
In an interview published in 1993, Wallace claimed that fiction is about what it means to be human being. “If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be” (Conversations with David Foster Wallace, 26).
Doubtless, some things about our contemporary world make it harder to be a human being. They certainly make it harder, even momentarily, to capture our images and control our reputations. But the other half of the story is that, even failing to coincide with ourselves, we’re already human. In fact, failing on this front is proof that we are. This failure to own our celebrity is the one thing that, with Wallace, all of us share.