Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Sad Little Story in the Penny Press!

There's an achingly sad little story in the latest issue of the successfully-redesigned Rolling Stone (gone is the whole pothead oversized-paper-zine format - it's now shaped like an ordinary magazine)(for an unsuccessful magazine redesign, you can turn this month to the Atlantic), an article by David Lipsky on the life, career, and suicide of David Foster Wallace. Wallace's widow and such friends as fellow author Jonathan Franzen go on the record with Lipsky, who crafts a wonderfully told and ultimately heartbreaking story of how one young guy felt his life slip out of his control.

The basic theme is helplessness, and of course that doesn't sit well with me. It's the problem I've always had when confronted with what at one point in the piece is called clinical depression; despite ample evidence to the contrary that I've seen over the past twenty years, I still sometimes reflexively think of it as a more or less elective illness. These people expect to be happy all the time, this thinking goes, and when they're not, they start taking pills.

Reading this Rolling Stone article would cure a more stubborn person than I am of such thoughts. Here is a scrupulously honest, entirely agonizing portrait of a talented young man whose own thoughts and feelings took turns of such wanton strength and wayward direction that he was as stunned and embarrassed by them as anybody. This was clearly not a person just wanting attention or pity - nor, wrenchingly, was it a person who wanted to die. The pattern manifests itself early, when Wallace abruptly tells his college roommate he's leaving school. "He wasn't able to talk about it," the roommate says. "He was crying, he was mortified. Panicky. He couldn't control his thoughts. It was mental incontinence, the equivalent of wetting his pants."

Wallace went to the University of Arizona for his MFA (what is it with that place? Who would voluntarily go someplace where it's 100 degrees every single day?) and sold novels and short stories, and he told that same college roommate that the act of writing brought him some relief: "He once said to me that he wanted to write to shut up the babble in his head. He said when you're writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices. The ones that are saying, 'You're not good enough, you're a fraud.'"

But he was also taking a prescription drug regularly, and when he stopped for a time and then tried to re-start, the drug was no longer effective in calming or regulating his thoughts, his fears, his panics. He's described as "terrified" and "suffering," and by the time you reach the end of the article, you wholly believe it. The piece ends like this:

At the end of August, Franzen called. All summer long he had been telling David that as bad as things were, they were going to be better, and then he'd be better than he'd ever been. "David would say, "Keep talking like that - it's helping." But this time it wasn't helping. "He was far away," Franzen says.

A few weeks later, Karen [Wallace's wife] left David alone with the dogs for a few hours. When she came home that night, he had hanged himself.

"I can't get the image out of my head," his sister says. "David and his dogs, and it's dark. I'm sure he kissed them on the mouth, and told them he was sorry."

Dogs, writing, and supportive loved ones - and it still wasn't enough to save him, because medication (and electro-shock treatment) couldn't restore balance to his brain's chemistry. The article leaves you feeling the exact same kind of pointless, resolutionless sorrow that a sudden, unexpected death often evokes ... except it's also cathartic, because you're actually alive and able to read it all and appreciate how well-done it all is. So Rolling Stone kicks off its first redesigned issue with a stunning piece of nonfiction, and I find myself wishing David Foster Wallace were still alive and irritating me. Suddenly, I miss him.

So good job, Lipsky.


brian said...

Great piece Steve. I've got a copy of 'infinite jest' sitting on my shelf. I'd like to read it someday.

Sam said...

Good post. It's an incredibly sad subject.

There are more stubborn people than you?

Greg said...

I quite liked Wallace's book on John McCain's 2000 campaign. I was a bit amivalent about his style, which alternated between pitch-perfect and obtrusively stylized. But he had an eye for detail and for the humorous. It's a great week-long snapshot of what it's like to campaign for the President. Any of his other stuff good?

Greg said...

Presidency i meant. Darn.

steve said...

"obtrusively stylized" is the single best description of Foster Wallace's worst prose that I've ever read. And in everything of his you could buy, you'll find the same alteration you mention here, which makes it all more or less annoying.

the heartbreak is that he was gradually phasing the "obtrusively stylized" (great phrase, Kennen!) tics out of his prose - had he lived, he might have written something great WITHOUT all the navel-gazing.