Sunday, September 14, 2008


The thriller movie was rolling credits, the lights went half-up like a drowsy eye, and I fumbled through my bag for my phone. NEW TEXT MESSAGE. INBOX 90% FULL.

I opened the phone and read it. I gasped, high and sharp. I read it again. And again. My friend was sitting there next to me, paused on the edge of his seat. I felt frozen. I couldn't look at him. I didn't want to tell him. I didn't want to say it out loud, to hear it in my own voice. But what else could I do.

Biking home in the hot humid dark I cried as if I'd lost an old friend. One hand on the handlebar, the other wiping my eyes.

I never knew David Foster Wallace personally. He was simply one of my favorites from the first moment I read him. That was the story "Little Expressionless Animals" in a fiction class in 1995, and when I read it, at age 19, I felt like the possibilities of fiction were blown wide open. After that I looked for his stuff everywhere, read each book as it came out, hungrily snapping up literary journals whenever a new story appeared. At this point I have everything he has written--wrote--except the math book, and the three that he himself signed (Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) live on a special shelf of the bookcase with a glass door over the front, never mind that Infinite Jest in particular is as battered and dog-eared as you'd expect an enormous paperback that got hauled everywhere around New York for a month.

There's nothing I can add to the obituaries and testimonies to his singular genius as a writer, as a literary light. He was wildly inventive and innovative and funny and complicated and humane. He used irony not as an instrument of cynicism but a weapon against it. I feel lucky to have lived in his time and so, so sad he's already gone at 46.

A few essays and stories I love that are handy on the internet:
• "Consider the Lobster," from the essay collection of the same name
• "Ticket to the Fair," from Harper's (and later A Supposedly Fun Thing)
The funniest book review I've ever read
• This short-short, from Ploughshares, Spring 1998:

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed very hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one.

• His beautiful 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, which includes this troubling-in-retrospect passage:

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
And it ends:

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

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