Tuesday, December 15, 2009


The semester is drawing to a close and with it comes things like having your students over for dinner, which I did for my nonfiction worskhop, as I always do for my upper-level workshop. These twelve were particularly fabulous—adventurous, candid, going to some pretty real and raw places without sentimentality or self-mythologizing, but instead tough and clear-eyed writing. And, best of all: hilarious.

My friend here pointed out that I use the word "funny" as my default appreciative term. She asked me why that is. I had to think about it for a second, but this was my answer: It's not that I'm a sucker for the easy laugh, or need the instant gratification of humor. I think wit--sharp wit--in writing is a sign of intelligence and depth. I especially like wit when it's the searing agent for the rawer redder stuff that is anger and sadness. It spikes everything. It makes the sad stuff sadder and the dark stuff darker. It gives it complexity. Not everyone can be funny, I know, but all my favorite writers are deeply sad and deeply funny.

So. I assigned David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again to my nonfiction workshop this semester, and the final thing I had them read was the title essay. It's 97 pages long, as engrossing as a novel and as funny in its obsessive detail as anything I've ever read; this is my third go of it, I think, maybe fourth. 

The first time I read it, when it came out in 1997, I dreamed about David Foster Wallace for a week. I had one dream that he was hanging out with me in my room in Brooklyn and started trying to climb the blinds. I had another dream I was making him pancakes on the kitchen counter with an iron. That sort of thing.

The second time I read it was in 2001, in my second year at Iowa, while I was taking Frank Conroy's workshop. Again I dreamed about it/DFW all week. But what struck me anew this time was the section in which Wallace quotes Conroy, who shilled for Celebrity Cruises by writing a quasi-literary rave about his experience on board ("I prostituted myself," he told DFW). This section (it's section 8) deconstructs Conroy's essay for a full six pages along the lines of
Conroy's essay is graceful and lapidary and attractive and assuasive. I submit that it is also completely sinister and despair-producing and bad.
Extensive and detailed examples follow. Pages of them. Yet Wallace also says that Conroy was "frank and forthcoming and in general just totally decent-seeming about the whole thing" in conversation, and that Stop-Time "is arguably the best literary memoir of the twentieth century and one of the books that made poor old yours truly want to try to be a writer."

So, at the end of the semester, Frank invited our workshop over to his house for dinner. Maggie, his wife, was there, sparkly-eyed and lean and cool, and his teenaged son ducked in and out, and their big yellow lab Gracie whose name I heard as "Crazy" obligingly traveled among our petting hands. For dinner they served a vegetable stir-fry on noodles, covered in a delectable sauce whose secret Frank revealed with relish: "Add half a cup of tahini near the end!" We sat around a big beautiful old table, and I remember the light was warm and low and comforting, and I remember that we--or at least I--well, I'm pretty sure all of us--got quite drunk, not least of all Frank, and I had just read the essay that week, and at some point in dinner I could not resist any longer and I asked him about what he thought of the David Foster Wallace essay.

Frank was very magnanimous about it. Others at the table had read the essay too, of course, and of course we wanted to know what he thought of David Foster Wallace as a whole. After all, he'd spent the whole semester drilling MEANING! SENSE! CLARITY! into our heads, ruthlessly and publicly tearing apart our sentences, proclaiming "You must write prose which cannot be bent!" and generally delivering edicts with verbal exclamation points (one of which was that you only get seven exclamation points to use in your lifetime, per Henry James.) And here is DFW, unwieldy and knotty and verbose and uncontainable.

But Frank liked him. He said he was wonderful, and "wildly inventive," and hearing his praise was a surprise and also a relief. And it was, peculiarly, a thrill to hear this writer speak of this other writer in this firsthand way: my actual teacher, addressing my actual very favorite writer at the time (I was a real headbanger for DFW in those still-pretty- sparse-internet days, tracking down every little piece that came out in every literary journal, etc., dying for the next book.) I don't know why it mattered. But it did, for some reason, to me.

Now Frank is gone. David Foster Wallace is gone. I miss them both. I miss knowing they are in the world. But reading "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" I hear Wallace's voice so distinctly and remember how hungry I was for it in my twenties, how much I could love a writer, a voice, a book. And as December kicks in strong and the year and semester wind down, and now I am the one opening the door to my students bundled in scarves and hats, I also remember the rest of that evening at Frank's, when we all retired to the living room, and inspected his little Grammy up on the shelf (for writing liner notes for something; it was small and old and looked much more modest than you'd expect), and Paul played a song on the guitar that was about Steve Marlowe, and then Maggie brought out baskets of musical instruments and we embarked upon the funniest sort of dozen-person impromptu jam session. My oddest and by far favorite moment was when Frank handed me the melodica and said, "You blow! I'll play!" And so I put that long ribbed plastic tube in my mouth and blew, and Frank played the little keys, eyes wide and wild behind his wire-rimmed glasses; I blew and blew and kept blowing even though it made me dizzy, even though it was ridiculous and a little embarrassing and I wanted to laugh, I had to keep the air going, I had to keep it going for Frank.


Ivan said...

As a longtime Frank Conroy and DFW fan, I enjoyed this post. I went through a yo-yo obsession at age 12 or so following my first reading of Stop Time, which made a big impression on me.

Amrak Ecilop said...

Ivan introduced me to Frank Conroy, I think, so I was glad to return the favor and send him a link to this great appreciation. I'm really happy also whenever I see DFW's essays well treated--I think that was his best form and that his non-fiction will be his legacy ---