Mi sono avvicinato – un po’ – al tanto celebrato David Foster Wallace (di cui non avevo mai letto nulla di nulla). Ho letto Una cosa divertente che non farò mai più (carino) e sto affrontando, sera dopo sera, Oblio (non saprei, al momento, dire se la famelica ipergrafia dei primi due – certamente originali – racconti mi abbia convinto o no). Ho anche preso – e già appoggiato sul comodino, che spero sia sufficientemente resistente – Infinite Jest.
Immaginavo che Neil Peart (1), paroliere e batterista dei Rush, conoscesse Wallace, dal momento che in The Garden strizza l’occhio a Infinite Jest (o a Shakespeare). E infatti è così. Incollo qui qualche sua parola su Una cosa divertente (in realtà lui parla di una raccolta di saggi, mentre in Italia il libro che riporta tale titolo riguarda solamente uno di essi – il reportage di una crociera extralusso ai Caraibi) tratta dal suo blog. Si parla del libro, di depressione, di suicidi.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
If Dave Eggers is the Bono of modern writing, perhaps D.F. Wallace was the Kurt Cobain, or Jeff Buckley—a tragic avatar of an angel beset by demons. He was a native of Illinois, educated at Amherst College and Arizona University in Tucson, and his early novels Broom of the System (partly written as a college thesis, like Foer’s Everything is Illuminated) and Infinite Jest brought him praise and moderate success. However, as a longtime victim of debilitating depression, Wallace suffered from the pressures of having the word “genius” lobbed in his direction, and struggled to live up to his own expectations for his work (another musical echo, of Brian Wilson, a fragile, burning spirit of pure ambition weighed down by the need to “measure up” to some imagined expectation).
Many people have trouble understanding mental illness as, well, illness. Depression, for example—we might feel that someone who is “depressed” ought to just “snap out of it” (“Come on, what do you have to be depressed about?”). In reality, it would be more accurate to say that clinically depressed people “have depression”—or better yet, they suffer from depression.
Because they certainly suffer. Anyone who has had even a glimpse, maybe through grief and bereavement, of how lightless and joyless a day can feel (never mind the night), should be able to imagine how depression can be as cruel, arbitrary, and deadly as any terminal disease. William Styron, in his memoir of depression, described it perfectly: Darkness Visible.
With the aid of antidepressants, David Foster Wallace managed to sustain a functional balance, but in the early 2000s, while teaching in Claremont, California, and working on a novel called The Pale King, the medication failed him. Desperate, he resorted to a series of electroshock therapies, but, unable to face the spiraling darkness, he hanged himself in September, 2008.
I would never judge a person’s decision to escape a fatal illness, or a mental disorder that has become unendurable. That’s one side of the story, but the exit they choose tells a tale of its own. Perhaps scholarly works have already been dedicated to the Psychopathology of Suicide Methods, I don’t know, but it’s a deep subject.
Some choices of exit are deliberately cruel to others—like Ernest Hemingway doing the old toe-and-mouth shotgun trick, and blowing his brains all over the front hall of the home in Ketchum, Idaho, he shared with his fourth wife, Mary. By all accounts, she had been the target of his angry, paranoid, increasingly feeble mind (electroshock therapy again), and the message he was leaving her may have been, “Clean this up, bitch.”
Nearly all suicides leave someone living to suffer for them, to clean up some kind of mess, but some methods are more intimate, more inward. Picture Virginia Woolf wading into the River Ouse, her overcoat pockets filled with stones (achingly sad), people slashing their wrists with razor blades in hot baths (wincing agony), or those who jump off cruise ships (more than ten a year in the past decade), or bridges (imagine a few seconds into those leaps, your very cells screaming in primal terror)—they all signal something with not only their act, but their choice of method.
Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to her husband, Leonard, expressed the suffering, the darkness, the desperate pain, among shreds of gratitude and love:
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I can’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
Turning away from that sad subject, I’ll just say that it is impossible to read David Foster Wallace now without feeling that shadow. And commiting suicide by hanging seems a particularly mean choice—mean to oneself. It is so bleak, slow, and cruel, and it hurts to imagine a soul in such pain.
I was moved to buy one of David Foster Wallace’s books because, in the same way that Jeff Buckley’s name appeared in my consciousness long before I heard his music, Wallace’s name kept coming up in certain circles of people who admired good writing. References like that seem to get filed in my brain and covered with little mental Post-It notes, and when I see the name in a bookstore, those notes start to flutter: “That name = interesting.” I chose this collection of Wallace’s to sample, mainly because I loved the title and the wacky cover.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a collection of magazine stories, though I can’t imagine any of them were published in the form presented here. (A notice in the book’s front matter suggests the reality: “The following essays have appeared previously (in somewhat different [and sometimes way shorter]) forms.”) They are lengthy, tangential, and riddled with metafictionist footnotes and idiosyncratic abbreviations. (It took me a couple of encounters to decrypt “w/r/t” [with regard to] and “SOP” [standard operating procedure], but once you do, meeting them again is like sharing a secret language with a friend.)
Whether writing about professional tennis, the Illinois State Fair, a David Lynch film location, or the title story about taking a Caribbean cruise, Wallace’s writing is acute, observant, funny, intellectually brilliant, and precociously wise. There is a great deal of personality in the blend of intelligence, humor, and self-awareness woven into the virtuoso language, keen selection of details, and mostly affectionate portrayals of other people.
I enjoyed this collection very much, and look forward to exploring his much-praised fiction.
Too bad we lost David Foster Wallace—but great that we had him at all.
(1) Qui una lista di alcune sue letture.