My ‘Full Stop’ Piece on David Foster Wallace

Recently I had the good fortune to be named a monthly contributor to Full-Stop Magazine. For my December piece, I wrote how I had been unknowingly “shadowing” the late-novelist David Foster Wallace across America for years. When I read the novel Infinite Jest back in 1996 or ’97,  I immediately recognized that Wallace and I shared connections to some very odd and specific American places.

Vol. 1 Brooklyn linked to the article today as part of their “Morning Bites” daily round-up. Morning Bites (and Afternoon Bites) features some of the best literary and cultural writing  online and is well-worth keeping tabs on.

I have blogged about David Foster Wallace before. Most recently I wrote about the mystery surrounding religion and David Foster Wallace. There is a lot of speculation that DFW had been something of a closet Christian–but the issue of his faith in not a clear one–and D.T. Max’s new biography seems to discredit the notion that Wallace was a believing Christian.

The Faith of David Foster Wallace

There have recently been a spat of blog posts and articles about the late novelist David Foster Wallace’s faith and whether the upcoming D.T. Max bio of Wallace will shed any light on this important subject. The latest round of interest in Wallace’s Christian faith (we don’t know exactly what denomination he identified with) was set off by a blog post by Daniel Silliman.

Silliman’s post was eventually picked up by The Daily Beast columnist Andrew Sullivan who has a fine article on the subject with links to a number of articles that provide us more clues about Wallace’s Christian faith and how it relates to his work. (Last fall Sullivan also wrote about an article I penned on Catholic writers wherein I referenced DFW’s interest in the Catholic Church).

newspaper-photo-david-foster-wallace

I believe the significance of Wallace’s faith has been largely ignored because the practice of religion, and Christianity in particular, play almost no part in the lives of many literary editors, critics and writers. I think Sullivan gets it right when he writes:

My suspicion is that among DFW’s literary and academic peers, his church-going and attachment to Christianity (however complicated and complex) is not a feature of his life that intuitively is understood – and so the language and themes in his writing that point to this, whether overtly theological or not, tend to get downplayed.

Sullivan has a link to a video titled “A Life through the Archive” which is a panel discussion on David Foster Wallace‘s life and includes biographer D.T. Max. You can also read an excerpt from the forthcoming Wallace bio here.

Last December I blogged about David Foster Wallace‘s concern that writers today are ducking “the deep questions” of life a la Dostoevsky (also a believing Christian). Wallace complained about contemporary literature’s “thematic poverty,” but he just as easily could have criticized its spiritual poverty as well.

UPDATE: 12/8/2012 – I finished reading D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and there was nothing in the book to indicate that DFW was a Christian or a Church-going person of any kind. Max writes that Wallace was interested in the Catholic Church for a time, but was ultimately not able to get past dogma, established beliefs, etc.

One item that may explain why people believe Wallace was a Christian, was his habit of referring to his AA meetings as “church” (Wallace was an alcoholic who regularly attended Alcoholic Anonymous meetings), which was apparently his way of concealing from journalists and others his struggles with addiction.

When Wallace was dating the writer Mary Karr (who later converted to Catholicism), he often talked about faith with her. Max writes:

“Wallace said he was trying to pray, because, even though he did not necessarily believe in God, it seemed like a good thing to do…So for a time Wallace too hoped to receive the sacraments, thinking that if he and Karr were to marry they could have a religious wedding (ultimately the priest told him he had too many questions to be a believer, and he let the issue drop). Wallace’s real religion was always language anyway.”

The New Center of Anglo-American Letters

I recommend Garth Risk Hallberg’s article “Why Write Novels at All?” in The New York Times. He looks at whether the writers at a 2006 literary conference in Italy called Le Conversazioni–Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace and Nathan Englander–constitute a new movement and whether there is a common aesthetic among them. I don’t believe they form a movement, but they are collectively taking over the spotlight from their predecessors, writers like Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, Toni Morrison and Philip Roth.

Here is video of the late David Foster Wallace from the conference, his commentary deals less with writing, and more with the anxiety of being in a foreign country. Wallace is hilarious in describing the super-self conscious manner in which he experiences Italy as a non-Italian speaker.

Grappling With James Joyce

Grappling with James Joyce at the beginning of the 21st Century is similar to reading Shakespeare’s tragedies or even working your way through the Old Testament—you recognize immediately you are knee-deep in cultural source material. It feels less accurate to call Joyce a modernist than to say he was modernism, for it’s clear how much of our contemporary sensibility can be traced back to this peculiar Irishman.

I recently dug into the 1959  Richard Ellmann biography James Joyce. It needs little introduction: many people consider it the greatest literary biography of the 20th Century. I recently came across a David Foster Wallace essay on Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky biography where Wallace alludes to Ellmann’s great achievement.

James-Joyce-1918-photo
James Joyce in 1918.

And though I’m still reading about the young, unknown Joyce at this point, the book is still thick with memorable anecdotes.

In 1902 a young Joyce met the grand poet of Irish letters, W.B. Yeats, who was then 37 years old. Joyce was cocky during the meeting and reportedly talked back to Yeats, which both impressed and upset the poet. At one point Yeats mentioned the French novelist Honoré de Balzac:

“When Yeats imprudently mentioned the names of Balzac and of Swinburne, Joyce burst out laughing so that everyone in the café turned round to look at him. ‘Who reads Balzac today?’ he exclaimed.”

 

Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.  --- James Joyce
Creative Commons License photo credit: UggBoy♥UggGirl [ PHOTO // WORLD // TRAVEL ]

 

Joyce, rather famously, was not a believing Roman Catholic from his adolescence onward, but he was (modestly) respectful of the Church’s traditions and a great admirer of the Jesuit order, whom he studied under as a boy. He once corrected a friend who labeled him a Catholic:

“You allude to me as a Catholic. Now for the sake of precision and to get the correct contour on me, you ought to allude to me as a Jesuit.”

There is also Joyce’s experience in Paris, where he was literally starving while failing to make ends meet with book reviews and English lessons. This is a letter from 1903 to his mother:

“Today I am twenty hours without food. But the spells of fasting are common with me now and when I get money I am so damnable hungry that I eat a fortune before you could say knife. I hope this new system of living won’t injure my digestion.”

David Foster Wallace & Lit’s Thematic Poverty

There will probably come a time when our current appetite for insight about David Foster Wallace ebbs, but I don’t see that coming any time soon. I just got around to reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s fascinating review of Wallace’s The Pale King in GQ. Sullivan is a first-rate essayist and it’s great fun to see him write about Wallace.

In reviewing The Pale King, Sullivan got my attention by focusing on something Wallace wrote in his essay on Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky (which is collected in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays.) Wallace wrote:

“[This new] bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit. Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation.”

I believe this “ironic distance” has become something of a default habit for many talented writers today.It is a shame that the “really urgent stuff” concerning the human condition is often pushed to the margins of novels today.

I recently went back to Wallace’s Dostoevsky essay and he mentions spending two months immersed in the world of Dostoevsky while preparing for the essay. I can only imagine what a delight a book-length treatment of Wallace thinking about Frank and Dostoevsky would be.

Critic Maud Newton Recommended My Essay On Catholic Writers

The noted literary critic and blogger Maud Newton recommended my essay on Catholic writers in The Millions. She wrote:

I recommend Robert Fay’s essay about the end of the Latin Mass — and Catholic “drama of salvation” novels — even though I strongly disagree that “the Christian faith [has] been in full cultural retreat since the 1960s.”

In addition to Newton’s blog post, the essay has generated a certain “buzz” across the Internet.

The venerable Commonweal Magazine blogged about the essay, saying in part:

Over at the Millions, Robert Fay has an essay with the provocative title, “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?” Fay tells a story of decline, arguing that there has been a profound falling-off in both the quantity and quality of Catholic writers since the mid-century.

Over in the UK, The Catholic Herald UK linked to the story, but took a curious approach, citing me as the source that writer David Foster Wallace considered becoming Catholic before his death:

Robert Fay says that novelist David Foster Wallace considered becoming a Catholic before he took his life.

It was not me, but Evan Hughes in his New York Magazine story, which I mention and link to in the essay.

I also had the privileged of emailing with the writer Gregory Wolfe (publisher of the journal Image) about the issue of Catholic writers. He left a comment on The Millions where he recommended his own 2008 essay on the same topic.