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I Will Miss David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace
Courtesy of Davidfosterwallace.com

David Foster Wallace got it.

He got our culture. He laughed at it, sure, but not without a sense of outrage and a sense of sadness that made him stand apart from the knowing, ironic detachment that seems be the hallmark of our Gen X generation.

In the 1990s, my husband and I would read aloud passages of his articles to each other. And, as soon as we finished laughing, we'd be struck by his trenchant observations of the effects of our banal mass culture on us—effects we hadn't realized until he pointed them out.

Here he is, in his famous essay on cruise ships, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," on the Professional Smile, which he calls "a national pandemic in the service industry:"

"This is dishonest, but what's sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill's real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair."

And yet...

"And yet the Professional Smile's absence now also causes despair. Anybody who has ever bought a pack of gum at a Manhattan cigar store or asked for something to be stamped FRAGILE at a Chicago post office or tried to obtain a glass of water from a South Boston waitress knows well the soul-crushing effect of a service workers scowl, ie. the humiliation and resentment of being denied the Professional Smile. And the Professional Smile has by now skewed even my resentment at the dreaded Professional Scowl: I walk away from the Manhattan tobacconist resenting not the counterman's character or absence of good will but his lack of professionalism in denying me the Smile. What a f**king mess."

I wanted to interview David Foster Wallace about John McCain. He had written about McCain in the 2000 campaign. His essay was recently re-published in book form. It's called McCain's Promise. He writes about the dual nature of McCain's, well, McCain-ness. On the one hand, he's a man who, when tested, did something few of us will ever have to do or even contemplate: he chose to spend 5 years in a box, being tortured in Vietnam instead of taking up his captors' offer of early release. And yet, he can behave as ruthlessly as any other politician, perhaps hoping his history of being an honorable man will give him a pass.

David Foster Wallace captured that, and so much more in passages like this one:

"There are many elements of the MCain2000 campaign — naming the bus "Straight Talk," the timely publication of Faith of My Fathers, the much-hyped "openness" and "spontaneity" of the Express's media salon, the message-disciplined way McCain thumps "Always. Tell you. The truth"—that indicate that some very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate's rejection of shrewd, clever marketing. Is this bad? Or just confusing? ...the only thing you're certain to feel about John McCain's campaign is a very modern and American type of ambivalence, a sort of interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief that the need to believe is bull****, that there's nothing left anywhere but sales and salesmen."

That is essential David Foster Wallace: aware of the manipulation yet yearning for a deeper meaning (any meaning, really.) Essential post-modernism, but with soul.

I wondered what David Foster Wallace would make of McCain now, eight years later. He declined our request for an interview. That was a couple of months ago. I found out today that he had had a particularly rough summer. His father, James Wallace, told the New York Times that his son couldn't find a treatment for his chronic depression that worked. "He had been in the hospital a couple of times over the summer and had undergone electro-convulsive therapy. Everything had been tried, and he just couldn't stand it anymore."

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