Even though you don't want it to be true, with twelve speakers at a famous person's memorial service there can be an underlying sense of competition: who will best capture how he really was, or best convey the sense of loss, or illuminate some unseen aspect of his work. At yesterday's celebration of David Foster Wallace at NYU, most of the speakers rose above that, simply groping for ways to do him justice. The non-writers in particular showed great dignity as they shared the stage with literary stars.
Amid incalculable esteem and love and funny memories, apparently no topic was off-limits: his suicide, his depression, his suicide attempt as a teen, the misery of the final months, the speaker's anger at him, the speaker's own depression, the speaker's own bouts with suicide. Dave would have wanted it honest, they said. They unanimously praised his parents, his sister Amy, and his wife Karen, all in attendance.
4:09 Michael Pietsch, his editor, said the speakers would appear more or less chronologically, in the order they knew Dave.
4:11 Mark Costello, novelist, roommate at Amherst and after. Whole class had "sick hyper-awareness of everyone and everything... swimming in 100% pure, unadulterated insecurity" and they all knew Dave was "smart," a word that "obviously impoverishes him." Dave corrected the logic prof's logic solution. Every night Dave did his "drag queen act" which meant green hoodie, open robe, and Timberlands as he went to brush his teeth each night at 11:45 for 45 minutes. Rituals, germs already key. "A mind in splendid overdrive." Self-awareness to mask problems, if he can joke about it then it's under control. The hoodie & boots guy was to Dave what the Little Tramp was to Chaplin. "Very dark times after the publication of Infinite Jest."
Unsuppressed math: He spoke for 21 minutes! If everyone does, that's 4 hours 12 minutes.
4:32 Amy Wallace Havens, sister. Very moving family stories, and grief. Dave taught her how not to throw like a girl and she still has a decent arm, though she suspects, "I throw like a boy who would rather be reading Kafka."
4:40 Bonnie Nadell, agent. Dave had never published a story outside of college, she had never sold a book. Agent as buffer and protector. Argued that his first novel needed a complete final sentence and period; lost argument, of course.
4:46 Gerry Howard, editor of first two books only. Dave miserable at Yaddo with "Jay McInerny, Mona Simpson, David Leavitt" where it was all "Andrew this and Binky that" and hated coming to NYC for a glossy magazine photo shoot with "Tama Janowitz and Christopher Coe. Coe was this flamboyant gay novelist who was camping it up." He's reading Our Mutual Friend "by Charles Dickens" and thinks Dickens was heavily influenced by Dave.
4:53 Colin Harrison, editor at Harper's Magazine. Dry, extra funny re-enactments, with perfect accents ("traish!"), of Dave's piece on the Illinois State Fair and his epic cruise ship essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."
5:04 Michael Pietsch, editor of IJ and everything after. Read droll, perfectly chosen excerpts from Dave's letters protesting cuts to IJ with "bared canines" and "teeth bared to second molars." Thought Dave wanted to use every known word at least once in his books before he was done. Like all the speakers, praised Dave's extreme kindness; everyone wanted to meet DFW when he came to the office, and he agreed but deflected attention, asked about the assistants, people's children. At Michael's house he played tag with his daughter until "that grew dull and they invented broom tag."
5:14 Don DeLillo. More a short piece of writing than spoken remarks. Ended: "Youth and loss. This is Dave's voice. American."
5:18 Zadie Smith. Beautifully done. Her favorite is Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Important word isn't irony but "gift." The footnotes and embellishments are there to "break the rhythm of thoughtlessness." Dave suggested that the "big distinction between good art and so-so art" was heart; to give love, not just create from the part that wants to be loved. Dave and Kierkegaard, BIWHM like Fear and Trembling; she taught them together to college students. The "most impassioned book recommendation Dave ever gave" her was for Brian Moore's novella Catholics.
5:25 Donald Antrim. Dave called out of the blue to ask if he could give him advice when he heard from a mutual friend of Antrim's difficulty. They had never spoken intimately before. Antrim read powerfully from "Another Paradox" about politicians and salesmen. "Not someone to believe but someone to believe in."
5:37 George Saunders. Reading BIWHM he found himself "agitated, flinchy, on the verge of tears," by this completely new kind of experience in writing, especially Dave's "terrified tenderness" conveying "what a fix we're in on this Earth." Dave's work is, "if it's not too corny to say so, sacramental." Saunders, thinking about these remarks, heard his "internalized Dave" saying "Don't look for consolation yet." It's too soon. "Now there's only grief... Grief is the bill that comes due for love." Dave is first among us, the best, the most talented. His legacy: "Mostly we're asleep but we can wake up."
5:43 Jonathan Franzen. Dave used "details as a way of letting out the bottled love in his heart." Franzen, like Saunders and others, admitted to nervousness at being found inadequate in Dave's presence. Twice Dave stood him up. Their early meetings were "stressful, rushed, less intimate" than their letters. They agreed "fiction is a way out of loneliness." Life got better when Dave met Karen. Life got worse when he went off his meds of twenty years. In August, asked Franzen to tell him a story about how all of this would end fine. In September, stopped listening.
5:54 Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, read from "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley," a poetic choice in part because at first it seemed an odd selection. Then not.