His polite moments, which were frequent if often implausible (he denied reading quickly, being widely read, being “an especially fluid writer”) were all the more absurd given how caustic he could be. Once, I offended some of the class with a not-too-polite satire of the misogyny of the then-emerging male-sex-help genre, and our teacher advocated for the Devil by asking whether anyone besides him thought that I’d shown some “balls.” After that he paused and solemnly told us, “I deeply regret saying that,” but I have my suspicions.
He lambasted an essay’s “methane,” at one point, and praised another for its “sheer sphincter-shattering beauty.” Writing a short essay to render something you loved endlessly was “trying to blow a watermelon through a straw.” Most writing was “written half-asleep and read half-asleep,” whereas his every sentence spoken or written confirmed his alertness and his comprehensive comprehension and his care. He was immaculately alive, which made you terribly eager to show that you were all there as well.
He was of course David Foster Wallace, whom I knew as Dave during the spring of my junior year at Pomona College, where he worked until his death that September. The class he taught that semester was The Literary Essay. The class was exciting and productively creative, and fostered abject terror. Wallace knew that he could drive us as hard as he could, and he did, even as he endured a mental hell we learned about only after his death. I knew nothing, suspected nothing. Perhaps we could’ve noticed his pain if the class had been less painful for us.