‘It began when Wallace wrote Franzen a fan letter in the summer of 1988’
L-R: Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace
From The Point:
Franzen has described his relationship with Wallace as one of “compare and contrast and (in a brotherly way) compete.” It began when Wallace wrote Franzen a fan letter in the summer of 1988, after reading his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. The two writers didn’t meet until 1990, “for reasons that became clearer later”—i.e. Wallace’s substance abuse problems—although in person their meetings were “much less intimate” than they had been through the mail, with Franzen “always straining to prove that I could be funny enough and smart enough” and Wallace “gazing off at a point a few miles distant which made me feel as if I were failing to make my case.” The two continued nevertheless to exchange letters and compliments. In April of 1996 Wallace publicly defended Franzen’s long and controversial Harper’s essay, “Perchance to Dream” for offering “honest and intimate descriptions of how it feels to try and make good, serious art in a culture that doesn’t seem to value it very much.” That same year, Franzen recalls being roused from his “dogmatic slumbers” by a manuscript version of Infinite Jest, which “got me working, the way that competition will get you working.” The result was his breakthrough third novel, The Corrections.
Wallace never wrote another novel after Infinite Jest—merely several collections of short stories and journalism, and a gathering of fragments published posthumously, earlier this year, as The Pale King—and he hanged himself in the backyard of his California home in September of 2008. Franzen has confessed that he couldn’t help seeing the suicide as a dirty trick—something that violated the rules of their writerly competition: “I was just settling down to work again when Dave killed himself … It was like, man, if you’re going to do that? Be the heroic, dies-young genius? That’s a low blow.” Two years later, having finished work on his fourth novel, Freedom, Franzen would begin work on his New Yorker essay, which he described as an attempt to “deal with the hideous suicide of someone I’d loved.”
“Farther Away” yokes together Franzen’s reading of Robinson Crusoe, a thumbnail history of the novel, thoughts on the internet, and a journey to the island of Masafuera, where Franzen searches for rare birds and a good spot to scatter his friend’s ashes. In its most controversial section, Franzen takes aim at the “adulatory public narrative” he says has arisen around Wallace and his death. Wallace was no saint, Franzen (literally) says. An unreliable friend, he could be competitive and mean—Franzen relates a story where Wallace said something very mean to a girlfriend, and another where he traced the outline of an erection on the title page of one of his books, which Franzen had brought to him to sign. Moreover, Wallace was frequently self-involved, and unable to draw joy from the world around him. Once, when Franzen and Wallace were driving together near Stinson Beach, California, Franzen handed Wallace his telescope, pointing out a “magnificent” bird—the long billed curlew. Wallace managed a polite nod before “turning away with patent boredom.”
As for the suicide itself, Franzen finds it pertinent to emphasize that Wallace went off anti-depressants because of a “narcissistic aversion to seeing himself as permanently ill,” that he conceived at least four different plans for how to kill himself, and that he killed himself “in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most.” While admitting that Wallace was depressed and in pain, Franzen does not leave out his suspicion that Wallace would also have considered “suicide as a career move,” which was the “kind of adulation-craving calculation that [Wallace] loathed in himself” and would deny making, but would then, “if you called him on it … admit that yeah O.K., he was indeed capable of making.”