The Literazzi, or, How David Foster Wallace Broke My Heart
by Maia Silber
There are few things to do in Anacostia, Maryland, besides visit the home of Frederick Douglass. It’s an estate called Cedar Hill, a large, white, red-gabled colonial with the type of rocking chair-laden porch that begs you to sit down with an iced tea and a bowl of strawberries. The tour guide looks like a cross between a university librarian and a park ranger; he has sinewy but muscular arms and Frederick Douglass-era glasses, shiny round lenses that hover about his face like flat moons. He is, or at least pretends to be, thoroughly excited about the rug on which Douglass gave his grandchildren piggyback rides, and the cabinet in which his servants stored pies.
In the dining room, the tour guide holds up each piece of sterling silver and China kitchenware: “This was the fork Frederick Douglass ate with, this is the cup Frederick Douglass drank from, this is the knife with which he spread his butter…”
The tour, like most tours of writers’ houses I have been on, has the essence of E-bay sales of Paris Hilton’s old pillowcases, paparazzi crooning “Who are you wearing?” as they finger the brocade hems of stars’ dresses on the red carpet.
It seems strange that literary figures can evoke that type of reverence when literary culture so often sets itself up in direct contrast to popular culture, the higher arts condemning the very pillars of materialism, superficiality, and anti-intellectualism on which celebrity worship rests.
Yet hours after scorning Douglass’s kitchenware, I am engaged deep in the bowels of the Internet with an investigation of less culinary but equally superficial aspects of David Foster Wallace’s personal life. I had stepped off the path of his fictional work into a forest of Paris Review interviews and Guardian articles about suicide, addiction, and, as I discovered that night, a tumultuous love life.
What concerned me that night was David Foster Wallace’s relationship with Mary Karr, a poet and confessional memoirist. The Paris Review “Art of Memoir” interview of Mary Karr introduces the two writers’ romance before mentioning Karr’s seminal work, The Liars Club.
I learn that Mary Karr and David Foster Wallace met in rehab in the early nineties. I learn that David Foster Wallace had a tattoo of Karr’s name on his arm and once called her father to ask his permission to marry her. I learn, in a Slate.com article significantly trashier than the Paris Review piece, that their relationship was “destructive.” I learn that, Wallace sent a letter to the head of his halfway house apologizing for considering buying a gun to murder Karr’s soon-to-be-divorced husband (a document uncovered by D.T. Max and summarized, Buzzfeed-ized, and most-likely libel-ized in a Rolling Stone article titled “Six Things You Didn’t Know about David Foster Wallace). I read a poem by Karr about Wallace’s death called “Suicide’s Note” that contains the line, “you asked/ that I breathe into your lungs like the soprano in the opera/ I loved so my ghost might inhabit you.”
On the same night, I read a crueler meditation on Wallace’s death in the form of Bret Easton Ellis’s April 2012 tweets. Vanity Fair labels the tweets, in which BEE calls DFW “insufferable,” “needy”, “overrated,” and “lusting for a kind of awful greatness,” a “one-sided duke-out between Brett Easton Ellis and the ghost of David Foster Wallace.” Gerald Howard, who worked with both writers, provides analysis in an interview with the Upworthy-esque title “I Know Why Bret Easton Ellis Hates David Foster Wallace.”
Later, I finish the last few essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and read several Mary Karr poems. Neither my critical nor emotional understanding of the pieces is enhanced by these newfound facts.
David Foster Wallace has written his own meditation on celebrity fascination, an essay titled “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” about his tennis idol’s auto-biography, Beyond Center Court. In it, Wallace theorizes “top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere—fastest, strongest—and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way.” The desire to immerse oneself in the personal life of a sports celebrity via biography and interview comes from a deeper wish to “know how it feels, inside, to be both beautiful and best.”
But the fascination with literary celebrities seems to be of an entirely different sort. We do not seek to know what was going on in Hemingway’s mind when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but what was going on in his mind while he slowly drunk himself to death on the streets of Pamplona and Paris, what was going on in his mind when he placed a shotgun in his mouth. We are fascinated by Fitzgerald’s destructive (no quotation marks there) marriage with Zelda, Lord Byron’s bisexual promiscuity. Though the writers we revere might be the best in their genres, we obsess over the failings of their personal lives—their addictions, their extramarital affairs and unhealthy relationships, their suicides.
In this way, the fascination with literary celebrity also differs from the fascination with popular celebrity—the catchphrase of the latter being “They’re just like us!” Paris Hilton’s old pillowcases are sold on E-bay because someone actually wants to use them, maybe to somehow absorb her essence through her dandruff. People readers want to dress like celebrities and be like celebrities, or else they want the celebrities to fall to their level (paparazzi seek out underwear revealed in limo exits and flabby beach bodies). When a celebrity does something worse than undergo a wardrobe disaster or party too hard, she often fades into the background like a once-beloved uncle no longer mentioned at Thanksgiving dinners. Comebacks are possible, but they must be triumphs.
Writers, as they slip into debauchery, often only garner our favor. Last September, a nonfiction book called The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, profiled six famous literary figures and alcoholics: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Williams, Berryman, Cheever, and Carver. It is a popular belief, even, that writers derive their genius from their addictions and their mental illnesses; the Lost Generation’s alcoholism, Woolf’s depression, even the Beatle’s experiments with LSD are said to have been essential to the production of their art. Proponents of this belief tend to ignore that Fitzgerald struggled to finish novels when most debilitated by alcohol, and that the famously straight-laced George Saunders—a trained geophysicist who describes himself in a GQ profile as “a pretty nice guy”– produces some of the best fiction today.
Perhaps the association of illness and tragedy with genius, and the subsequent obsession with the personal illnesses and tragedies of literary celebrities, comes from the Romantic conflation of poetic inspiration with madness, the type of spontaneity that can be produced by sudden mood swings or drug-induced highs.
But this alone does not explain the fascination with literary celebrity. If David Foster Wallace’s depression and addiction was only seen as a necessary condition for the genius of his work, why read about his depression and addiction rather than read his work itself?
Reading is usually lauded for the escape it provides from the mundanity of daily life, but this escape is often one into danger and tragedy. In Anacostia I lean against the bare walls of the gift shop, rereading the passage in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass where Douglass overpowers the brutal slave-master who tries to tie his legs together; the page reflects on the tour guide’s lenses as he explains to my father how to back out of the parking lot for the third time.
The escapism of reading is a way for us to experience the thrill of danger and the heart-pangs of tragedy without the grief and the repercussions and the physical pain. For us to climb the whole emotional scale of life while our greatest ecstasy is a sip of coffee and our greatest pain is losing the page.
Perhaps our obsession with the tragedy of real literary figures is an extension of that; a desire to experience the darkest aspects of the world but only second-handedly, through those who will undergo pain most intensely and convey it back to us most effectively. We want the suffering and scandal that we read about in books to be meaningful, and therefore real, but not so real as to enter our own lives.
I close the page about Karr and Wallace and turn off the bedside lamp. The lights of suburban D.C. shine through the windows of the guest bedroom in my grandparents’ apartment, and I am comfortable and warm. Illness, tragedy, and pain bury themselves below me, not unwelcome monsters under the bed.
Piece crossposted with 21 South Street