the man behind the words

This weekend I had to sing at the alumni memorial service because I’m in glee club.   After we sang, we sat up on the stage while President Oxtoby read all the names of alumni and faculty who died in the past year.   I found myself oddly surprised when he read off “David Foster Wallace,” and moved on to the next name.  

                      When Wallace died I had barely been at Pomona a month and had absolutely no connection to or knowledge of him or his work.   So it seems odd to me that now, after his death, I have a much stronger connection to this man than I ever did before.   I was surprised to hear his name in the service because he has become more alive to me throughout this semester.   He’s played a role in my thoughts that never existed before this class.   It’s really odd to me that I feel like I have become friends with this man after he is already gone.

                      But I know I have not.     I have become friends with the voice of Wallace as a writer, not Wallace the person.   I only get samples of what he is like from his authorial voice, and while I would have liked to know the man behind the words, all I can try to absorb is what he has left us in language.   I know I have to be fair and try to separate Wallace’s life from the fiction, to allow him to create without automatically assuming that everything is coming straight out of his own life.   But I do believe the reader-writer relationship Wallace has created is almost as close to human as possible for an author.   It’s not so much the experiences of characters, but his own vulnerable and relatable voice behind them.

                      Which brings me to what I think is astounding about Wallace, particularly in my experience.   Wallace’s voice somehow creates an entire person behind this work.   There is not a stone wall behind the narrator, nor an empty space.   No matter how ridiculous a narrator might be, I have always felt like Wallace is standing right there behind the words.   It might be comforting, maybe powerful?   A connection that does not leave me lonely, because while many authors might step back and try to distance themselves from the actual text, Wallace’s daring is in his willingness to become intimately close to the reader, to embarrass himself at times, and to maybe bear a little too much.

                      There is this frustration with the limits of language.   We’ve discussed it numerous times and I am always left wondering if this is really how Wallace felt. Was he just so limited that he often felt unable to communicate?   He kept writing and communicating because he knew he could attempt it better than most.  I am most thankful for this.   I find a lot of hope in Wallace’s writing.   Despite the human sadness and hopelessness that he is able to illuminate quite brilliantly, Wallace’s human voice that trusts that we will listen and listen carefully gives me a lot of hope in our abilities to trust people.

4 responses to “the man behind the words

  1. I am totally with you here. I never met the man, but I feel like I’ve learned so much about him after reading all his work. And yet, espeically considering the limits of language that he so often laments, there is no way I could really know him through his writing. But I agree that there is an actual person behind his writing where many authors seem to have only a vague presence, if anything. I think that’s why it was important for us to discuss the Intentional Fallacy at the beginning of the class, because with such an obvious authorial presence, you can’t help but think you know what he meant to do a lot of the time. With his works, it is impossible to consider the author “dead” the way many critics say happens when a work is published, which is almost ironic considering the fact he actually has passed away. But that’s what’s so great here: he has definitely lived on through his work.

  2. I agree with a lot of what was said in this post. Every book or story that we read makes me all the more regretful that I never got a chance to take one of his classes. And while he has written a lot on how you cannot really know a person from their language, we did get to know at least a little piece of Wallace this semester.

  3. In the McCaffery Interview (I think), Wallace said that “fiction’s about what it is to be a human being”. When I first stumbled upon this quote, I took it in without much thought or reflection. But after reading all that we have, I definitely sense the person (not author or voice) behind the words.
    Though, I too missed out on the chance to take a class with the genius, I get an usually strong sense of identity from his words and can’t help but feel connected to the Wallace that I will never know.

  4. I truly agree with you, and with kirk12. I wish I had been able to take a class with him because the concepts he brought up in his works are many that I think we deal with, at least I do constantly. And his consistency in bringing up questions and make us question what it is to be human and what that means for each of us is different.