The Cobainification of David Foster Wallace

Since his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace has receded beneath a mountain of marginalia and reinterpretation - and with a Hollywood film starring Jason Segel due, we are at risk of losing him forever.

What’s the difference between Doctor Who and David Foster Wallace?

One’s a questionably dressed cult figure who’s constantly being reinterpreted by white men, and the other’s a Time Lord from Gallifrey.

On Thursday last, plans were announced to film a DFW biopic with Jason Segel – he of How I Met Your Mother and Forgetting Sarah Marshall – taking the role of Wallace.

This is a terrible, terrible idea.

First things first: I’m a huge Wallace fan. I picked Consider the Lobster off a charity-shop shelf about ten years ago and fell for his mix of high culture and lowbrow gags, packed tight in pinballing, funhouse prose. His short stories and novels – Infinite Jest in particular – were like nothing I’d read before, and after his tragic death in 2008 there was the sense that we’d all lost something more than just a zeitgeisty author with a sweating problem.

But a Hollywood DFW? I’m sceptical. It already feels like remembering Wallace has inspired a literary sub-genre all on its own. There’s David Lipsky’s Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in the New Yorker and DT Max’s 2012 biography Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel contains a bandanna-wearing, tobacco-chewing character who seems strangely familiar.

And it’s not just the memoirists. Like Tupac, Wallace himself seems even more productive in death than in life. A posthumous novel, an essay collection, and (by my count) three other "new" books have appeared since 2008. Some are good, but others seem to have been published with little more in mind than squeezing more cash out of Wallace completists – most notably the reissue of Signifying Rappers, a set of painfully sophomoric reflections on rap jointly written with a college roommate in the summer of 1989.

But what’s even more worrying than the bald-faced cash-in on DFW’s memory is the sense of something more insidious going on. Just as more and more of Wallace’s writings are coming into view – from the syllabuses he set his students at Illinois State University, to marginalia from books he’d owned – the man himself is receding.

If Wallace’s prose sometimes seems difficult, it’s got nothing on its author. DT Max’s 2012 biography offered a nuanced portrait of a very human genius: clear-eyed about his many addictions, neuroses, and his problematic or perverse relationships with those around him. Max’s book was an important corrective to the growing image of Wallace as the wise old genius with all the answers – the author as a kind of Dudebro Confucius.

The weird reverence accorded to DFW means his name is becoming a shibboleth, a byword for with-it-ness. And he’s sexy. Trust me: somewhere in the world, right now, an earnest twenty- or thirty-something bearded male is trying to use David Foster Wallace in order to sleep with someone.

Maybe things started to change when Wallace went viral. His commencement address to a Kenyon College graduating class in 2005 was a massive hit online. Published as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, it’s a pitch-perfect exhortation to mindfulness in everyday life, and a challenge to practice "simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time". And it’s beautiful.

But Wallace isn’t an aphorist. For me, what makes his fiction so good is that it’s hard – not "difficult" in an elitist sense, but just in that it wants you to work with him, to dig towards something half-remembered and hard to grasp and maybe, just maybe, true. The Wallace of This Is Water – and the Wallace of popular culture – is a fortune-cookie merchant: the artist as life coach.

This is why the idea of a Wallace movie makes me so uneasy. Not just because it’s insensitive, and not just because there’s no way it won’t get twisted into some awful, jarring morality tale about genius and suicide. It’s because a Hollywood DFW feels like the final step in the canonisation – or maybe the Cobainification – of David Foster Wallace.

Sure, a film might make people go back and read the work. Back to the tight horror of a short story like "Incarnations of Burned Children", or the screwball picaresque of his finest essays – if anyone else gets to experience that feeling of reading him for the first time and thinking "hey, this is my guy", then that can only be A Good Thing. 

But the stakes are high. I’m worried that we’ll lose a very real, very flawed genius to the romanticising impulse of the big screen. In Infinite Jest, his finest novel, Wallace cast a cold eye on grief, loss, and memory in an age of entertainments. He deserves better than a Hollywood ending, and so do we. 

David Foster Wallace in 2002 and Jason Segel, who will play him in the upcoming film The End of the Tour. Photographs: Getty Images.

John Gallagher is writing a history PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker for 2013/2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @earlymodernjohn.

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Thus Bad Begins confirms Javier Marías as a master of the novel form

Marías’ masterful expression of his characters' psychological weather, combined with Margaret Jull Costa's gifted translation, makes for rewarding reading.

For those who love the novel as a form and not just as entertainment, Javier Marías is arguably the most rewarding writer working today. Marías, who has a self-professed fondness for English-language masters such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James, carries forward and vitally renews the great European tradition – a tradition that, rooted in Cervantes and digressive 18th-century writers such as Fielding and Sterne, found its high point in the work of Flaubert, Proust and Balzac, as well as the anglophone novelists from whom Marías has learned so well.

No one since James has used the sentence to such effect in exploring the workings of human psychology and this must have presented his translator, Margaret Jull Costa, with problems. It must be difficult to render Marías’s Spanish sentences, which are uniquely those of this novelist, into contemporary English without making them read like a sub-Jamesian imitation. That she succeeds is a mark of a truly gifted translator.

Following on from The Infatuations, his superb and moving 2011 novel (published in English in 2013), Marías’s new offering is, if anything, even more effective in conveying the psychological weather of those who, as his narrator here puts it:

. . . will never go beyond their own bounds, those who one knows early on will leave no trace or track and will barely be remembered once they disappear (they will be like falling snow that does not settle, like a lizard climbing up a sunny wall in summer . . . like the words, all those years ago, that a teacher painstakingly wrote on the blackboard only to erase them herself at the end of the class, or leave them to be erased by the next teacher to occupy the room) and about whom not even their nearest and dearest will have any anecdotes to recount.

Such a person (the narrator of The Infatuations, for example) may become “a silent witness, impartial and useless”, and only the “indifferent sentinel observing all our lives” – fate, perhaps, or a kind of autre monde novelist recounting the human story from some remote watchtower – is capable of seeing that these characters, who seem “to be just passing through or on temporary loan even while they’re alive . . . harbour stories that are far odder and more intriguing, clearer and more personal than the stories of the shrill exhibitionists who fill most of the globe with their racket”.

These characters are observers, sometimes devotees, of the lives of others. In his youth, Juan, who tells the bewildering and tragic story of Thus Bad Begins, was the personal assistant of the film-maker Eduardo Muriel, whose finest days are behind him but who still commands respect among those who love film for its own sake. Much of Muriel’s life has been spent, or rather wasted, on two kinds of compromise: first, the self-betrayals that everyone had to commit during the Franco dictatorship in order to pursue his or her craft; and second, the kind of financial wheeling and dealing that any film-maker has to endure to realise their vision in celluloid.

Somehow, he has come through honourably and it is clear that Juan admires him, both as a man and as an artist – which makes Muriel’s cruel treatment of the wife who adores him all the more puzzling. Why does the great artist hate the beautiful, long-suffering Beatriz Noguera and why does he show her such contempt? This is the mystery at the heart of Thus Bad Begins, a mystery that will leave Juan well out of his depth when he is charged by his hero to investigate a man called Jorge Van Vechten, about whom Muriel entertains dark, if initially rather vague, suspicions.

To disclose more of the plot here would undermine the suspense that Marías so carefully creates, although it should be stressed that this suspense is not only dramatic and psychological but also existential. Besides, there is so much else to enjoy here, from the characterisations to the grace of the prose as, sentence by elegant sentence, Marías glides with seeming inevitability first towards the main narrative’s denouement and then to an afterlife in which Juan, now an older man looking back at his former life, remains haunted by the past, even in the midst of present happiness. That past, however, is more than just a troubling memory. It is an ever-present warning that today’s happiness might be lost in a rash word or an impulsive gesture; in short, in the kind of unguarded action with which bad begins.

Having witnessed the events of the novel as Muriel’s assistant and sometime friend, Juan knows that there is no defence against that brooding, internal danger, other than a kind of wishful or superstitious thinking in which, rather than consigning what happened in the past to the past, he forces himself to “recover that vision, so that . . . reality can be restored and that forgotten yesterday can return the today, which, just for an instant, has slipped away from us”.

This is the novel’s last poignant moment. It is a reminder that, throughout, Marías has been uncovering a history of temps perdu, in a life, in a marriage and in a society shamed by the dictatorship with which it allowed itself to compromise for so long. 

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is published by Hamish Hamilton (512pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad