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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era