The DFW Memorial

It was clear that he was loved, and that even though they might not have understood him fully, they loved him in return. It was clear that his intellect was giant enough to write a book on Infinity, but his soul was playful enough to swan around college dorms in green hooded sweatshirts, ratty blue terrycloth robes and unlaced Timberland boots in order to enact a nightly tooth-brushing ritual that took over forty-five minutes. It was clear that his suicide remains all too explainable in light of the long-standing depression and yet, ultimately, inexplicable.

What was clearest of all at the public memorial for David Foster Wallace held yesterday afternoon at the Skirball Center near Washington Square was that, to paraphrase George Saunders, in time, but not yet, we’ll understand the treasure we have in Wallace’s existing work even as we lament being robbed of what would have come in the future. So sure, there were funny, mordant and poignant personal reminiscences, from Mark Costello’s tales of being DFW’s roommate at Amherst (where he’d spoken at a similar memorial on Monday) and thereafter, sister Amy Wallace Havens admitting “he was not an easy brother…forget winning an argument or having the last word – ever” and George Saunders’ fear he would be intimidated by Wallace’s formidable intellect dissipated by meeting the unassuming young man at breakfast, clad in a Mighty Mouse t-shirt and eager to talk about anything and anyone but himself.  But ultimately, the dozen speakers focused on the work.

There were the battles by letter between Wallace and his longtime editor at Little, Brown, Michael Pietsch, over what to cut and what to save in INFINITE JEST. Gerald Howard speaking in amazement over DFW’s first reading – on a bill with T.C. Boyle and other veteran writers – that “blew the room away”. Colin Harrison, now at Scribner doing for books what he used to do at Harper’s, reading long passages from the essay that became “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and framing it with a phone call where, after Wallace asked “so what was that magazine assignment again?” Harrison admitted there was no way to constrain the writer’s imagination and neuroses. Don DeLillo kept his remarks brief and focused on the Infinity book. Zadie Smith kept personal feelings to a minimum – “he was my friend and pen pal, but I knew his work first” – and shared her thoughts on BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN in a quivering, mellifluous alto. Donald Antrim prefaced a resounding excerpt from “McCain’s Promise” that concentrated on the difference between leadership and salesmanship with a heartbreaking account of how Wallace, by telephone, shared his depression history to a hospitalized, suicidal Antrim and helped talked the latter off the abyss’s edge.

Hearing that brought home just how prescient Wallace was and how his final, devastating bout with depression robbed him – and thereby his readers – of an essay he was likely born to write: a piece on Barack Obama and rhetoric, commissioned earlier this year by GQ. Bonnie Nadell, Wallace’s agent throughout (“we grew up in publishing together”) described conversations between the two and Wallace’s wife Karen on their enthusiasm and excitement over Obama as presidential candidate. The assignment was to focus less on Obama (there was no way he’d get close to the candidate, Nadell said) and more on his speechwriters, those young turks tasked with putting the words of inspiration in Obama’s mouth during stump speeches, town hall meetings and of course, the Democratic National Convention.

I was glad I went. Don’t get me wrong. But I left early, missing the final two speeches by Jonathan Franzen (who, it seemed, repeated some of his words from the Pomona College memorial) and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, because I couldn’t stop wondering where we’d be at a year from now. Every time letters were mentioned or read from, I projected to the inevitable book containing DFW’s edited correspondence. There are public memorials slated for Vancouver, Arizona and probably many other places. But how much is too much? When does group memorial stop being genuine and start being disingenuous? Nadell, Pietsch & co. may have protected Wallace from the highs and lows of fame, but can they really guard against the eventual clamor for the cottage death industry trading on current and unpublished works? Was Elizabeth Wurtzel’s display of narcissism a one-off, or the sign of what’s to come?

It’s too soon to come up with answers. Not when those who knew Wallace best, and those who only knew him through his work, are still paying off “the bill that comes through for love,” as Saunders characterized the grief that still feels raw for so many.No doubt this is territory where one can only make it up as one goes along. What’s not in doubt is the sense of artistic loss, the void in contemporary American fiction that cannot possibly be filled. I suspect many of the people in attendance at Skirball felt they admired and appreciated DFW’s work when he was alive – but with him gone, that level of admiration feels nowhere near enough.