• “Only very minor literature aims at apocalypse.” —Anthony Burgess
• I was informed of David Foster Wallace’s death by text message. If I’m tempted to say that this detail would have horrified or amused or depressed Wallace, it’s only because it’s gratifying to think that the things that horrify or amuse or depress me are the same things that would have horrified or amused or depressed him. The truth is I have no idea what he would have thought about the news of his death being disseminated on millions of tiny screens on devices people carry around in their pockets, the same devices on which they take and send pictures of homeless people, drunken friends, and sunsets; track their mutual funds; announce their moods to the world; check into their local sushi bar and vie to be its mayor; watch their favorite shows; search a vast database for references to themselves; and play with angry birds. They also, occasionally, use these devices to talk to one another.
• The previous sentence was written in a deadpan tone because I find it ironic, and I’d like to think Wallace also would have found it ironic. There I go again.
• The text message, in its entirety, read, “R.I.P. DFW.” It had been sent to me by another writer, a friend and former student of mine. I think he sent the message this way for all the right reasons: because he thought I’d want to know, that I would feel sadness, because this was the quickest and simplest way to get the word out. Maybe I wasn’t the only recipient. I’m sure it says more about me than about him that if I had been the one to send the message to a friend, those innocent motives would have been mixed up with uglier ones: the frisson of a celebrity’s untimely death, the desire to be the person who knew first and the aura of privilege that accrues to the bringer of news, the enduring thrill (yes, I’ll admit it) of manipulating tiny keys with my thumbs in order to project my thoughts anywhere in the world within seconds. Also, if I’d sent someone a text message announcing that someone we respected had died, I might have done so as an alternative to actually calling that person, telling them in my own voice what had happened, listening to their reaction in their own voice, maybe talking it over for a while or making plans to have a quiet drink sometime and talk it over for a while, an opportunity for us both to mull and express our feelings about death, about isolation, about hopelessness, the weird mixture of feelings that can get stirred up when someone you’ve never met but would very much have liked to meet dies, horribly and in a manner that reveals the unthinkable depth of their despair, a despair that you’ve maybe glimpsed, or flirted with, in your darkest hours, that in some dark romantic way you maybe liked to tell yourself, or others, that you understood, but that you obviously didn’t understand or you wouldn’t be here. Talking to someone else like that is uncomfortable and vulnerable and inevitably makes you wonder if the other person is feeling as uncomfortable and vulnerable as you are or maybe is only sitting there observing your discomfort and vulnerability and thinking it strange but then feeling their own discomfort about the strangeness of your discomfort, not sharing in it, sensing disparity between your respective levels of intimacy with each other, etc. etc.—an emotional spin cycle that maybe ends with a manly shot of bourbon, a toast to the deceased, and a comment like, “How do those 49ers look this year?” I, for one, am very happy that technology allows us to avoid ever having conversations like this, ever.
• I can recognize that the previous few sentences are indebted, at both a stylistic and an emotional level, to David Foster Wallace.
• The other notable aspect of the text message—and I promise to get off this soon—is its content. “R.I.P. DFW” condenses into six characters—ten, if you count the periods and the space—an event of great emotional complexity and deep, searing pain. A man of enormous intelligence, talent, humor, and success, beloved of his wife and parents and friends, not to mention literally millions of strangers, came to find continued existence so nightmarishly painful, so incurably bleak, that he laid plans to end it—a decision made despite the life-altering agony he must have known it would cause to the people who loved him and who had tried to help him. It’s almost impossible to imagine that kind of suffering. Almost. If it were actually impossible, I think it would be less appealing to condense it into a pair of abbreviations that can be keyed into a cell phone in under five seconds, zipped out into the microwave ether without another thought, to arrive in my pocket and cause me a brief but ultimately manageable moment of wonder and regret as I’m walking into a favorite restaurant to have Indian food.
• I did meet David Foster Wallace once, though “meet” is definitely not the right word. I stood on a long line outside the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco in 2004, ostensibly waiting for him to sign my copy of Oblivion but in all honesty caring more about the opportunity to shake his hand, to connect however briefly with someone I admired very much but who had no reason to know that I was alive. A few minutes earlier, at the end of a public conversation between Wallace and the critic David Kippen, I’d stood and asked a question—something about Wallace’s 2000 profile of John McCain in Rolling Stone—which he’d answered somewhat evasively though humorously. I didn’t care. I had talked to him and he had talked to me, and as I stood in line I humored myself by thinking Wallace might have enjoyed or respected our 45-second exchange even one scintilla more than those he’d had with other questioners, might have identified me as something more than the average fan, something closer to a peer or fellow traveler, that he might actually be looking forward to shaking my hand. The feeling was absurd unto idiocy, and I knew better. But still.
• In “The Suffering Channel,” the last story in Oblivion, Wallace’s last collection of stories, and maybe the most accomplished story he ever wrote, Wallace identifies “the management of insignificance” as “the single great informing conflict of the American psyche.” Told mainly from the perspective of Virgil “Skip” Atwater, a schlubby journeyman human-interest reporter for a monthly fashion magazine, the story, which weighs in at around 90 pages, revolves around a Roto Rooter technician in Indiana whose great talent, or gift, is his ability to defecate in the form of exquisite works of art. The “artist,” Brint Moltke, socially anxious and inarticulate, seems barely to understand how remarkable this talent is and uninterested in whatever attention it might bring him; his wife Amber, “the sexiest morbidly obese woman Atwater had ever seen,” on the other hand, is ravenous for celebrity to the point that she more or less sexually assaults Skip Atwater in his rental car as part of a no-holds-barred campaign to get the reporter to write about her husband for the “BSG” (Big Slick Glossy) that will be read by millions, thereby rescuing her and her husband from the lifelong anonymity that is the fate of all but a tiny fraction of the 300-plus million people who live in this country. Skip, who has built a career on his uncanny ability to find the “UBA” (upbeat angle) in any story and who, by virtue of both his access and his endearing mixture of self-consciousness, loneliness, and absolute competence is essentially Wallace’s proxy in all this, is determined to write the story, despite his New York editors’ understandable resistance (“It’s very simple: Style does not run items about human shit . . .”), and his dealings with the irrepressible Amber give him cause to think on this ubiquitous American pathology, the craving so many of us have “to distinguish [ourselves] from the great huge faceless mass of folks that watched the folks that did stand out.” She’s almost feral, Amber, but also a brilliant tactician: She knows that Skip is playing her, to lock down the story, and she uses that knowledge, and Skip’s probably pretty obvious sexual desperation, and her own plus-sized seductive power, to play him, a judo-like transference of energy that not only makes it hard to determine just who’s getting fucked by whom but also brings up a whole other discourse about authenticity, role playing, and the inability to ever really know what’s real and what’s total b.s.
• Note that in this configuration, it’s not so much a desire to be famous as a fear of being not famous, of being overlooked or disregarded—anonymity as a kind of death, or worse, a kind of never having lived at all, since that living will never be acknowledged by the massive, cacophonous roar of media which daily maps for us the ever-shifting contours and landmarks of our reality, drawing our attention—because our attention must be drawn, lest it simply float and bounce and ricochet endlessly—to those things which are deserving of our attention, which are significant. Brint Moltke, but for his feces, is insignificant. Skip Atwater: insignificant. The gaggle of smart and aggressive twentysomething interns who essentially run Style magazine: insignificant. You, me, virtually everyone who will read this essay: probably insignificant, too. (Though of course if you held a gun to my head I’d have to admit that one of the reasons I’m writing it is, you guessed it: to transcend that insignificance, just maybe.)
• This in turn implies a pretty specific concept of significance: one which equates significance with visibility, and more to the point with visibility through the mass media. (One of the charmingly anachronistic things about “The Suffering Channel” is the importance it ascribes to print media; had the story been written a few years later, Amber doubtless would have had no time at all for Skip and his BSG and instead have set her sights on bloggers, practitioners of Twitter, and reality television.) It pointedly does not equate significance with: loving one’s neighbor, raising a family, working diligently at some less-than-heroic task, feeding the poor, singing backup, struggling in vain, living modestly, changing a bedpan, starting a business, creating something original and enduring (which here is only the vehicle to significance, not its actual basis), demonstrating selflessness or nobility or sobriety or wisdom, or in any way leaving the world better for your having lived in it. It’s a passive kind of significance—to be watched, followed, admired—and at the same time a literal one: to signify, to make of oneself a sign for others to read, interpret, and incorporate into the language of their existence. To write oneself into the text of other people’s daily lives and thus become a part of the universe they perceive themselves as living within, unignorable, inescapable, like taxes and death. So maybe not so passive at all, actually.
• The question of just how many of us subscribe to this idea of significance, and what we’re willing to do to achieve it, has only gotten more urgent in those seven years. To remind readers of watershed events such as the White House State Dinner Crashers, the Boy Trapped in Weather Balloon, the antics of Sheen/Lohan/Palin/Cruise/Kanye/Kardashian/O.J./Trump, or any number of other displays of insatiable hunger would be, as they say, like shooting fish in a barrel. We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that there are, at any given time, certain people “out there” who will sacrifice themselves on the altar of public ridicule for the higher purpose of remaining in the public eye—indeed, there seems to be an agreed-upon communal need for such people, and as soon as one atrocity begins to fade another is always ready to replace it. It might be taking the analogy a bit far to hypothesize that Charlie Sheen would actually allow himself to be filmed in medias defecation, or discuss with a reporter the details, the experience, the inspiration for the act. At the same time, I’m not sure it would be smart to bet against it.
• Yes, there’s a central discourse running through “The Suffering Channel” about art and shit and about the perpetual difficulty of distinguishing between the two. But for Wallace this, too, is a fish-and-barrel situation: It doesn’t get much easier than the see-saw exchange that threads through the first few sections, in which Atwater, his editor, and his intern, the savvy and loyal Laurel Manderley, argue over whether Style should run an article about Brint Moltke’s remarkable talent in their WHAT IN THE WORLD column: “But it’s also art . . .” “But it’s also shit . . .” etc. Wallace invokes what, in some quarters, was the crucial aesthetic debate of the 20th century—Duchamps, Stein, Pollock, Nabokov, Rothko, Elvis, Mapplethorpe, et many al.—and reduces it to an Abbott-and-Costello routine not, I think, because he found it silly but because in the 21st century the argument has moved beyond masterpiece vs. excrement and who gets to decide, and the more crucial and complicated questions now have to do with what the people who get to decide do with that decision and that art/shit, how it is packaged and sold (yes, inevitably, sold) to the rest of us. In other words, though Laurel Manderley and Ellen Bactrian, another intern, have increasingly earnest debates about art and shit and the degree to which the method of production (or re-production, because Brint’s, um, pieces are perfect copies of known works of art) is bound up, or not, with judgments of a work’s quality and value, for Wallace the key development in the world of Skip Atwater, as in the world of Kim Kardashian, is that the consuming public no longer cares whether it’s art or shit—or maybe they were never able to tell the difference in the first place, were only waiting for someone, anyone, to tell them—and so the owners, the mediators, the controllers of the machines, are free to bypass the whole question and concentrate instead on how to present the thing to the public in the most attention-getting and profitable way. Which is a pretty dark turn, I have to say.
• After Skip Atwater’s and Amber Moltke’s high-stakes and hilarious pas de deux, this is the central plotline of “The Suffering Channel”—the question of whether, and how, Style is going to write about the Moltkes and their art/shit and instantly vault them into the stratum of American celebrity from which there is no going back, where your image appears on the covers of magazines, and David Letterman makes jokes about you, and people at the mall, or in church, stop what they’re doing and stare when you come in, a stratum whose denizens are “not actually functioning as real people at all, but as something more like symbols of themselves.” What’s unspoken and a little terrifying is that no one in the story doubts that this can happen—that once the Moltkes are caught up in the great grinding wheels of the American publicity machine, the general public will take note and confer the blazing light of its attention upon them, grant them precisely the significance they crave, and without any real consideration of what Ellen Bactrian dismisses as “some abstract aesthetic value” of the art itself. That their celebrity will be self-reinforced, tautological: They will be famous for being famous, for the fact that someone with the power to make them famous chose to do so. Period. Picture a gigantic, continent-sized searchlight sweeping across every town and farm and high school and 12-step meeting and car dealership and fitness center, peering into taxicabs and hospital rooms and honeymoon suites and airports and, yes, bathrooms public and private, stopping every so often, for reasons completely unknowable, to shine upon a blessed member of the species and elevate—or, more precisely, translate—him or her into a new kind of existence: universally recognized, emotionally fulfilled, wanting for nothing, immortal. This is the world Wallace describes in “The Suffering Channel,” one in which we wretches are all lost and waiting to be found, tiny and waiting to be enlarged, jumping up and down and frantically waving our arms in hopes of being located by that all-seeing, all-knowing light.
• And the kicker is that we want that light to find us through no particular effort of our own—or rather, through the efforts of our everyday lives, our unremarkable and unheralded routines, our hygiene, if you will. To find us hunched over in private, straining against our own bodies, hoping no one will accidentally barge in and observe our total vulnerability, i.e. just being ourselves, not even aware of how special we really are, how worthy of that light’s transformative glow.
• Here are the titles of some current or recent reality television shows. Hoarders. Cheaters. Extreme Couponing. I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. The Biggest Loser, The Weakest Link, The Littlest Groom, What Not to Wear. Fat March, More to Love, Are You Hot?, I’m Hotter Than My Daughter. Hell Date, Elimidate, Real Chance of Love, Farmer Wants a Wife, I Love Money. Dog Eat Dog. My Bare Lady. My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, Who Wants to Marry My Dad? Bridalplasty, Bridezillas, Say Yes to the Dress, Basketball Wives, Sister Wives, Wife Swap, Teen Mom. The Cougar. Sexual Healing. Chains of Love. Faking It. Shattered. Platinum Babies, Toddlers & Tiaras, I Know My Kid’s a Star, I Want to Be a Hilton, Star Academy, Star Search, Dancing with the Stars, Celebrity Wrestling, Celebrity Bull Riding, Celebrity Fit Club, Celebrity Duets, I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here.
• Where to begin? For the sake of brevity, I’ll go ahead and assume that you, like me, find the whole thing a little bit fascinating, a little bit terrifying, a little bid morbid—the media equivalent of gangrene. And the argument about how “real” reality television is or isn’t is almost not worth having anymore, since you’ve either long since made your peace with this unanswerable question or decided that the question doesn’t interest you and you’re just going to forgive yourself for whatever voyeuristic urges and tendencies to schadenfreude these shows have made you understand about yourself and continue to enjoy them despite whatever crap you have to hear from your holier-than-thou friends about it. Fine. But there are one or two things I think are worth pointing out, in the context of “The Suffering Channel’s” ideas about celebrity, normalcy, and shit. The first is the desperate, almost fetishistic insistence most reality shows have on the regularness, the every(wo)manness, the realness of their participants. (Even shows with titles that indicate the participation of celebrities mostly feature C- or D-list or washed-up celebrities—famous people whose fame is in eclipse, or disgrace, who are in danger of reverting to a state of common humanity, people like Lou Diamond Phillips or Tom DeLay or first-generation MTV VJs.) They are not always attractive, or fit, or funny, or charming. We learn about their mind-numbing jobs, their pedestrian (or not-so-pedestrian) phobias, their humble beginnings in unglamorous places like Cranston, Riverside, Mobile. Ample evidence is given of how unlikely, even undeserving they are of having their names and images plastered across millions of TV screens, websites, and tabloids, and the behavior they proceed to exhibit only reinforces the point of their unworthiness, their irredeemability, even as they are being publicly, dramatically redeemed. And so we learn the lesson that the grantors of celebrity want us to learn: that it could just as easily happen to us. If even these people—shallow, grasping, dim, disloyal—are not beneath the notice of that bright, all-powerful beam, then relatively well-meaning, intelligent, palatable humans like you and me must stand at least an average chance of eventual redemption. Do not change that channel.
• So reality television is obsessed with a tautology—”being yourself”—and that brings me back to “The Suffering Channel’s” other discourse, the one about authenticity, role playing, and the inability to ever really know what’s real and what’s total b.s. Because it’s an article of faith in American culture that “being yourself” is both an indicator of essential goodness and the road to happiness and success. Authenticity is one of our most cherished values—down-home-ness, aw-shucks-ness, simple folks-ness, as opposed to those haughty and etiquette-obsessed and airs-putting-on Europeans who once persecuted our kind just for being so unpretentious and real. Think about a direct comparison like Bush v. Kerry. Or Bush v. Gore. That the latters never stood a chance, I would suggest, owes more to public perceptions of their awkwardness, their discomfort in their own skin, than with their résumés or policy positions. (In fact polls regularly showed the public to be closer to Gore and Kerry on most issues, and yet much more press was given to the issue of “likeability,” where Dubya just kicked the shit out of Prince Albert and Sir John.) Think about how many times you were told, as a child or young adult, that the key to navigating some terrifying challenge was to just “be yourself”—making friends, attracting members of the opposite sex, succeeding in a job interview or admissions process—the suggestion being that “yourself” was, by definition, more valuable and attractive than any other self, or persona, or image you might attempt to present. (Not unlike the related oxymoron “act natural,” which has an intrinsic whiff of furtiveness about it.) It’s like that old joke on A Prairie Home Companion about all the children being above average: Everyone’s a winner, everyone deserving of the high-paying job, the hot date, if only one can stay true to the authentic core of who one “really is,” that immutable kernel that was inside you when you were born and shall never change, if only you can avoid the temptation to be untrue to that self, to allow it to be tainted by the seductions of a corrupt world. And then, if you were anything like me, the breathtaking and abysmal moment when it suddenly dawned on you just what an enormous load of crap that is.
• Does anyone really believe this anymore? Will it come as some sort of surprise or scandal to anyone if I say that we are all playing multiple roles all the time—yes, in the Shakespearean/Geddy Lee all-the-world’s-a-stage way, such that this business of identifying the little red ball of the “real” self under one of the fast-moving shells of persona becomes more or less nonsensical, because if the “real” self is that nugget we can only see in the all-too-brief moments when we stop performing, when we drop all pretense and self-consciousness and ulterior motive, like maybe when we’re in the shower or talking to ourselves on the freeway—i.e. when no one else is around—then what kind of definition of “real” are we talking about? Yes, this is kind of basic, but the point I’m trying to make is that there’s an obvious contradiction between this simple fact and the American gospel of authenticity which assumes not only a fundamental coherence of self but also that that coherence is a default mode—it’s who we are when we aren’t making choices about who to be or fine-tuning ourselves for some specific purpose or taking off one hat and putting on another to suit the situation. Authenticity, then, is what happens when you do nothing at all, want nothing at all, strive for nothing, something like a Zen state of pure, simple being. Or grace.
• And what can happen in America when you’re “just being yourself,” is that the enormous, blessed light can shine upon you, translate you, lift you up above the “great huge faceless mass,” the folks who get left behind. And that’s the next lesson we are to learn: When the Rapture comes, not everyone’s going in the same direction.
• When the line finally wended around the perimeter of the Swedish American Hall and I found myself standing in front of a weary but welcoming David Foster Wallace, I awkwardly extended my hand and mumbled something like, “Thank you, I really enjoy your books.” (Actually, it’s possible I didn’t say that at all, but instead just looked him in the eye like some needy, aphasic weirdo.) He smiled, and scribbled “For Andrew, with best wishes” on the title page of Oblivion, and that was it, by the time I finished reading it he was already greeting the person behind me. He did not recognize that special, immutable someone in me. He did not rise from his chair, throw an arm around me, and announce to the assembled hundreds, “Here he is, the one I’ve been waiting for!” He did not lift me up from the clay pit of my insignificance—because insignificance was actually my proper state. Could I have done something to hold his attention, to hold everyone’s attention, for longer? Could I have been, or pretended to be, one of those people in line at a book signing who just keep talking? Could I have made a scene, said something bizarre, thrown myself to my knees, burst into song, wept, hurled his book across the room, name-dropped his ex-girlfriend, punched him in the face? Sure I could have, and in so doing would have made myself, albeit briefly, the center of attention—for a brief second he, and everyone, would have known I was alive. But instead, I was myself—and look what it got me!
• That’s the other thing worth pointing out about reality television, with its quasi-game show structure: the underlying idea that the purpose of “being yourself” is to get stuff. It’s another paradox—at one level, the exhortation to “be yourself” is usually understood to have something to do with virtue, but at another level you’re most likely to receive this advice when, in fact, you want something. A new SUV, a recording contract, a date with the lifeguard/heiress, a position in middle-management, a poolside chaise longue in the afterlife . . . The more desperately you want it, the more ardent the exhortation, as if the biggest prizes called for the greatest feats of authenticity. As if authenticity were quantifiable, which, if it exists at all, it is not. But whatever our pieties everyone knows that in America, when you really really want something, “being yourself” is a very low priority—that in fact what we rugged individualists are supposed to do is to be whoever we have to be, do whatever we have to do, beat whomever we have to beat, in order to succeed. “In retrospect,” Wallace writes of Amber Moltke’s panegyric on fame, “none of this turned out to be true”—she’s speaking to Skip as a journalist, a potential vehicle for her significance. The stars of reality shows are not “just being themselves” (at least I hope not): they’re competing. Just as the manufacturers and curators have stopped bothering to distinguish between art and shit, in the 21st century most of us have stopped fussing over the question of our authenticity, focusing instead on being all we can be, getting all we can get. We’ve all become ego entrepreneurs: arranging and packaging versions of ourselves, market testing them, discarding those that don’t cut the mustard. I don’t know about you, but I find it pretty exhausting.
• It will escape the notice of some readers of “The Suffering Channel” that the story takes place during the summer of 2001. In New York City. And that the offices of Style are housed at 1 World Trade Center.
• What’s happening there, that summer, is that Eckleschafft-Böd Medien, the German conglomerate and parent company of Style, is preparing to acquire a startup cable operation called The Suffering Channel. At the moment, what TSC does is show, 24/7, still images of great agony: concentration camps, Jackie Kennedy after the assassination, dying children, etc. But Eckleschafft has plans to upgrade: first to video clips and then to live events such as a woman waiting for the results of a biopsy, or a father confronting the man who murdered his daughter. (Wallace refers to these as “tableaux vivant,” which is simultaneously an ironically highbrow term for such trashy entertainment, and perfectly resonant of the question of spontaneous-or-staged—that is, authentic-or-artificial.) And what will eventually happen is that the Moltke story (which Laurel Manderley has nicknamed “the miraculous poo”) will get repackaged by a higher-up—the Dickensianly named and invisible Mrs. Anger—as a Suffering Channel event, which in turn will enable Style not to run an item about human shit but to run an item about the inevitable controversy resulting from The Suffering Channel’s running an item about human shit. Skip gets to cover Moltke, Style gets a fig leaf, and TSC re-launches ten weeks ahead of schedule: Everybody wins. (Especially Eckleschafft.)
• The reason it works as a Suffering Channel event is that it will focus on the exquisite agony of the “catatonically inhibited, terribly shy” Brint Moltke as he is dragged into the spotlight in his moment of greatest vulnerability and humiliation. As in while he’s on the toilet. Producing. That moment of pure self-identity, when he must put aside all the personae and ulterior motives and just be himself, naked and straining and as humble as it gets. Because that’s what we mean when we say “privacy,” isn’t it: the right not to be seen, or to be seen only in situations and postures of our own choosing? And when that privacy is stripped away and that little red ball of the self is exposed for all to see, just quivering there on the tabletop—well, that’s simultaneously the cause of intense suffering and of the exhilaration of being finally and completely known, and thus the fulfillment of that overpowering and definitely religious American dream of being saved.
• Or rather, it won’t escape the reader’s notice so much as briefly catch the reader’s eye and then fade into the background and eventually be forgotten, since how could a story take place in the World Trade Center in July of 2001 and not be a story about 9/11? Which “The Suffering Channel” isn’t. Not exactly.
• I could have name-dropped Wallace’s ex because she’s a friend of mine. Not a good friend, but someone I like and see around, a writer I respect who once let me read a short story she’d written about a very dysfunctional relationship and then more or less unsolicitedly admitted that, yes, it was kind of based on her long-ago relationship with “Dave.” I swear that I did not ask this—I do have some self-control and sense of shame, and I make it a rule never to ask writers if their stories are autobiographical—and yet I’m just pathetic enough to have been excited to an unseemly degree by its abjection and by my proximity to this privileged information. As if it brought me closer to the object of my admiration. As if we—Wallace and I—shared something. Which,come on . . .
• Back to the paradox. So we privilege authenticity above all, but in our authentic state nearly all of us are insignificant; and we desperately crave significance, but achieving it nearly always requires a departure from authenticity. Here’s where reality television is so fascinating: It solves the paradox by dissolving, or deconstructing, the idea of authenticity until authenticity itself no longer signifies, like when you say a familiar word over and over and over again until it sounds like something in an alien language. I used to have this argument with my wife about The Hills, the painful MTV show that generously gave us Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, surely two of the most repulsive specimens ever to crawl out of the gene pool. To boil down the argument: I would say there was no way they were authentically that repulsive, and that this alone was enough to invalidate the show’s claim on reality; and my wife would say but they’re real people, as in they exist, and if they’re willing to be seen as so repulsive just to stay on the show, if they’re willing to sacrifice all dignity and self- and other-respect and distort their already-to-be-sure-unsavory personalities in whatever outlandish direction the producers deem necessary to keep the ratings up and the advertising revenue flowing, if they’re in essence willing to annihilate their “real” selves and replace them with these manufactured doppelgangers if that’s what it takes . . . well, then there’s something frighteningly and shamefully real about that. And she was right.
• This, of course, is reality television’s leverage, how it lures its participants into escalating feats of shamelessness and greed: by holding over them the simplest and most devastating threat of all: the loss of significance, in the form of exclusion from the show/text. So what’s amazing and sad is not that the players are playing roles, or even that they’re doing it to get something, but that when you get right down to it they’re all playing the same role: the role of someone desperate enough to do anything at all to stay on reality television. Heidi and Spencer, Rod Blagojevich, Herr Trump, Susan Boyle, Bristol Palin, the Biggest Loser, the Iron Chef, the Real Housewives of Coeur d’Alene, anyone who ever stood still while Simon Cowell humiliated them . . . take away a signature facial expression, a regional accent, a hairstyle, a lipo scar, and you’re left with the same character: devoid of dignity, self-loathing and self-regarding at once, insatiable, willing to endure anything to avoid elimination and exile. And who can blame them? Imagine that big, beautiful, powerful light lighting up from above and locating you, out of all the millions and billions, and conferring upon you that divine grace and warm, uterine love, announcing to the whole world that it has conferred upon you that grace and love. Now imagine, a week or a month later, that big, beautiful, powerful light going out.
• And it had to be so. Because the logic of reality television is the logic of what Wallace called, in an earlier microfiction, “postindustrial life”: in which the vast majority of us are merely indistinguishable nodes in one or more enormous systems—i.e. signs that are combined and recombined to provide whatever meaning (or service) is required at a given moment. And as any semiotician or chat-room denizen will tell you, the sign is infinitely plastic, it can mean whatever we all agree to agree it means—and that’s no less true when the sign is the self. What reality television does is to finally demonstrate that the sign has no innate meaning apart from its desire to mean something, to be a sign—which is pretty poignant, if you think about it.
• As an epigraph to his early novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” Wallace used a quote from Anthony Burgess: “Only very minor literature aims at apocalypse.” “Westward,” as you might guess, aims at apocalypse—manifested as the reunion, in an Illinois cornfield, of everyone who has ever appeared in a commercial for McDonald’s, which reunion is envisaged as a bacchanal of beef and blood and cooking oil and will serve, according to its architect, as the “fulfillment of a long-promised apocalypse,” in which all distinction between “true and false, fiction and reality collapses”—aims, but never quite fires, because the writing students-cum-travelers at the novella’s center wind up circling the cornfield indefinitely, never quite arriving. “Westward” is brilliant and irritating, an extended exercise in meta-meta-metafiction, but the endgame Wallace pursues, in which the narrative collapses into another narrative, one written by one of the writing students, prefigures the endgame of Infinite Jest, in which the story dissolves into the extended delirium of Don Gately, never quite arriving at its destination, a strategy which Wallace, that night at the Swedish American Hall, described as a story “flying up its own bottom.” But while “The Suffering Channel” does not take the reader all the way to that apocalyptic Tuesday morning in September, 2001, neither does it fly up its own bottom—it takes us just close enough for the inexorability of that event to take hold, a kind of undercurrent that Wallace builds with allusions (e.g. to that summer’s Gary Condit scandal) and sudden glimpses, such as the narrator’s statement at the end of a long discussion between Laurel and another intern: “She had ten weeks to live.” In other words, instead of nocking the arrow and drawing back the bowstring only to have the shot fly up and over and come back to strike the archer in the ass, in “The Suffering Channel” Wallace lets fly that arrow, straight and true, bringing the curtain down only seconds before the perfect bullseye that we all know, at the deepest gut level, is coming.
• Let’s all acknowledge that it’s perfectly natural: this desire to be special, to stand out from the multitudes, to be saved. But we can also agree that, in most cases, it’s impossible. It’s simple math, as Garrison Keillor well knows: As the population balloons we feel more and more lost and small and insignificant, and thus more desperate for some acknowledgment of our specialness and worth, even as the ballooning numbers make our chances of standing out all the more infinitesimal. So we jump up and down and wave our arms, or stab one another in the back, or try to make the world’s best California Roll, or sneak into the White House, or leak our sex tapes to Gawker, or accuse the President of being a terrorist, or have an obscene number of children, or send a zillion text messages, or get in a tank with tarantulas, or dangle our babies off hotel balconies, or implant silicon into our bodies, or take a rifle up on a highway overpass, or write lengthy, derivative essays about our heroes, or find Jesus, or do whatever else we can think of. We rev ourselves into higher and higher levels of activity, but since everyone around us is just as busy we still don’t stand out, and so we try harder, and so do they, etc., the whole hive whirling itself into an unsustainable frenzy. And in those rare moments when we take a breather and stand aside, sweating and red-faced and totally wiped out, it’s natural, even inevitable, that we start to wonder when it will all be over.
• My moment of intimacy with David Foster Wallace, when it came, had nothing to do with being a fan, or asking a clever question, or distinguishing myself in any way whatsoever. And it was not enjoyable, was in fact the worst imaginable way for me to get close to this writer whose work means so much to me. On September 17, 2008, I gave a reading, arranged many months earlier, at Scripps College, one of the seven tiny schools that make up the Claremont Consortium, east of Los Angeles. Pomona College, where Wallace had taught since 2002, is another of those schools. September 17 was five days after Wallace died. When I received that text message (“R.I.P. DFW”), it took until the next morning for it to dawn on me that I was scheduled to travel to Claremont within the week. The novel I was promoting, Lady Lazarus, is an over-the-top chronicle of the life of a poet whose father commits suicide, and it satirizes the public’s fascination with celebrity suicide (the title is taken from a poem by Sylvia Plath). This was not good. I was paralyzed, at a total loss for how to handle it. I asked my contact at Scripps if we should cancel or postpone but she said we should go ahead—the plane tickets were nonrefundable, the posters already hung. Obviously I couldn’t read the sections about suicide—some of which, if you can believe it, were meant to be funny—but should I read at all? And how to deal with the fact that there would certainly be former students of Wallace’s in the audience? And why on earth would anybody even come to a literary reading that week? And what was I going to feel, standing up on a stage in Wallace’s adopted town and—let’s be honest—trying to sell my book? (And of course I had secretly been hoping that he might show up to the reading, and there was a small part of me that now felt let down, as if the real tragedy here were my lost opportunity, and I can’t even describe how vile that made me feel.) Even as I got off the plane in L.A. and drove out to Claremont, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had to acknowledge it somehow, to start with a few words about what had happened and what we were all feeling. And though in another context I would have found this sentimental—not to mention who was I to be doing it?—what I decided was to begin by asking everyone to observe a moment of silence, a ridiculous gesture meant to demonstrate respect but also somehow to invoke him, to allow us all to feel, for a moment, as though he were there with us, and as I stood on the stage with my head bowed and my hands shaking I remembered how I’d seen him a few years before at the Swedish American Hall, up on the stage in a high-backed chair, and how insignificant I’d felt before this person whom the big light had already found. How wonderful it would feel to be that person, is what I must have thought. After a moment I could sense the silence faltering, the audience shifting in their seats, but I kept my eyes on the floor for a good while longer. I’d wanted him to recognize me, to know I was alive, and now here I was, up on a stage in the place he’d died. It was very confusing. The air grew tense and uncomfortable—I knew I had to look up, step to the podium, do what I’d come to do, but it was hard to remember just what that was, or why it mattered, and even harder to think of a single goddamned thing to say.
• Eventually, despite his “extreme personal shyness,” the minions of Eckleschafft-Böd turn on the taps of corporate persuasion and send a white limo “half a city block long” and finally persuade Brint Moltke—or enable Amber Moltke to persuade Brint Moltke—to participate in the spectacular relaunch of The Suffering Channel, in which the amazing nature of his gift will be revealed. In Skip’s view, this is the UBA (upbeat angle): the victory of Moltke’s “involuntary need to express what lay inside him” over his desire for privacy; and “what lay inside him” is, of course, something both unremarkable and totally remarkable, something simultaneously universal and deeply personal: his shit. Without getting into a whole Freudian/anal thing here, I think it’s safe to say that the author’s proxy moves, in the story’s conclusion, from Skip to Brint himself: the artist seated on a transparent toilet, a hideous nursing blanket laid across his lap, hoisted atop a ten-foot platform surrounded by cameras and monitors arranged at the most invasive angles imaginable, including—and this is the worst part—one that will show Brint Moltke, in real time, the emergence of his own product, a product to which the artist’s only reasonable relationship is ambivalence. The whole world will watch him watching himself, while his wife narrates the story of his abusive childhood and the humiliating details of “his unchosen art.” It’s the ultimate exposure: Having become so significant there will be, simply, nothing left of Brint Moltke, nothing more to see or know, the entirety of his existence translated into the realm of the sign, a transformation to be announced by “a searing and amorphous light.”
• What great television it was. What an indelible moment of community, a unique spectacle we could all share in: horrifying, riveting, unbelievably sad, overflowing with Aristotelian fear and pity, tragic by definition and yet somehow (admit it) majestic, numinous, even beautiful. The graceful way those planes angled toward the towers, the geometric logic with which they collapsed upon themselves. There was a cruel perfection to it, and we felt amazement that anything could be so perfect. When the massive cloud of smoke and debris billowed outward, block by block swallowing the visible world, we recoiled—not because we thought the cloud would reach us in our living rooms and offices, but because of what it symbolized: the erasure of reality, the darkening of everything, the End Times. And can you remember, when the dust cleared, the loveliness of the sky? So naked and bright, empty of the monuments to human ambition that had dominated it for decades. Our minds still held the outline of those towers, but what moved us was the emptiness of that sky, as if we were seeing into some primordial realm that still existed, that will always exist despite our desperate and brilliant attempts to cover it up, a realm that admits no artifice, that isn’t even a realm so much as the substratum for everything else: skyscrapers, nations, art, commerce, love. Maybe this was the crux of it, the reason the disappearance of two buildings left us feeling so exposed and helpless and insignificant: because we had forgotten that the sky is so empty, that if you take away all our human attempts to fill it up what you’re left with is nothing. Apocalypse, after all, does not mean destruction: It means revelation.
• I don’t remember much else that happened in the Swedish American Hall. Of his hour-long conversation with David Kippen, I remember only one remark Wallace made, to the effect that he found literary readings sort of ridiculous. “I can’t imagine why someone would even want to cross the street to meet a writer,” he said, adding sheepishly: “Unless maybe it were Don DeLillo.” People laughed. It was endearing—the embarrassment, the ambivalence about doing exactly the thing he was doing at that very moment, plus the admission of his own weakness, a table-turning that allowed us to imagine him in the very place we found ourselves: kneeling at the feet of someone famous, someone we couldn’t help but think of as more than us. Probably he’d said that very thing before, maybe many times. Anyone who’s done public events knows that you develop such chestnuts without even meaning to. Does that make it inauthentic, some kind of pose or self-conscious humility shtick—like starting a novella about apocalypse with an epigraph that tags it as “very minor literature”? Maybe. But it was also authentic, a way for Wallace to manage his significance, to explain it to himself, and simultaneously help all of us to feel better about our own insignificance. Thinking about it now, with two novels and dozens of readings and interviews under my belt, but without anything like the exposure and scrutiny that Wallace endured on a slow day, the comment seems deeply compassionate to me, and deeply sad. After all, such significance is, in the end, unmanageable. I didn’t know him but I can’t help but think that it was intensely painful to him: the unrelenting exposure by and to that dazzling light. And he’s still exposed. The raft of articles, biographies, the posthumous novel, the undergraduate thesis and commencement address, this essay—just further invasions of his privacy, further proof of a significance he wasn’t sure he wanted. Three years after his death he’s still up there on that pale throne, the hideous blanket over his knees, everyone watching. And I’m still down here, flailing around and making strange noises, taking off my clothes, doing some kind of crude break dance, abasing myself in any way I can think of—all to get someone’s attention, to draw someone’s gaze, over everyone else in the room, for long enough to say what I came to say: “I am alive.”
Andrew Altschul is the author of the novels Deus Ex Machina and Lady Lazarus, and an O. Henry Prize-winning short-story writer. He lives in San Francisco.
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