It’s been a weird week — starting with the outpouring of false sentiment over the 9/11 anniversary. I’ve come to dread it, that upwelling of sentiment, the appropriation of tragedy by those only tangenitally affected, the politicians and blowhards pontificating about how we are all changed forever. I’m not talking about the real grief of those who lost loved ones, I’m talking about the obscene way that the day has been spun and abused and turned into a sentimental touchstone. I hate it. Luckily I don’t watch much television, so I missed most of the worst of it.
September 13 was my brother Patrick’s birthday, and he was killed on the 27th, so September is always a tricky month around here. But so far, it’s been okay this year. I have a dear friend who just lost his love after a valiant fight with pancreatic cancer and watching him go through this makes it clear to me how far I’ve come. I’m out of that tunnel, the one where all you can hear is the thrum of your own pain and disbelief, like a loud heartbeat whooshing in your ears. One of my oldest friends lost her two older sisters and her father in a plane wreck when she was thirteen — it took her decades to come to terms with it and I remember last summer, she said she was on a pack trip with a bunch of girlfriends and realized it was her sister’s birthday. She told me how nice it was to remember the day without being torn apart by it, and that’s how I felt this year. I miss him every day, but it is an enormous relief to have arrived at the 13th this year and find that it was okay. It was a day. I missed my brother as always, but it wasn’t the icicle to the heart that it’s been in years past.
And then David Foster Wallace killed himself. I’ve found myself the past few days surfing Google reader, looking for anything I could find about this. I feel a little weird writing about it because I didn’t study with him, I didn’t know him personally, and I didn’t love his work the way many did. In a way, being as sad as I have been about this the last few days feels like the false sentiment that so upsets me each year about the blort of 9/11 commemoration. Throughout those years in graduate school when I was writing my novel, my relationship with David Foster Wallace’s work was one of false opposition. I found myself in a writing program that was obsessed with literary fashion, one where everyone was chasing David Foster Wallace’s tail. Although I didn’t want to write like David Foster Wallace, I admired the way he seemed to be doggedly creating his own aesthetic, writing as if digging a tunnel through language and grammar itself toward that chimera of postmodernism, the Truth — truth he sought even as, it seemed, he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it existed. For all the surface pyrotechnics of his work, there was always a big tender heart there, it was postmodernism with soul.
And yet, it ends with a rope around the neck, his wife coming home to that terrible sight, the outpouring of tributes to his artistic genius and personal sweetness. It ends with a lot of bewilderment, and his brokenhearted father telling the New York times that the meds had stopped working, he’d been in and out of the hospital for the last year or so, they’d tried ECT and it hadn’t worked. I lived with a lot of depressives in my life, including my beloved Patrick, and it’s a terrible disease. It turns the minute-by-minute experience of living into an ongoing, relentless crisis. I think of all the things I’ve learned in these last few days about David Foster Wallace that’s the one that really breaks my heart. That he lived for as long as he did in that kind of pain. That he created the astonishingly inventive books that he did. Like Virginia Woolf, the point is not that they were both mentally ill, but that despite their struggles with mental illness they managed to create books that changed the landscape in which the rest of us write.
While I’ve managed to get through this month of anniversaries in reasonably good shape, I think the reason I’ve been so obsessed with David Foster Wallace’s death, aside from the general sorrow when someone dies who has changed the landscape of the medium in which you’re trying to work, is that the most difficult thing for me to get through about Patrick’s death was the role depression played. Patrick had been fighting a fierce battle in the months before he died, a battle that was waged minute by minute. I’d been doing what I could, but as anyone who has lived with someone who is stuck in that hole will tell you, there is very little you can do. Whether Patrick’s death was an accident or an act of impulse, it was depression that led to him driving his truck off that embankment that night. Sweet, big-hearted, talented people can be hollowed out — I suppose that’s why I’ve been so obsessed with Wallace’s death. It’s not just that death itself is incomprehensible on a personal level — that the people we love can just disappear — but then there’s this other thing — this dark cloud that can steal the people we love away from us right before our eyes. That nothing we do can help. That we can’t help someone we love who is in terrible pain.
Add to that the general terror of the times — we’re at war, our financial markets are collapsing, and our artists are losing their will to live — it all feels very ominous. And so I do what I always do when I get the existential wobbles. I go outside and work in the garden. I pick tomatoes. I make sauce and boil jars and put up pints of tomato sauce for winter. I make something (even if it’s not a new novel). All we can do, as the Dalai Lama tells us, is to make positive effort for the good. Sometimes that feels like a very small effort, but if it can push back the darkness, then I suppose that’s the best we can hope for.