In Memoriam

Zadie Smith

on David Foster Wallace

To the critics, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was an ironic book about misogyny. Reading it was like being trapped in a room with ironic misogynists on speed, or something like that. To me, reading Brief Interviews wasn’t at all like being trapped. It was like being in church. And the important word wasn’t irony but gift. Dave was clever about gifts: our inability to give freely, or to accept what is freely given. In his stories giving has become impossible: the logic of the market seeps into every aspect of life. A man can’t give away an old tiller for free; he has to charge five bucks before someone will come and take it. A depressed person desperately wants to receive attention but can’t bring herself to give it. Normal social relations are only preserved because ‘one never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

Brief Interviews itself was the result of two enormous gifts. The first was practical: the awarding of the MacArthur. A gift on that scale helps free a writer from the logic of market, and maybe also from that bind Dave himself defined as post-industrial: the need always to be liked. The second gift was more complicated. It was his talent, which was so obviously great it confused people: why would such a gifted young man create such a resistant, complex piece of work? But you need to think of the gift economy the other way round. In a culture that depletes you daily of your capacity for imagination, for language, for autonomous thought, complexity like Dave’s is a gift. His recursive, labyrinthine sentences demand second readings. Like the boy waiting to dive, their resistance ‘breaks the rhythm that excludes thinking’. Every word looked up, every winding footnote followed, every heart-and brain-stretching concept, they all help break the rhythm of thoughtlessness – your gifts are being returned to you.

To whom much is given, much is expected. Dave wrote like that, as if his talent was a responsibility. He had a radical way of seeing his own gifts: ‘I’ve gotten convinced,’ he wrote, ‘that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent [. . .] Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.’

This was his literary preoccupation: the moment when the ego disappears and you’re able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward. At this moment the gift hangs, like Federer’s brilliant serve, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither. We have almost no words for this experience of giving. The one we do have is hopelessly degraded through misuse. The word is prayer. For a famous ironist, Dave wrote a lot about prayer. A married man, confronted by a teenage seductress, falls to his knees and prays, but not for the obvious reason. ‘It’s not what you think I’m afraid of,’ he says. The granola-cruncher prays as she is raped, but she isn’t praying for her own rescue. A man who has accidentally brain-damaged his daughter prays with a mad Jesuit in a field, as a church made with no hands rises up around them. When the incomprehensible and unforgivable happens, Dave’s characters resort to the impossible. Their prayers are irrational, absurd, given up into a void, and that, paradoxically, is where they draw their power. They are the opposite of ironical. They are full of faith, a quality Kierkegaard defined as ‘a gesture made on the strength of the absurd’.

When I taught Brief Interviews to college kids I made them read it alongside Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. The two books seem like cousins to me. Both find black comedy in hideous men who feel themselves post-love, post-faith, post-everything. ‘When people nowadays will not stop at love,’ wrote Kierkegaard, ‘where is it that they are going? To worldly wisdom, petty calculation, to paltriness and misery? [. . .] Would it not be better to remain standing at faith, and for the one who stands there to take care not to fall?’ The truth, he argued, is that we haven’t even got as far as faith. Kierkegaard took faith seriously, recognized it as an impossible task, at least for him. Dave took faith seriously, too: it’s his hideous men who don’t. The most impassioned book recommendation he ever gave me was for Catholics by Brian Moore, a novella about a priest who, after forty years in a monastery, finds he still isn’t capable of prayer. Anyone who thinks Dave primarily an ironist should note that choice. His is a serious kind of satire, if by satire we mean ‘the indirect praise of good things’.

But I don’t mean to replace an ironist with a God-botherer. The word God needn’t be present – I’d rather use the phrase ‘ultimate value’. Whatever name one has for it, it’s what permits the few heroes in Brief Interviews to make their gestures on the strength of the absurd, making art that nobody wants, loving where they are not loved, giving without the hope of receiving. Dave traced this ultimate value through the beauty of a Vermeer, to the concept of infinity, to Federer’s serve – and beyond. As he put it: ‘You get to decide what you worship.’ But before we get giddy with po-mo relativity, he reminds us that nine times out of ten we worship ourselves. Out of this double-bind, the exit signs are hard to see, but they’re there. When the praying married man puts his hands together, the gesture might be metaphysical, but he’s seeking a genuine human connection, which, in Dave’s stories, is as hard to find as any god. Love is the ultimate value, the absurd, impossible thing – the only thing worth praying for. The last line is wonderful. It reads: ‘And what if she joined him on the floor, just like this, clasped in supplication: just this way.’

More from Five Dials