I work for Little, Brown and Company, and I had the tremendous good fortune to work with David Wallace on his books Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion and Consider the Lobster. And I want to say right at the start that working with David was a thrill beyond anything I imagined when I entered this profession. The novel Infinite Jest is, I believe, one of the great American works of fiction, a work of mind-boggling ambition and originality that depicts contemporary life as a surfeit of pleasures and indulgences that can make connection with other people lethally difficult. Since encountering that novel I’ve found it difficult to view life in our times in any other way.
My goal here today is to try to get across in some way how much I loved David, and why, and how lucky I feel to have known him. First: for the things he wrote. I got to know David because I was a fan. Even if I’d never known him I’d be mourning the loss of a writer who took in the fire-hose blast of our world in all its voices and forms and varieties and gave it back to us in these gargantuan, howlingly funny, nakedly sad, philosophically probing novels, stories, and essays. He delineated the inside of the skull, the convoluted self-talk we all carry on constantly, in a way that no writer ever has. And at the same time that he could capture the tiniest granularities of self-consciousness, he also saw and could draw the broadest outlines of the big-picture world. His books are vast terrains that will continue to be explored in readers’ minds as long as there are readers.
But I did know David, in a particular and maybe peculiar way, and my love for him is rooted in fifteen-plus years of working closely with him on his books and on helping him bring those books to readers. Our relationship was a long-distance one. My old Rolodex card for him has addresses crossed out in Tucson, Urbana, Somerville, Arlington, Brighton, Syracuse and Bloomington before the Claremont entry in the Contacts folder on my computer. David came to New York seldom. Once he wrote to me, apropos some NYC brouhaha about who had and who hadn’t gotten nominated for some award, ‘This is why I’m glad I live in a cornfield.’
We communicated mostly through letters. And through a form of communication that I thought of as a Dave speciality, the phone message left on the office answering machine hours after everyone had departed. Very few emails – he came to email reluctantly, and preferred the narrow-margined single-spaced letter in ten-point Times Roman over all other forms of written communication. I never saw what he was like in the morning before his coffee, I never sat and watched a video or a football game or a tennis match with him. But in our occasional visits and our hundreds of letters and phone calls and late-night messages, I saw what he was like while he was writing, and revising, and working out what exactly he wanted a novel or story or essay to be.
Those letters were extraordinary, and I tore into every one of them hungrily knowing there was pleasure awaiting me inside. Mostly the letters had to do with the editing of his books. They are documents of the superhuman care David took with his writing, but at the same time of the joy and pride he took in his work. Here is a sample from innumerable pages of back-and-forth on Infinite Jest, in which David was responding to request after request for cuts. Which cut requests, please bear in mind, were the work he had asked me to do:
p. 52. This is one of my personal favourite Swiftian lines in the whole manuscript, which I will cut, you rotter.
p. 82. I cut this and have now come back an hour later and put it back.
p. 133. Poor old FN 33 about the grammar exam is cut. I’ll also erase it from the back-up disk so I can’t come back in an hour and put it back in (an enduring hazard, I’m finding).
pp. 327−30. Michael, have mercy. Pending an almost Horacianly persuasive rationale on your part, my canines are bared on this one.
pp. 739−48. I’ve rewritten it – for about the eleventh time – for clarity, but I bare teeth all the way back to the second molar on cutting it.
p. 785ff– I can give you 5,000 words of theoretico–structural arguments for this, but let’s spare one another, shall we?
David’s love affair with the English language was one of the great romances of our times, both a scholarly learn-every-nuance love and a wildly passionate flights-and-flourishes love. David’s idea of an unbeatable magazine assignment was when he was asked to review a new dictionary. One of his proudest moments, he wrote, was when he learned ‘I get to be on the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage panel . . . My mom whooped so loudly on the phone that it hurt my ear when I told her.’ David loved encountering new words. In one letter he wrote of ‘the last sludgelets of adolescent self-consciousness being borne away on the horological tide.’ And added in parentheses, ‘I just learned the word “horology” and was determined to use it at least once.’ No mention of the fact that he had just invented the word ‘sludgelets’. I think he wanted to use every word in the language before he was done. In one talk about the drawbacks of using words that sent readers running to their dictionaries, I mentioned a favourite book by another writer whose first word is the very obscure ‘picric’. (Means yellowish.) David’s instant response was, ‘I already used that!’
I worked with David at the professional interface between him and his readers, a borderline he approached with vast apprehension. To say that David was uncomfortable in the public eye is to understate enormously. He said no thank you, politely but unalterably, to an invitation to appear on The Today Show when Infinite Jest was published. He submitted to photo sessions only when placed under multiple duress not just by his publisher and his publicist but also by his beloved literary agent, Bonnie Nadell. When David visited our offices, people would jostle for the chance to meet him. David wrote of those encounters, ‘People who regard me as a Golden Boy make me feel lonely and unknown.’ His manners were too good for him simply to say no to those encounters, but he would turn the conversation within seconds to the assistants who he dealt with day to day, or to the twins his publicist had just given birth to, or to any subject other than himself.
‘I don’t want to be a hidden person, or a hidden writer: it is lonely,’ he said in another letter. He shied from being known in a public way but he worked hard not to be hidden from the people he encountered in person. He wanted them to know him himself, not some caricature or idea of him. One way David endeavoured to be known was by endeavouring to know others. His solicitousness was legendary. In one note he asked me to remind a new mother in the office that it was time to switch from skimmed milk to 2% or whole milk. He wrote thank you notes not just to the copy-editor who worked on Consider the Lobster but also to the supervisor who had assigned the job to so talented a copy-editor, and he offered to pay a bonus out of his own pocket to the designer who wrestled down a particularly gnarly layout. My daughter still remembers from a visit to our house a dozen years ago the nice man who played tag with her and her little brother, and who invented ‘worm tag’ when ordinary tag grew dull.
Everyone I’ve talked to in the weeks since he died has recalled how kind David was. And it’s true: he was sweet, he was kind, he was solicitous. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why this is such a prominent note. I think it’s because he was, and because he knew enough about pain to know exquisitely how much kindness matters. And because he knew that people who had read his work expected to be intimidated by him in person. David knew that his image could scare people off or make them afraid to talk to him, so I think he worked extra hard – through kindness – to get them to see him as he really was, not as a formidable bandana-sporting wunderkind. I’m not saying the kindness was a tactic: David’s manners and concern for others were bred deep and genuine. But maybe the smiley faces he drew in the margins of his letters like a goofy schoolkid, the casual (on a good day) way he dressed, the playfulness and jocularity that I will not begin to be able to capture here, all helped make sure that people didn’t feel intimidated. He wanted to let people in. The critic Laura Miller observed that he was smart enough to know that every person he encountered was smarter than him in some way, about something, and that there was something he could learn from everyone. I’m reminded of his essay ‘The View from Mrs Thompson’s’, about the days after 9/11, when he sees that everyone has an American flag of some kind, a big one for the porch or a small one for the car. And he doesn’t have a flag, and has no idea even where you go to buy one, when every other person in the country seems to have been born knowing these things. Always something to learn.
David’s great act of kindness to me was trusting me to help him bring his books into the world. I couldn’t pretend to grasp the depth or magnitude of all he set out to do, but he needed an Authority Figure who he would listen to sometimes, and I was lucky to be the one who he fitted out for that role. Of one scene I proposed cutting he wrote: ‘Well, it introduces three characters, five themes and two settings.’ His patience with me is one of the things that I will always treasure.
David wrote, ‘I want to author things that restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff ’. He certainly did those things. The world has a huge hole in it for the lack of his giant brain and his giant heart to take in and examine for us all that lies ahead. And for the lack of his kindness.
But we all have all the words he wrote. I hope everyone in this hall today will do all we can to help make sure that those words are read, and spread, and appreciated, admired and celebrated.