the man behind the words

This weekend I had to sing at the alumni memorial service because I’m in glee club.   After we sang, we sat up on the stage while President Oxtoby read all the names of alumni and faculty who died in the past year.   I found myself oddly surprised when he read off “David Foster Wallace,” and moved on to the next name.  

                      When Wallace died I had barely been at Pomona a month and had absolutely no connection to or knowledge of him or his work.   So it seems odd to me that now, after his death, I have a much stronger connection to this man than I ever did before.   I was surprised to hear his name in the service because he has become more alive to me throughout this semester.   He’s played a role in my thoughts that never existed before this class.   It’s really odd to me that I feel like I have become friends with this man after he is already gone.

                      But I know I have not.     I have become friends with the voice of Wallace as a writer, not Wallace the person.   I only get samples of what he is like from his authorial voice, and while I would have liked to know the man behind the words, all I can try to absorb is what he has left us in language.   I know I have to be fair and try to separate Wallace’s life from the fiction, to allow him to create without automatically assuming that everything is coming straight out of his own life.   But I do believe the reader-writer relationship Wallace has created is almost as close to human as possible for an author.   It’s not so much the experiences of characters, but his own vulnerable and relatable voice behind them.

                      Which brings me to what I think is astounding about Wallace, particularly in my experience.   Wallace’s voice somehow creates an entire person behind this work.   There is not a stone wall behind the narrator, nor an empty space.   No matter how ridiculous a narrator might be, I have always felt like Wallace is standing right there behind the words.   It might be comforting, maybe powerful?   A connection that does not leave me lonely, because while many authors might step back and try to distance themselves from the actual text, Wallace’s daring is in his willingness to become intimately close to the reader, to embarrass himself at times, and to maybe bear a little too much.

                      There is this frustration with the limits of language.   We’ve discussed it numerous times and I am always left wondering if this is really how Wallace felt. Was he just so limited that he often felt unable to communicate?   He kept writing and communicating because he knew he could attempt it better than most.  I am most thankful for this.   I find a lot of hope in Wallace’s writing.   Despite the human sadness and hopelessness that he is able to illuminate quite brilliantly, Wallace’s human voice that trusts that we will listen and listen carefully gives me a lot of hope in our abilities to trust people.

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