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From the Archives: A Voyeur in the Archives

By (September 1, 2012) One Comment

One has only to spend a term trying to teach college literature to realize that the quickest way to kill an author’s vitality for potential readers is to present that author ahead of time as “great” or “classic.” It’s like removing all oxygen from the room before trying to start a fire.

-David Foster Wallace, from “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”

Collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter.

– Walter Benjamin

Anelise organized the trip to the best of what turned out to be her extremely limited capabilities. Six months ago she sent an email to some friends asking who might be interested in driving to Texas in March to check out the David Foster Wallace archives; two days before leaving she sent a second email asking who was still interested and available, and if anyone knew someone in Austin she could stay with. During the trip she would lose her scarf, two sweaters, forty-six dollars (which were found in the pockets of her other jeans), and her digital camera (which it turned out she hadn’t packed in the first place).

Under better circumstances we wouldn’t have made this trip at all; I’m positive that, even if the archives had nevertheless existed, we wouldn’t have traveled to Texas if Wallace hadn’t killed himself. This was the wholly known and fiercely unacknowledged component of the trip. Because acknowledging would force us to ask why we would travel 1700 miles to see the archives of a writer we admired to varying degrees, but only if he were dead. (Especially when much of the material is easily accessible online.) And the only honest-seeming answer I can come up with is that there’s a scummy voyeuristic component to it all. There we were checking out Wallace’s private stuff – correspondence, notebooks, early unpublished drafts: stuff intended for only a couple people’s eyes – hoping to uncover secrets about Wallace and his exact brand of sadness. And it’s precisely because this archived stuff wasn’t meant to be publicly seen that one presumes its essential honesty, presumes that Wallace may have written it without so much armor as his published pieces (even though removing armor was ostensibly one of his goals…would he maybe actually want this stuff available, so people could see more of him?), and therefore that he would reveal himself a bit more nakedly. It’s like: here he is watching the tea kettle begin to boil, his hands flat on the kitchen counter, wondering if he should take care of the dishes; here he is flossing his teeth nude at the bathroom sink.

What it comes down to is that my thoughts about the trip were revised and revised as the trip progressed.

There were three of us in the car and a combined six pairs of prescription eyewear – four of which belonged to Grant. As we drove through Pennsylvania his newest pair shattered when Anelise braked too quickly at a green light and Grant, leaning forward to get his pistachio nuts out of the glove box, hit his face against the dashboard.

“It’s fine,” he said. From his backpack he procured a back-up pair.

He’s a stoic with the sort of mysterious edge that one associates with war veterans. For much of the ride, as Anelise and I argued about where we were as opposed to where were supposed to be, Grant remained silent and recorded our conversation in his little notebook, no doubt for nefarious purposes.

We navigated in the modern way: not with stars or maps, but using Anelise’s iPhone, for which we needed to buy a car-friendly adapter halfway to Tennessee when I believed we were lost even though we actually weren’t. Repeatedly the iPhone led us astray, and we would have to double back on some county road to find the highway again after stopping for soft serve or gas. In areas of fuzzy radio reception we read aloud to each other from William T. Vollman’s recent Harper’s article about letting a homeless community camp out on his property, and also portions of Wallace’s short stories. After we bought a cable in Memphis that enabled us to play the music from Anelise’s iPhone’s through the Chevy’s stereo, we listened to Wallace read “Big Red Son” – his lengthy essay on the porn industry; he uses different voices for the footnotes. At night we learned that our car’s windshield wipers didn’t clear rain so much as just smear it around, making the road appear Impressionistic and dangerous.

None of us had ever eaten before in a Waffle House – we had other loyalties: Anelise and Grant were longtime fans of the Cracker Barrel chain; I’m from Perkins country – and we were put on-guard by the overly genial service. As our waitress refilled our coffees, Anelise and I argued about how sincere she was when she called us “Babe.”

“She’s just doing it for better tips,” Anelise said.

“But it’s so natural,” I said. “You can’t fake saying babe like that. She sounds so happy to fill my coffee.”

“But don’t you think that this just reveals how intertwined her personal and professional lives are? It’s sad actually. It’s, like, capitalism at its most infectious.”

“I’m pretty sure she’s in love with me.”

Again Grant remained mostly silent, recording the minutes in his notebook and laughing indiscreetly to himself. He became so excited and erratic from surfeit coffee, however – we would learn that Grant’s happiness was directly proportional to the amount of caffeine in his system – that he left his second pair of glasses in the booth, and even he agreed we didn’t have time to retrieve them when he realized, a hundred miles away, where they were. We camped overnight in the Smoky Mountain National Park; we ate breakfast in Knoxville; we saw the full-size replica of the Parthenon in Nashville; and then we decided to drive through the second night of our trip to reach Austin by morning. The closer to Texas we got, the bigger and higher up the sky seemed. Maybe it’s a matter of leaving the cluttered and constantly reinvented skyline in New York for a skyline where there’s literally nothing but one crooked leafless tree and a bunch of prairie, or maybe there something scientific to it involving tilt-of-the-earth and atmospheric refractions: the sky in Texas is big.

The Library

The reasons I like Wallace’s work are probably the same reasons many people do: as a writer he’s funny and honest-seeming and observes the world in a way that’s recognizable but also different from how I observe it; he seems to see and think two moves ahead of where I’m able to. And maybe I like him because people I respect like him. He’s an architect who can both draw the blueprint and imagine the edifice from nonexistence. There are writers who ignore the Pynchon-Barth-Barthelme lineage of experimental but serious prose, writers who acknowledge it and put it aside, but Wallace was the first – or if not the first, the most successful I know of – at adopting their cerebral heritage of self-consciousness and wordplay and folding it in with the ingredients of a more traditional novel, a recipe more concerned with frying human hearts than brains.

Also, Wallace is from a different generation than I am, he’s part of my father’s generation – they were born five years apart – and I’ve begun to suspect that, as a young writer, there are a number of projections and filial neuroses I wrongly associate with Wallace that make me feel closer to him, but I don’t yet have the chisels and mirrors to know what those are.

The Harry Ransom Center, a part of the University of Texas at Austin, first tried to acquire the David Foster Wallace archive in 2006 when Thomas F. Staley, the Center’s director, wrote to the author and inquired about his papers and challenged him to a tennis match. “The letter,” says the University of Texas’s Cultural Compass website, “went unanswered.

After Wallace’s death, Staley wrote to Wallace’s agent, and soon thereafter negotiations began to bring the archives to the Ransom Center. The acquisition was officially announced in March 2010. Included in the collection are over three-hundred books from Wallace’s library, early drafts and galleys of nearly everything he published, some notebooks and journals, a good deal of correspondence, some juvenilia, dust, duct tape, and his teaching materials.

The Ransom Center – which, in addition to Wallace’s archives, is home to the personal libraries and marginalia of Don DeLillo, Doris Lessing, Anne Sexton, James Joyce, among others – operates more like a cafeteria than a library. Rather than pulling materials from well-stocked shelves, we placed our orders (on a computer), and after a few moments a polite and surprisingly young librarian delivered the requested goods to us. The research area is large and open, a single room with heavy glass doors, brightened with indirect lighting. Thick gray carpeting absorbs all sound. There are nearly forty desks, each with a mattress-sized surface and its own lamp, clustered together in groups of four. Anelise and I sat at adjacent desks, while Grant chose a workspace across the room. Between us, about a half dozen other researchers were hunched over various articles and books, some of them Wallace-related, some taken from the inventory of the Center’s other archived authors. A tacit camaraderie abounded, a bit similar to traveling a long distance on an airplane – everyone traveling in the same general direction, personal headphones and personal overhead lights in use, no one wanting to interrupt or be interrupted.



I’d allotted the first day for flipping through Wallace’s personal library, and planned to check out his correspondence with Don DeLillo and his notebooks and early drafts in the subsequent days. Initially I thrilled at the amount of stuff available. I suppose the sensation was a bit like snorkeling in an exotic reef, where every observed piece of aquatic life seems interesting and new and colorful, and you marvel a little that such things can exist. But by the end of the first day we all began to feel a little uneasy. Studying the phrases he’d underlined and the notes he’d written in his books’ margins, we were all forced to confront that we were in irrefutable fact here to try and see the interior of his brain, and given that his thoughts ultimately led to his suicide, we knew we were steeped in something incredibly macabre. And yet we didn’t leave, or even really think about leaving.

Wallace’s copy of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse was a paperback 1969 Bantam Books edition. Its spine was split from overuse.  On the inside cover Wallace had written,

“This is art – concerned less with explanation than transfiguration, less with escape than the modality of perspective, the dark presence of our century’s history, like the enframing libretto, succeeds at just that – enframing – by transcending frame to become the wild theme’s emblem. What is more [illegible]: the book deserves the care and patience it demands.”

His handwriting is small and, while not un-neat, was clearly unconcerned with being legible to anyone but the author himself. The book’s spine was split exactly to the title story, which Wallace judged as “Talmudic – obsessed with its own interpretation.”

“Funhouse” is an involuted story about writing that would figure heavily as a reference point and nemesis – a Virgil and a Mephistopheles – for Wallace’s own involuted story about writing, “Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way,” which might be considered his first attempt to steer postmodern writing from stories like “Funhouse” and all its labarynthine self-reference back to the simpler maze of plot and warm, complicated characters.

There was Wallace’s copy of Suttree. There was a book about physics and infinity that I didn’t really understand. Wallace’s hardbound collection of Kafka’s stories bore few marks, except in John Updike’s foreword. Conversely, nearly every paragraph of DeLillo’s White Noise was underlined.

Then there was Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative to Despair. I can’t deny that I wanted to see this book – a self-help-looking thing by Dr. Theodore Rubin. There weren’t any notes by Wallace, but a good number of pages were dog-eared and passages underlined. Several phrases had each word underscored individually: “Minimizing and ignoring one’s abilities are no less self hating than exaggerating one’s abilities.”

It’s pretty clear that the text was written for people struggling with and against themselves – so many Jacobs against their own angels – but I began to wonder if rather than exploring his own depression, Wallace was exploring the effects of depression generally, the same way he explored tax law for The Pale King or the effects of sleep deprivation for “Oblivion.” As the underscored passages accumulated, I encountered Rubin’s hypotheses on depression and repressive behavior, their evidently addictive natures: eating binges, he says, in a culture that abhors obesity, is a means of sustaining self-hate; likewise smoking cigarettes. As I read about subconscious manifestations of self-hate – “high blood pressure, asthmatic attacks, skin eruptions, repeated automobile accidents, accidents in the home, swimming out too far” – I began to wonder what is one supposed to think (one who knows little about psychology, has no personal experience with depression despite his sister’s and grandfather’s hosptial-grade depressions, who never met Wallace or really did much research into his biography beyond now-famous articles that appeared after his death) when one sees a book like Compassion and Self-Hate in Wallace’s library? That he was researching the disease, researching a story, finding solace for his own issues, a mixture, or what? I’m tempted to assume that Wallace wouldn’t read a book like this to cure himself – as one of my literary role models, I for whatever reason consider him “above” self-help books – but to say that he was just taking notes for a fictional story feels naïve, and overly adulatory, and I wondered if I might need to reconsider my idea of him; or rather, without the voluntary process of reconsideration, I wondered if my idea of him might somehow automatically change. (For an exploration of Wallace’s self-help see collection, see Maria Bustillos’s article in The Awl.)


Grant’s first two pairs of glasses had been thick-framed – one tortoiseshell, and one black plastic – and Anelise and I were surprised, when he was wearing his wire-rims, at how attractive his face was, in a high-cheekboned way.

After the Center closed for the day, the three of us searched for a place to sit silently together and drink. We happened to be in Austin at the time of the South By Southwest music festival, and all the bars had been commandeered by indie bands and famous bands trying to prove they still had indie roots. An innocuous two-piece funk band was on stage, the guitarist a bald guy in a baseball hat who remained stationary, the bassist a dreadlocked fellow who liked to dance out of sync with his own beat. We continued to drink and I lost track of the different types of bands that came and went, all of them playing forty-minute sets, until around midnight the Japanese punk rock band Peelander Z set their gear up on stage. The venue was small but by then very crowded; chests pressed against spines (I was pretty sure I felt breasts against my back, and I leaned slyly into them). Grant pushed his glasses farther up his nose and suggested, using only his chin, that we try and get up front to better observe and judge the crowd. We had lost track of Anelise long ago and wouldn’t see her again until the next day, at the Archive.

Once we were near the stage, Grant nodded at me, once, and pushed his glasses up his nose again. The first song was called “So Many Mike” and consisted of Peelander Z – four Japanese men and one woman in spandex bodysuits (affirming all my notions of Japanes popular culture) – shouting the words “So many Mike” over and over. People started pushing, and seemed strangely gleeful about it. At some point Grant polished his glasses on his shirt’s hem. A few yards from us there was an attractive woman in a PBR tee-shirt with the sleeves cut off with whom I imagined myself in a tender relationship, and I spent a good deal of the show gazing at her whenever the crowd parted to permit it. In the middle of the show a slender, bookish guy with a digital wristwatch was pushed to the ground; he curled up fetally and was rolled by various feet and shins to the perimeter of the venue. It was during the song “E-I-E-I-O!” that a drunk woman jumped off the stage and knocked Grant’s glasses from his face. “My glasses,” he said. He bent into the crowd to find them. I too mimed as if searching for his glasses. It was like snorkeling. The band continued to play. Someone’s knee hit my forehead. Several people used the flashlight applications on their iPhones to help scan the ground. Eventually his glasses were found, though both lenses were missing. “I have another pair,” Grant said. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” Someone handed him one of the lenses; the glass had deep scratches in it. “They’re just glasses,” Grant said. He turned toward the stage and, in perfect mimicry of the other concertgoers, raised one fist in the air.

The Library II

An if/then: If Wallace’s writing style can be described as kaleidoscopically layered, then his editing process reveals the laborious accumulation of these layers.

On my desk I had one of the notebooks Wallace used while researching his essay “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevksy,” as well as several typed drafts of the essay in manuscript and galley form. The early drafts were merely perfect – perfect meaning technically and platonically flawless, but not necessarily captivating. As with all writers, it’s the revising that makes Wallace’s work pop and glow.

“It’s easy to see Dostoevsky as a bearded titan,” he wrote in an early version of the essay. Then he ran a line through “bearded titan.” Then, above that, he wrote “stet.”  In a slightly later draft, the sentence was changed to “It’s easy to see Dostoevsky as a sepia-tinted canonical author.” From revision to revision, Wallace was obsessed with becoming more specifically evocative and more entertaining. By the final draft, the sentence had become, “Dostoevsky is a literary titan, and in some ways this can be the kiss of death, because it becomes easy to regard him as yet another sepia-tinted canonical author, belovedly dead.”

Beyond bettering prose, editing is also be about self-translation: how to draw specific ideas out from amorphous impressions and thoughts. An uncertain notion about faith pervaded Wallace’s “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” notebook, which manifested in the final essay into questions about how writers might access the deeper human themes and questions that typically were accessed only via faith. He wondered what societal and literary factors prevent our period’s Serious literature from being very Serious – Serious in the way that Dostoevsky allowed himself to be.

“Frank helps me see none of the 1990s is new,” Wallace wrote in his notebook. “The selfishness, loneliness, purposelessness – the fear, the loss of belief, the materialism….would that the 90s had a Dostoevski to confront all this, wrestle, transfigure it – to humble us…Determinism creates moral vacuum. (Today’s determinism is psychological and economic.) Ellis, Leyner, Leavitt, Franzen, Powers…their fictions reduce to complaints and self-pity. Dostoevski has balls.”

These notions seem to coalesce, in the final published essay, into a succinct conclusion: “[Readers] wouldn’t (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that? How – for a writer today, even a talented writer today – to get up the guts to even try?”

In editing his sentences, Wallace edited his thoughts; and in editing his thoughts, he edited himself. Nowhere is this struggle more transparent, and more devastating, than in his correspondence with Don DeLillo. There’s one letter in particular that seems to pit Wallace the Writer vs. Wallace the Compassionate Guy He Wants to Be. The Wallace that emerges from that particular fight is a devastatingly confused guy.

Many of his letters to DeLillo were advice-seeking, favor-seeking, and comically respectful, full of apologies and
thank-yous. There’s something childish – boyish – filial
in all Wallace’s letters to DeLillo, and in certain missives he wondered explicitly if he were looking for approval (10/10/95: “Maybe I want a pep-talk”). For today’s literary voyeurs, a big part of what gives the letters their intimacy is that both writers copyedit them, and so the pages are messy with handwritten insertions. Wallace and DeLillo weren’t afraid to show each other their mistakes, and there’s something powerful in that. It’s an edit in a letter from October 1999 that startled me.

The letter begins with Wallace speaking about foreign translations of his and DeLillo’s work, and whether they’re faithful to the original texts, and whether that matters. Then, after half a page, Wallace says that he is “not working well. You have not asked but I inform you.” For another half-page he details problems of self-motivation and getting himself to sit at his desk. The last paragraph, which relays the news of Jonathan Franzen’s mother’s death, is darker still, and surprising in its self-critique:

“I don’t know whether you know that Franzen’s mother passed away a few weeks ago,” Wallace writes. He then goes on to describe Franzen’s father’s death as a “horrorshow that included pleas for relatives to kill him and stuff.”

Then he crosses out “and stuff”: “and stuff”:

My take is that the human Wallace is struggling against the writer Wallace to give the circumstance its proper gravity. Normally “and stuff” seems so natural to Wallace’s style. It’s something he’ll insert to sound unconvincingly blasé about something he wants to highlight as important. In the context of this letter, though, he seems to realize the essential inappropriateness of “and stuff.” (But then there’s “ ’95 or ’96” – did Wallace really not know the year? And if he’s making a gesture at solemnity, would he really not try and remember? Does this matter? And aren’t the very terms near-psychotic and horrorshow just a tad too playful?)

I can’t think of a more naked paragraph to write about, or anything more exploitative than my writing about it, and maybe that’s exactly why I’m writing about it and convinced of its essential meaning. A notable writer writes to another notable writer about the deaths of a third notable writer’s parents. The three writers are intimate friends. The first of them has recently committed suicide. And I’m combing through his correspondence to see, what, how he edited himself? Because that’s what’s important? Just because it’s interesting?

And yet I can’t deny that finding this edit excited me. I requested copies of this letter from the staff librarians at the Ransom Center, and looked forward to receiving my package of facsimiles after Anelise, Grant, and I returned home. I looked forward to re-reading the letter, and all the other letters we’d requested and promised to make copies of for each other.

What we saw in Texas hasn’t actually changed my conceptions of Wallace that much. Maybe the best comparison would be to say it’s as if I saw one of my parents naked – a no doubt unforgettable (if highly repressible) experience, but nothing that will alter an already deeply set relationship.

Anelise and I drove home (Grant was disallowed from touching the wheel; his fourth and final pair of glasses had shattered when, drunkenly, he walked into a tree) along the same major highways we’d taken down to Austin. Already there were landmarks we recognized and all along the way we kept hypothesizing about how far we were from New York, trying to determine whether we were making good time, even though none of us had any real agenda – except to write, to wait for our mail from the Ransom Center, to eat and to sleep – once we got back.

Max Ross‘s reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Star Tribune, The Harvard Review, and The Rumpus. He lives in New York.