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Sven Birkerts
Published: Wed Jul 1 2009
What Remains

Possibly because the best words in the best order lay claim to a larger life, we imagine that their authors do as well. I imagine it, anyway—always have. It’s pure superstition, of course, this notion that the maker of art that lasts partakes of a power. Not an immortality—I’m not that credulous. But a kind of grace, a metaphysical clearance, some strengthening of the self ‘s endurance odds by whatever it is that insists on being said.

This past year, though, brought a double jolt: the deaths of two writers I had placed in the quasi-eternity they had cleared around them with the abundance of their brilliant prose. Unthinkingly placed there, simply by refusing to associate them with my idea of normal actuarial mortality. I mean David Foster Wallace and John Updike, who, though they could not have been more different, were both writers of fiction, novels, and essays, and who, though their styles and visions unfolded in registers not remotely adjacent, both inhabited their language, those styles, so completely that it was hard to imagine much left over for mere living. Indeed, this was a big part of the shock, for their deaths—by suicide, by cancer—drove home the fact that they had been, yes, flesh-and-blooding it among us, not only not immune, but by that strange twist of survivor logic less immune than we who remain.

I’ve joined them in my mind somehow, these two, yet Wallace tilted against Updike in the pages of The New York Observer some years ago (and I tilted with him, writing a parallel piece that claimed that the Master was too prolix, too ready to come forward into print with whatever his pen produced). They represented different, in some ways opposing worlds. Wallace was, in a core part of his being, an unassimilated subversive, and what he subverted, over and over, in his exacerbated scenarios, his outlaw fugues, was the vast entrenched order, the what is that Updike chronicled with calm Flemish exactitude. Updike celebrated an assumption about reality that Wallace was in some defining way at odds with.

To call it a father/son dynamic would be simplistic, of course, but there are certain elements of that conventional agon, including the son’s will not just to repudiate but to outdo the father. Considering the divergence in their aesthetics—Wallace’s complete lack of interest in the realism that takes surfaces as the outer manifestation of interior forces—the field of engagement would have to be the how as opposed to the what. Which is to say the how of language, style: the sentence. Is it farfetched to think of Wallace’s prose pitching itself in sustained defiance against the philosophical ground of Updike’s, its lightly ironized acceptance of things as they are? The bemused Updike smile endorses a reality, an outlook, that Wallace could not fit himself to, a failure that was bound up, I suspect, with his deepest suffering. Fathers and sons, but also order and chaos.

No matter what revising impressions our later contacts brought, Dave Wallace will always be for me first the young man, the kid, that I met back in 1989 or early 1990. I had reviewed his first collection of stories, Girl With Curious Hair, with some excitement in a short-lived magazine called Wigwag, and he had written a thank-you letter (very Wallace, that) in which he said he was living nearby in Cambridge, studying philosophy at Harvard; he proposed coffee. We agreed on a street corner near the Pamplona Café. I forget who arrived first. Possibly we both did, for my sense is that we were perfectly matched in our anal scrupulousness about promises, meetings, deadlines, and the like.

First impressions are funny. Though in later years when I saw him he did not appear to tower over me physically, that day he did. He was a lanky kid, with—I’m positive—short light-brown hair, every bit the tennis ace he self-deprecatingly describes in his great essay “Derivative sport in Tornado Alley.” Well, not every bit. No tennis ace would smoke—at all, never mind with the shell-game dexterity that had me checking again and again exactly how many cigarettes he had going at once and where they all were. A kid, yes: fresh-faced, nervous, though I don’t think nervous about talking to me—I won’t flatter myself—but about the terms of existence, time and space. At the same time he was keyed up, which is somehow different from nervous. The laces on his talking shoes were all tangled up. He was trying to say too many different things at once. He was also modest, sending my praises of his work right back over the net, not accepted, but addressed. His modesty did not, however, prevent him from working to establish his “serious”-credentials. He made it a point—this I remember—to score and underscore that even his childhood exposures had been intense, that his father was a philosopher who’d insisted on reading philosophy, not Pooh, to David at bedtime.

I was deeply struck by Girl With Curious Hair. The prose had raised ungainliness to a kind of lyricism of its own—it was clearly achieved sentence by sentence by a writer who knew exactly how to manage his effects. Those sentences, though I don’t know that I thought it at the time, were wringing the oft-wrung neck of eloquence, certainly eloquence of the Updike stripe. They made a music that went against the familiar melos, or honey, of that idea of style. What do I mean exactly? Let me try to illustrate. Here is a small cutting from Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich, fairly representative, I think:

He goes into the bedroom he and Janice have here and dresses himself in Jockey shorts, an alligator shirt, and soft Levi’s all washed and tumble-dried at the Laundromat behind the little Acme in the village. Each crisp item seems another tile of his well-being he is fitting into place. As he sits on the bed to put on fresh socks a red ray of late sun slices through a gap in the pines and falls knifelike across his toes, the orangish corns and the little hairs between the joints and the nails translucent like the thin sheets in furnace peepholes. (143)

Though this looks restrained when set alongside other Updike passages, we nonetheless catch the signature mode: his details, his supple and often striking analogies, the confident rhythmic pacing.

Now Wallace, from his story “Lyndon”:

I saw the big white Bufferin of the President’s personal master bed, stripped to sheets, variously shadow-colored by the changing traffic light at the Washington and Kennedy Streets’ intersection below and just outside. On the stripped bed—neatly littered with papers and cards, my notecards, a decade of stenography to Lyndon—lay my lover, curled stiff on his side, a frozen skeleton X ray, impossibly thin, fuzzily bearded, his hand outstretched with dulled nails to cover, partly, the white face beside him, the big white face attached to the long form below the tight clean sheets, motionless, the bed flanked by two servicemen who slumped, tired, red, green.

Is the difference clear? The Updike passage pushing its nuanced observations toward an idea of beauty, extracting aesthetic pleasure from what might be considered the trivial-domestic, the impulse a fundamental valorizing of creation and the adequacy of language for its representation. Wallace, meanwhile, no whit less precise, or less syntactically ambitious, makes a picture that is slightly garish, leached of any softness of light. He is not, through his narrator, approving the world, but registering it in a way that is highly attuned to its menace.

Wallace, I should make clear, was no Updike-hater. Though he excoriated the excesses—the turgidities—of Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time, and in the process struck off not a few more broadly applicable criticisms, he also was open about his admirations. “The fact is,” he wrote, “that I am probably classifiable as one of the very few actual subforty Updike fans. Not as rabid a fan as, say, Nicholson Baker, but I do believe that The Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm, and The Centaur are all great books, maybe classics. And even since 1981’s _Rabbit is Rich—_as his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding sign that the author understood that they were repellent—I’ve continued to read Updike’s novels and to admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose.”

The language, for Wallace, trumps character, and presumably plot, since Updike is hardly to be accused of great inventiveness or sophistication on that score. But something nags here. Though I almost never find myself questioning the thrust or psychological accuracy of Wallace’s assertions, that “sheer gorgeousness” rings false for me. Not that Updike’s descriptive prose isn’t manifestly gorgeous, nor that Wallace could not admire it, but there is something too straightforward, something insufficiently questioning, in the way he frames his point. Wallace is not owning up to what I think would have to be the complexly conflicted character of that admiration. For Wallace’s whole enterprise can be seen, at one level, as a tilting at that very quality. Of course, to tilt at something in that way, as an artist, is to have been affected by it, to have internalized it deeply, in the way of a son absorbing a father’s presence. But no rebel son will admit to finding his father’s worldview an object of simple admiration.

The father…In a sense, Updike had only recently begun to accept that public role, and he never seemed at ease with it. For so many years he had been seen as the heir-pending, moving in Cheever’s great shadow, then Bellow’s. Though he appeared to carry the patrician entitlement, and though he was unstinting in his output, dominating the Knopf catalogues, and The New Yorker pages, front and back, and The New York Review of Books, there was also a way in which he held back, acted happiest playing the part of the newcomer delighted to have been included. He did not want to wear the mantle most of us had him wearing. I remember thinking of Updike as a consummate senior insider as far back as high school. He would have been in his thirties then, but all adults were older—they wore suits and sat decorously on panels and took honorary degrees and got themselves pictured in Life magazine…By the time I finally set eyes on Updike at some New York ceremonial event, he was in his sixties and exuded literary paternity. I made him a father. And I made kid-Wallace a son figure. Even after the lanky kid had been outgrown, enfolded in a greater girth and the aura of his stunning attainments, I couldn’t let the impression go. And Wallace made that preservation easy, even in recent years remaining the puer aeternus.

If Wallace was, for many, a writer keyed to disaffection, to late-modern angst, to recognitions of plasticity and horror—and in this a kind of harbinger, an early-warning system for a world in accelerated decline—Updike was a figure looking from the other side. Though possibly no less attuned to decline, he refracted his vision not viscerally, not as rage or stark bitter repudiation, but elegiacally, as nostalgia. His renderings expose the starkness of the present through juxtaposition to memory-sweetened evocations of how it was. That, the former world, a world shorthanded as belonging to “the greatest generation,” was always his subject. And though it was often felt to be fast disappearing, he found enough poetic meat in the remnants, the ruins, to allow a tone that was on the whole accepting.

What I think Wallace responded to in Updike’s writing was not so much the gorgeousness of the procession of words on the page as the perceived absoluteness of the investment in language. Not that I think Wallace was at all insensible to the lyric end of the spectrum—his precise ways of defying it show that he registered it keenly. But—here’s the point—his determined refusal of lyricism in his own work makes his professed admiration sound a bit glib. And it is not in Wallace’s grain to be glib. I don’t believe that he would have pretended to an admiration he did not feel. I suggest it was the deeper affinity that he was in fact acknowledging, the recognition that here was a fellow language-captive, a man completely consumed, as he himself was, by the process of ingesting the world and spinning it out as words.

This is all psychological guesswork on my part, of course. And I proceed by way of a perverse triangulation, deducing a perceived affinity on Wallace’s part from the fact that the two writers have become conjoined in my thoughts. What has joined them is my very real sense of loss. Of what, exactly? It’s complex, when I start to bear down on it. With Wallace, though I knew him only slightly, I register first the loss of the person. Although our contacts were sparse and fleeting—a few meetings, a few thoughtful letters, some writing-related business—I did do that human thing. I projected and extrapolated. The man touched me and interested me, I had a strong impression of his character, and I gave him a good deal of affectionate thought. This is not entirely separable from the next echelon of loss, which has to do with the idea of the person, with the fact that he—they both—were fellow writers profoundly committed to the arduous ordeal of creating a voice for the times. In Wallace’s case, especially, I was moved by his urgency, his vision of the existential stress of contemporary life, his recognition of the predatory corporate ethos against which the private self was so utterly vulnerable, in the face of which he was so disposable. Also by his fiercely dark comedy, the filter of his terrible ironies, his flashes of inspired absurdity, salient whether in the stories or the grand world-system that was Infinite Jest or in essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” I was inspired by his all-out tenaciousness and used his example to spur myself to more and better. Updike—in his work I found, though groomed and dressed-up, a sustained lyrical address of self to world, a finely managed convergence of the inseparable responses to beauty: exaltation and sorrow. Like Wallace, I cared less for his characters than for the things they carried, their overwrought longings and their losses.

Then there is the disappearance, the evacuation from our common life, of their respective imaginings—so completely unlike, but so insistent, each in its way. Not just the characters and situations, but the disposition of reality, the visualization that—to refer to my examples—in one case would map a beam of light to its destination on the almost cruelly rendered toe, and in the other would ask me to see the President’s bed as a large Bufferin tablet. The accumulation of all those sightings and presentations is not lost, of course—we have them—but the loss of their authors forces us to imagine all the features of our world that will escape being seen and served up. Here is the sorrow of reality untransformed, never to be subjected to those specific powerful idiosyncrasies.

Finally, though, the big—the more abstract—bereavement: the loss to the language of these makers, these forces of generation. We are fortified by the work of our writers, by their specific books, but no less important is the sense we have, so long as they are alive, that they are with us, in our midst, engaged, taken up with seeing and thinking and processing—with writing. They make up an important part of the invisible but pervasive and perceptible sum-total that we recognize as our culture. When they die we feel a terrible diminution, a suction of available energies withdrawn. As if suddenly we all have that much less purchase on reality. The air feels thinner, and our gestures of thought feel heavier, more cumbersome, less part of a common purpose.


CODA: I have spent the better part of an hour just now fishing through various ad-hoc containers of letters, hoping against odds to find a letter that Wallace once wrote to me, because I had the feeling while writing about him, his presence and use of language, that there was something there for me to find. And I found it, though now, having worked my way slowly through two pages of handwritten prose—small capital letters on lined paper—I realize that I have these last few years misremembered the import. It is less the heady meditation on fiction I thought, and far more Wallace worrying the issue of postmodern irony. But I did find one paragraph on the first page that resonates with what I have been trying to express here:

I’ll tell you why I dislike writing on a computer. It’s just as you say: it makes each line too easy, too provisional. There’s none of the pressure to perfect a line before moving on to the next that script and typewriter enforce. And so on a p.c. I find myself writing way faster, more facilely—I literally think out loud onto the screen. And this fucks everything up, because I can write better than I can think. I like to write not to ejaculate thoughts but to transfigure them through labor and care and the pressure of putting them down on paper where they can’t be taken back. I am not a particularly smart or imaginative man, but I find that after much suffering [here Wallace draws one of his signature smiley-faces] and several drafts I’m sometimes capable of producing smart and imaginative prose. Writing by hand and typewriter not only brings out the best in me—it brings out stuff I never would have dreamed was there. It is this—not improvement but transfiguration of the contents of my head that I am addicted to. It is astonishing when it happens—magical—and it simply doesn’t happen on a computer, which makes editing too arbitrary and spatial a business. (posted from Bloomington, Illinois, November 10, 1993)

I respond to the pressure, the seriousness, and the effort at modesty, but what I value especially is the emphasis on transfiguration. I have no truck with astrology, but when I read this I had an impulse to check the dates and signs of both writers.

Wallace, Updike: two Pisces, their element water, their salient quality mutability.

See what's inside AGNI 69

Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).

He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2017)

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