Unwrapping DFW’s “difficult gifts”

In the centrepiece of her sparkling essay collection Changing My Mind (see my review here), Zadie Smith writes about the “difficult gifts” of her friend and peer David Foster Wallace, who hung himself in late 2008.

The gifts that Smith describes exist in two very different senses of the word. One, of course, refers to Wallace’s talents as a writer, which seemed to overwhelm him nearly as often as they did his readers. The other refers to the birthday-party variety: as in presents, which are free for the taking, from Wallace to his reader, via his fiction.

This second type of Wallacian gift is wonderful, no doubt about it. And the reason these presents are difficult is not just because Wallace’s writing is sometimes difficult—both in a stylistic and structural sense, and in that he frequently makes us wallow inside the minds of others for far longer than we’d like to.

No, the other big reason Wallace’s gifts are hard to receive is because it can be easy to doubt the selflessness of his intentions. “He says he wants to show us the suffering and emotional traumas in 21st-century life—so why does it feel like along the way he’s also showing off how smart and generous he is in showing us these things?” In other words, the gifts he gives us can seem too elaborately wrapped, with the gigantic bows and ribbons often dwarfing the size of the packages themselves. You start to suspect that the whole point of him giving the gift was to receive a thank-you card.

Dead wrong, says Smith—and I’m right there with her.

In her piece, Smith draws extensively from Wallace’s 1999 collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which is itself full of characters expressing a similar distrust of gifts. “A farmer can’t give away an old tiller for free,” she writes. “He has to charge five bucks before someone will come and take it… the act of giving itself is in crisis; the logic of the market seeps into every aspect of life.”

I haven’t read that book. I did, however, just read Wallace’s final collection of short fiction, 2004’s Oblivion. And if the goal in reading a book is to emerge “fuller” and more nourished than you were beforehand, then Oblivion, too, is a blinding success.

Sure, I marvelled at Wallace’s intimidatingly precise vocabulary, as well as his ability to construct two-page sentences that move like liquid. But mostly I felt. I felt the crippling ennui of an aging marketer whose life is circling the suburban drain; the life-altering sting of knowing for sure that you’ve failed to protect your child; and the recurring fears that authenticity and emotional honesty just might turn out to be impossibilities. I felt all of these things—scary, awful things, for the most part—because Wallace forced me to. And I am grateful.

Big sections of Oblivion put me in perfect sync with its characters. Sometimes I cheered with them, and sometimes I puzzled with them, but mostly I felt drained and psychologically scraped bare, just as they did. It’s a transformative book, and a transformative gift to receive, difficult as it may look to unwrap.

(One cheeky extra detail: Wallace, a notoriously strict grammarian, gives his narrators different little linguistic tics to set them apart from one another. The depressive ghost in “Good Old Neon” commits one comma splice after another; the insensitive husband in the title story puts every third word in obnoxious single quotes. We are how we punctuate.)