I have a complicated writer-reader relation with David Foster Wallace.
When I was 22, I utterly, deeply loved him- he was my favorite author of all time. I marveled over his super-computer brain and how he could infuse scenes, characters, and dialogue with wild imagination and philosophy. And most of all, how he could make even the grandest, craziest situations throb with desperate humanity. He built outrageous characters who wanted to eat and eat and eat until they consumed the universe, along with quiet, aching moments that nailed how it feels to be a depressed person. His books got me through some of the trickier parts of my life, and they kept me inspired to keep going, to keep writing, and to be unafraid with creativity.
But it’s more than that. I knew, even when I first read him, that I could never write like him. I never wanted to. After his death, he reached such a deific status that I was almost intimidated to admit how much I loved him, at the risk of criticism or a barrage of overly intellectual questions from a stranger at a party, scanning to see if I really “got” the great DFW. I didn’t even know if I really did, I just knew he made me feel things really deeply. And I noticed that other writers who loved him deeply had begun to think if they had long, esoteric sentences and quirky characters, they could be great like that too. I was afraid of becoming someone like that.
He also was far from a god. He was just a writer, a creative person, a fragile human. When you can put feelings down so well, you usually struggle with those same intense emotions in the bland day-to-day. And he made mistakes. He fell so madly in love with a married woman that he contemplated killing her husband. He pulled people in closely and shoved them away. He painted a room completely black because he thought it would help him focus but it might also have put him completely on edge. He completely forgot about the details of his books after he was done writing them, and struggled to answer fan questions about characters he’d created.
Even now, I struggle with how to express my feelings about him and his work. I’ve tried to reread sections I loved when I was in my early twenties, and now a lot of it reads like a smart-ass college student wowing the crowd with difficult literary pyrotechnics, popping wheelies for the sheer sake of it. But that raw sadness and humor and emotion is still there too, and that’s not for nothing. So I guess I still love him, and always will. He’ll always be a huge influencer to what I do, even if what I do isn’t at all like what he did.
Anyway, one of his biographies (Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a really great read) has somehow been turned into a movie, with Jason Segel giving an earnest attempt at playing an incredibly difficult human. My first reaction was intense rage (“how DARE you even TRY to do this”). But it’s not necessarily worth anger. It’s clearly a loving, thoughtful attempt at a portrait. And maybe that’s exactly what’s wrong with it. Jason Segel has clearly worked so hard and possibly fallen so deeply in love with this person (or the idea of this person) that any depiction can’t help but feel precious. And unfortunately, a precious, reverent biopic about himself is probably one of the last things Wallace ever would have wanted. Or at least, he would have said as much and then secretly loved it. And then been concerned about his own love for it. And so on.
See how he can get complicated? It’s enough to make your head spin. So at the very least, good on Segel for even trying to figure out what was happening in this giant enigma of a human mind.
Jesse Eisenberg, on the other hand. Ugh. Is he just constipated all the time?