Julius Taranto PO ’12 read his first David Foster Wallace novel in high school. At that time, Wallace was teaching at Pomona College, where he served as Disney Chair of Creative Writing until his suicide in 2008.
“It was one of my reasons for choosing to come to Pomona,” said Taranto at a Pomona Student Union panel on the author on Saturday, a few days before what would have been Wallace’s 50th birthday. “I was really looking forward to being able to have the chance to get to know him.”
The panel, moderated by Taranto, included current Disney Chair Jonathan Lethem, Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max and writer Laura Miller, who interviewed Wallace several times. Taranto, along with co-organizers Josh Rosenburg PO ’13 and Joey Glickman PO ’13, billed the event, called “Consider David Foster Wallace,” as “a discussion of Wallace’s life, legacy, and—primarily—of the work that brought him to the forefront of American literature (and to Pomona College).”
In his opening statement as moderator, Taranto said that Wallace’s suicide and “public legacy” should not be a main focus of the conversation, and that instead the conversation should be “primarily to talk about the work itself.”
“Wallace changed a great deal about how I thought about literature and the potential I saw in literature,” Taranto said.
Lethem said that the focus of the event was “for the best.”
“It is easy to fixate on a persona, especially if the tragic passing is fresh,” he said. “Everyone knew the elephant was in the room. But the work is more challenging to contend with.”
“All the speakers were engaging and brought different perspectives on Wallace,” Larkin Corrigan PO ’14 said. “The fact that there was a free exchange of ideas made it seem like a conversation, and it was exciting to see the speakers interacting with one another in a relaxed, informal manner.”
Taranto estimated the event turnout to have been over 400 people, a high number for PSU events. Many of the people in the room were family members on campus for Family Weekend. The generational mix became especially relevant following a question Taranto posed to the panel about the theme of adolescence and adulthood in Wallace’s work. In her response, Miller described Wallace’s characters’ experiences with traps and openings resultant of relationships with their parents.
“It is the question of how can you escape the legacy of your parents if you can’t even admit how similar you are,” she said, eliciting laughter from some of the families in the audience. “They are trapped because they are not aware they are trapped.”
Max characterized Wallace’s life as being, in many ways, “a struggle to adulthood,” noting the constant “undertone of Wallace thinking his books were immature.”
Lethem described Wallace as “a powerfully neotenous creator.” In neoteny, Letham explained, “a species advances by retaining characteristics typical of adolescents.”
“Wallace takes things writers are meant to grow out of and exalts them,” Lethem said. He pointed to a self-consciousness in Wallace’s writing that is both “enabling and disabling,” and Wallace’s focus on games.
Discussion surrounding Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest occupied much of the conversation. Infinite Jest originally had the subtitle “A Failed Entertainment,” said Max, who characterized the novel as “addictive work.”
“It was maximalism at a time when that seemed so unlikely,” Lethem said. The panelists walked the audience through the literary style of the 1980s as political and social changes gave way to a shift toward minimalism.
As Wallace began to publish, Miller said, “where there had been a wall, a door opened to a whole new vista.”
Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, departed from the minimalist style and was more like a “late night bowl session,” said Max, whereas minimalists were “cocaine addicts.”
Wallace’s work seemed to say “you have nothing but time but I have this tremendous anxiety that I’m wrong,” Max said.
He shared facts about Wallace that he had uncovered during his research for the biography. If Wallace “knew a friend was going to propose, he would ask to come along and watch,” and he wrote in a letter to a friend that he loved the lack of graduate students at Pomona.
“He was a brilliant teacher,” Lethem said. “You feel that entering his space.”
“He was impressed by the intelligence of faculty,” Max said. “He loved being around smart kids.”
Max said that while Wallace had groaned about his early teaching jobs, he was not angry about teaching while at Pomona.
“The paradox of David’s death is that this was one of the happiest times of his life,” Max said.
As the conversation inevitably turned to the topic of Wallace’s substance addiction and depression, Miller drew on her personal experience talking with the writer. Wallace thought that “as clever as he was, he was helpless,” Miller said.
In response to a question from the audience, the panelists debated the role Wallace’s public legacy should have in an examination of his work.
“The battles he fought were those of his generation—the battles of his depression, the battles of his addiction, the battles against losing yourself in the vast entertainment-spectation complex that this country has become,” Max said. “He has reached people, and he will continue to reach people. I can’t think of a comparable writer.”
“A lot of the discussion was pretty hard to follow if you hadn’t read anything by Wallace,” Dakota Spear PO ’11 said.
But the panel had recommendations for those who would like to start reading Wallace. Max said that “Good Old Neon” is the “most stunning piece of short fiction” that he has ever read. Lethem offered “Brief interview #20” from Brief Interviews with Curious Men, which he characterized as a “horror story of the male psyche,” and Miller urged newcomers to delve into the short story collection The Girl with the Curious Hair.
“The work waits,” Lethem said. “The work is waiting for you to decide whether or not you want to go there and find out what it has for you.”