JOHN SAAVEDRA JR.
Student Voice Editor
I wonder if anyone really looks into what’s happening in a generation until one or two of its members are found dead somewhere or are just shit out of luck. This one’s a pretentious look at literary friendships.
It was David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday last week and there were all sorts of things about him going around on the Internet. One thing in particular: his literary and personal friendship with writer Jonathan Franzen.
DFW is famous for his monster novel “Infinite Jest,” an insane post-postmodern look at how the world ticks: it’s about a tennis academy, a rehabilitation center, and a movie that kills all its viewers, among other things. The novel is full of footnotes and endnotes and footnotes to those endnotes, which is not unlike DFW. He also wrote countless essays and his sports reportage is nationally renowned.
All the writing, which presents all kinds of questions (such as why DFW sacrificed all these plot holes for strange fictional/pseudo-academic writing structures), is there for readers and critics to enjoy and mull over for the rest of existence until someone decides to start burning books again (“Infinite Jest,” I fear, will probably be on the list of undesirables).
The biggest enigma surrounding DFW aren’t his annoying footnotes, but who he really was as a person. Everyone has their opinions, including myself, who never met the man who looked more like a Seattle grunge rocker than a novelist and mathematician.
Mark Costello, a close friend of DFW from his days at Amherst College, described him as a jealous, insecure man who was hurt by the success of others (such as Franzen).
Mary Karr, a poet who dated DFW during his time at Syracuse in the early 1990s, described him as a violent man: flipping over tables and abandoning her in bad areas of town whenever they had an argument in the car.
Jeffrey Eugenides, a contemporary popular novelist (“The Virgin Suicides”), thought that he and DFW were becoming good friends during the course of countless letters concerning religion (DFW was incredibly curious about religion and toyed around with the idea of joining the Catholic Church throughout his life).
More specifically, Eugenides and DFW met up at an early reading of Franzen’s breakthrough novel, “The Corrections,” where they seemed to build a lasting bond after discussing Franzen’s growth as a writer (which I will tell you all about in just a moment). Eugenides never saw DFW again after that night.
Michael Pietsch, DFW’s fearless editor, saw “Infinite Jest” as just “the challenge he had entered the book publishing world for.” Last year, three years after DFW hanged himself in his back yard, Pietsch put together a new novel made up of fragments, a longer draft for a novella, and the writer’s notes titled, “The Pale King.” Pietsch asked himself until the very end if this is what DFW would have wanted…
But I’m digressing into the mystery of a man. The real story is the friendship Franzen and DFW shared during the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, when the first one published his breakthrough novel and then the other published his retort.
“The Corrections” was Franzen’s response to “Infinite Jest,” which he felt encompassed the voice of a generation of writers in the ’80s: the Franzens, the Eugenides, the Moodys, the Lethems, etc. DFW was becoming a staple in the literary world.
Until the publication of “The Corrections,” Franzen had lived in a slump, having published two novels that received a tepid response/no response. “The Corrections,” which is a novel about family, earned Franzen his own spot as one of the most important writers of his generation.
The story of Franzen and DFW’s friendship can be summarized in a remark Franzen made about reading each other’s work: “I think it hurt for each of us to get the latest [book] from the other.”
After DFW committed suicide, Franzen set out to make sense of the whole thing. He spent some time in an island off the coast of Chile called Masafuera, where he began work on a controversial essay that would eventually be published in The New Yorker as “Farther Away.”
In the essay (and this is where we see a literary friendship in its darkest depths), Franzen describes DFW as a narcissist who’d killed himself “in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most.” Franzen calls DFW’s suicide a “career move”: a way to live on forever.
Franzen was preparing to work on what would become his novel “Freedom” when he heard of DFW’s suicide. He had once again challenged himself to write a novel as good as DFW’s, if not better, but the suicide came as a “low blow” to Franzen. DFW ended the race before Franzen could get another crack at it.
Instead, DFW gets countless in memoriams every Feb. 21 and Franzen has to carry around the memory of his good friend and enemy.
My own literary friendship with Megan Kellerman, a published poet and confidante, stems from a pair of relationships gone wrong, a hunger for literature, and my overly-friendly personality.
She’s this reserved green-eyed little woman who always surprises the crap out of me for reasons too digressive to discuss in this essay.
Megan and I have worked constantly as writers in the past two years. She is my first reader and fearless editor. I find myself sometimes writing for and to her, for better or for worse.
Sometimes I’ll write something down in one of my stories or columns and realize it’s a line that Megan might have written in her own work. She always seems to pick out the lines she might’ve written herself, although I don’t think she realizes it at the time. “I like this line,” is what she usually says. It just sounds nice to her.
One thing I like about her is that she doesn’t bog down my writing with compliments. She’s more prone to tell me, “That’s not the word you want here,” or “There are a few grammar issues,” or the all-too-hurtful, “I think you’re trying too hard.”
I call her “Editor Nazi” and she has become a sort of enemy during the revision process. She’s the Strunk & White to my chaos.
When we’ve discussed the nature of our friendship, both personal and literary, I’ve always told her that she’s the only person I could ever have a literary conversation with. A lot of the time, we’ll go to bars and discuss deconstructionism (she loves literary theory) and I’ll tell her stories about all the writers we love (name a writer and I’ll give you an anecdote [such as the one above]).
No one has ever satisfied me on an intellectual level before and that’s something no amount of love can replace. “I just want to suck all the literature out of you,” I tell her.
In terms of our writing, we’re on two opposite sides of the spectrum. Megan writes poetry and I write fiction.
The other day, after reading the essays on DFW and Franzen, I asked Megan if she ever felt we were in competition. She said, “No, it doesn’t really matter. We write in two different genres.”
Well, I was fine with that distinction. I told her I enjoyed being the best fiction writer in the room.
“Well, I’m the best poet in the room,” she replied hastily.
Lately, I feel like I have some catching up to do, though. Megan has been published twice in online journals, not an easy feat for a poet her age (23).
“You’re winning 2-0,” I tell her.
The rush to get published is creeping up on me now that I’m working on my first short story collection and this college thing is almost over. I watch Megan doing all these things (writing poetry, editing other writers’ work, working on her new short story [which I will get to in a minute]) and I wonder if I’m behind or ahead or if I know something she doesn’t or if…
Megan’s new short story is about dreams. A couple decides to “grow” their dreams in their basement for no reason except sheer boredom (which seems to me to be the point of the story: people desperate to escape their stagnant lives). The characters inhabit a world where magic seems to be a normal everyday occurrence, as their dreams take a physical shape around them. Some of these dreams are the embodiment of the characters’ beautiful memories and fantasies, while others take the shape of their deepest fears and darkest desires. One of the characters dreams of a beast and then a beast appears in their basement and escapes its cage.
It seems to me, in my narcissistic mind, that this piece is the most autobiographical thing she could’ve written about our friendship: an amalgamation of dreams, fantasies, desires and fears. It’s been a busy six months for the mind.
Lately, we’ve been focused on dreams and we have “plans” too specific to map out in this essay and miles to go before we sleep…
NOTE: The essays “Just Kids” by Evan Hughes, which was published in New York Magazine in 2011, and “Coming to Terms” by Jon Baskin, published in The Point in 2012, are pivotal parts of this piece. Any stories about the aforementioned writers should be referred back to those essays.