escaped from his afterlife

People who love to read love to read I think because there’s something in those constructed realities that they feel close to, closer than perhaps anything in this real life. In many cases, I think it’s the characters, these constructions of words that seem more real than the people we interact with on a daily basis. Or, if not more real, more valid.

In other cases, it’s the setting. How many people would choose to live in Narnia or Middle-Earth, or even Castle Rock, Maine?

Still others, I honestly believe, love to read because of the words themselves. Language is our most essential tool, and just like any tool its quotidian uses become mundane over time. Readers of poetry and Shakespeare, especially, enjoy the variations of words and especially syntax that just isn’t found with any kind of regularity. They become personally attached to phrases, lines and stanzas, literally carrying them around inside themselves until circumstance and situation allow them freedom. The utterances in those moments, then, are effectively a marriage of the speaker and writer.

Then there are the true bibliophiles, those who love the fact of a book, the physicality of it, more perhaps than its contents. They stagger and marvel that the possibility of its ideas and truths – maybe even its lies. For them the cover, the jacket, the font and paper and paper’s weight and grain and formatting are fetishized as a real-world signifier of not all things but any things.

For still others, like myself, the affinity for the material turns into an affinity for the novelist. The author. The creator. I recognize in someone a piece of myself or who I wish I could be, and as I read I find more and more pieces of me in these pieces of them.

It becomes like seeing yourself in a mosaic mirror.

The first real instance of this that I recall was for Stephen King, when as a child I promised myself that when I was a grown-up I’d own all of his books and I would keep them on a special bookshelf. Years later, when I read Misery, I had a little laugh at my idea and hoped that I was far different from Annie Wilkes.

Then I met Jack Kerouac and I understood that my Stephen King thing was just puppy-love. Kerouac of course blurred the line between author and character and I think because of that I was able to see the person behind the character, the non-fiction Sal Paradise. And I fell in love.

Jack wanted so much for the world to be so beautiful, and he understood that it was beautiful simply because he willed it to be. But his tragic flaw was that he could only see beauty when compared to filth. He couldn’t see a beautiful woman unless she was a prostitute. Like Ginsberg, he couldn’t appreciate a sunflower unless it were growing defiantly near a broken-down train.

In this, I saw myself. And for maybe the first time I can recall, I felt that maybe I was okay as a person. That I wasn’t broken. Or that, even if I was broken, I was valid.

Later on I met Tom Robbins. Then I literally met Tom Robbins where after hearing him speak for an hour or so someone said to me: ‘Yep. You two are like peas in a pod.’ Robbins is similar to Kerouac in his world-view, but he doesn’t need the filth to see beauty. He just does – well, with the aid of various psychotropic substances and what seems like flatly exhausting amounts of sex. In Robbins I see a part of myself that’s maybe a little further from me than I’d want to be…but that doesn’t prevent me from want to be him.

And then I met David Foster Wallace.

 

Photo cred: Suzy Allman / The New York Times

I can’t yet tell you why I feel so much for Mr. Wallace. I can tell you that it’s about feeling, about emotion and not being afraid of it. I can say that few know how I feel in my everyday life better than he does. And it’d be dishonest not to say that my affinity for him also involves the fact of his suicide.

 

This is why today at lunch, when I sat down to read my newly delivered copy of The Pale King, his newest book, I got exactly three paragraphs into before I had to close the book. I felt him too much around me, as though he’d escaped from his afterlife to come hang out for a while.

And then I missed him – even though I never met him. Or more accurately, I missed the world that was a world with David Foster Wallace. Because it was better, somehow. It was filthy and beautiful and neither fact mattered as much as that something was felt about the filth and the beauty.

Later I’ll go back to being excited about this book. But for now I am sad, heartbroken over someone I never met.

“Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trebling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.” – from The Pale King

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