Tuesday, March 31, 2009

R.I.P - Playing Catch-up


The miniscule, but exclusive, clique of high-minded readers who have been visiting Rodak Riffs since its launching are familiar with my practice of noting the deaths of prominent writers. It was anomalous, then, that I let the recent suicide of postmodernist superstar, David Foster Wallace, go by without mention. I neither linked to the NY Times obit, nor to any of the several articles that were published about him in the aftermath of his death.

Partially, it was just too depressing: he was very young. Partially, I didn’t feel that I knew him well, having read only one book of his short stories, and having failed to tackle his magnum opus, the 1000-page novel Infinite Jest. which had been just too difficult, too long, and not of the right tenor to suck me in on the occasion of my having taken it out of the library a couple of years ago. I read the first 100 or so pages and gave up.

Since his death, however, I have read his story collection Oblivion, and have almost finished another: Girl With Curious Hair. The last piece in the latter is a very long story, or novella entitled “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” of which I am about half way through. It is very funny, in my opinion. The following excerpt is a good example of that humor.

Here we see a market research operative named Hogan in an airport in Illinois. He is there in connection with the arrival for a grand reunion of all the people who have ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial. We overhear him speaking to two of the arriving former commercial actors. The subject of his discourse is his boss, J.D. Steelritter, the adman behind the McDonald’s commercials since day one:

“… This man is a genius. It’s an honor to even do market research for J.D. Steelritter. Even in this God-forsaken place.” He looks around as if for eavesdroppers. “This is the man, this is the legendary man, I’m sure you two know, who eventually got Arm and Hammer baking soda customers to start pouring the stuff down the drain. As…get this…drain freshener!” He licks a bit of sweetener off the heel of his hand. “Is that genius? Is that textbook planned-obsolescence, or what? And all off fear. J.D. eventually figured out that anybody who’d buy a box of baking soda out of fear of refrigerator odor wouldn’t hesitate one second to shell out for another box to prevent drain odor.” He laughs a marvelous laugh. “Drain odor? What’s that, for Christ’s sake? It’s just fear. Very careful research, fear, and the vision of a genius."

Prior to this scene, Hogan had been engaged in fear research in the airport in the conduct of which he had been handing out money in exchange for having his targets name their worst fear. Says Hogan:

“I ask the person who’s taking the money to name, right off the top of their head, what they fear most in the whole world. Their one great informing fear.”

The list of the fears named, as Hogan recites them, is darkly hilarious – my favorite one being:

“That I die and go to heaven and I get there and it stops being heaven because I’m there.”

I don’t know about you, but I can relate to that. I pray that the very talented, super-intelligent, and sadly funny, David Foster Wallace, who finally lost his battle with chronic depression, was not prophetic in writing those words.