It was springtime, and the park’s grass was very green and the air suffused with honeysuckle and lilacs both, which was almost too much. --David Foster Wallace, “Good People”My favorite passage from "Too Much Information," John Jeremiah Sullivan's GQ article on David Foster Wallace and The Pale King, comes when Sullivan describes how Wallace writes not about his characters, but into them:
Imagine walking into a place, say a mega-chain copy shop in a strip mall. It's early morning, and you're the first customer. You stop under the bright fluorescents and let the doors glide closed behind you, look at the employees in their corporate-blue shirts, mouths open, shuffling around sleepily. You take them in as a unified image, with an impenetrable surface of vague boredom and dissatisfaction that you're content to be on the outside of, and you set to your task, to your copying or whatever. That's precisely the moment when Wallace hits pause, that first little turn into inattention, into self-absorption. He reverses back through it, presses play again. Now it's different. You're in a room with a bunch of human beings. Each of them, like you, is broken and has healed in some funny way. Each of them, even the shallowest, has a novel inside. Each is loved by God or deserves to be. They all have something to do with you: When you let the membrane of your consciousness become porous, permit osmosis, you know it to be true, we have something to do with one another, are part of a narrative—but what? Wallace needed very badly to know. And he sensed that the modern world was bombarding us with scenarios, like the inside of the copy shop, where it was easy to forget the question altogether. We "feel lonely in a crowd," he writes in one of his stories, but we "stop not to dwell on what's brought the crowd into being," with the result that "we are, always, faces in a crowd."It's this ability to get into another person, to put the reader in a small room with another whole human, that can make reading Wallace’s fiction so painful. Empathy, connection, the possibility of true understanding—essential to human kindness, yes, but also terrifying. I thought of S---, whose trauma is retold by the narrator of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men #20.” He explains how she used empathy to save her life, how she had to make what she calls a “soul-connection” with a psychotic rapist to keep him from murdering her. The narrator recounts:
Lying there helpless and connected, she says her senses had taken on the nearly unbearable acuity we associate with drugs or extreme meditative states. She could distinguish lilac and shattercane’s scents from phlox and lambsquarter, the watery mint of first-growth clover…She could decoct from the smell of the gravel in her face the dank verdure of the spring soil beneath the gravel and distinguish the press and shape of each piece of gravel against her face and large breasts through the leotard’s top, the angle of the sun on the top of her spine and the swirl in the intermittent breeze that blew from left to right across the light film of sweat on the top of her back and shoulder blades.Later, she goes from connecting with the psychopath to becoming connection:
She says by this time something was aiding her and she was completely focused. That by this time she was focus itself, she had merged with connection itself…How in her oneiric state of heightened attention to everything around she said the clover smells like weak mint and the phlox like mown hay and she feels the way that she and the clover and phlox and the dank verdure beneath the phlox and the mulatto retching into the gravel and even the contents of his stomach were all made of precisely the same thing and were connected by something far deeper and more elemental than what we limitedly call quote unquote love, what from her perspective she calls connection, and that she could feel the psychotic fellow feeling the truth of this at the same time she did and she could feel the plummeting terror and infantile conflict this feeling of connection aroused in his soul and stated again without drama or self-satisfaction that she felt this terror, not her own but his.