Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Jonathan Franzen Remembers David Foster Wallace; Mencken Disses Joe Sixpack

At the Oct. 23 memorial service for David Foster Wallace at N.Y.U., speaker after celebrated speaker (Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, George Saunders) remembered a fellow writer with evident fondness and il-miglior-fabbro humility. Wallace’s sister’s tribute was devastatingly sad; Mark Costello’s was sad and very funny; Donald Antrim’s was deeply personal and not funny in the least. And Jonathan Franzen’s was different from the others, sad and funny and personal, but also contentious. He was grappling in a serious way with Wallace’s absence and the meaning of the work he’d left behind:

“And so now this handsome, brilliant, funny, kind Midwestern man with an amazing spouse and a great local support network and a great career and a great job at a great school with great students has taken his own life, and the rest of us are left behind to ask (to quote Infinite Jest), ‘So yo then, man, what’s your story?’

“One good, simple, modern story would go like this: ‘A lovely, talented personality fell victim to a severe chemical imbalance in his brain. There was the person of Dave, and then there was the disease, and the disease killed the man as surely as cancer might have.’ This story is at once sort of true and totally inadequate. If you’re satisfied with this story, you don’t need the stories that Dave wrote—particularly not those many, many stories in which the duality, the separateness, of person and disease is problematized or outright mocked. One obvious paradox, of course, is that Dave himself, at the end, did become, in a sense, satisfied with this simple story and stopped connecting with any of those more interesting stories he’d written in the past and might have written in the future. His suicidality got the upper hand and made everything in the world of the living irrelevant.

“But this doesn’t mean there are no more meaningful stories for us to tell. I could tell you 10 different versions of how he arrived at the evening of Sept. 12, some of them very dark, some of them very angering to me, and most of them taking into account Dave’s many adjustments, as an adult, in response to his near-death of suicide as a late adolescent.”

Mr. Franzen went on to give his own “not-so-dark” version—a story leavened by what he called the “great happiness and privilege and endlessly interesting challenge” of being David Foster Wallace’s friend.


IF YOU’RE WONDERING WHAT H. L. Mencken would have made of the current fascination with Joe the Plumber, Joe Six-Pack and all the other Regular Joes out there, get yourself a copy of the newly reissued Notes on Democracy (Dissident, $14.95), a brief satirical blast Mencken first published in 1926. With his refreshing vehemence and impeccable political incorrectness, he explores the root of the democratic ideal, the notion that at the “nether levels” of the social order “lies a deep, illimitable reservoir of righteousness and wisdom, unpolluted by the corruption of privilege.” His unabashed contempt for the common man—referred to throughout as “inferior man” and occasionally “Homo boobiens”—rings out on every page:

“He has changed but little since the earliest recorded time, and that change is for the worse quite as often as it is for the better. He still believes in ghosts, and has only shifted his belief in witches to the political sphere. He is still a slave to priests, and trembles before their preposterous magic. … Whenever he is confronted by a choice between two ideas, the one sound and the other not, he chooses almost infallibly, and by a sort of pathological compulsion, the one that is not. Behind all the great tyrants and butchers of history he has marched with loud hosannas, but his hand is eternally against those who seek to liberate the spirit of the race.”

But the Sage of Baltimore refused to let the “farce” of democratically elected government dismay him:

“I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down.”

Now you know the worst of it—get out there and vote!

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Jonathan Franzen Remembers David Foster Wallace; Mencken Disses Joe Sixpack