I was not friends with DFW—let’s just make that clear right off the bat. And I don’t think I actually ever saw him read, but then again maybe I have. There were two readings in Los Angeles I either went to or intended to go to and then maybe just read about. But I don’t remember for sure. I have a good memory usually. This is yet another feeling in the midst of all this that I can’t quite understand.
What I do remember are my plans to stalk him—and, hate to say it, it wasn’t that long ago. A year or two after DFW got his professorial post at Pomona College—you do the math—my father also began to teach there, as well as sibling Claremont colleges Harvey Mudd and Claremont McKenna. At that point I had been a rabid DFW fan for many years, certainly since the release of Infinite Jest, a novel that turned my entire world upside down and left me, later in grad school, in a loop of imitation after bad imitation of his hyperkinetic prose (it made me quite reviled as one of two “metafiction kids” at a mostly Middle American realist writing program). There is no other way to put it: it was love at first sight. I was not in love necessarily with DFW—now that would be psycho as I did not know him, I had to keep reminding myself—but with his prose and that had never quite happened to me like that before.
Anyway I decided my father needed become friends with him. Nevermind DFW was in the English department and my father a professor of physics and various obscure maths—they were still colleagues in a not-so-huge school! Stranger things had happened. Plus DWF had an interest in math and science and would likely appreciate my father’s vocation, plus the bonus of his mad-professor eccentricities and social awkwardnesses.
The plan got more twisted over the next few months when I got my father to finally print out his teaching schedule at Pomona and we decided I would drive in with my dad one day to work, say goodbye, and I’d then go to DFW’s office or classroom, and ask, with the power of eyelash-batting and gooey-girl smile, if I may sit in on his class. For perhaps a whole semester, I would be his and their guest. Until he too would fall in love. . . not with my prose (I was in my native California, moved back in with my parents, to put edits on my debut novel and it was pretty much going disastrously to the point where I considered scrapping it daily) but with, hell, me.
I never carried this out, of course. I knew enough about him to guess he would not appreciate it. So I stayed home, finished my novel, Googled him at least once a month, and trusted that at some point we would meet, quite certainly with me holding a shaking book and he holding a poised pen on opposite sides of a bookstore signing table.
And now we’re back to the problem of my memory: the thing is, I have lived in many cities where he has given talks and readings. How do I not remember if I have seen him read? I know what he would look like, talk like, dress like, how he would read, his asides, the aftermath, everything, but I do not know how I know.
Anyway, a few nights ago, we, Brooklyn writers, were gathered at a dive bar after the opening gala for the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I was just leaving when I saw, hours earlier, I had received the text—always the bearer of death notices these days it seems—from a friend who knew of my admiration for this man. I guess some people there might have known already, but I did not, and I fought running back and screaming into the bar, have you heard?! No, it’s not like what some of you said at the speeches for this festival, something about Brooklyn being the center of the literary universe—the real center of the literary universe was really gone, poof, in some smoggy nothing college town 3000 miles away, probably just past sunset, late summer, a room, some rope, my God. . .
I went home and did all things you do when someone you don’t know, but felt like you did, dies: look up the articles, read the blogs, examine the freshly-baked obits. Then there was the other layer of more odd things you do: google his wife until you find stray pictures of her lovely smiling self, probe weather.com to find out what the world looked like to him that Friday evening (76 F, partly cloudy day, clear night), look up when classes started at Pomona college (just 10 days before, although a Pomona student blog notes that he had taken a medical leave of absence for the year just three days before), anything to imagine where the ripples today might fall.
Two weeks earlier, I had given my syllabus to my advanced seminar in fiction at Bucknell, which ends with some pieces from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I had told them point-blank that it was the only book I was pushing their way that they were not allowed to dislike.
He is my hero, I told them two weeks ago, and he is my hero, I told them again yesterday.
A member of the pack has passed, a leader, a premature elder, and now all the little weak underlings—the underdogs? I am maybe even just barely in this group—must rearrange, gather, make sense of this, and somehow move on.
The hardest part is not knowing if I had ever been in his presence at all. This I blame only partly on our modern technology—all the YouTube and podcasts and million of articles. More than anything though I blame his writing. Anyone who read him, thinks the same stupid thought—he made us all the same in his shadow!—that they—and forgive the cliché DFW—really and truly knew him.