Eight years ago, back when John McCain really was a maverick, David Foster Wallace followed him around on the campaign trail for Rolling Stone magazine.
The resulting essay, "Up, Simba," explored the inanity of modern politics, the media coverage thereof, and the nature of John McCain's appeal in a vacuous political environment. Of course, any political writer could have done as much: In the modern American campaign, the cynical pageantry is torn down almost as quickly as it is staged. But what set Wallace's effort apart was his effort to get beyond that -- to investigate what Wallace called "a very modern and American type of ambivalence."
Could a politician -- any public figure -- be genuine? he asked. And at this point, how would we even know if he or she were genuine? McCain's run for the presidency, Wallace wrote, pitted "your deep need to believe" against your almost equally "deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit."
Eight years later, it's clear which side of the battle John McCain has joined. I just hope -- against all the evidence that Wallace apparently hung himself last week -- Wallace didn't come to the same conclusion.
Wallace will be remembered mostly for his novel Infinite Jest. He'll be remembered too for his postmodern stylistic affectations -- those endlessly discursive run-on sentences, the nearly paralyzing self-awareness, and all those footnotes attached to the text (and often to the footnotes themselves). But for me, Wallace's major contribution was that within those pomo affectations -- and maybe partly because of them -- he found a way to be sincere.
That doesn't sound like much. But if you're of a certain age -- as Wallace was and I am -- you have always lived in a culture immersed in bullshit knowing irony, where the biggest mistake you can make is to give a fuck. Even McCain has learned the lesson. He may have tried to inspire voters in 2000, but this year his campaign mocks the very possibility -- portraying Obama as Moses, for example. McCain can safely make fun of Obama's "cult-like" appeal, of course, because so many of us have stopped believing. In anything. He can tell transparent lies at little cost, because we've given up expecting anything else. You're probably already losing interest in this paragraph.
Wallace tried to see through all that ... tried to see through even the desire to smugly "see through" things. He was an agoraphobe who suffered from motion sickness and a palpable self-doubt, and yet he took more chances than almost any writer I can think of. I mean, how many modern celebrity authors would let slip the fact that they attend church regularly, the way Wallace did in a post-9/11 elegy to middle America?
That essay came from Consider the Lobster, a book I reviewed a few years back. And it was in Lobster that he was his most sincere -- wrestling with the ethics of eating animals, the alienating effects of the porn industry, the philosophical burdens of writers ranging from Updike and Dostoevsky to tennis-prodigy Tracy Austin. There was something -- a lot of things, actually -- at stake in these pieces. Sometimes, the message was veiled by Wallace's wry wit, or buried in his constant self-reflexive contextualizing. But I'll bet that we wouldn't have paid attention otherwise -- and that Wallace knew it.
Even so, he always came clean in the end. Dostoevsky's challenge to the modern American writer, Wallace wrote, was that the Russian author "never stopped promulgating the unfashionable stuff in which he believed." Or, one might add, the unfashionable idea of believing, period.
I wish to hell Wallace hadn't stopped either. For all his pomo stammering, Wallace made me think giving a damn was a noble enterprise -- and for me, he was as convincing as any Obama speech ever will be. His death, like the McCain campaign of 2008, is just one more thing to be cynical about.