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Guests, Guides

Maria Bustillos: The Wonder of Wallace-L

09.01.09 | 18 Comments

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: the Macho of the Dork, in which Wallace fans may read the author’s favorite chapter, “David Foster Wallace: the Dork Lord of American Letters.” Her next book, Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman, is coming out in September. She lives in Los Angeles, can be contacted at dorkismo@gmail.com, and is on Twitter as @mariabustillos.

My first post to wallace-l, the mailing list dedicated to David Foster Wallace, is dated 6th July 2001. I had finished Infinite Jest only the week before, and spent the following days obsessively trolling the Internet for clues to the mysteries that remained. wallace-l was quite obviously home to a ton of devoted, knowledgeable Wallace fans, and I hoped that, through these sages, I would be able to unlock the novel’s secrets without having to read and study it more closely. Which didn’t happen at all! Instead I wound up studying the novel for years on end, and having the time of my life.

Though eager to tap the wisdom of the wallace-l membership, I was shy to post at first, intimidated by their intimacy as well as their erudition. But on that day, Marcus Gray had asked the list about the likely value of a set of signed Rushdie proofs he’d acquired somehow. I’d been an avocational bookseller for some years, so I told Marcus what I could about his Rushdie proofs, and concluded with the following:

I just signed onto this list yesterday; finished Infinite Jest last week and am still kind of boggled, like I could tie a handkerchief around my head and start moaning "my braim hurts." Anyway, I hope you guys can all supply really concise Cliff's Notes-style answers to my many questions, so I don't have to read the damn thing again right away ....

And so it began.

Right after my post on that day in July, Marco Carbone weighed in on Warp Records and their influence on Kid A; Darcy James Argue (yes, that Darcy James Argue) quoted Woody Allen and gave some guy stick for dissing, on principle, music that was rapidly composed; Hillary Brown took up cudgels on behalf of Salman Rushdie (“funny doesn’t equal baby food”); Stephen Schenkenberg described Sigur Ros’s live show as a “caught-in-the-most-wonderful-snowglobe-ever experience” and praised Wallace’s obviously-firsthand grasp of tennis lingo; and Steve McPherson lamented his inability to get hold of a copy of The Lost Scrapbook (excellent novel, btw).

All this and so very much more came within three days of my first post. Such a high level of discourse, such humor and fun, such omnivorous interest and delight in everything from Martin Amis’s teeth to the sociological function of slang; and with room, too, for the goofiest observations and the worst puns, and all leavened with the ineffable pleasure of baiting David Fleissig, who could invariably be counted on to Blackberry in with exasperated exhortations to stay on topic (as if!)

wallace-l has served as my confessional, my local pub and my support group (the latter, especially, after 9/11 and the 2004 elections.) There have been scraps and little list-dramas (there always are!) but for me it has always been fun, always interesting.

The wildest episode of all came when Thomas Harris recommended a novel called The Last Western by Thomas Klise to the list. It sounded great, so when I came across a copy I snapped it right up, and reported back in March of 2002 that it bore all sorts of strange resemblances to Infinite Jest:

there is Herman Felder, the drug-addicted genius filmmaker, engineer and camera inventor whose apocalyptic work ("Cowboys and Indians") tells the story of the human condition (along more martial lines, maybe, than does the film 'Infinite Jest') in a stupendous, world-altering work of art whose creation proves the auteur's undoing. (Incidentally, as in IJ, the title of the book refers to the film and vice versa.)

And likewise, the story of the book and the story of the film are the same, intertwined and sometimes indistinguishable one from the other.

There is also a fruitful comparison to be made between The Servants of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed-up in TLW and the residents of Ennet House in IJ; the place apart (a 12th house enclosure, astrology fans), where the true business of the world takes place. And there is a very Gately-like character in the mute pilot, Truman (né Bleeder).

I was in such a panic to discuss this book with other Wallace fans that I offered my copy to anyone on the list who would care to read it, and someone took me up on this offer: one Erwin Hoesi of Klosterberg, Germany, then living in a monastery (and now a financial analyst living in London, with whom I had a many-splendored evening just a few weeks ago.)

Erwin, too, had found all sorts of weirdly evocative correspondences between The Last Western and IJ. His remarks were so completely thrilling to me that when I read about a call for papers on Wallace from the “Ball State University Project”, I thought I might throw down, though I hadn’t written anything similar in years. Perhaps a closer study of Klise would unlock all the mysteries of Infinite Jest!

So I wrote to David Foster Wallace himself for the first time, asking for his remarks on The Last Western. He wrote back, in his matey way, just a few days later. (He always wrote people back; I really don’t know of anyone whom he didn’t write back.)

David Foster Wallace: “I am just about the world’s worst source of info on [Infinite Jest] …”

Dear Ms. Bustillos,

Thank you for your very very complimentary note. I regret that I’m not going to be able to help you with your project, for the following reasons: 1. I am wholly ignorant of The Last Western—never heard of it before today* (if it turns out everyone else in the world has read it, it’ll just be one more instance of my ignoramusness); 2. I tend, to the extent that I remember IJ at all, to get all sorts of different mss. and draft and pre-edited versions of it jumbled up with whatever version of it actually came out, and so I am just about the world’s worst source of info on that book.

I’m flattered that you asked, though, and I wish you luck with your enterprise and the German ex-monk. Yrs. Truly, David F. Wallace

*Same with the “Ball State University Project,” which manages to sound at once academic, Blair Witch-ish, and prurient. I don’t think I want to know.

Imagine my total shock! My brains felt like they’d been plunged in ice water. This is what Ptolemy must have felt like when he realized his orbits weren’t perfect! I had been so certain that Wallace had so cleverly and magically transmuted half the themes in The Last Western into Infinite Jest. I dashed off a note to him that began, “You’ve never heard of The Last Western?! Do I ever feel like the biggest idiot going!” and I apologized, and went on to discuss The Blair Witch Project and a few other things, not really expecting to hear from him again. But a matter of days later, I received this (embarrassing! but so funny) postcard.

“Dear Ms. B.”, he began. He replied that he’d been terribly scared by The Blair Witch Project (as I had been) and also by the Blair Witch “fake-documentary infomercial thing,” and finally concluded:

“You should maybe go ahead and do your paper if you want—I won’t tell anybody that I’d never heard of ‘The Last Western.’ Cordially, David W.”

If I loved him before, for his work, I loved him again, so much more, even, for being like that. But I never did write the paper. Too embarrassed! Maybe I will, though, someday.

A long time later, I gave Wallace a copy of The Last Western at a reading. He was wonderfully gracious and kind. A fellow wallace-lister remembered this, and asked him a few months later if he’d read it yet; he said it was almost at the top of his “fun pile.” I often wonder if he ever got to it, and if he liked it.

The moral of the story being, please join wallace-l. The list is now moderated by the gifted Matt Bucher, a great Wallace scholar himself, who has long kept things welcoming and orderly over there. It’s a gathering of people who value intellectual curiosity, humanity, candor and humility, like a mirror of Wallace’s own qualities, and in that way is keeping something of him alive.

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