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Notes on My Book's Title, DFW, the Pixies, the Fear of Mawkishness, and "Veddering"

With talk of David Foster Wallace's legacy in the air, thanks to +Maud Newton, I decided to revisit a piece about my book's title from last year in which DFW, the '90s, and his diagnosis of his/our generation figure prominently.

Also, I failed to come up with another column idea for today.

The title of my collection is Why They Cried, and I’m self-conscious about it. I think it perfectly describes the contents of the collection, don’t get me wrong, but I worry it makes those contents seem more maudlin than they actually are. (Although, yes, they are somewhat maudlin.) I thought Rob Walker got it just right—and was gratified that he did—when the title story ran as part of the Significant Objects project and he wrote, “… while the series title sounds like a downer, the truth is these character vignettes have been clever and amusing.” This is what I was hoping for.

How did the title come about? I didn’t move to New York until I was 31, eleven years ago. I realize now that the city was overwhelming on a basic, metabolic level. The first time I visited my parents after living in New York, my suburban hometown felt depopulated, like an atom bomb had fallen on it. It was as though my nervous system had adjusted to being around more people than I’d ever been around before, and previously normal levels of human congestion seemed eerily spare.

With the density of New York came other revelations. I saw more people cry in public in New York during my first month in the city than I had seen in my entire life. (I also saw more arguing, kissing, and sleeping, but it’s the crying that stuck with me.) I started writing a series of vignettes I collectively called “Why They Cried.” Each one featured someone crying, usually for non-emotional reasons. I abandoned the project when one of the vignettes—about an actor who specializes in crying in made-for-TV movies—took over and became “The Cryerer,” which appeared in One Story and is now available in my free e-book Single. (It also appears in Why They Cried.)

Years passed, and I didn’t think about the other vignettes until Rob agreed to let me write a story for Significant Objects. I brushed them off, turned them into a series for S.O., and along the way realized that the title perfectly captured the spirit of the stories I’d written in the the last ten years, not to mention the stories I’m drawn to as a reader. It was one of those “strongest reactions” Fitzgerald advises us to roll with. It suggests sadness at a distance, I think, and the cover David Gee did for the collection tips the scale safely away from mawkishness. Because, I admit it, I am terrified of seeming mawkish. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps I haven’t entirely outgrown the mid-’90s irony cocoon I came of age with—the one that made me worship Guided By Voices but feel slightly embarrassed for Superchunk. Or maybe writing is just frightening. (Gen X didn’t invent the irony cocoon, of course. Walker Percy uses variants of “ironic” to describe a sort of existential attunement a half dozen times in 1961’s The Moviegoer . Thanks, Google Book Search.)

But as I was trying to describe (to myself) this melancholy comedy—the basic Gogol-West-Saunders axis—that occupies most writers and readers I identify with, the perfect comparison came to me. I realized that my greatest literary influence might be the Pixies. There’s a Pixies documentary called loudQUIETloud that I’ve never seen, but the title perfectly captures the band. I once saw Dave Grohl say that Nirvana almost didn’t release “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because they thought it was such a Pixies rip-off. loudQUIETloud. It’s this sort of tonal modulation that I’m also drawn to in fiction. This story sounds sad. Wait, no, it’s funny. Oh wait, wrong. It’s sad after all. Call it sadFUNNYsad or maybe humanSMIRKYhuman. I don’t know why I like it so much, unless it’s because it provides a way to wriggle free of the irony cocoon without entirely leaving its familiar embrace. This would also neatly explain, for example, the entire contents of the Stephen Malkmus songbook.

(While I’m using ’90s rock to analyze my literary tastes, let me tell you how Eddie Vedder figures into this. “Veddering” is a phenomenon I sometimes detect in other people’s writing and fear in my own. Veddering is singing in a voice that is obviously not yours. It’s like talking in a silly cartoon voice without realizing it until your throat hurts. Writers know what I’m talking about. You write and write until you think, Who the hell is this guy and who does he think he is? Then, with any luck, you relax your throat and throw off the stage voice. The problem with Veddering, however, is that you can never be absolutely sure you’re not doing it. The process known as “finding one’s voice” is just the process of trying to find out if and when you are Veddering and trying to stop. You can also substitute Dave Matthews for Eddie Vedder here, although Matthewsing is an awful word.)

The unfortunate thing that happens now is that this post goes more or less off the rails as I realize that the quote I wanted to turn to next, by David Foster Wallace, does not exist—at least not where I thought it did and that what does exist there says pretty much the opposite of what I was looking for. This has been happening to me a lot. I’ll have a quote stuck in my head like a song—for years, maybe—then find out I have the words all wrong, that I’ve been walking around humming the literary equivalent of “excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

There’s something I thought Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast that was going to be the basis for a post called “Ernest Hemingway, Prick.” Can’t find it, even with Google Book Search. I seem to remember Oretega y Gassett saying something in The Mission of the University about the likelihood of a novel capturing the popular imagination being so low, that the would-be novelist would be much more useful if they, say, put their hand to developing a new accounting technique. I bought the book on eBay and waded through it page by page, only to find the quote I was looking for was not there. And evidently DFW does not say in “E Unibus Pluram”—his essay about television and American fiction—that readers can tell when you are trying manipulate them and clumsily remove their emotional brassieres and that they don’t like it when you do this.

But let’s for a second imagine that he did say that, in “E Unibus Pluram” or somewhere else where it may, in fact, turn out he did say something like this. I want to imagine this because it has weighed on me for years, misremembered though it may be. Because who wants to be clumsy when it comes to even metaphorical brassieres? It’s a paralyzing accusation, this thing DFW maybe didn’t say. It’s like the number Ernest Hemingway, prick, pulls on Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, when he describes how Scott Fitzgerald came to him—Ernest Hemingway—for advice about how to “do it” with Zelda. (Of course, EHPrick knew just the thing. Something about a pillow, as I recall.) So this thing DFW did not say—or at least not where I thought he said it—took it’s toll on me, is what I’m saying. It made me worry that I—like Fitzgerald—was an inexpert emotional brassiere manipulator, and so I rationalized. I rationalized that I liked my stories sadFUNNYsad not sadFUNNYtotallyunsatisfying, and I argued to myself (and against DFW, may he rest in peace) that brassiere removal is among the oldest living activities that never, ever gets old and maybe it’s fine for readers to know what they want and that they’re going to get it, as long as you make an attempt to deliver it in ways that are not necessarily totally new (and thus completely alienating) but relatively new and cathartically pleasing. This is what I said in my head when I imagined DFW calling me mawkish. And I said this for years.

Having an imaginary argument with a misremembered quote by David Foster Wallace might seem totally ridiculous—and it is—but I doubt that it’s so rare. I was too old to get the full John Lennon effect from Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but DFW’s? It didn’t even seem possible. He’s my Kurt Cobain. He’s the only writer of his (my?) generation with whom reckoning is not optional. His Hendrix-like virtuousity simply can’t be ignored, even when it’s maddening.

But imagine my surprise (relief?) upon re-reading “E Unibus Pluram” and discovering that not only does the word brassiere never appear, but that DFW both perfectly diagnoses my fear of mawkishness and issues something like a call to fearless sentimentality. I remembered this, too. I reviewed A Supposed Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again when it came out, and I remember treating DFW’s call for a post-ironic American literature with suspicion. “You first,” I think I wrote.

Now, upon re-reading it, I see how perfectly in touch with the irony cocoon DFW was—in 1993!—and how perfectly predictable my sadFUNNYsad strategy is based on his diagnosis. It is not that I might be mawkish, but that I fear appearing so that is the problem.

Against this charge I have no defense, except maybe my place in history. I don’t think I’ll ever make it to DFW’s promised land of fearless immediacy. How could I? I saw Pulp Fiction in a theater, the day it came out. Not that I think the sort of return he describes isn’t possible. I once saw it happen. When Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea appeared in 1998—released by a label run by my earnest nemeses Superchunk—it was a post-ironic revelation. You could stop hipsters on the street—hipsters who normally knew all the knocks—and ask them what they thought of it. Their eyes would get dewy and they’d say, “It’s beautiful, man.” While it had the aural trappings of the indie rock of the previous five years, Jeff Mangum had crafted a personal vision that stepped outside of irony’s leveling feedback loop. If Malkmus was Tristan Tzara (or Mark E. Smith) Mangum was Salvador Dali.

So I guess it’s no surprise (although I am a terrible, terrible reader; more of a browser really) that I detect a sort of surreal expressionism developing in writers younger than myself. I don’t think I’ll ever get there, where they are, so far from the cocoon. It seems too unanchored, too frightening. The risk of mawkishness is too dire, even to contemplate. I still can’t listen to Superchunk, not matter what I do. Though, again, I could just be Veddering.

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