Not too long ago, here in Los Angeles, I was walking down the street to get a doner kebab at a place called Spitz. Their doner kebabs are criminally good, and I was almost there when I stopped short: the shop’s south wall had a street-art-style mural, and in it I spotted a trio of stenciled David Foster Wallace faces. The stencils were in the style of Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary who abetted Fidel Castro’s efforts in Cuba.
Wanting to know how David Foster Wallace became part of this street-art-style mural, in the style of Che Guevara, I tracked down the artist, and soon, we met at Spitz for a beer.
The artist, a blond, scruffy-bearded autodidact, told me that street art often employs characters, recognizable people whose auras enliven otherwise static scenes. He referred to Bill Murray and the aforementioned Che as popular options. The artist said that while Che Guevara would’ve been a natural choice for this project, he wanted to use a character he felt a more personal connection to, and whose aura he thought would best animate his vision.
I asked this guy, the artist, The Fictionalized Version of the Guy Who Actually Is Alive and Who I Met, Devon Paulson, the Guy Who Painted The Real Stencil Who Is Not at All the Guy in This Piece of Writing Right Here, what the David Foster Wallace stencil meant.
“Well,” he said. “If Che Guevara means ‘good looking, punky rebellion,’ then I guess David Foster Wallace means ‘good looking, rebellious bookishness.’”
I asked him to elaborate.
“As I see it, the icon means, ‘Books are cool, but in the same way that vinyl and revolution are cool: nostalgically, because vinyl exists but only as a fetish, and in developed Western capitalist nations, revolution exists only as a memory—often commemorated by a t-shirt or a line in a punk song.”
I asked him if, in his description of what the icon means, if he could swap the word “intellectuality” for the word “books,” if only to permit the Wallace icon to reach a wider audience.
“Yes,” he said.
I asked him why Wallace gets to be this icon, rather than another writer.
“Part of it is that he just had the look: the bandana, the long hair, like literary rock’n’roll. And part of it’s the backstory: prodigy, drugs, suicide. But the main part of it’s in his body of work: He wrote about our world, the world that our generation actually lives in. He wrote about TV in a serious way that didn’t condescend, drugs in a serious way that didn’t romanticize. He took our world for what it was, and then, he animated our world. It was like, he wrote through a gaze circumscribed by self-consciousness, and for the rest of us, self-consciousness is a self-defeating, deadening force. But not for him. Wallace’s writing was alive, invigorated, like he found a way to take that crippling, paralyzing, awful affliction of self-consciousness and redeem it, make it something new, something that enlivens rather than deadens.”
I observed that eventually self-consciousness, along with other factors, did kill Wallace.
“Well see that’s the tragedy.”
I asked how the artist might view his street art in the context of the claim Jonathan Franzen made in The New Yorker that part of the reason David Foster Wallace killed himself was that, despite knowing full well that he ought to be trying to love in a human, ephemeral way—to overcome his solipsism—he opted for a cheap form of adulation that would make him an immortal “public legend.”
“Well,” the mural painter said. “That’s tricky, because on the one hand, I mean, I didn’t find out about this guy until he killed himself, because after he did, his books literally covered every fiction table at every bookstore in the country, from Barnes and Noble to Skylight, and I’m an autodidact. But on the other hand, that cheap sort of adulation Franzen says Wallace capitulated to applies not just to Wallace the man, but to his body of work, to the way people view his work.”
I asked the artist to provide an example in the form of a personal anecdote, for instance like the one I have about how when I was in high school I thought Infinite Jest was a sci-fi fantasy future book that people who’d done acid at a young age sat around talking about while listening to late-nineties techno like The Prodigy and The Crystal Method. As in, talked about rather than read, as in, a book that people who actually read made fun of exactly because of how the techno people talked about it. Until of course a little later after high school I had a beer with my friend who’d done acid at a young age and he asked me if I’d read Infinite Jest yet, and I said, “I thought we made fun of people about that one?” And he said, “Yeah, but you still have to read it.” And then I read it and found out Infinite Jest wasn’t exactly the techno future fantasy I thought it was, and went on to rhapsodize about it for the next six months.
“Just the other day,” the artist said, “I was reading Girl with Curious Hair alone at a bar and these girls tried to talk to me. They asked me what I was reading and they were extremely drunk and I told them and their eyes glassed over like always, because reading alone at the bar, in the end, doesn’t work all that well. But this one really drunk guy who’d before my exchange with the girls been really quiet saw what happened and got up and grabbed the book and shouted at them to respect the writer who was the only person ever to explain the clichés at the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous, and really, clichés in general. Which, I mean, David Foster Wallace was a gentle man, even if his prose was sometimes sort of an assault, and I doubt that he would’ve wanted an extremely drunk guy yelling, in his name, at a bunch of girls who worked in PR.”
I asked the artist to explain what he meant by “reading alone at the bar… doesn’t work.”
“All of this only comes back to only one issue. ‘To work,’ to me, means to escape myself, to find love, to experience human warmth. That’s the issue. That’s always the issue. That’s Wallace’s issue, that’s my issue, it’s probably your issue, it’s how I’ve inhaled and absorbed Wallace so successfully—because he speaks to me as if from the inside of my own chest. He’s inside me. It’s real-life intimacy.”
I bristled at the artist’s willingness to identify “my issue,” and I reminded him that I’d told him almost nothing about myself.
“Exactly,” he said.
I mulled this over. I asked the artist if, as a serious fan of Wallace’s work, he had any reservations about representing Wallace as a stencil, or if he suspected that making Wallace into a full-blown Che-style icon in any way cheapened or corrupted either the man or his work.
“Well,” he said. “When I painted him, I was thinking that normally it’s Che Guevara up there, and that I’d rather put up an image of someone I genuinely liked. I was thinking, actually, about you, the reader who would be on his way for a doner kebab and would spot the stencil and stop to take stock of it and feel for a second like his world of books and writing wasn’t actually quite as sequestered and irrelevant as he thought, like maybe the popular world could validate David Foster Wallace the same way Wallace in his writing had validated pop.”
I asked if it was possible that being validated by pop was a bad thing, like how Wallace wrote about the way in which Pepsi validated “choice” by providing visuals that completely eradicated choice. Like if maybe pop culture’s dexterity with irony could have a downside.
“I am a real fan. I’ve read everything he’s ever written and everything that’s ever been written about him. I’ve read Infinite Jest twice. I am not the corrupt part of the process here. I am part of the well-intentioned part of the process. It was the same with Che. The guy who took that photo of Che was a real photographer. The publisher in Milan who initiated the photo’s first stage of dissemination had real radical ideals. The Irish guy who made the image into a poster was well familiar with the real Che, and also with Ireland’s troubles in Belfast—he thought the Republican struggle needed the aura of Che. So if David Foster Wallace emerges on t-shirts on the Venice Boardwalk, which he very well might, it’s possible that it’ll be partly my fault, but it’s also possible that, even if it’s partly my fault, I’ll be in good company.”
I asked him then, if history was going to place him in good company, who he, if David Foster Wallace were to end up on t-shirts on Venice Beach, would have to blame.
“Now that’s a curious question right there. Because it’s tempting to blame capitalism or commercialism or the failings of the public educational system or generalized American cultural vapidity, but really, and I do this out of love right here because I’m a fan, I blame Wallace himself. Wallace was an endlessly self-absorbed writer, and he knew this. The fact that he knew it made him more self-absorbed. But really, due to the black hole of his self-absorption, he had a way of writing about himself even when he wasn’t writing about himself. In his essay on David Lynch you could substitute a few pronouns and make it autobiography, about how Lynch had a childish streak and probably should’ve been edited. But writing about himself like this, even when he’s talking about tennis and Dostoevsky and man-made deserts and border-concussing concavities and hideous men, you get the sense that even then, in a weird way, even when he’s talking about something completely outside himself, he’s still talking about himself anyway. Now mind you, this is sort of an innocent and childish thing to do, but it’s what made his genius so endearing and ingratiating and accessible—partly because he lived in our world, with TV and everything, but partly because, even with his massive intelligence, he suffered from the same basically adolescent cripplings that still to this day afflict the vast majority of American adults, a theme that inspired Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Are you following me here?”
“What I’m saying is that everything Wallace wrote somehow pointed back at himself, even if only pointing back to his gut-primary motive of proving his own genius. So, if this is true, and Wallace wrote about clichés, which he did, extensively—he was badly, badly preoccupied by clichés—then his writing about clichés was also writing about himself.”
I asked the artist if he was about to claim that, because Wallace wrote about clichés, he somehow foretold his own fate as an icon in a mural on a kebab shop that he himself painted.
“No, no, no. That’s not what I’m saying. That argument, while in some ways if pulled off could be elegant, would also mostly be crude. Also, remember that Wallace is inside me—this is a whole separate tangent, but in the category of elegant but possibly crude arguments, I could possibly try to convince you that because Wallace is inside me, it wasn’t even me who painted that stencil. Rather, it was more like that stencil painted itself, and I just happened to be there to apply the paint.”
I reminded the artist that, as a reader, I had a tolerance for wild theories, but asked if maybe the artist could say something more reasonable.
“Gladly. I don’t even need to argue either of those points. Crude arguments, in this particular case, aren’t necessary. Because what I’m saying is far more simple. I’m saying that Wallace in life had a kinship with cliché that makes it natural and fitting for him to have a kinship with cliché in death, or, in his ‘life’ as a legend to Jonathan Franzen. I mean, let’s think about why he wrote about clichés, what he had to say about them. Most people will refer you to his Kenyon speech in which he implored an audience of graduating college students to be conscious of how they think. Some people will point you to the blind faith trope vis-à-vis clichés in Infinite Jest, and conspiracy theorists will point to the line on page 270 when David Foster Wallace has Geoffrey Day, who, according to Wikipedia, is a ‘pompously verbose [halfway house] resident and professor at a junior college,’ say, ‘So then at forty-six years of age I came here [to the halfway house] to learn to live by clichés… To turn my will and life over to the care of clichés.’ Those clichés being the ones familiar to anyone who’s been through AA. Because of course Wallace committed suicide at forty-six and did in fact then at that time turn his life over to the care of clichés.”
I asked if this was a weak-willed, passive aggressive attempt to sell me on his conspiracy.
“No. I eschew crude arguments. It’s just that I, the man who turned David Foster Wallace into a stencil on a kebab shop, noticed the forty-six-care-of-clichés thing I couldn’t help but take note. All I’m saying is that Wallace had a kinship with cliché in both life and death. He wrote about Tracy Austin, the tennis phenom who wrote a memoir in which she revealed that she had no clue at all about the extraordinariness of her own life. She didn’t realize that, by winning professional tennis tournaments at a young age, she was living out a beauty that for the rest of us is just as out of reach as heaven itself. And Wallace idolized this kind of mentality, this human psyche that was the opposite of his—so un-self-aware that the clichés became true, the I-just-play-my-hardests and the I-only-thought-about-winnings, this mentality that delivered these athletes to a confluence of mind and body perfection that adds up to a human performance of beauty, to a point in time where the clichés stopped being an abstraction, where the truth behind them was rescued, to a place where the truth was redeemed. That’s all I’m saying. I’m saying that maybe he didn’t foretell his own representation on a kebab shop, but he at least paved the way.”
I asked him if he was suggesting that Wallace wanted to become a cliché.
“Do you know what Che Guevara’s last words were? Do you know what he told his assassin in Bolivia before he got gunned down? He said, ‘Aim well because you’re about to kill a man.’ This is well documented in Chevolution by Trisha Ziff. And the people laid out his body with his scraggly beard and longish hair and he looked just like Jesus Christ, a resemblance that nobody there shied away from harping on. But doesn’t that last line sound more mythic than real? Like something from a John Wayne movie?”
I agreed that it did.
“But the thing is that I don’t think it’s exaggerated. I think Che really said that, because, while the line sort of seems like he was writing his own newspaper headline, really, he was writing the refrain to his own immortality. Central to Che’s aura was the fact that he had no fear of death, that he was all too willing to die. And I would argue that he had this willingness because he knew he would never die, because he would live on in one way or another, even if only on t-shirts on Venice Beach, and what’s more, that Che, even in life, was living this way, as if he were already dead, as if he, rather than a living being, were just an aura, an essence that t-shirt designers can try their hardest to capture, but which they won’t be able to. So what I’m saying is that Che knew it. Che knew what he was doing.”
“Wallace knew that he was the first writer in a while to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. And he was well aware that, on his publicity tour for Infinite Jest, he was answering questions concerned more with hype than the book itself. And so all that I’m saying, the main thing I’m saying, is that there’s symmetry to him becoming an icon on a kebab shop. Wallace said that clichés cloak real truth, are cloaks over the hard truths that we tend to gloss over, that we tend to fail to examine, and I guess, I guess that I’m saying that now, the way that he’s talked about now, that reasoning applies to him too.”
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.