I was pretty clear last fall that I thought the whole kertuffle over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was, in essence, a big circle jerk by well-educated publishing industry types who got all excited to see their own little slice of American experience fêted as The Way We Live Now. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t like the novel. The book’s satire was actually sort of brilliant, the characters were interesting and alive and often heartbreaking, but at the end, I just couldn’t help but feel that Franzen was having it both ways. He was getting away with crafting exactly the sort of book that would appeal to the vanity of the people he was satirizing. Which was also sort of brilliant, if in a dark hopeless kind of way.
Franzen’s piece in the April 18 issue of the New Yorker has been nagging at me all week. There’s a lot going on in this article — Franzen runs off to a mostly-deserted island off of Chile where he hopes to detach himself from the “addiction to stimulation” that he feels is the bane of our time; to see a rare songbird, the raydito; to somehow reconnect with what he feels is a lost authentic individualistic narrative represented by Robinson Crusoe (the island is in the archipelago in which Alexander Selkirk was marooned whose story served as Defoe’s inspiration) and finally, he means to scatter a matchbook’s worth of his friend David Foster Wallace’s ashes while he’s there.
For me, the heart of the essay is not the camping misadventures, or the long digressions about Robinson Crusoe and the history of the novel or What Fiction Means Today, but Franzen’s struggle to come to terms with Wallace’s suicide. The digressions are interesting, and serve to illustrate how far Franzen is willing to go to avoid dealing with the loss he’s been running from for two years, but as a fellow traveller who has been down that long road of trying to figure out why someone you loved would do that to you, this was where I found myself actually touched by the article.
Franzen describes sitting with Wallace the summer before he died. Franzen can’t keep his eyes off the hummingbirds flitting around his house and he can’t even get Wallace to see them. He realizes that “the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.”
If you’ve ever been around someone who is seriously depressed, you’ll recognize the gulf. There’s a weird sense when you’re sitting with someone who is depressed like that that your own enjoyment of the hummingbirds is a betrayal. “Look!” you say, and they turn away with a big “so what.” A big “so what” that feels like personal rejection. A big “so what” that makes you wonder if the birds are really so great, makes you wonder if maybe you’re just an overenthusiastic ridiculous idiot. “Dancing Bear” I call that part of my personality. The one that tries too hard to engage. I grew up with a depressive mother, and I lost my younger brother in 2003 to a single-car auto accident after a long period of depression. I spent most of my life trying to engage depressed people. That I failed with the one I loved the most is the hole in the world with which I live every day.
My depressed person, Patrick was just coming out of a dark dark six week stretch. We called the look he had during that time “alligator eyes above the swamp.” That he managed most days to get out of bed, to drive to my house to pick the dog up for a walk was a major accomplishment. That night, he’d seemed to be coming out of it. He’d seemed happy. In hindsight, it looks like mania, but that’s hindsight. So it was after a night of rather manic drinking at the last of our monthly Art Walks here in town, he drove an acquaintance to his house ten miles outside of town. Coming back down the gravel road he drove off an embankment at, as the coroners told me ” a high rate of speed.” He was very drunk.
Franzen’s description of Wallace’s boredom, his indifference, his inability to see the birds, I get that. Franzen’s descriptions of how boredom, and it’s attendant imitation of being a living human being fuel Wallace’s fiction is incredibly astute. The difference between my brother Patrick and me was, in large part, that I can find real joy in the actual things of the world — in my garden for instance, or in the experience of hiking in the mountains that surround Livingston, in the dogs, in watching my friend Nina’s kids grow and change. Actual joy in something outside my own head. Patrick, like most depressed people, especially when he was in the hole, couldn’t. He wanted to, and he often tried to imitate someone who cared, but he couldn’t actually make that experiential leap where the world outside his own pain was interesting enough to perhaps provide him a lifeline back to the world.
When someone you love kills himself, whether accidentally like Patrick did or deliberately like Wallace (although the survivors of both are left wondering, was it deliberate? was it an impulsive accident? and neither of us will ever know), the anger is overwhelming. Franzen claims its in large part what drove him to an island off the coast of Chile: “my current state of flight from myself had begun two years earlier. At the time, I’d made a decision not to deal with the hideous death of someone I’d loved so much but instead take refuge in anger and work. Now that work was done …” When someone you love kills himself, you’re left in a welter of narrative: everyone argues over the truth of a story that can never be determined. Mostly though you’re left in the bewildering position of wondering how someone who you know loved you could do that to you. It’s the kind of pain that you never get over, the one that lodges deep down inside. What kind of terrible person must you be if the person who loved you most in this world couldn’t even be bothered to stay alive?
Here’s where I’m deeply grateful to Jonathan Franzen — he goes there, into the head of the fucked up depressed person, and parses the fucked up logic in a way that finally makes some kind of sense.
To deserve the death sentence he’d passed on himself, the execution of the sentence had to be deeply injurious to someone. To prove once and for all that he truly didn’t deserve to be loved, it was necessary to betray as hideously as possible those who loved him best, by killing himself at home and making them firsthand witnesses to his act.
That’s the first thing I’ve found (and believe me, I spent two years reading everything I could find on depression and suicide, often to the consternation of my friends) that makes sense. By killing oneself the depressed person can “cure” you of the mistake of loving them, prove to you that you should never have loved someone so unworthy in the first place. They’ll free you from your mistaken love.
When I was in grad school, one of the reasons that my professors were spectacularly disinterested in my novel was that I wasn’t experimenting with the idea that we’re all somehow hollow, with the idea that “the Real” is an unobtainable fiction. I wrote a novel about the realest thing I could think of, parents trying to find their lost child in an actual physical landscape. I wrote about death, and not as a metaphor. Perhaps one of the reasons I could never read Wallace is that what he’s describing is the inside of the head of the sorts of depressed and narcissistic people who raised me. That fictive universe feels like the one I chewed my own arm off to escape, and one reason I escaped into outdoor sports is because that was a world where it was easy to determine what was Real and what was unimportant. Keeping warm enough in bad weather not to die of hypothermia: Real. What you looked like while doing it: Not Real. Not panicking when you encounter a bear standing on his hind legs and woofing at you on a trail you’ve hiked with your dogs a million times: Real. Even in the garden where the stakes are lower, cause and effect is pretty clear: enough water and sunshine and you get tomatoes and lettuces. You don’t get interpretations of tomatoes and lettuces.
Which is not to say that birding or gardening or hiking would have saved any of the people we loved. Depression is a real live mental illness with biological components and we don’t really know how to treat it or cure it or save the people we love. And while I’m still not going to start writing dense, footnoted prose about our alienation from ourselves, while, in fact, I’m writing about the ongoing idea that we can actually know ourselves and our loved ones in some fundamental way, I will always be grateful to Jonathan Franzen for doing the hard work of parsing the fucked up logic of the suicidal.
(Although for his own good, I would like to encourage him to learn some real outdoor skills the next time he wants to go off and play Robinson Crusoe. Our search and rescue teams are good, but still.)