The Brevity Cycle: David Foster Wallace, Sufjan Stevens, & Mortality


09/07/2013 by Stephen Silke

It’s 5:42am–too early on a Saturday morning–and I’m at the near-the-university Starbucks. “Year of Our Lord” by Sufjan Stevens is playing on my audio pod, and it’s still grey out. There are six men and three women in the place.

The group of three are working. We are–loafing? Reading? Writing? A few of us stop and periodically take “breaks” to de-stress with gaspers, or we stare wide-eyed down the street sitting and waiting for the sun in patio chairs, presumably searching for the next big something. The women talk about corporate policies and the speed with which the almond aspic pump resets itself.

I tear up in response to page 591 of Infinite Jest, and here I will quote the passage at length:

“… Mario likes the place: it’s crowded and noisy and none of the furniture has protective plastic wrap, but nobody notices anybody else or comments on a disability and the Headmistress is kind to the people and the people cry in front of each other. The inside of it smells like an ashtray, but Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet’s House because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.

People from the public can’t be in there after 2300, though, because they have a Curfew, so Mario just totters past on the broken sidewalk and looks in the ground windows at all the different people. Every window is lit up with light and some are slid partly open, and there is the noise of being outside a house full of people. From one of the upstairs windows facing the street comes a voice going ‘Give it here, give it here.’ Someone is crying and someone else is either laughing or coughing very hard. An irritable man’s voice from a kitchen window, over at the side by the wheelchair ramp and the kitchen window where the ground is soft enough to take the stress of a police lock and lead block nicely, the upper window has a billowing lengthwise flag for a curtain and an old bumper sticker on the glass half scraped off so it says ONE DAY A in cursive, and Mario is arrested by the quiet but unmistakeable sound of a recording of a broadcast of ‘Sixty Minutes More or Less with Madame Psychosis,’ which Mario has never taped a show of because he feels it wouldn’t be right for him but is strangely thrilled to hear someone in Ennet’s thinking enough of to tape and replay. What’s coming from behind the open window with a billowing flag for a curtain is one of the old ones, from the Year of the Wonderchicken, Madame’s inaugural year, when she’d sometimes talk all hour and had an accent. A hard east wind blows Mario’s thin hair straight back off his head. His standing angle is 50°. A female girl in a little fur coat and uncomfortable-looking bluejeans and tall shoes clicks past on the sidewalk and goes up the ramp into Ennet’s back door without indicating she saw somebody with a really big head standing braced by a police lock on the lawn outside the kitchen window. The lady had had on so much makeup she’d looked unwell but the wake of her passage smells very good. For some reason Mario felt like the person behind the flag in the window was also female. Mario thinks it might not be out of the question that she might lend tapes to a fellow listener if he could ask. He usually checks etiquette questions with Hal, who is incredibly knowledgeable and smart. When he thinks of Hal his heart beats and his forehead’s thick skin becomes wrinkled. Hal will also know the term for private tapes made of broadcast things on the air. Perhaps this lady owns multiple tapes. This one is from “Sixty Minutes +/-”’s first year, when Madame still had a slight accent and often spoke on the show as if she were talking exclusively to one person or character who was very important to her. The Moms revealed that if you’re not crazy then speaking to someone who isn’t there is termed apostrophe and is valid art. Mario’d fallen in love with the first Madame Psychosis programs because he felt like he was listening to someone read sad out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying  and U.S. woe, stuff that was real. It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way that isn’t happy. The worst-feeling thing that happened today was at lunch when Michael Pemulis told Mario he had an idea for setting up a Dial-a-Prayer telephone service for atheists in which the athiest dials the number and the line just rings and rings and no one answers. It was a joke and a good one, and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability.”

Wallace cracks wise about the sound of Madame Psychosis’ accent on a taped recording of her radio show, and then there is the earnestness of Mario astride the sadness of a developed athiest aesthetic as it plays out hypothetically. Why is it so sad? Because Wallace has so much to say. Because Wallace didn’t shirk the truth. Because Wallace is dead now.

And I’m thinking about how we all have such a short time together here on Earth. The closest I’ll ever get to Wallace is reading his characters on his pages–his brilliant gift of a pathos-fraught book–a beautiful, fragile, broken mirror held up to the world, which is actually quite a fascinating and poignant train wreck, and where representation of actuality apart from big ideas isn’t very much at all considered in the big scheme of things.

Yes, Wallace is gone. “Year of Our Lord”‘s total running time is 4 minutes and 30 seconds, but the tears have subsided after minute three.

One time, I saw a big book that was about the same size as Infinite Jest; I think it was a Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. It had been discarded on the ground. It was half-soaked with water and bloated, continually expanding in a puddle.

Maybe all books, with the exception of first editions, will eventually just be cooked and stripped and turned into particle board or Swedish furniture, or mulched and recombinated into car parts, or ground up and used as additives for low-cost building construction. Hopefully, a lot of the leftover paper will be turned into more, different, other books with more, different, and perhaps better, more impactful purposes?



Time’s steady march forward is simply relentless. It makes me want to give up in the full-on ambitious effort category sometimes. Stop everything if I could, and go away, or at least call a time-out.

But I can’t.

And even if I did, time wouldn’t budge. It would still follow. It follows even on sabbatical, even on vacation. It follows like a catchy song; it will not be forgotten. It inherently has a power, but a power that by definition does not quit when the device playing it is turned off. It’s like someone whom you’ve married and are now with forever. Like it or not, you’re committed to her for better or for worse. You’re all-in, vows or not.

D.F. Wallace and Sufjan Stevens create and then eventually die. The men in the coffee shop, despite the inevitability of impending labor, continue loafing. The women workers will go on wrangling with minute corporate mandates. I read on and on in my book and the music on my pod device repeats. The books we read are recycled. Our bodies one day will be incorporated into the dust, and we live and we die and that’s it. It’s hilarity and cold sober reflective fodder simultaneously. Everything changes, nothing changes, and we are all somehow combined and separated eventually, for better or for worse. After all the sickness and all the health. Until death parts us.


One thought on “The Brevity Cycle: David Foster Wallace, Sufjan Stevens, & Mortality

  1. It’s very sad that creators of art die, and the art is perhaps mostly forgotten. I guess the desire to simply hang and exist outside of time is pretty commonplace, but then what… And oblivion can be endlessly scary…I haven’t constructed yet what it is I want to say here. I would not construct a logical comment. I’ve just begun listening to Sufjan Stevens and stumbled here by Goodland SS and DFW together. I’m not done with infinite jest, partly because I don’t have a hardcopy and do not want to ruin the experience, and partly because he has a finite body of work. That I suppose, is a great and terrible sadness in itself. But we have what we have, and all we’ve got to do is appreciate it. Perhaps we could one day create art as sincere and important as theirs.

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