“Sad smelling”

After announcing yesterday that it had acquired the papers of David Foster Wallace, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin posted a few articles and images to give people a sense of what it has on its hands. It may be that only serious Wallace scholars give a damn about what words he circled in the dictionary, but his scribblings inside his books are fascinating, in part because they put your squinting ability to the test—he seemingly found a sweet spot between handwriting that was legible to himself but that few others could parse.

The jottings don’t appear to be anything serious—anybody who’s drawing vampire fangs on Cormac McCarthy‘s author photo is just goofing around before getting down to business, and it’s reassuring that Wallace puttered just like the rest of us schlubs. But it’s clear that he used the first couple of pages of his paperback copy of Rabbit, Run to work out his frustrations with John Updike. “Sad smelling,” he writes. On the next page, in capital letters: “RABBIT MOURNS HIMSELF.” It’s easy to think of these scribblings as early notes toward his 1997 essay on the “Great Male Narcissists”, in which he explored his love-hate relationship with Updike, writing, “[E]ven since Rabbit Is Rich—as his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding indication that the author understood that they were repellent—I’ve continued to read Mr. Updike’s novels and to admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose.”

Earlier this year Katie Roiphe used that essay to make an example of the post-Updike generation of novelists, who in her estimation have failed to appropriately write about penises or something—that Wallace’s attack on Updike’s narcissism was a kind of narcissism itself. But Wallace’s issue with Updike wasn’t so much with sex as with Updike’s seeming inability to recognize that his characters’ sexual obsessions could be flaws and not amusing traits; when Wallace saw a genuinely good writer behave this way, his synapses fried. He explained this a little more casually in an extended 1996 interview with David Lipsky, to be published next month as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace:

Updike, I think, has never had an unpublished thought. And that he’s got an ability to put it in very lapidary prose. But that Updike presents one with a compressed Internet problem, is there’s 80 percent absolute dreck, and 20 percent priceless stuff. And you just have to wade through so much purple gorgeous empty writing to get to anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill.

You really do, don’t you?

Yeah, I think he’s a nasty person.

2 thoughts on ““Sad smelling”

  1. In 1992, Wallace wrote a parody of Updike (published in Harper’s) called Rabbit Resurrected. He used that phrase “sad smelling” there: “The well-dressed, sad-smelling God of the Springer’s airless church.” This makes me think that he was re-reading this copy of RR planning that parody or that the phrase stuck with him enough (over the years) to use it in that parody.

    1. Thanks, Matt. A friend of mine emailed me that piece last week and I meant to update the post. But it slipped my mind, so I appreciate your stepping in here.

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