David Foster Wallace grew up in the Midwest but it was not really his home. Yet in September 2001, he was teaching at Illinois State University and living in Bloomington. He had attended college in Massachusetts and graduate school in Arizona, and had written Infinite Jest and earned a MacArthur “genius” grant, and now he was living in a community that valued modesty and humility more than literary accomplishment. This period of his life was in-but-not-of living, as he recounts in the October 2001 Rolling Stone piece “9/11: The View from the Midwest.” The piece stands out for four key reasons:
Wallace did not own a TV. This befuddles and alarms everyone he meets. Wallace’s passage about people in Bloomington-Normal:
They watch massive, staggering amounts of TV. I’m not just talking about the kids….TV’s also more social here than on the East Coast, where in my experience people are almost constantly leaving home to go meet other people face-to-face in public places. There don’t tend to be parties or mixers per se here; what you do in Bloomington is all get together at somebody’s house and watch something.
Here, therefore, to have a home without a TV is to become a kind of constant and Kramer-like presence in others’ homes, a perpetual guest of folks who can’t understand why you would choose not to have a TV but are completely respectful of your need to watch TV and offer you access to their TV in the same instinctive way they’d bend to lend a hand if you tripped in the street.
In this taut passage, Wallace shows his brilliance. There’s the ironic allusion to Kramer, from Seinfeld. There’s the hyperbolic comparison of TV deprivation to tripping in the street. Most important is the insertion of the East Coast into a description of TV habits in the Midwest. Here, Wallace sets up the sense of regional and cultural disconnect that is this essay’s driving theme.
Since he does not own a TV, Wallace learns about the attacks of 9/11 on the radio (while showering and attempting to listen to a “post-mortem” about what we must assume was a loss by the Chicago Bears.) Knowing that he has access to a TV at the homes of many church members, he heads to one of his favorites:
The house I end up sitting with clots of dried shampoo in my hair watching most of the actual unfolding Horror at belongs to Mrs. Thompson [name changed] who is one of the world’s cooler 74-year-olds and exactly the kind of person who in an emergency even if her phone is busy you know you can just come on over…Mrs. Thompson’s is a tiny immaculate one-story home that on the West Coast would be called a bungalow and on the south side of Bloomington is simply called a house. Mrs. Thompson is a longtime church member and a leader in the congregation, and her living room tends to be kind of a gathering place.
Mrs. T. has a 42″ flat-panel Philips TV on which Dan Rather appears for a second in shirtsleeves with his hair slightly mussed. (People in Bloomington seem overwhelmingly to prefer CBS News; it’s unclear why.) Several other ladies from church are already over here…
There’s much to admire here. First is the fact that one of America’s greatest writers — the very avatar of the cultured and secular class — attends a Christian church with numerous elderly women. Second is the detail that he rushed over to Mrs. T’s with shampoo still in his hair. Third is the non sequitur about Bloomington’s love of CBS. And fourth, that tidbit about how bungalows on the West Coast are simply houses in Bloomington — another marker of regional differences.
Yet none of this should obscure our awareness of just exactly what transpired on that terrible Tuesday, and Wallace makes sure it doesn’t:
I remember when I came in everybody was staring in transfixed horror at one of the very few pieces of video CBS never reran, which was a distant wide-angle shot of the North Tower and its top floors’ exposed steel lattice in flames and of dots detaching from the building and moving through smoke down the screen, which then that jerky tightening of the shot revealed to be actual people in coats and ties and skirts with their shoes falling off as they fell. … It seems grotesque to talk about being traumatized by a video when the people in the video were dying. Something about the shoes also falling made it worse.
Here, Wallace powerfully conveys the second-by-second horror of what happened that day. The shoes dropping off mid-flight epitomize the stripping of dignity, in which the only logical choice about how to live one’s life is to end it. Wallace notes, “I think the older ladies took it better than I did.” By the end of the piece we learn all the reasons why this is the case.
One reason for Wallace’s dismay is his sharp awareness that 9/11 inspired a patriotism that quickly became jingoistic. On Sept. 12, he feverishly traipsed around Bloomington in search of a flag:
There’s a weird accretive pressure to have a flag out. If the purpose of a flag is to make a statement, it seems like at a certain point of density of flags you’re making more of a statement if you don’t have one out…
Nobody walks by or stops their car and says, “Hey, your house doesn’t have a flag,” but it gets easier and easier to imagine people thinking it. None of the grocery stores in town turn out to stock any flags. The novelty shop downtown has nothing but Halloween stuff…The reality is that there is not a flag to be had in this town.
Wallace ostensibly solves this problem by making a “now-beloved homemade flag” out of construction paper and Magic Markers. Without a corroborating photo, though, I have my doubts. I also doubt that Wallace actually received this quote verbatim when he asked people around town what the American flag means. “The flag is a pseudo-archetype, a reflexive semion designed to preempt and negate the critical function,” may be the kind of thing a grad student in philosophy or semiotics would write in a paper, but it’s not something one utters on the spot, standing there in the street.
One of the very few people who might actually talk this way extemporaneously is … drum roll, please: David Foster Wallace. He had a deep background in philosophy, and his father was a distinguished professor in the field. On Sept. 12, 2011, Wallace already knew that the events of the previous day were being mythologized — partially in order to offer solace to a grieving nation but also to “preempt” any critical reflection about how the U.S. would respond.
I don’t believe that Foster Wallace ever went in search of flags or asked people what they thought about them. The flag scout and “grad student” are alter egos reflecting different sides of the same person grappling with how to appropriately respond to such a momentous event. Readers who desire complete accuracy in their nonfiction reportage have proper cause for grievance, but I personally value the creative in “creative nonfiction,” especially when Wallace has the pen.
Wallace is aware of the potential for the manipulation of 9/11 on the day itself. Standing at Mrs. T’s only he seems to notice:
This is the beginning of the vague but progressive feeling of alienation from these good people that builds throughout the part of the Horror where people flee rubble and dust…There is what would strike many Americans as a bizarre absence of cynicism in the room. It doesn’t once occur to anyone here to remark on how it’s maybe a little odd that all three network anchors are in shirtsleeves, or to consider that it’s possible that Rather’s hair being mussed is not 100% accidental, or that the relentless rerunning of spectacular footage might not be just in case some viewers were only now tuning in and hadn’t seen it yet.”
Here, Wallace reveals his fundamental nature: that of an intellectual who refuses to take things at face value, and who questions everything. This stance is hard to maintain in Bloomington, even among people he cares for and who like him. It’s a stance that works much more easily in New York, the city now under attack:
I’m trying to explain the way part of the horror of the Horror was knowing that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my own…than these ladies’.
Why is this so? New York epitomized Western decadence. Bloomington — a city where many kids are in the military reserves because “that’s simply what you do to pay for college” — was not even in their sights. And yet it is this city, more than New York, which will soon furnish the soldiers for the inevitable war.
Marcus Banks is a journalist and librarian in Oakland, California. His writing has appeared in the Gotham Gazette, the San Francisco Chronicle, Superstition Review, Rain Taxi and Prick of the Spindle. Follow him at @mab992.