[a guest post by our erstwhile friend & former colleague, Soffi Stiassni]
The New Yorker’s legacy of cartoon and caricature is not limited to anecdotal fodder about the Berkshires. In the March 9th Life and Letters feature on David Foster Wallace the eulogized writer is remembered with words by D. T. Max, and an eloquent portrait by Philip Burke. This frontal facing portrait is a caricature of photographer Nancy Crampton’s iconic shot of Wallace, featured in her book, “Writers: Photographs.” The book is a compilation of portraits and accompanying text from a wide array of novelists, poets, and people of the pen, from Lorrie Moore to Chinua Achebe. Sitters are pictured with pets (George Plimpton with cat and Cheever with dog), with cigarette (WH Auden and Anne Sexton), in the country and about town, and in several cases, seated before a rather dour gray studio backdrop, reminiscent of a high school yearbook photos. Wallace is one of the writers photographed against this unceremonious backdrop; he sits, arms crossed, backwards in the wooden chair, and dons a cut off Pomona College sweatshirt and the scratchy beginnings of a beard. He is sans infamous bandanna, which Burke chose to include in his rendering. To sit for a yearbook photo, particularly a senior portrait, can be the worry of an entire August. Though these photos often make their way to living room mantels and family mailers, they are very much the most public image one presents to themselves. Quite different than a candid snapshot which might accidentally reveal latent character, the formal posed portrait is a presentation deliberately selected by the sitter for the benefit of the viewer.
Companion to Wallace’s portrait is an excerpt from a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery (conveniently relocated here).
“DFW: For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back—I mean, what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back—which means we’re going to have to be the parents.”