Cat Dog Duck: The Collected Works of David Foster Wallace from Age 5 to Age 5 3/4, With Commentary
by John McNamee
It’s been five years since the literary world lost David Foster Wallace. In that time, we have yet to find his equal. Luckily, we don’t have to. The following pieces were found in his apartment in a box mysteriously labeled, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T PUBLISH.” Though we may never know what he meant by that, its contents provide valuable insight into the author’s formative years, both for writing and also for basic motor control.
An Alphabet, or Something Very Much Resembling One (Unfinished)
A B C D E F G H I J K L M M O P [illegible] R S T U V W
This is one of Wallace’s earliest attempts at writing, and already his genius is evident. Notice the repetition of the M’s. Whether this is a sly reference to American consumerism as made manifest through the ubiquitous M&M’s candy brand, or he just didn’t know how to write N yet is hard to say. However, I posit the former.
Unfortunately, the segment of the manuscript following P was irreparably damaged in a juice accident, and its insights have been lost to the ages.
Though the alphabet ends at W (Wallace was interrupted by one of his frequent potty breaks that plagued him throughout his life) one can assume the author’s intention to finish with a Y and Z.
Cat Dog Duck
The titular work, “Cat Dog Duck,” was written for a school assignment. As such, Wallace had to work under certain restraints (tracing the words on a worksheet.) Nonetheless, the trademark wit and virtuosity of DFW shine through. For instance, on the word “Cat” he wryly drew a cat face, turning what could have been a formulaic tracing into a multimedia experience, anticipating the Internet revolution decades beforehand.
This is also notable as it is Wallace’s first reference to “Dog.” Close Wallace readers may recall in Infinite Jest the character Lenz killing a dog named “Pépé or Bébé” (pg. 612.) Whether this is the same dog from that passage I leave to the reader, but it almost certainly is.
A Letter to Santa Wherein Presents Are Discussed and Love Professed
I wood lik a red bice for Christmas.
This was by far DFW’s most personal work to date; imploring to a higher power for some satiation to his desire for a “bice.” Notice his attempt to reappropriate “Deer” from Cat Dog Duck into a new context, admittedly with mixed results.
Most striking is Wallace’s confession of “love” for Santa. We have no record of Santa ever writing him back or their romance ever going further than this letter. Did this jilting lead directly to the depression that would plague the author for years to come? Yes.
Of course Wallace can’t leave us on such a saccharine note, turning the whole thing on its head with his sardonic postscript. By pointing out that one could be equally happy with “red” or “blu,” he touches on the fundamental flaw in our choice based society. If red and blue are equal, why not good and evil? Does reality exist at all, and if so, what color is it? Wallace forces the reader to examine their lives and reasons for living anew and leaves us wondering, “what wood we lik?”
Photo via Dave Whelan/Flickr