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David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

9/15/2008 11:49:09 AM

Tags: literary news, books and publishers, literature, death, suicide, David Foster Wallace

dfwToward the end of the last century David Foster Wallace appeared on the literary scene and blew the minds of countless readers, overhauling the way they thought about literature and life—first with his debut novel The Broom of the System, then with his superb short story collection Girl With Curious Hair. But as impressive as those books were, they were simply clearing the decks for his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which landed on bookshelves with a brainy thud in 1996.

Infinite Jest is a sprawling but meticulously constructed epic about addiction, depression, and the insidious toxicity of mass entertainment, weaving intricate plotlines and beloved characters into something far more than a post-structuralist literary stunt. It is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. It is a clever and complex but eminently readable book that I eventually picked up in college when I read all of Wallace's then-published works in rapid succession. I plowed through Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages in only three weeks, not because I’m a fast reader—I’m not—but because I was simply unable to put it down.

Until I discovered David Foster Wallace I didn’t really have a favorite author, which was odd for an English major and aspiring writer. I was passionate about Kundera and Brautigan and the Beats, but had yet to fall obsessively in love with a single person’s writing. That semester when I read Infinite Jest marked the moment when I finally left a certain intellectual plateau, transcending everything I thought I knew about literature and entering the next phase of my development as a writer and thinker.

It was a phase marked by fitful, pretentious attempts to emulate Wallace’s writing in my own. As so many novice writers besotted with Wallace probably have, I peppered my short stories with footnotes and digressive asides and sentences whose objects were miles away from their subjects. (Some of these tendencies are obviously still on full display.) Like we inevitably do when we mimic our artistic role models, I approximated Wallace’s style but not his substance. The latter is far more difficult than the former, and I will spend a lifetime attempting to infuse my writing with even a scintilla of the wisdom he could pack into a single sentence, knowing I’ll probably never even come close.

It’s my experience that the people most critical of Wallace’s writing are those least familiar with it, who seize on the surface facts of his books—extremely long, dense, riddled with footnotes and endnotes—without ever addressing their content. These critics write him off as the poster-boy of postmodern irony and literary absurdity while failing to notice that in both his fiction and essays, Wallace was strongly anti-irony, bent on moving beyond post-millennial ennui, satirizing the noise of contemporary pop culture, and exploring life’s perennially unsolvable riddles. The pyrotechnics of his prose were not just there to dazzle; they were put to writing’s best possible use, illuminating the darkest recesses of the human condition.

And they could be pretty dark recesses. His last two short story collections, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion, are populated by miserable characters at the end of their ropes and about to let go. While Infinite Jest and Girl With Curious Hair can rightly be described as fun, his latter work was still occasionally humorous but far more somber. One could almost see, on any given page, the author’s formidable mental gears grinding in an attempt to unravel and express the reasons why people do unspeakably terrible things to each other and to themselves.

So it was not, unfortunately, a total surprise that Wallace’s death would be self-inflicted. Time and again, his characters literally destroy themselves, most recently in Oblivion’s “Good Old Neon,” whose narrator describes his own suicide from beyond the grave. A half dozen of Infinite Jest’s primary characters attempt suicide, some of them succeeding with gruesome finality. And Brief Interviews features “The Depressed Person,” a crushingly dense narrative whose title character’s various attempts to avail her own misery are fruitless.

But for as much as Wallace expended his prodigious talent plumbing the harrowing depths of depression, addiction, violence, and loss, and for as much as his biography suggested he’d known those demons intimately, I was confident he’d found a way to transcend them. I took solace in the notion that, by carefully and exhaustively reasoning out the ways in which we destroy each other and ourselves, he’d emerged on the other side whole—if not in a place of understanding, then of compassion—and could help his readers do the same. The few characters in Infinite Jest who manage not to destroy themselves—most notably, the recovering drug addict and reformed criminal Don Gately—seem to have figured something out their peers haven’t: a way to keep the pieces glued together and cope with the pain in their lives while never dispelling it entirely.

Suicide is baffling, the most absurd and haunting end to a human life. Mapping any kind of logic onto suicide is futile, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I had always believed, perhaps naively, that by examining—with great patience, compassion, and wit—the frailties of human existence, Wallace had found a way to cope with them, much like the damaged but redeemed Don Gately. I had to believe that, like Gately, he was coping, because to imagine that he wasn’t—which, as we learned over the weekend, he surely wasn’t—is so bleak: to think that one of the smartest writers in history had spent his entire adult life wrestling with the absurdities and injustices of the human condition, and still hadn’t found a solution—well, where does that leave the rest of us?

Image by Steve Rhodes, used with permission.



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Jacob Freeze
9/21/2008 12:54:56 AM
[continuation of previous, truncated comment] ...David Foster Wallace died a few days after the candidate he once liked and trusted, John McCain began accusing Barack Obama of perverting school-children, because Obama had sponsored a program to warn them about sexual predators. The last word in this absurd obituary belongs to one of Yorick’s favorite writers, the Argentine aphorist Antonio Porchia: “Truth has very few friends, and those few are suicides.”

Jake Mohan
9/19/2008 4:28:09 PM
Good question. I'd say his most accessible work is probably his first short story collection, Girl With Curious Hair. It provides a good overview of his capabilities without being as daunting as his other works. Either of his essays collections (A Supposedly Fun Thing / Consider the Lobster) are also very user-friendly. And then Infinite Jest. No, seriously.

Elizabeth Ryan_2
9/19/2008 3:48:36 PM
If you were going to recommend a starting point for someone who (sadly) hasn't read any DFW, which novel or collection would you say?

Jake Mohan
9/19/2008 12:11:37 AM
Gina: Thanks for reading and commenting. For the record, DFW's mental illness was not untreated--the New York Times reported that he was on medication, was hospitalized on multiple occasions just last summer, and even underwent electroconvulsive therapy. I would guess his death is especially haunting for others whose treatment for mental illness, however extensive, might still fall short. Furthermore, the last thing I wanted was to romanticize DFW's mental illness, or anyone else's--I'd hate to think anyone might interpret my piece that way. His gifts as a writer were there in spite of his depression, not because of it. Finally, I am not suggesting that anyone can relieve one's mental illness through logic or intellectual reasoning. I made it clear in the last paragraph that suicide departs from logic entirely; that it is, indeed, illogical to presume otherwise. Perhaps what's most painful for those left behind is that we nevertheless can't help trying to ascribe some logic to the act, even as we know it's impossible.

Gina Pera
9/18/2008 1:59:38 PM
It is nothing more than dangerous romanticism to think that we can "logic" our way out of mental illness. As a culture, we need to start accepting that the "gifts" of the mentally ill -- in this case, I'm told, his brilliance as a writer and thinker -- often come with dangerous deficits. But thinking and writing wasn't enough to cure this man's illness, just like a bottle of Wild Turkey wasn't enough, either. Don't think you can "make sense" out of youngish man hanging himself. There is no sense in it. It is mental illness. Untreated mental illness, that had probably been overly glorified as profundity.

charlemagne
9/17/2008 10:26:18 PM
I agree that suicide defies most logic, but DFW makes a pretty logical (and chillingly pragmatic) justification for suicide on page 696 of Infinite Jest: The so-called 'psychotically depressed' person who tries to kill herself doesn't do so out of quote 'hopelessness' or any abstract conviction that life's assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of failing from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire's flames; when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It's not desiring the fall; it's terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling 'Don't!' and 'Hang on!', can understand the jump. Not really. You'd have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling. So to replace fire with depression and jumping with hanging, we maybe get an idea of DFW's state of mind. Quite awful to imagine.

festivemanb
9/16/2008 6:49:41 AM
DFW's death sucked. So I wrote a blog post. I agree with Mr. Mohan that there is a surface perception of Wallace (pretentious, verbally acrobatic) and then the FAN'S Wallace (verbally acrobatic, emotionally and philosophically profound). Really, why should he have to die? http://bmackie.blogspot.com/2008/09/david-foster-wallace-dead.html

Jacob Freeze
9/15/2008 11:59:17 PM
The faculty cows killed him by talking about green, green, green, and only green on the infinite color-wheel... (It reminds them of tenure.)

Jacob Freeze
9/15/2008 11:45:46 PM
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times..." The author of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace apparently hanged himself Friday, September 12, 2008. The first policeman on the scene reported that Wallace's dead hand was still clutching a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey. "Yorick," I used to say, "If you ever stick your head in that metaphysical microwave oven, I'll try to achieve a fleeting notoriety by writing an absurd obituary!" "Hamlet, you unscrupulous idiopath," Himself would reply, "When I go, I'll take you with me! But now it's time for another game of horsie." Leaving half a bottle of Wild Turkey for the cops was a typically kind gesture by our dear old clown. "Whoever finds me will probably need a drink," Himself would say, and he's saying it now. [Verbatim transcript] Yorick: Taint not thy mind... (inaudible) Hamlet: (inaudible) Yorick: (inaudible) First Grave-digger (inaudible) [Verbatim transcript ends] Way back in Anno Domini 2000, when Yorick wrote his credulous and prophetic report about John McCain's first campaign for the Presidency, Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope, he had a vision of Barack Obama in the form of a junior tennis star who drops topspin lobs on the baseline every time you rush the net. "But how does he get to the finals against John McCain?" I asked, and then I saw an expression of infinite sadness in Yorick's eyes. He hadn't looked so bad since Mikey Pemulis poured DMZ on his toothbrush at tennis camp. "Unreturnable floaters are the future of tennis," he said, "But the poison belongs to McCain." David Foster Wallace died a few days after the candidate he once liked and trusted, John McCain began accu



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