Toward 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.