David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

It seemed worthwhile to write something about David Foster Wallace, but it also seemed difficult, since everyone else would be writing something about David Foster Wallace. Then it occurred to me that this is the kind of problem -- genuinely thinking about something that has already been densely and unproductively mediated -- that Wallace excelled at.

Large chunks of my brain are devoted to Wallace's thoughts about addiction, tennis, luxury, and a dozen other topics, but something similar is true of any writer one loves. There's another chunk, though, that contains a (limited and impoverished) version of Wallace himself in miniature, one that I've reverse-engineered from his writing and can now set to work on a certain class of problems that trouble me. It (the miniature David Foster Wallace in my head) is morally unflinching and intolerant of ethical or intellectual half-assery, but also sympathetic and devoid of cruelty. Of all the different kinds of conscience, it's a pretty good one to carry around with you.

Here are the thoughts that I can remember having about Wallace during the week before he died:

  • I wonder if he's sad or just kind of resigned about what's happening with John McCain.
  • The introduction he wrote for Best American Essays 2007 feels apposite right now, especially the part about a three-alarm cultural emergency, but suffers from a reflexive urge to force a rhetorical parallel from the blinkered worldviews of the U.S. political right- and left-wings, thus setting up a false moral equivalence. But is it possible to describe that three-alarm emergency without either (a) setting up a false moral equivalence, or (b) contributing to the conditions that you're trying to describe? Because I can't think of a way to do it.
  • Wouldn't it be great if my novel had a MacGuffin like the videotape in Infinite Jest? But then maybe it does? Or no.
  • It is odd that, of late, Infinite Jest has dropped off my mental or conversational lists of my favorite contemporary novels. This omission has the flavor of an oversight rather than a waning of affection; I think it's precipitated by the fact that Infinite Jest is worthless as a source of helpful guidance in writing your own novel.
Here are a couple of thoughts I have had in the past couple of hours:
  • Wallace's biography was always peripheral to the way his work was received: he wasn't a famous recluse like Pynchon or a famous prodigy like Safran Foer or a famous stud like Philip Roth. He was just a famous writer. Now he'll be a famous suicide. This will not be good for the books, and I feel slightly sorry for anyone who hasn't read IJ yet, not that you should let that stop you.
  • The passage in IJ about Kate Gompert's depression is probably the only piece of writing on the subject that's made me think, Yup. There's an analogy I'd like to quote, but I'm away from my copy right now. The gist is that a suicide is like a person who jumps from the top floor of a burning building: eventually the fear of the flames overtakes the fear of falling, but the flames haven't made the jump any less terrifying, i.e. the fear of falling is a constant.
  • Besides IJ, which I'm guessing will be read 50 years from now, his most lasting work will probably be the essays. (Kakutani agrees, although she closes her piece with a tautology that Wallace would have made fun of.)
  • Wallace's prose's tics and mannerisms probably distracted attention from how good he was, or at least limited it to an in-group of fans. If you haven't read IJ then all you know about it is that it's huge, it's set in the near-future, and it inspires cultlike devotion. If that was all I knew about it, I would think it was Not For Me. I have not yet found a way to communicate its massive, throbbing heart. I will say this, though: I have never read a writer who loves his characters more or better than David Foster Wallace did in that book, and I expect that I never will. And maybe love everyone as much and as well as you can is in fact helpful guidance for writing your own novel, and for much else besides.