I was surprised to hear of the death of contemprary author David Foster Wallace on Saturday, not least because it was only on Thursday that I had decided to change the name of my radio show to a moderately obscure Infinite Jest reference.
It’s often strange to hear of the death of someone whose work you admire, usually because the sense of loss and artistic / intellectual appreciation is coupled with a weird lack of the feeling of loss, because you didn’t actually know that person, and strangers die all the time.
That said, I’m hardly unmoved; I’m a huge fan of Foster Wallace’s writing, and I had actually been revisiting a lot of his stuff recently. Oddly, I have always though of him as an optimist; a person who had deliberately attempted to intellectually confront all the worst things that life had to offer, and had remained emerged with a relatively sunny outlook anyway. One story in particular (“Good Old Neon,” contained in the 2004 short story collection Oblivion), I had actually always interpreted as a deliberate rejection of suicidal impulses. So it’s fair to say his suicide came as something of a surprise.
But another thing I kept thinking about in his writing was the lack of a coherent sense of who he was, as a person. Surely, his essays have tons of strange autobiographical details, like his childhood as a tennis prodigy… but it’s more like his writing has such a palpable sense of transmitting dread, alienation, and self-consciousness (as well as, on occasion, joy or whimsy or transcendence) that I felt like I could totally identify with the writing, socially and emotionally, without actually knowing much at all about the daily external personal life of the author. I guess this is true of all media, but it seems like a weird omission for someone who has written in such immense and obsessive detail about all his subjects.
Among his detractors, I’ve often heard the critism that Foster Wallace was deliberately obscure; that his writings were purposefully difficult and obtuse; that he spent all his time elaborately scheming complex scenarios to trick or trap the unworthy reader. Having once heard him read his work aloud, I can assure you that this is not the case. He actually was THAT astonishingly intelligent and articulate, and THAT nervous and self-conscious.
I saw him read his work at UCLA in 2004; I arrived late due to omnipresent LA traffic, and he was already halfway through an unpublished story in which the protagonist, in an office setting, has an increasingly bizaare series of encouters with an infant whom he believes is fully socially cognizent and hates him. It went on indefinitely and became increasingly tense and strange, in the way that many of his stories do. He followed this with an encore reading of “Incarnations of Burned Children,” the heartbreaking 2-page account of a rural kitchen accident.
Wallace was sweating profusely throughout the reading. His hands shook, and he spoke with a weak voice even when amplified. This was not some sort of bizzare internal struggle or psychotic breakdown; he was just plainly and intensely uncomfortable in front of a crowd, acutely aware of how strange and agony-inducing it is to be scrutinized by a classroom of strangers. The odd thing was: in a dynamic which paralleled his work neatly, every single person in the room identified with and shared his discomfort, and this fact only served to heighten and amplify that discomfort.
Despite this, the reading was incredible. He was both profoundly moving and wickedly clever, and he read well despite the fact that he was almost constantly out of breath (especially during that last story, which he read as if it were a single run-on sentance). He stammered and attempted to sip water and we all got through it together.
Here are three articles about him which I found today. They are, respectively, a relatively well-worded obituary; an attempt to objectively summarize his place in contemporary fiction (whose conclusions I would take issue with); and an intelligent appreciation of his work in the context of his passing. You may want to read one or the other depending on your familiarity with his work.
If you’ve never read his writing and want to know what the fuss is about (or if you’d tried one of the more insurmountable ones and would like an easier inlet), I would highly recommend the title essay from his 1997 non-fiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, in which he describes the profound alienation he experienced onboard a vacation cruise ship. It’s one of his best pieces of writing, one of the most accessable, and a good summary of the themes and styles found in the rest of his work. That pdf linked above has horrible layout, but it’s worth the read anyway.