It is a grim coincidence that I wrote a column extolling the virtues of writer David Foster Wallace in which I called him my “favorite living essayist” on the very day that his body was discovered by his wife in California. That column, which focused on the election and books one could read to better understand it, was published the day his suicide-by-hanging was announced to the world. A day has gone past, and still I find myself deeply affected, almost at a loss for words — something Wallace seemed never to be himself.
David Foster Wallace had the most distinctive and contagious authorial voice in American letters. It is impossible to read his eloquent, complex, crystalline sentences without having your own interior monologue changed. Wallace’s detractors frequently derided his style — its seeming messiness, tickishness, and surface cleverness. What they never seemed to realize was that the apparent chaotic mess actually had perfect grammatical structure and order, that as his body of work expanded, it became clear that those ticks were the way he had to write, and that the “cleverness” was actually wisdom put humorously.
Wallace is best known for his largest work, 1996′s novel Infinite Jest. All people who write or talk about Infinite Jest are required by law to mention that it’s over a thousand pages long and contains over a hundred pages of endnotes, and that it doesn’t really end properly. Now that that’s out of the way, the riches of Infinite Jest (which I had already planned on rereading towards the tail end of this year) are numerous. The book floats from one extended masterful set piece to another, from a section chronicling an ancillary character’s addiction to the television show M*A*S*H to a description of an end-of-the-world simulation game played with tennis balls and computers. Underneath the set pieces lies a darkly comic dystopian vision of an America where even the years of the calendar are sponsored by large corporations (The Year of GLAD, The Year of Depends Adult Undergarments, etc.). And underneath the darkly comic dystopia is a searingly honest look into addiction, our need for pleasure, and what it does to us as human beings.
As much as I care for Infinite Jest, it is DFW’s essays that I will always treasure and return to year after year after year. David Foster Wallace was a brilliant essayist and could write about anything, from celebrity autobiographies to State Fairs to book reviews, and make it the most fascinating thing in the world. It is in his essays (collected in Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) where his seeming out of control verbiage is revealed as essential. DFW wrote the way he wrote not because he was showing off but because it was the only way to accurately depict his thought process about whatever he was writing about. His prodigious mind truly contained multitudes, and his ability to see all sides of any subject as being possessed of at least some validity meant that, in order for him to write honestly, he had to write complexly. The additional clauses crammed into his sentences and poured into his infamous footnotes were there because his mind could not leave a stone unturned. Very few writers could write an 80-page long essay about a dictionary and make every word feel absolutely essential.
He made his heady, big, brilliant, beautiful, exuberant, hysterical language work by always keeping the reader in mind, by loving us, and by injecting just enough humor and joy and entertainment to keep us going. But it clearly wasn’t enough to keep him going. Wallace was clearly reluctant to talk about his own personal life in his work. His essays only give exactly as much autobiographical information as necessary — that he was living in the Midwest during 9/11, for example, or that he was married, or a Christian. They do not discuss at any great length his bouts with depression, his former drug addiction, or his past suicide attempts. And you would never guess, from his writing — even when it was at its most despairing — that he was in enough pain to take his own life.
This is part of why it is so shocking and upsetting to me that he is gone. David Foster Wallace had numerous successful books, a following of die hard fans who obsessed over his work, a (by all accounts) functional marriage, a good job teaching in California, and still, despite all of the middle class markers of “the good life,” he killed himself. As an artist who would love to have many of those things, that is terrifying. And it leads me to quote, at some length, DFW’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables — the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving… The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
I can’t help but wonder, given this, what Wallace worshipped and how that worship undid him, because it seems, in the speech above, that whatever demon it was that tried to eat his soul early on in his life, he had conquered it, found a way out, or found something to ground him away from worshipping it. As an old mentor of mine used to say: apparently not.
Also terrifying to me is that, in a time in American History of such great importance that is being talked about so trivially by everyone, we won’t have DFW’s bracingly intelligent voice showing us how to see the world in a different, deeper way. Wallace’s writing shares with us his thought process, while also showing us the result of that process, and this creates a kind of intimacy that bonds the reader to the writer. I never met DFW. I didn’t need to. Like a mad scientist letting us muck around in his laboratory for a little while, DFW let us into his mind — let us see the world through his eyes. Although he had no idea who I was or that I loved his work, that work still created a connection between us, and that connection is, like, totally bumming me out.
What was also perhaps most brilliant about his writing was how clear he made it that your mind alone cannot save you. You can’t just think your way out of a problem, because any problem that is really worth thinking about in depth will only cede ground to further problems. This is (in an odd way) most straightforwardly evident in his essay Consider the Lobster: Gourmet Magazine dispatches DFW to cover a lobster fair in New England, Wallace responds by (perhaps perversely) spending the entire article trying to figure out whether it is ethically okay to boil another creature and eat it alive even if you already eat meat. After examining this problem and delving further and further into it, he arrives here: “These questions lead straightaway into such deep and treacherous waters that it’s probably best to stop the public discussion right here. There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.”
Perhaps it is this sense that problems are unsolvable that lead him to frequently deny his readers any sense of closure. Closure is a form of order your mind puts on a Universe that refuses to be orderly. Closure is a myth. A powerful myth, but a myth nonetheless. At the heart of all of DFW’s work lays a desire to look at how the postmodern soul is made dead by the world around it. Part of his brilliance was recognizing that thinking on its own could not keep away or solve the deadening world. At the same time, he eschewed knee-jerk pessimism and hopelessness; just because a problem can’t be “solved” doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it; it’s just that your raw intellect might not be the only tool you need. As his Kenyon commencement speech makes clear, our minds and expensive educations cannot protect us; our humanity and our generosity of spirit, our “passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others,” on the other hand, can. Maybe.
I spend a lot of time in book stores, sometimes buying, sometimes browsing, and in the back of my mind is always the thought: hey, I wonder if David Foster Wallace has a new book out yet. Ever since reading Infinite Jest and his hilarious first novel, Broom of the System, I’ve been waiting for a third novel, along with the rest of his fans. A brief, extremely funny excerpt from the as-yet-untitled forthcoming book (about a frightening adult-like baby) appeared in Harper’s recently, only getting my hopes up. Now that will never happen. Even if the draft he was working on is published, it still will not be the novel he was trying to write.
In a way, that seems fitting. Neither of DFW’s previous novels “end” in the sense of how we think about endings. Although it’s pretty clear what has happened (or will happen) in resolving the plot of both, they never bother to actually describe the endgame to you. In death, David Foster Wallace has again denied his readers the ending they so desperately craved. And I, a fan who loved his work and treasured the way he made me see the world, find myself feeling the way I did when I finished Infinite Jest – heartbroken and grateful all at once.