David Foster Wallace, 1962--2008
Mon Sep 15 2008
For those of us who learned of David Foster Wallace's demise early on, there was a cruel aftershock. First, the headline: David Foster Wallace is dead. But it was the cause of death—suicide—that gave me and everyone else in the room a massive jolt of disbelief and distorted anger. He was a great writer, a hilarious, neurotic genius with tons of personality, who took sides but had a circuitous enough mind to consider what everyone else might have to say about whatever topic he had thrown himself into (grammar, ocean cruises, tennis, presidential politics, lobster cookouts). His thinking and his style combined masterful syntax with a messily democratic sensibility. He was sad, self-critical, hilarious and one of the best sentence writers working in America. He was committed to and excited about thinking. And also committed, or so it seemed, to living: His work had a slightly old-fashioned interest in what's important, and as much as he enjoyed writing, film, TV, sports, whatever, he seemed especially sensitive to the danger of becoming a demographic--a statistic. When you read his essay on John McCain's 2000 campaign, you get the sense that he truly wanted all Americans to speak intelligently rather than be spoken for. He seemed acutely aware of the ruts of modern life, and intensely determined to fight addictions of all sorts: to drugs and lazy thinking and narcissism. And he hanged himself? To anyone who cared about the earnest strains in his work, suicide came as a massive letdown.
One blogger has described Wallace's death as a major loss in American letters, but it's not clear that he would have published much more than he already had. There were rumors of a decadelong writer's block, and it seemed possible that the follow-up novel to his brainiac marathon, Infinite Jest, would never materialize. Posthumous publications aside, we'll probably never know. In any case, the work that he had already produced—especially the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the novel Infinite Jest, and the essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster—will be plenty to seal his legacy.
But my point is that even if he hadn't written anything else—even if he'd just holed up in a cabin somewhere—he would have meant something significant just by being alive, or, more specifically, by not killing himself. Because living among (and analyzing and rising above) difficulties was one of his great themes. He praised empathy, so this is a good time to stop and wonder what he was going through. Maybe he was terminally ill. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe it had to do with something awful that he couldn't write down, and that few or no one will ever know. As a writer, he was wonderfully idiosyncratic, both open and private. Readers often felt like they knew him, because he was so forthcoming about his beliefs, and so sturdy in his dissections (see: his affinity for the techs on the McCain trail, his loathing for the snobby mainstream journalists). But I was caught off guard when he mentioned his Christian faith in his essay about watching the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He wrote about so much, and yet there was so much more (there always is).
Still, however big his personal problems were, he killed himself, and dragged down some of his hard-won idealism in the process. He referred to suicide in a commencement speech at Kenyon University, there talking about people who shoot themselves in the head (his message was: get control of your brain, so you can live). He left his brain intact—he hanged himself—but his mind is gone, and I can't help but think of all the knowledge (remember his essay on Dostoevsky, his book on infinity?) that has disappeared. There was so much at stake—the knowledge, and the drive to organize it and talk about it.
Maybe this is a stretch, but his death brings to mind a great 1978 essay about Richard Hell by Lester Bangs, another moralist with a stunning prose style, another writer who spoke his mind and occasionally got stuff wrong but was infinitely more interesting (still is) than less-talented writers who make a career of getting things right. Bangs adored Hell, but lambasted his (at the time) romantic self-destructiveness, and at one point rallies: "I get depressed and I feel self-destructive and a lot of the time I don't like myself. What's more, the proximity of other humans often fills me with overwhelming anxiety, but I also feel that this precarious sentience is all we've got and, simplistic as it may seem [Wallace-style self-awareness to the tee], it's a person's duty to the potentials of his own soul to make the best of it."
Wallace, like Bangs, was a powerful and authentic moralist. Both inspired their readers to aspire to the same. Both writers died well before their time—Bangs accidentally, Wallace by his own hand. Wallace's work will still mean a lot. Maybe, in some way that he wouldn't be down with at all, it will mean even more than it would have had he spent years simply teaching writers and churning out the occasional story or essay or even a novel. But it also brings to mind the end of the Bangs piece, where he writes to Richard Hell: "So if you choose to go down, I promise to dig up that crypt and kick your ass." Having basked in Wallace's idealism, I wish he'd dug himself up and kicked his own ass before he made the noose. I'll bet a lot of other people are feeling the same way. Still, anger means you care. We'll miss you terribly.