A Eulogy for David Foster Wallace
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”
– “Hamlet,” Shakespeare, Act V, Scene 1
“You’ll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.” – “Infinite Jest”
David Foster Wallace was the smartest fiction writer I have ever read – and I don’t make that claim lightly. A philosophy major with a focus on logic and mathematics, he moved on to become a journalist, essayist and fiction writer, most well-known for his magnum opus “Infinite Jest” and a style of writing that was both scientific and ironic. In a review of his short story collection “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” I wrote last year, I made the claim that Norman Mailer’s old quote about William S. Burroughs – “The only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius” – was now to be applied to Wallace.
And now, thanks to the slap-in-the-face of this weekend, I can no longer make that claim. Wallace has now given our generation a literary equivalent to Elliot Smith – someone still in the prime of life and talent, cutting their lives short for reasons concocted in minds that operate at least three levels above the normal person.
I’m not going to talk about death or motives or any of that here, as it’s not my job and I don’t want to rub any wounds raw. What I do want to do is take a moment to acknowledge a talent and voice whose absence leaves us much poorer.
As a qualifier, I have to admit that I am not as much of an expert on Wallace as some of my close friends – many of whom have repeatedly hammered to me that “Infinite Jest” is a life-changing experience. I have started reading it on more than one interval and gotten to about 400 pages in, but the fact that I have so many other books to read keeps me from tackling deep into it (that and reasons I’ll get to later on). I’ve read “Brief Interviews” and have one or two of his essay collections in my cue, but compared to other authors he’s not in my roster of being able to talk about at will.
It doesn’t mean I don’t have any experience to talk about him though. For one thing, I loved “Brief Interviews.” I have a fairly low opinion of short stories – partly because I don’t seem to have the ability to write any of my own, but also because it seems like they all have the same voice and deal with the same angst-ridden topics of family, age, love and illness. And then all of a sudden, “Brief Interviews” proceeds to shred up the genre with some of the most surreal writing and clear intellect I’ve ever seen, dealing with some of the same topics but using word combinations I’d never seen before. Even though the review is a year old almost, all conclusions still hold true today.
“Infinite Jest” – at least what I got through – was easily one of the most innovative things I’d ever seen, and one that made me place Wallace as an heir to Kurt Vonnegut’s black satire. The Incandenza clan, a family that makes the Finches or the Sedarises look conventional, ruling over a tennis academy where drug use is rampant and (conveniently) a rehab center is located across the street. Years are now subsidized by corporations, a wheelchair separatist movement is forming in Canada, and a robber traumatizes his victims by sticking their toothbrushes up his ass and sending them photos of it three months later. (One of my favorite lines comes up when one such victim vows revenges, for his wife “who needed Valium just to floss.”) There’s so much going on and it’s all so inventive that I frankly have a hard time keeping it all straight.
That does lead to one or two complaints with his style – Wallace’s sheer intelligence also tends to work against him at some points, sometimes making me feel as if I’m not smart enough to read his work. Added to that, I thought the footnotes of “Infinite Jest” were one of the more frustrating devices used in a book – hilarious though they were – because you can’t expect someone to read a part of a 1,100-page book, skip forward to the last 150 pages to find the relevant footnote and then cut back hundreds of pages to pick up exactly where you left off. He told Charlie Rose in 1997 that this was designed to reflect an altered view of reality, but I just couldn’t get past it for that many pages. (And this is coming from someone who reads “Naked Lunch” start to finish.)
But as I’ve pointed out in my Chuck Palahniuk review, an author’s style is something that has to be viewed and evaluated regardless of personal taste, and Wallace’s style deserved respect and praise. It’s a blend of philosophy and humor, written by someone who has a very particular view of how our culture and media function.
I have yet to read any of his journalism or nonfiction (the last time I randomly open ed one of his essay collections it read like a philosophy textbook) but with this sad advent I expect that his content will be reprinted and made more readily accessible to the masses. I mean, look at what Wikipedia alone can cite as his output: coverage of tennis, David Lynch, special-effects, lobster festivals and John McCain. (I can also imagine a David Lynch-directed film using special effects to have a lobster and John McCain in a tennis match, mostly to inject a slide of humor but also because I’d really like to see that.)
So, for the minimum fourth time in my literate life (Hunter S. Thompson, Mailer and Vonnegut being the first three) I’m left with the bitter loss of an author I deeply respected but comforted slightly with the mammoth output they left behind for me to appreciate. Well, appreciate is too strong a word in Mailer’s case, but that rant will have to wait before this tribute reaches the length of a Wallace novel itself. For now, a removal of my fedora and a nod of respect to an author who is one of the most original voices in contemporary literature.
And after that, you’ll need to excuse me, as there’s something I need to do that involves a month of my time, a really sturdy desk and at least two bookmarks.
“Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?” – DFW, The Atlantic, Nov. 2007, “The Future of the American Idea”