David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

Saluting a writer who constantly looked outward, past his own demons

"Winter here is a pitiless bitch," was how David Foster Wallace once described his native Midwest, though to borrow a phrase from his favorite Shakespeare play he might as well have been referring to this mortal coil. Forget about the footnotes. And never mind the Latin abbreviations, the hyperventilating run-ons, the tongue-in-cheek upscale diction, or the pleasure he took in issuing a well deserved [sic]. Because the typical David Foster Wallace sentence was grounded in ordinary American speech, that untidy shorthand we use when we talk to each other. And that's why, apropos of Wallace's suicide last Friday at age 46, the late author himself might have asked, And but so then why did he have to go and kill himself?

The short answer is easy. Wallace's father told the New York Times that his son had been taking anti-depression medications for 20 years and, feeling their cumulative side effects, had tried in the summer of 2007 to wean himself off of them, only to land in shock therapy and hospital stays after his illness returned. The longer, more complicated answer—namely, what it was exactly that was going through the writer's head when he hanged himself in his own home, where he had to know it would be his wife of four years who would find him—let's face it, that explanation is not ever going to be forthcoming.

Suicide tends to inspire our disapproval. How selfish, we think. For who else but a coward and a narcissist could refute the love of his family and friends. Right? Well not necessarily, according to Kate Gompert, a young woman who botches her own suicide attempt in Infinite Jest (1996), Wallace's 1,079-page lifechanger of a novel about addicts, depressives, adolescent tennis hopefuls, and French-Canadian terrorists. "I think there must be probably different types of suicides," Kate says. "I wanted to stop feeling this way. If I could have just put myself in a really long coma I would have done that. Or given myself shock I would have done that. Instead."

I'm finding passages like this one comforting. Wallace's most admirable trait as a writer was not his prose wizardry, though when he was born in Ithaca in 1962, the son of two teachers, there's no doubt the gods put thunder in his fingertips. (Naturally, and briefly, he was a local junior tennis threat). What I loved best about Wallace is that, like any novelist worth the name, he cultivated and then kept at all costs his empathy. His naked ambition led to complaints that he wrote self-indulgently and, according to at least one critic, with a technique that was "hideously ugly, and rather painful." But the eight books themselves (is that really all there will ever be?) testify that Wallace constantly looked outward, past his own demons.

When, for example, he reported for Gourmet magazine on the annual Maine Lobster Festival as a carnivore who knew "almost nothing" about meat-industry practices before writing the article, Wallace was honest enough to disabuse himself, and us, of the notion that a boiled lobster feels no pain.

[A]fter all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience.

Suffering, in hindsight, was Wallace's one true subject, his constant star. "There's something particularly sad about [America]," Wallace told Salon's Laura Miller in 1996, "something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news […] Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know."

I think he did. There isn't a single page of his fiction or journalism that doesn't make some awesome, brave stab at accessibility, relevance, and above all compassion. In "Up, Simba," his epic Rolling Stone dispatch from John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, Wallace explained why his generation—which means mine—feels so terribly, hopelessly apathetic. The "likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics," Wallace wrote, "is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It's way easier to roll your eyes and not give a shit."

And this finally is the contradiction Wallace has left us with. If the guy who so obviously gave a shit chose, for reasons we will never fully understand, to abandon the good fight, then how are the rest of us supposed to pull through? Thanks, David Foster Wallace, for leaving us with one last cosmic joke, a final infinite jest.

 
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