Friday, September 19, 2008

David Foster Wallace, RIP

by Marcus Sakey

As you can't possibly not have heard by now, last Friday David Foster Wallace hung himself.

The thing about the death of a famous person whose work you admire — or, in the case of DFW, flat-out love — is that it's a loss at once personal and abstract. I'd never met Wallace. I don't really have the right, the emotional props, to grieve for him as though he were a friend.

And yet at the same time, I knew one part of him better than I know the inner minds of some of my nearest and dearest. There are plenty of writers out there whose novels don't betray what's under their own hood, but he wasn't one of them. Reading Wallace was a singular experience, an exhilarating brush against a brain of staggering capability, that was trying, always, to reach you and tell you something about the world, maybe something deeply true and important.

His second novel, INFINITE JEST, is generally considered his masterpiece. As it would have to be; it's 1079 pages long, including about 100 pages of footnotes. It's a staggering work, satirical in the extreme, often laugh-out-loud funny, and yet also unrelentingly sad. Wallace was one of those rare writers who could short-circuit your emotions, have you swinging from misery to hilarity and back again in the space of a page. It's not an easy book, and it's one I've stopped recommending to people because it's not everyone's taste. But while it isn't easy, it's also not challenging in a force-yourself-through-it way. No, the challenge is in trying — and failing — to keep pace with a genius.

I've read INFINITE JEST twice. The first time in 1998, when I lived in Atlanta, worked in television, and the woman who is now my wife was my girlfriend. Again in 2003, when I had built and then lost a million-dollar graphic design company, and was unemployed in a Chicago studio apartment, toying with my old dream of writing a novel.

  • The L.A. Times Obit
  • My favorite tribute article, in Newsweek
  • DFW on Charlie Rose
  • The Howling Fantods fan site
  • Wikipedia's DFW entry
  • His commencement speech to Kenyon University

  • When I heard about his suicide, I picked it up again. Again, my life is wildly different; I'm married, and as of this afternoon, 229 pages into my fourth book. But I remain astonished by everything it accomplishes, and I'm loving it more this time around than any other.

    I can't really give you a synopsis. It's just not possible. Let me say that it's a near-future novel about the pursuit of happiness and the near impossibility of communication. It's a wicked satire filled with joy and sadness and gleefully prescient dread.

    An example.

    In the book, most of which takes place in the corporate-sponsored Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, America has "given" Canada large chunks of the north of our country, and then proceeded to use those areas as our literal garbage dump, packing waste from every corner of the country into canisters and slinging it via massive catapults into a festering heap of filth and disease, around which we have built a Lucite wall topped with massive "bladed air redistributors" to blow the clouds of toxic waste back where it belongs. As a consequence of which, besides rapacious packs of feral hamsters, a notable portion of children near the Concavity, as it's called, are born without skulls, which makes life and love a little difficult. But not impossible, as a legless Quebecois terrorist, member of a much-feared organization known as the Wheelchair Assassins, discovers when he falls in love with one, and in order to get proper medical care for his skull-less wife, he works as a triple-agent betraying his comrades to the very nation that caused his wife's condition in the first place.

    This is one minor thread of a very big tapestry.

    Taken on its own, the above probably just comes across as silly. And there is whimsy to it, no question. But Wallace injects so much social commentary and exploration of the human condition into these ridiculous premises that as you read, his world becomes more real than your own.

    I'm 200 pages into this third read of IJ, and I'm in love all over again, and it breaks my heart, because there's no more coming. Sure, there are essays that I haven't read, and a short story collection. But there's not another grand masterpiece, another cultural earthquake of a novel. And the kicker is, as brilliant as his work was at 32, can you imagine what it might have been at 60?

    We lost a giant last week.


    Barbara D'Amato said...

    Marcus, I couldn't agree more. Some of my favorite parts were the tennis kids, sad but extremely funny. It was recommended to me by my son, who is writing a doorstop book himself. It really hit me hard to read about Wallace's death. This is a horrible loss.

    Alison and/orew said...

    That's a very nice tribute. What really bugs me is how DFW seemed to really GET (especially in Infinite Jest) exactly how easily the human mind can short circuit into a self-destructive spiral of obsessive/addictive guilt, desire, and fear. And how it doesn't matter how smart that mind is, because the smarter it is, the better it can fool itself. Like, better than almost anyone else I've ever read he seemed to get this. And yet, in the end, he appears to have succumbed to his own self-destructive tendencies. Makes me feel a little hopeless.

    - Andrew