Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace

The news of Wallace's death--apparently a suicide--has just floored me. By sheer coincidence I had just bought a remaindered copy of his most recent essay collection, Consider the Lobster, and was looking forward to reading it when I wanted/needed to get away from sabbatical stuff. What better way to honor an author you admire, especially on the occasion of his death, than by reading his work? The other reason this has hit so hard is that Wallace is almost my exact contemporary, born only two months before me, but also, I felt, someone I felt some philosophical kinships with.

Wallace was the rare postmodernist who, you feel as you read him, truly, deeply cares about the loss of very Grand Narratives of American culture that he's examining and finding to be lacking: that those narratives, the best of them, really do point to something needed that we dismiss at our societal peril until or unless something "better" comes along. Irony and humor were his Cuisinart, too, but always, I feel, with the end goal of showing us the dangers of a media- and image-obsessed culture. His extended meditation on Alcoholics Anonymous in his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is a model of what I mean: he notes the power of the idea of the Higher Power even among those AAers who aren't religious and asks how that can be, yet even though it lacks a logical explanation it is nevertheless so--it can't be denied.

For those curious about his work, I highly recommend as a starting place his first collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. The title essay alone, a hundred-page recounting of a week he spent on a cruise liner, is vintage Wallace and more than worth the cost of the book: by turns guffawingly hysterical, detail-obsessed, and piercingly analytical. Do NOT skip over the footnotes, here or anywhere in Wallace's work--they are not just chock-full of information but a crucial part of the show as well. That collection also includes essays on tennis stars, on television, on David Lynch, on a trip to a state fair, on contemporary fiction that, though now over ten years old, are striking in their immediacy and urgency.

Infinite Jest is Wallace's Ulysses:it's not only bigger than that novel, it's every bit as demanding in its way. I completely understand it if its size causes you to hesitate; but if you enjoy his essays, you'll want to take on that novel some time. I can also recommend his second collection of stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: a collection that will, quite simply, cause you to entirely reconsider what the short story form can be made to do. He has two other collections of stories as well that I've not yet read all the way through, Girl with Curious Hair and Oblivion; his first novel, The Broom of the System; and a non-fiction work discussing the concept of infinity, Everything and More.

Mary of Either/Or has a nice remembrance of Wallace as well, comparing his work to that of Douglas Coupland.

I will miss this man and the work he will now never write.

UPDATE: Wallace here reading an excerpt from his essay on the Illinois State Fair. "None of this is made up."



UPDATE II: Trysh Travis of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society was kind enough to e-mail me a link to this remembrance of Wallace that speaks eloquently of how Wallace valued his experiences as he attended AA meetings to gather material for Infinite Jest. I hope you'll go have a look.

5 comments:

Doc said...

I was e-mailing an e-friend this morning about this: he said that before Infinite Jest the essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction had turned his world around. I agree.

Saw Wallace at the Naropa Institute several years ago give an extemporaneous talk that started in the lobby with a handful of people and naturally gravitated, without word or query, to the auditorium.

An incredible loss.

Also noteworthy for us mystery buffs - Gregory McDonald passed last week. I loved his Flynn series...

John B. said...

Doc,
You put your finger on something that I'd never quite been able to articulate about the experience of reading Wallace: the sense that he's not so much writing as talking to you. That conversational feel explains why, for me, what others see as his loquaciousness never bothered me. Reading him feels like listening to a really smart friend who doesn't make me feel dumb, despite the patently-obvious fact that, compared to him, I am kind of dumb. That is really hard to pull off, yet I'm so grateful that he knew how to do that.

Cordelia said...

I remember reading "Everything Is Green," in Harpers,, long ago. When I heard, I remembered that I had sold off my hard bound first edition of Girl with the Curious Hair when I moved; when I heard the news, I went into the study I have now, and stared at the place where it would have been, as if to confirm that he was really gone. I wish I could say unfathomable, but suicide is the result of a disease as surely as death caused by cancer. Instead, I think of all the things he left ineffable, never to be noticed as only he could voice them.

Kári said...

I have been seriously bummed about this for weeks now.

John B. said...

Me, too, Karí.

I was talking with the Mrs. about that feeling; it has to do with his youth and his writing as, to borrow Frost's phrase about poetry, a momentary stay against confusion that, for Wallace, just wasn't enough in the end. His depression was just too strong.