This one hurts

>> Sunday, September 14, 2008

I have just read the news that author David Foster Wallace was found dead in his own home Friday. He was forty-six. To get the least-important part of this out of the way, he committed suicide.

Wallace was brilliant, frustrating, funny, playful, too clever for his own good. He's one of my favorite writers. His novel Infinite Jest manages to be a masterpiece and a train wreck at the same time. Impossible to really summarize, it may be the quintessential Wallace piece: a rambling retelling of Hamlet featuring wheelchair-bound Québecois terrorists, tennis prodigies obsessed with simulating nuclear war, amok capitalism, substance abuse, transvestites, and I don't even think I've covered half of it. Oh, and it has nearly a hundred pages of "Notes And Errata" appended to it that are almost another novel in and of themselves.

Then he had a seizure. The floor of the subway car became the ceiling of the subway car and he was on his arched back in a waterfall of light, gagging on Old Spice and watching his tumid limbs tear-ass around the car's interior like undone balloons. The Zuckung Zuckung Zuckung was his high heels' heels drumming on the soiled floor's tile. He heard a rushing train-roar that was no train on earth and felt a vascular roaring rushing that until the pain his seemed a kind of orgasm of the head. His head inflated hugely and creaked as it stretched, inflating. Then the pain (seizures hurt, is what few civilians have occasion to know) was the sharp end of a hammer.

(Infinite Jest, 1996)

Wallace's non-fiction work was a staple of Esquire and Harper's during much of the nineties. He could be conversational and clinical, snarky and sympathetic at once, and his non-fiction frequently displays a self-awareness of the writer's craft that is usually charming (on occasion, it's also self-indulgent, but Wallace's ability to turn a phrase could make even his precocious passages a blast to read).

A major advantage of writing an article about an experience is that at grim junctures like this pre-embarkation blimp hanger you can distract yourself from what the experience feels like by focusing on what look like items of possible interest for the article. This is the occasion I first see the thirteen-year-old kid with the toupee. He's slumped pre-adolescently in his chair with his feet up on some kind of rattan hamper while what I'll bet is his mom talks at him nonstop; he is staring into whatever special distance people in areas of mass public stasis stare into. His toupee isn't one of those horrible black shiny incongruous Howard Cosell toupees, but it's not great either; it's an unlikely orange-brown, and its texture is like one of those local-TV-anchorman toupees where if you tousled the hair it would get broken instead of mussed.... The crowd has a smattering of college-age kids, all with complex haircuts and already wearing poolside thongs. A little kid right near me is wearing the exact same kind of hat I am, which I may as well admit right now is a full color Spiderman cap.

("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," 1996)

This is terrible news, and I don't know exactly what I should do with it. I really don't. You get to an age where you start expecting people who have influenced you or who you admire will die. And I've never been one to think suicide was a terrible thing, I tend to think it's something a person is entitled to. But this has the same weird abruptness I felt when Spalding Gray left us, the same sense of being punched in the gut while you were just walking down the street minding your own business--it's not just the pain from the blow, but the shocked question that spontaneously pops into your head while you're trying to process the flood of data coming into your brain: What--why did somebody do this to me?

As with Gray, I suppose it shouldn't quite be a surprise: a current of morbidity ran through both artists' work from first to last. Death haunts the edges of most of Wallace's fiction. Shadows, and sometimes utter darkness. Sometimes the despair is overwhelming.

...and the Daddy lifted him like a newborn with his skull in one palm and ran him out to the hot truck and burned custom rubber all the way to town and the clinic's ER with the tenant's door hanging open like that all day until the hinge gave but by then it was too late, when it wouldn't stop and they couldn't make it the child had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead, and whatever was lost never thenceforth mattered, and the child's body expanded and walked about and drew pay and lived its life untenanted, a thing among things, its self's soul so much vapor aloft, falling as rain and then rising, the sun up and down like a yoyo.

("Incarnations Of Burned Children," 2004)

Do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy of one of Wallace's collections: Oblivion, Girl With Curious Hair, or the nonfiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. (There are others, but these are three I can vouch for; I have little doubt the ones I haven't gotten to yet are equally worthy.)

3 comments:

Leanright,  Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 12:37:00 PM EDT  

Eric,

It seems that the death of Mr. Wallace has had a ripple effect accross the nation.

http://www.theonion.com/content/news/nascar_cancels_remainder_of_season

Eric Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 1:59:00 PM EDT  

DFW would have appreciated the joke as much as anyone. Regrettably, while I adore The Onion and get the point of the gag ("DFW may have been a big deal to pointy-headed intellectuals, but people who like NASCAR could give a fuck, haha!"), I'm not really ready to laugh. Sorry. Everybody knows that Mr. Wallace was probably unknown to the majority of Americans--that doesn't really reflect all that well upon my fellow Americans, actually, that one of my country's finest literary products was less recognizable than a reality-show contestant--but those who knew his work were in awe of Wallace's writing ability and breadth of mind: if you go back to some of the bad reviews Mr. Wallace received, you find that even critics who didn't like his work respected it.

This was a man who was hired to write an article about a Maine lobster festival for a food magazine, and when he wrote a lengthy essay that raised questions about whether it was ethical to boil an animal alive, they still published it despite being under no obligation to run the piece. It was that good. You can still read the piece on their website.

And those who knew him personally, loved him.

Wallace was also a regular contributor to McSweeney's. In lieu of their normal humor pieces, they are publishing reminisces by Wallace's students, editors, publishers, fellow writers, and friends. They can be found here, and it's worth looking at a few to see the ripple effect Mr. Wallace (and his death) have had.

Leanright,  Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 2:26:00 PM EDT  

Your level of respect and admiration is commendable. Perhaps I will see what he was all about, on a level more than I know right now.

I see you take this quite personally, and with that, I am sorry for your loss.

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