Many of you have already read that writer David Foster Wallace was found dead on Saturday, having hanged himself in his Claremont, California home. Some of you are probably deeply saddened by this news, while others are wondering who Wallace was. This post is for both groups.David Foster Wallace was a novelist, essayist, and short story writer, and his work is especially important for anyone who has ever been an American, a consumer, or in pain. He was at his funniest and his most accurate when he was all three. In his essay "The View From Mrs. Thompson's," he wrote about trying to buy a flag in Bloomington-Normal, Ill. in the days after 9/11:
The cold reality is that there is not a flag to be had in this town. Stealing one out of somebody's yard is clearly just out of the question. I'm standing in a fluorescent-lit KWIK-N-EZ afraid to go home. All those people dead, and I'm sent to the edge by a plastic flag. It doesn't get really bad until people come over and ask if I'm okay and I have to lie and say it's a Benadryl reaction (which in fact can happen).
"The View From Mrs. Thompson's" showcases one of Wallace's biggest talents: a keenness of observation that can only come from someone deeply uncomfortable in the world. Of his neighbors' assiduous lawn-care, he wrote, "to be honest, it's all a little creepy, especially in high summer, when nobody's out and all that green just sits in the heat and seethes." But this creeped-outness also comes with compassion. "There's a half-page photo of a student at Bloomington Central Catholic HS saying the Rosary in response" to 9/11, he wrote, "which means that some staff photographer came in and popped a flash in the face of a traumatized kid at prayer." It's this weird mix — what he might have called a sensitive-alien-comes-to-Earth-and-kind-of-like-the-locals outlook — that made him able to take on luxury cruises, the Illinois State fair, sports memoirs, and the 2000 candidacy of John McCain with both abiding love and palpable despair.* But the real beating heart of the Wallace oeuvre is his novel Infinite Jest. This book is famous for being 1,079 pages long, and for having 96 pages of footnotes.** It should be famous for being fantastic. It's about a lot of things — a teenage tennis player, a recovering drug addict, and a videotape that kills, all set in a dystopian near-future America where years are sponsored by companies. But it has a quality that many great books have of seeming to be about you,*** a kind of narcissistic switcheroo I think Wallace would have appreciated. I wanted to end this post with a pull-quote from Infinite Jest, something that would encapsulate its funny, sorrowful weirdness. But Infinite Jest is so excited about its own world, so packed with information and information about information, that it resists encapsulation. There's a disturbing description of depression ("It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self's most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul.") and a heart-rending bit on what it's like to be a teenager with adult athletic ambitions ("Here is how to weep in bed trying to remember when your torn blue ankle didn't hurt every minute. [...] What is unfair can be a stern but invaluable teacher."), but neither of these quite sum up the genius of a book almost as complicated and messy as a life. So I'm just going to close with the novel's final line:
And when he came to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.
*The word despair comes up a lot in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," Wallace's essay about his trip on the Celebrity Cruise ship Zenith, and you feel it every time. ** David Foster Wallace helped start the contemporary footnotes craze, a craze which has been much maligned but which also allows the writer to tell many more jokes than would ordinarily be possible in an otherwise serious piece. "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," for instance, includes this footnote description of a conversation about cruise ship bathroom accoutrements: "One guy in particular was fixated on the idea that somehow the shower technology could be rigged to administer fellatio if he could just get access to a "metric ratchet set" — your guess here is as good as mine." *** I read the book when I was 18, so for me it was about adolescent angst, frustrated desire, and nerdy trivia, the three pillars of my life at the time. It also took up a quarter of my suitcase and enabled me to ignore my family for an entire vacation. Infinite Jest A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays David Foster Wallace, Influential Writer, Dies at 46 [NY Times] Exuberant Riffs on a Land Run Amok [NY Times] Related: David Foster Wallace Dead of Suicide at 46 [Gawker]