RIP David Foster Wallace, the American writer and teacher whose life came to a sad and abrupt end on 12 September 2008. He was 46.
I can thank my mum for introducing me to Wallace’s writing. Many years ago in a second-hand bookstore she happened upon A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; the front cover caught her eye and the back cover* enticed her to buy it for me. From its opening essay about tennis, trigonometry and tornadoes (PDF, 3.25 MB) to its closing tour de force about surviving a luxury cruise (PDF, 8.6 MB), I had never read anything quite like it. I quickly read it again and before long I was knee-deep in Infinite Jest, Wallace’s best known and most infamous book, then his other fiction and non-fiction – all of it eloquent, brilliantly styled, inspiring and occasionally maddening.**
The only David Foster Wallace book that didn’t win me over was Everything and More, where his peculiarly messy kind of fussiness sat awkwardly with the subject matter (mathematical infinity) and seemed hastily written and edited besides. But everything else I read, for example his terrific articles on David Lynch, the ethics of boiling lobsters, and the “seamy underbelly” of U.S. lexicography, thrilled me with the force and grace of good writing. Tense Present (the last link) is one of the more entertaining essays you’re likely to read on English usage, and doubles as a review of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Garner returns the compliment in this interview: he seems to have happily adopted the neologism SNOOT, Wallace’s family’s term for an extreme usage fanatic. It’s an acronym of Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or Syntax Nudniks of Our Time. From the essay:
Family suppers often involved a game: If one of us children made a usage error, Mom would pretend to have a coughing fit that would go on and on until the relevant child had identified the relevant error and corrected it. It was all very self-ironic and lighthearted; but still, looking back, it seems a bit excessive to pretend that your child is actually denying you oxygen by speaking incorrectly. But the really chilling thing is that I now sometimes find myself playing this same ‘game’ with my own students, complete with pretend pertussion.
While Wallace’s writing has a healthy vein of self-deprecation and black humour, it also has more than its fair share of alienation and torment. Wallace suffered from depression, which worsened sharply in the months leading up to his apparent suicide. Many cultures condone death delivered finally at the hands of family, doctors or other authorities, but maintain a taboo over delivering it ourselves. Deciding to die, moreover, is anathema to western society’s glorification of productivity and its obsession with prolonging life, regardless of the cost to human dignity and quality of life.
In a speech at Kenyon College Wallace said: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day”, which hints at the kind of person he was, or at least wanted to be. For all the whimsy and satire of his writing, Wallace was a deeply humane writer whose attachment to the world may finally have become too much to bear.
There’s a storyline in Infinite Jest about an underground film so entertaining that seeing it is an instantly and fatally addicting experience. Temper the exaggeration and you wouldn’t be far from the effect that Wallace’s writing had on me, though I realise that it’s not to everyone’s taste. For the curious and enthusiast alike, there are links to some of his journalism here and here, and an extensive collection of obituaries here.
* Specifically, the reference to David Lynch.
** Not least the very frequent footnotes.