David Foster Wallace: An Appreciation by David Gates

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When the news came that David Foster Wallace, only 46-years old, had hanged himself in his home in California, I opened his masterpiece, the 1996 novel "Infinite Jest," at random and happened to land on a scene in which a recovering drug addict recalls a childhood moment of existential dread. "It was total psychic horror: death, decay, dissolution, cold empty black malevolent lonely voided space. It was the worst thing I have ever confronted . . . I understood on an intuitive level why people kill themselves. If I had to go for any length of time with that feeling, I'd surely kill myself." We'll surely be spotting more and more of these clues in his work: some writers—Hemingway was one—seem to take years composing their suicide notes right under our very noses. In Wallace's last book, a story collection called "Oblivion"—oh, now we get it—the self-tormenting protagonist of "Good Old Neon," an ad man who has felt like a "fraud" his whole life (and who used to know one "David Wallace" when he was a kid) swallows antihistamines and drives his car into a bridge abutment. And in Wallace's commencement address to the class of 2005 at Kenyon College, he dragged in—if not exactly out of left field, certainly out of left center—"the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master . . . It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger."

It will take a while for all these apparent "clues" in Wallace's work to stop pulsing like neon signs when we stumble on them. But that work will outlast the garish particulars of his death. In years to come, no one will be able to dismiss it as the symptomatic productions of a depressive head case: the dread to which he gave artistic shape is too real, too universal. True, Wallace was a head case, but in the sense that we're all head cases: encased in our skulls, and sealed off from our fellow humans, we have worlds upon worlds of teeming, unruly sensations, emotions, attitudes, opinions and—that chillingly neutral word—information. "What goes on inside," Wallace wrote in "Good Old Neon," is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at a given instant." The title of "Infinite Jest" calls to mind the image of Hamlet holding up a skull—that of the jester Yorick, "a fellow of infinite jest"—and Wallace's literary project was to get something of that infinity within us out where we could see and hear it. This explains his characteristic footnotes and endnotes, his digressions within digressions and his compulsive, exhausting (but never sufficiently exhaustive) piling on of detail. Like the narrator of "Good Old Neon," he found it "clumsy and laborious . . . to convey even the smallest thing," and his writing bulged and strained against practical limitations. A 2001 essay in Harper's (about Americans' abuse of English) ran to 17,000 words, and Rolling Stone cut half of his epic report from John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. (The entire piece appeared this year as a book called "McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope."). And "Infinite Jest" is 1079 pages long—the last 96 of which contain his 388 notes. It was both a splendid, generous outpouring and a frantic attempt to bail out the waters as they rose.

Of course, Wallace was "showing off" in his nearly infinite erudition—what didn't this man know about, from tennis to terrorism?—but in the most humane sense: "I guess a big part of serious fiction's purpose," he said in a 1993 interview, "is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves." Wallace's late work, notably the stories in "Oblivion," had darkened since "Infinite Jest," his second novel, and even that exhilarating book seems grounded in dread and panic. Its central premise is that a certain film (called, of course, "Infinite Jest") is so lethally entertaining that it renders viewers catatonic: they literally (to use Neil Postman's expression) amuse themselves to death. The novel's exhilaration shades into hysteria: it's a thousand-plus-page agon between the writer's shaping impulse and the "terrible master" of uncontrolled, unbounded, unsilenceable consciousness. But Wallace found both artistic and moral value in simply registering his dread: "Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience . . . We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy's impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character's pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside." He once argued that the linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—one of the most terrifying thinkers who ever lived—was an artist because "he realized that no conclusion could be more horrible than solipsism."

I suspect that Wallace was a genius who happened to be a writer, rather than a writer who happened to be a genius—Hemingway, for instance. You can't imagine Hemingway writing, as Wallace did, a treatise called "Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity" (2004), or winning an undergraduate prize at Amherst College for a thesis on "modal logic," whatever that may be, or going on to Harvard for graduate study in philosophy after his well-reviewed first novel, "The Broom of the System" (1987) was published—this after getting an MFA in fiction at the University of Arizona. Like Wallace, Hemingway worked as a journalist (in his case, primarily as a war correspondent), but he was an observer while Wallace was an explorer. In his nonfiction pieces Wallace plunged himself into such microverses as a cruise ship, the Iowa State Fair, the porn industry, the U.S. Open tennis tournament, and the Maine Lobster Festival. That piece, "Consider the Lobster," must have taken years off the life of Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl: Wallace devoted most of the piece to the discomfiting question of whether it was "all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure," since, as he argues, "lobsters can suffer and would rather not." Wallace later told the Boston Globe that his writing such a piece for an audience of foodies was—you saw this coming—"just an exercise in my weird self-destructiveness."

The writer who happens to be a genius—the archetype is Shakespeare—is in love with his words, his story and his people. Wallace—the reverse archetype—surely knew as much about words, stories and people as any writer would ever need to know, but he gave his deepest love to his ideas about them. If the endlessly self-analytical Hamlet had been a writer (aside from that "speech of some twelve or fifteen lines" he composes to insert in "The Murder of Gonzago," the play within the play), he would have written far more like Wallace than like Shakespeare. Hamlet says that "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams"; it's a line that the author of "Infinite Jest" must have taken deeply to heart. Wallace's encyclopedic self-reflexiveness made his work, at its best, a wonder of the literary world, and at its worst, nearly unreadable. In his recent study "How Fiction Works," the critic James Wood grants Wallace's seriousness of purpose: "His fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decompose—and discompose—his own style in making us live through this linguistic America with him." Yet, Wood argues, in channeling the "debased, vulgar, boring" argot of our times, Wallace's late prose sometimes becomes indistinguishable from what it parodies. And even the far more sympathetic critic Wyatt Mason, in reviewing "Oblivion" for the London Review of Books, concluded that while Wallace "has the right to write a great book that no one can read except people like him," but that "it might not be the worst thing in the world, next time out, when big novel number three thumps into the world, were he to dig deeper, search longer, and find a more generous way to make his feelings known."

We'll never get that third novel now—had he even started one?—so we'll have to take Wallace's achievement as it is, not as we might have wanted it to be. Is it enough? No. But would it ever have been enough? He sought to empty out the infinite within himself—a heroically hopeless enterprise. "What if all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life turned out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward, after what you think of as you has died," the narrator of "Good Old Neon" speculates in his last moments, "because what if afterward now each moment itself is an infinite sea or passage of time in which to express it or convey it . . . ?" It's the writer's version of the Beatific Vision—and it sounds like a lot of work. "The rest is silence," says the dying Hamlet—these are his last words to us. But Wallace was no quietist: in his writing, at least, he never stopped wrestling with the "terrible master" in his own skull. Even beyond this life, he seems to have found silence unimaginable.