Ron sent me an e-mail Monday morning that I’m still trying to make sense of.
David Foster Wallace died Friday at the age of 46, an apparent suicide.
David Foster Wallace was an extraordinary writer, brilliant to the point of being occasionally unfathomable. I discovered him when I was out on a blind date and my date and I stopped by Barnes & Noble (a mistake, as it turned out, as I learned the only book in the store my date could remember having read was by Robert Ludlum, and that had been a while ago). While the guy held no appeal, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, sitting alluringly on the shelf, did turn my head. Whatever that is, whoever David Foster Wallace is, I remember thinking, anything with a title like that deserves a look. So I picked it up. I didn’t go home alone after all.
That was the beginning of my relationship with Wallace. I didn’t feel for him the kinship I do for Jonathan Franzen or anything resembling the long-term affection I feel for Philip Roth. What I experienced when I read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—and most everything of his after that—was jaw-dropping admiration.
I’m no literary critic. I’m just a person who reads and has always felt that luxuriating in a bed of books was comparable to sitting in a giant bowl of chocolate mousse, spoon in hand. So I can’t explain to you, in literary terms, what David Foster Wallace does in his writing, or even what the genre is (the obituaries are saying post-modernism). I just know it was original, thought-provoking, sometimes dreamy, often humorous, and that the man’s brilliance was always evident.
His footnoting—which sometimes took up the bulk of the page—amused and baffled me. I took it as an emblem of his sense of humor, but also of a brain that was too busy to resist diversions. After each piece of his I read, I promised myself the next time I would read the text straight through and the footnotes later. But I suppose I can’t resist diversion either, and I always indulged in the distraction. To my mind, his footnotes were a boon and a curse.
One of the reasons Wallace fell short of my Acropolis of writers—Franzen, Roth, Atwood, Kafka, in no particular order—was that the brilliance I admired often resulted in works I could not read. I didn’t finish Brief Interviews; I had enough within 50 pages of the end. I couldn’t get through Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, which turned out to be much more about calculus than about insanity, almost as if he used math as a roadblock to touching the psyche. At Jonathan Franzen’s urging, I started Infinite Jest but gave up 100 pages in. (Surely, many people rely on the reader’s guide to get through, just so they can say they did it.) Each year I buy the annual Best American Essays anthology, and this past year’s—edited by Wallace—was too heady and political for my taste, and I’ve read only about half the pieces.
So why do I press on, when it’s apparent I can’t read a fair amount of what he writes? I read him for the hits, not the misses. It’s worth it. “Consider the Lobster,” the title essay in his book of essays, was pure hit. What brainiac at Gourmet magazine sent David Foster Wallace to cover a Maine lobster festival? I don’t recall that even once did he describe food making its way to mouth in that piece. Instead, he wrote about whether lobsters feel pain, bringing in scientific evidence to back up his thesis. His essay about how he experienced 9/11—gathered around the television with neighbors in a small town—and about the American flag mania that followed, was the best piece on 9/11 I have read. So I couldn’t finish his review on the new edition of the OED, one dominated by erudite and picayune footnotes. So what? I appreciated him for what he could do for me, and didn’t complain about what he couldn’t.
I mourn his loss the same way, in part, I mourned the loss of Heath Ledger—because of the potential body of work that we will now never see. The loss of a writer is somehow more personal and durable to me than the loss of an actor, though. He was in each of his books that I held in my hands, spent so much time with, and still carry with me in a much deeper place than film will ever go. Film, for the most part, is pleasure of a more sensual kind, whereas the best of literature is not only sensual, it becomes a piece of my intellect, and that’s a very intimate relationship.
I also feel an immense sadness that I didn’t know this person, and I don’t mean “know” in the sense of never having met or corresponded with him. While I would have been in a state of delirium if I could have spent an evening hanging out with him, I never felt the overwhelming urge to have that experience, as I have with Franzen (who I did have the honor of meeting briefly and who has been a very gracious correspondant to this perhaps overly adoring fan) or Roth or, most of all, Kafka. (I did actually meet Margaret Atwood, about 25 years ago, and she was a pip, to put it kindly.) I feel sad because I couldn’t read him, and now I mean on an abstract level. The self was hidden, and the attempts at revelation were obscured by his intellect and sense of humor. Perhaps the self was there in his writing, but I couldn’t find it or connect with it. I certainly never saw the sadness in his writing, the “something sad” he said he wanted to write about. As a reader, I never saw this coming.
Why did he kill himself? It’s not for the public to decide or to know, but I can’t help thinking about it. Was there loneliness in his type of brilliance? I never thought of geniuses in the maths and sciences to be lonely souls, because there is community in those fields that each mathemetician or scientist relies on both as the basis for her work and to reflect back her accomplishments as real and true, or not. Brilliance has a precise form of expression, in math and science, by which the thinker can be understood. Writing—any art—is surely different. (You may argue that math is an art, but it is not art of the same kind. It is not.) Writing is lonely business, and it is, in a sense, a search for connection. I know little of Wallace’s life. At his Harvard lecture, Jonathan Franzen referred to him as one of his best friends. So he had connection with literary contemporaries, and those friendships must have been a comfort. He had friends; he was married. But maybe he was alone in his brilliance, and maybe his inability to put the self forward publicly was indicative of a wall between himself and others. Maybe Everything and More, while the coldest of his books, offered the biggest clue. Perhaps he was searching to be part of that community whose communication was concrete.
Or maybe it was something completely different and obvious, or even more obscured. I don’t know. I just read his books, and try to read between the lines.
I lost one of my best friends to suicide many years ago, and I never truly understood what tortured his soul enough to make him do it, to quite literally take the leap. Don was very smart, and an artist at heart, and he was never able to share at anything but a superficial level what drove him to try to kill himself the first time, despite the many conversations we had between his two attempts and my efforts to unshell him. It took me a long time to get over it, because I wanted to understand it, and at the same time I had to cope with the loss of the person, of my intellectual compadre and friend.
I didn’t know David Foster Wallace but I am numb in the same way I was when Don died. It’s a profound loss, if you can ignore the sense of cliché the words “profound” and “loss” now have when side by side. It’s profound—immense as the infinity Wallace wrote about. I’m so sad, too, for his family and friends, and all the questions they will have that will never have a satisfactory answer, and the regrets they will experience that they will never convince themselves are unfounded, as unfounded as they are. I still regret the phone call I didn’t make to Don the day before he killed himself, though intellectually I know I could never have prevented him from doing it, not a second time.
I don’t have a pithy ending. I’m so very sad, and wish his family and friends the peace that will be a long time coming.
I do recommend that you read some of his work if you have not.