On Friday, September 12, David Foster Wallace was found dead in his home, having hung himself at the age of 46. It was a tragic end to a life full of literary triumph.
Though Wallace’s literary eminence was established by the famously enormous novel Infinite Jest, his published work extends far beyond the bounds of literary fiction, demonstrating again and again the breadth of his roving intellect. From embedded journalistic assignments in Harper’s and Gourmet Magazine, to cultural essays in small academic journals like The Review of Contemporary Fiction, to short stories published in The New Yorker and Paris Review, Wallace made his mark in every literary venue imaginable. He brought a keenness and clarity of insight to everything that came under his pen. His work, perhaps alone among the writers of the late 20th century, managed to reflect the cultural fragmentation of the times without sinking into the miasma of postmodern obscuritantism, and the freshness and raw intelligence it consistently displayed will be missed.
Though he was a private man, his biography emerges sketchily through his work, and, in fact, often becomes hard to separate from any interpretation of it. A “nearly-great” tennis player as a teenager, he completed his undergraduate studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he studied formal logic. Though other tropes of his biography are repeated in most profiles written about him (also: his father was a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, he had a “drug problem” following the success of his first novel, Broom of the System, etc.), the salient points of his personal history are salient precisely because their influence is felt directly in his unique style of writing; it is a style that is at once highly neurotic and self-examining, yet at the same time rigorously intellectual. It is a style as much steeped in the vocabulary of abstract philosophy as it echoes the cadences of sitcom speech.
As a young writer, Wallace seemed to be on a literary crusade to single-handedly haul fiction from the solipsistic vortex of indulgent irony that had surfaced in the wake of the great postmodernists like Pynchon and Gaddis. In an essay written prior to Infinite Jest’s publication, Wallace articulated how the postmodern literary technique of self-reflectivity (what is now derisively referred to as “meta”) had been subsumed by television and, particularly, television advertising, and had given way to what he called “hip fatigue,” a generation of writers conditioned to mock genuine emotive expressions as a reaction to television’s relentless exploitation of emotions. His proposed antidote was a literary genre composed of what he described as “anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall to actually endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue…The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘oh how banal.’ ”
The problem was that Wallace himself found it hard to risk the yawn; his work is plagued with acute self-awareness, apologizing for itself when it might appear sappy, excusing itself when indulging in irony for irony’s sake. In one story from his earliest collection of short fiction, an internal narrative of a woman preparing herself to appear as a guest on the David Letterman Show, the protagonist is counseled by her husband and manager to “appear the way Letterman appears. Laugh in a way that’s somehow deadpan. Act as is if you knew from birth that everything is clichéd and hyped and empty and absurd, and that’s just where the fun is.”
Affirming as he did that this was precisely not where the fun is, Wallace could come off a bit strident in the stories of that first collection, Girl With Curious Hair, as if he were having to convince himself to stay away from the ironists toward whom he was naturally drawn. I submit that he may, at the time, have taken television as more representative of culture than it truly is, but his bristlings at television’s inadequate approximations of real life were still very funny. An exemplary quip from the same story displays his understated ability to underline contemporary simulacra of reality’s failures: “The earplug, which was supposed to be flesh-colored, was really prosthesis-colored.”
As his writings began to engage less with pop culture and delve more deeply into the experiential life he championed, he became a stronger and more enduring author. One of his best works is a piece of journalism for Harper’s, in which he embedded himself aboard a Celebrity Caribbean Cruise for seven days, keeping a kind of stream of conscious account of the trip that is at intervals hilarious, culturally trenchant, and, ultimately, in a twist that only David Foster Wallace could pull off, moving. In it, you can see the seeds of what became the project of his later fiction—a spry interrogation of the motives of that seemingly unblinking mass of Americans who unironically indulge in 20th-century consumer culture, without making them the butt of the joke.
To that end, his short stories began to take the form of thought experiments, whereby he would inhabit the consciousnesses of random people whose stories he had personally encountered, and would go about inventing an idiosyncratic lexicon for their inner monologue that could explain their actions. It was an extreme tight-wire act that he pulled off with aplomb in Oblivion, a 2004 collection of short fiction. He was very aware of the limits of this method, and even admits as much in some of the stories. And so while he admits to writing “metafiction,” his use of the device is less coy and distracting than that of, say, Dave Eggers; he is not employing it to exploit irony for parodic ends, but rather to get closer to the truth, to push the limits of “the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know.”
The quote comes from a story written in this vein, in which Wallace, as he admits in a kind of epilogue, constructs the internal life of a high school classmate—whom he remembers as “unreflective, and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him”—whose suicide he had read of in the newspaper. And this brings us to a point we cannot fail to note, though it is a bit ghoulish, and must be handled with care: the sheer number of these stories that dealt with suicide and depression.
“The Depressed Person” is an almost clinical account of a woman’s descent into solipsism, unable to conceive of anything in her past or present except in relation to her own unhappiness. The story is structured around the woman’s visits to her therapist and her increasingly psycho-babble-riddled attempts to articulate the depths of her unhappiness—an effort which she likens to “feeling a desperate, life-or-death need to describe the sun in the sky and yet being able or permitted only to point to shadows on the ground.” The analogy is employed to describe how instead of being able to express her agony itself, she can only point to its symptoms. In a gesture typical of Wallace’s investigations of burdened self-awareness, immediately after voicing this, she “laughed hollowly to herself and apologized to the therapist for employing such a floridly melodramatic and self-pitying analogy.” The analogy is, or course, no less clichéd than the therapist’s diagnosis of Neglect Issues stemming from the divorce of the Depressed Person’s parents; and it is precisely Wallace’s observation of the paralyzing effects of psychoanalysis, its diminishing effect on those who grasp meekly at self-understanding by fixating on clinical analyses, that lends the story its resonance.
If any central theme can be teased out of Wallace’s fiction, it is this: the recursive processes of a mind suffering under the burden of its own self-awareness, the mind’s calcification around certain fixations brought on by persistent contact with the outside world of presented appearance and public scrutiny. It is an understanding of the psychically troubled mind that must have come at a steep price, for one cannot help but conclude that this understanding was the result of bitter personal experience. At the 2005 commencement speech to graduating Kenyon seniors, Wallace could have just as easily been exhorting himself when he said,
“As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
The difficulty for a writer who could so fully empathize with how others construct meaning from their experience is that he may have felt that very meaning to be lacking from his own, as if his growing respect for the interior of everyone else’s life came at the expense of his own interior. In any case, it is useless to speculate. The most vexing thing, for me, as an admirer, is that he chose to hang himself, a gesture he had to have known was deeply dramatic, in the tradition of Brilliant Suicidal Writers like Woolf and Hemingway. In a life that was so fastidiously deconstructed for its influences, the act seems either incomprehensibly heedless or disgustingly contrived, and out of keeping with his character, which, as revealed in taped interviews and autobiographical essays, was modest, self-deprecating, and acutely self-aware. But keeping in mind his literary examinations of depression, and the internal hoops he must have jumped to be able to articulate them at all, we can only feel the deepest sympathy for the man who resided hidden somewhere furtively behind the edifice of the author David Foster Wallace, and leave him, his wife, his students, and his readers with the same words he left for the audience of Kenyon University in the closing lines of his commencement address. “I wish you way more than luck.”