Internets, we heard last night that David Foster Wallace is dead, apparently by his own hand; he'd hanged himself.
I'm sick of people clocking out -- DFW was only 46 -- and leaving to their families the bad job of finding their lifeless bodies in their own home (I'm looking at you, Hunter S. Thompson).
But more than that, I'm so sorry we've lost the creative genius and the strange pure heart that was David Foster Wallace. I'm one of three people I know who have actually read the entirety of Infinite Jest
; it's the strangest and best book I never want to read again. Ten years since the unemployed summer I devoured that thing, and phrases, passages, images, whole chapters are lodged permanently in my brain -- some so vile I wish I could forget them, some so funny they make me laugh randomly in the supermarket or on the street, and many so transcendently brilliant they just humble me, as a person, a reader, a would-be writer.(1)
But let's pretend there's no Infinite Jest -- DFW's essays and non-fiction and other short fiction would be enough to ensure his place in a really rarefied sector of contemporary literature. You often hear him compared to unreadable masturbators like Pynchon, De Lillo, and that douche that wrote The Corrections, but to me, there's no comparison. Sure, DFW made you work -- the footnotes, the endnotes, the digressions and philosophical asides, the brain-stretching vocabulary and sentence structure -- but it was totally worth it. You feel smarter after you read his writing, you feel you've been somewhere you didn't even know existed, like you've peeked through all these oddly-shaped windows in weird buildings and seen all the fascinating things happening right on the other side of the glass. DFW never yanked your chain or threw stuff in just to make himself look clever -- he really was the genuine article.
For my money, the best of the best is his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I've given that book as a gift to all of the readers in my life -- some more than once, probably -- and it's one of those books that just stays with me, always somewhere in my thoughts (in the best possible way). So funny, so twisty and intriguing, sometimes serious, but always just head-shakingly awesome.
During the Olympics, I was going to write a post on the inanity of athlete interviews ("How great was it to win gold, Michael?" arrrgh!), and use excerpts from DFW's essay on tennis player Michael Joyce to back my argument that maybe we don't need to interview these people at all, considering that they've spent their lives developing one gift and we don't really need to see their lack in other areas (like insightful on-camera interviews), but I got distracted by reading the titular essay, concerning DFW being sent on a "luxury 7NC Carribbean cruise," and then flipped to the David Lynch piece, then the one on the state fair ... and etc. etc. etc. I never did write the post.
I met him once, after an appearance he did in San Francisco a couple or three years ago, did I ever tell you guys that? I had him sign a couple of my books, and when he spoke to me, I answered something light and flip, from the conviction that this famous, admired author had spoken to thousands of fans and certainly didn't need to engage in real conversation with this one so I should keep it quick and get out of his grill, but he met my eyes, paused in thought, and continued our conversation as if I were the only one in the room (there were hundreds in line behind me), and I felt simultaneously like a jackass for having assumed his disinterest and like I was looking into a mind operating on a plane so far beyond my own that it was a real struggle for him to slow it down to my level -- but he did it because he wanted to, without condescension, with nothing but interest and kindness in his soft, tired eyes.
In a way, hindsight being what it is, this early, self-directed merge with the infinite is not entirely unexpected. DFW was never far from thoughts of death, never at ease with living or with the sad grinding struggle that life can be even for happy, passionate people -- the knowledge that decline and certain death come for us all informed his character and his writing in a deep and inescapable way. And though we of course don't know what made him decide to kill himself and then carry that out, it seems clear that the dark parts of his triple-size brain got the upper hand at last.
Here's hoping that whatever's on the other side is more beautiful than what's on this one, David.
(1) Upon my first reading of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, the selfish thought surfaced in my brain that "This fucking guy -- he's got the niche I wanted to be in! And he's way way waaaaay better than I could ever be! Fuuuuck!" It handicapped my writing efforts for years, people. Years.
Labels: merging with the infinite, rare earnestness, respek knuckles, things that are bad for the world