David Foster Wallace
It’s no one’s intent, ever, to open up their catalog of writing on any platform with two somber pieces of writing. Gay Talese always said that the best stories came from the losing locker room, but, alas, I tried to end yesterday’s piece about the 12th anniversary of September 11th on a positive and sincere note. I’ll try to do the same.
Five years ago today, the author/essayist David Foster Wallace hung himself in his garage. Of course, we’ll find many tributes if we browse blogs, or search #DFWday on Twitter (or follow the dedicated DFW blog of @Nick_Maniatis). What can I say that’s much different? People who’ve read Wallace use the terms genius, voice of a generation, and other well-deserved praises. By repeating them I’d be doing a disservice because words used too often can lose their meaning.
I was never one of the people who carried around Infinite Jest and read it in public to garner some tacit praise or admiration. I feel a little pretentious just writing about him. In fact, I had little desire to read Wallace’s fiction. It wasn’t until after Wallace’s death that I actually read him, and not because when a celebrity dies, we must consume their work. I’d simply never heard of him.
I read Consider the Lobster on a recommendation from Amazon (If you like … Then try …). He was a writer that was simultaneously funny, interesting, compassionate, thought-provoking, and hard to read. It was an investment, especially that longer piece about usage. The title essay is one I often refer to when I eat lobster, actually. Growing up close to the southern coast of Maine, where lobster is a staple of New England diets in the summer, Wallace made me think about something I’d never thought about before: the morality of eating animals.
After Consider the Lobster, I found his other book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and the title alone made me laugh. So maybe I did DFW a little backwards. I did some back-reading about Infinite Jest and bought a copy then promptly put it down maybe 75 pages in. It was too hard, too esoteric. But news of The Pale King came and my now-wife convinced me to get it.
“That’s that writer you like, right?”
“But the book is about the IRS, I think. I don’t know if I want to read it.”
“Just get it.”
Obviously Pale King isn’t just about the IRS. I loved the writing. I loved the fragmented, nonlinear storytelling, the snippets of our lives that seem uninteresting, and, as he made me feel, maybe they are. But, I kept wondering, what does all of it mean? DFW pushed me to consider not only the lobster, but my own place in the world. Not many writers can do that.
And so I was in New York visiting my college roommate. I noticed Infinite Jest on his girlfriend’s bookshelf. We talked about how neither of us finished. We decided to read it together, for support. I remember finishing in the spare room (what I called the “office”) of my old apartment. Turning over the last page, realizing I was done, then thinking, “What just happened?” I even Googled it. But I wasn’t unsatisfied the way we are with some endings, in literature as in life.
What I am trying to say is that the news of DFW’s death didn’t hit me hard. It just didn’t hit me. Reading his non-fiction – and even his fiction – let me, and all his fans, into his head. Sometimes we act shocked when we hear certain news then, looking back, it seems that we’d been living in oblivion, having missed all the signs.
I read This is Water often. I recommend it to students, adults and friends constantly. Speaking of water, eventually the well of DFW’s writing will dry up. Maybe it already has. We look to writers to entertain us and they do so for however long it takes to read their work. Some stays with us; some goes away. Whatever camp you fall into with Wallace (and he certainly wasn’t without his detractors), there’s no middle ground. No one is indifferent if you ever took his work seriously. Maybe that’s the point.
- This is Water by David Foster Wallace (thinkingaboutliving.com)