by carl wilson

When the Jest Becomes Infinite,
It's Not Funny Any More

David Foster Wallace: Leave a light burning.

I've been spending much of the day, after spending a lot of yesterday simply knocked out by it, looking around at quotes and articles and YouTube videos and other tributes to and reminiscences about David Foster Wallace, whose suicide this weekend was a shock and devastating and disappointing even though he was a writer who was always frank about the struggle against succumbing to enormous sadness and despair (and art's role on both sides of that struggle), someone whose work addressed depression and addiction so incisively but also compulsively. They are being compiled here, on the longtime fan site "the howling fantods," named after the catchphrase in Wallace's masterpiece Infinite Jest for extreme agitation. (A term that has a longer history than I'd realized.) It seems apt, given what a deep kinship and admiration and envy and inspiration DFW kindled in other writers, that what came to mind when I heard the news was a line from an unpublished story by an old friend: "He died of an attack of suicide."

As a fiction writer, Wallace seemed to me to be perhaps the only one in North America who both understood what the project needed to be in his time, and had the full unquestionable capability of doing it, although there did seem to be some self-stalling and sidelining going on in the past decade. It speaks profoundly of the sociality and intimacy and seriousness of his work that when I heard the news my first feeling, and others have told me they felt the same, was to wish I had known him and had been able to do something to help - even though it's immediately obvious that he probably had no shortage of people around who cared, and that often when an attack of suicide comes on no amount of door-bolting and torch-waving by the villagers can drive the monster off. But the first feeling was that empathy for the loneliness he must have been feeling, because his understanding of human loneliness was so obvious in his writing, with all his willingness or rather determination to use all his erudition and verbal firepower to acknowledge and face the sentimental and the banal, which in the avant-pomo-whatever tradition that spawned him is of course the forbidden zone. (It's just hit me that his influence on my own book was bigger than I consciously realized.) The second feeling, of course, was of the great loss to literature and to culture, of all the potential that will go unfulfilled.

Partly because his death coincided with a not-so-great weekend for me on that banal-human-sentiments, stuff-of-life level, I really am too smacked to say much more, but I'll end with a quotation I've always remembered from a 1996 Salon interview by Laura Miller, whose appreciation of Wallace today was one of the most resonant I read.

"It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like "It's really important not to lie." OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can't trust you. I feel that I'm in pain, I'm nervous, I'm lonely and I can't figure out why. Then I realize, "Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie." The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel."

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

Note: There is going to be a memorial event for Wallace in Toronto on Friday night, 9 to 10 pm, in the "pit" at Trinity Bellwoods Park. All are welcome.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 15 at 4:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)



You're totally right, DW; that was inappropriate. It would have been better just to say that I was really hoping all along for another novel, feeling that it was his best medium.

After all, if someone decided that I was best at record reviews, say, and bitched because I was wasting my time writing books instead, my reaction would be, screw you.

We're allowed to have opinions, but not to decide someone else's path.

Posted by zoilus on September 18, 2008 8:08 PM



I dunno -- discussing the quality of the work is one thing, but it seems weird to me to be deciding what KIND of work an artist should be spending his time on.

Even if you discount or consider secondary all the non-fiction (which I certainly wouldn't), I wouldn't feel any disappointment if he wrote nothing but short-story collections for the rest of his life. Why is a novel the only valid Major Statement?

Posted by DW. on September 18, 2008 4:28 PM



well, certainly the question on my lips for the past few expectant years was "So how's he's going to follow up Infinite Jest?" I never thought it would become a rhetorical question whose answer was a big zero.

I ended up re-reading his NY Times piece about Roger Federer (which is one of his best essays), then spent hours watching highlight reels of Federer playing, as all the while a question my friend had asked echoed in my head: "How can someone who can see so deeply into the beauty of an act like tennis playing--whose artfulness isn't apparent to everyone--how can this same person do away with himself?"

Kind of a silly and unanswerable query, but one that you can't help turning over in the mind. Which is exactly what I'll miss about him, his cheerfully and gamely probing the depths.

Posted by Dan Nelson on September 18, 2008 2:33 PM



"Dicking around" would be a ridiculous claim, since the guy clearly worked like a dog, but I do feel like the quantity of DFW's non-fiction output in that time served to sideline him: While a lot of it is fantastic work, a lot of it also seems inessential and a distraction from what DFW himself was always clear was his main gig - I wouldn't think he especially needed the money, although maybe he did, how would I really know. The short fiction, though uneven through those years, is full of more substantive rewards. But yes, the absence of another (not necessarily epic) novel can't help but loom large.

But I sympathize with how easy it is to get sidetracked by saying 'yes' to borderline projects, and of course it wouldn't feel like it mattered if he had another two or three decades as he should - and of course he didn't know that was going to happen.

Posted by zoilus on September 18, 2008 1:56 PM



Hey Carl,

What self-stalling and -sidelining? Since Infinite Jest, he released two short-story collections, two essay/journalism collections, and another non-fiction book.

There’ve been hints in a couple of the tributes that in the absence of Epic Novel #3, Wallace must have been dicking around, which I disagree with. Though I realize that’s not necessarily what you’re saying.


Posted by DW. on September 17, 2008 6:23 PM



I only saw this awful news a few hours ago, and even as someone who's only read a smattering of his work it's achingly sad, in the succumbing to loneliness and unrealized potential and still other ways. This reaction, from someone who knew him, feels right: "To learn tonight that he had taken his own life, it is just inconceivable to me. Inconceivable. I don't know how I can make that word register with the strength it needs to right now."

And this, too:

I don't know what else to say. I hope you're managing to sweep up the wreckage.

Posted by Chris on September 15, 2008 7:23 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson