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and envy and inspiration DFW kindled in other writers, that what came to mind when I heard the news was a line from an unpublished story by an old friend: "He died of an attack of suicide."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