(Photo by Steve Rhodes via Flickr)
David Foster Wallace killed himself over the weekend, and I'm still figuring out how to process it.
I spent the summer after I graduated college reading Infinite Jest, which is really the only way to read it. I turned 22 that summer, and spent my days waiting tables at a steakhouse for cowboys who tipped poorly, most likely out of resentment that fate had given me them instead of the blond in the denim skirt. But with everyone I knew having moved away and my own departure for sunny Southern California still a couple months off, I had little else to do with myself than plow through David Foster Wallace's massive, sprawling, gorgeous book.
I loved everything about it. The story burned itself into my central nervous system as few had before or ever will. If a great film is one that keeps playing in your head long after the lights have come up, then surely a great book is one whose characters and situations never stop resonating and whose worldviews become tied into your own. I still see Joelle Van Dyne, and Hal Incandenza, and Bimmy. I still see them. The book was huge, and dense, and footnoted to a ridiculous degree with an appended section of everything from clarifications to conversations to whole flashbacks. Reading it was finding something new and wonderful.
And that was what made me fall in love with Wallace's writing. More than just enjoying his short stories, novels, and narrative nonfiction, I can usually remember where I was or what was going on in my life the first time I read a given book of his. (E.g., I remember reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again when I went home for my sister's college graduation, and also trying to bite my tongue in the airport while reading "Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All," a piece about Wallace's trip to the Illinois State Fair that made me convulse with quiet laughter so much that people actually looked at me funny.)
His stuff was sharp, and big, and he felt like mine, you know? Films are communal things by virtue of the nature of their consumption, but a book is a private thing, and no two people will read something or take it to heart the same way. "Big Red Son" is a glorious essay, and "Authority and American Usage" rubbed the grammar nerd in me in all the right ways. Wallace was fiendishly smart, and he used that intellect both to strive for a higher quality of writing and to joyfully break the rules when he wanted to. I know Wallace was lauded for his ambition and skill and genius, all of it deserved, but while on one level I mourn the loss of a great author, on another I'm brokenhearted that that part of me will never get anything new. Rereading his books now will bring with the act a sense of sadness and regret that the words I'm reading are part of a finite supply.
Wallace's books are complicated and challenging affairs, but they're also rewarding: You're ushered into a world so thoroughly realized and so painfully real that the story becomes more meaningful than you'd have guessed. Infinite Jest (and The Broom of the System, and others) builds toward a frantic ending that stops short of where a more conventional narrative would end, but to have gone on longer would have been to serve character over the need to create a certain style and kind and way of story. I can't help but reel at the sad parallel between Wallace's life and that kind of tragic pre-ending some of his stories offered, but I can't help but smile weakly at the way it all came out. I will miss this man and his works, but damn if he didn't change my life.
Here are a few links I've found. They offer a fractioned glimpse at the man's style and thoughts, but for newcomers, I'd recommend Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. And of course, Infinite Jest. It's worth the time.
• Profile of Roger Federer • "Host" • "Consider the Lobster" • "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" • "Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think" • "Authority and American Usage" • Some of the above can be found in this round-up of pieces Wallace wrote for Harper's, available as PDFs. • "David Lynch Keeps His Head" • "F/X Porn"
UPDATE: • There's also John's wonderful appreciation of DFW. • Additionally, KCRW's Bookworm has added a pair of DFW programs to its archive and will be doing one in memoriam that will undoubtedly find its way there before long. The first is from May 1997, the second is from August 1999.