On Sept. 12, Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace hanged himself in his Claremont, Calif., home. His body was found by his wife, Karen. According to statements James Wallace made to The New York Times, his son’s antidepressants had failed; he tried electroconvulsive therapy this summer, but ”just couldn’t stand it anymore.” Wallace was 46.
Thus is now writ the far-too-brief denouement to the life of an incomparably curious, challenging, cultish, brilliant American voice. ”He was the best of our generation,” novelist Richard Powers told the AP; the shock of his passing was felt by countless peers. Over the course of nine books — fiction and nonfiction — Wallace carved an indelible spot in the literary canon, elevated the game of friends like Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, and George Saunders, and, as a college professor, helped shape a new wave of writers. He may have borrowed the title of his 1996 masterpiece, Infinite Jest, from the ”Alas, poor Yorick…” speech in Hamlet, but it could be argued that the play’s most Wallace-appropriate quote is not the one about the skull. Try Act II, Scene II: ”Words, words, words.”
From the 1,079 dystopian pages of Jest to the infamous ”Consider the Lobster” — a colossal treatise on the morality of eating said crustaceans delivered in 2004 to the unsuspecting editors of Gourmet magazine, who’d really just asked for a nice story about the Maine Lobster Festival — Wallace spent his career cheerfully disregarding the limitations of the printed page. His fiction, rooted in the postmodern traditions of Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, inspired equal parts exhilaration and exasperation. By contrast, his nonfiction was hilariously accessible. Wallace was keenly aware of his narrative flailings, and exploited those insecurities to draw the reader in; he began sentences with informalities like ”And so but then,” slathered his text in footnotes, fetishized abbreviation. ”He didn’t really study a subject so much as absorb it,” says Josh Dean, who edited Wallace’s piece on tennis star Roger Federer for The New York Times’ Play magazine. As his longtime Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch puts it, to read Wallace’s work is to discover ”how many pleasures he can cram into a sentence.”
The son of a philosophy professor and an English teacher, Wallace was raised in Champaign, Ill., and graduated from Amherst College in 1985 with a degree in philosophy. One of his senior theses resulted in 1987’s The Broom of the System, which Wallace once referred to as a ”sensitive little self-obsessed bildungsroman”; indeed, the book’s kooky plot is less significant than its author’s relationship with the power of language, as embodied in a protagonist increasingly convinced she’s nothing but a character in someone else’s stories.
In an era of confessional tell-alls, exploring his fear of becoming ”a linguistic construct” was the closest Wallace ever came to outright memoir. Instead, it was Jest — surely the most beloved three-pound book ever written about a tennis academy, a halfway house, wheelchair-bound Canadian terrorists, and a videotape so entertaining that it literally amuses its viewers to death — that cemented his status as literary superstar. The role was a horrid fit. Wallace rarely appeared in public without sporting a do-rag; he loved chewing tobacco, hated being on TV, and made decisions based on the needs of his dogs. ”He was uncomfortable with praise,” says Pietsch. ”But he was incredibly easy to talk to, as unassuming as a human being could be.” He’d also no doubt be mortified by anyone pawing through his oeuvre to determine where the trickle of dark water became a flood. Yet clues exist, in ”The Depressed Person,” ”Good Old Neon,” even his intro to The Best American Essays 2007, where he refers to the sound of U.S. culture as an ”abyss” of ”Total Noise.” That the writers in this collection all carry a bit of DFW DNA is not much consolation.
In 2005, Wallace addressed the graduating class of Kenyon College with the following: ”Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think…being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to…how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
The best of our generation is not a phrase to be flung about willy-nilly, but w/r/t David Foster Wallace it feels earned. Our current fascination with Twittering and whatnot may have antiquated his predilection for infinity, but Wallace’s ability to parse the minutiae of modern life continues to be what the Total Noise of our world so desperately needs. Now, in his absence, we must teach ourselves not just how to write, or to think, but to see.
Wallace’s best work mixed intellectual rigor, hilarity, and — crucially — empathy. The works below are some of his most rewarding. The last three essays are available online.
Published when he was just 33, this 1,079-page doorstop might fairly be called this generation’s Moby-Dickor Gravity’s Rainbow.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
The egghead as humorist. In essays on cruise ships and state fairs, Wallace is always bemused but never cynical.
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
His wildest book of stories is exactly what the title promises: myriad portraits of men behaving badly.
Consider the Lobster
More comedic (and strikingly brainy and openhearted) nonfiction. Included topics: John McCain, porn, talk radio, and dictionaries.
Kenyon College Commencement Speech, 2005
Wallace entreats grads to resist the miseries invited by daily drudgeries. A heartbreaker.
Federer as Religious Experience
Wallace penned this impossibly detailed article on Roger Federer for Play magazine in 2006.
Intro to The Best American Essays 2007
Intros are usually superfluous, but DFW blows apart the form with this examination of ”Total Noise.”