Remembering David Foster Wallace
“…I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lamé projectile-vomit inside a glass elevator…. I have now heard — and am powerless to describe — elevator reggae music. I have learned what it is to become afraid of one’s own toilet…” And so, in a sublimely wry and supremely hilarious 1996 article in Harper’s magazine, the late David Foster Wallace captured the soulless pleasures and infantilizing excesses of a luxury Caribbean cruise. I remember reading — and hurriedly rereading — this story while flying across the Pacific in the crowded cabin of a 747, unsuccessfully suppressing guffaws and chortles as my brother shot me looks of bewildered annoyance. It wasn’t DFW’s first published piece, but it was for me and many friends the one that placed him firmly in our radar — one that started, in those pre-Google days, frantic searches for whatever else he had written. (I can say, with absolute certainty, that I’ve recommended this article, now the title piece in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, to no fewer than 100 persons, including some complete strangers.)
I was able to track down another story he had written for Harper’s, a travelogue describing a weekend visit to the Illinois State Fair, which he turned into a harrowing journey through the soft underbelly of Middle America. Even better, I was delighted to discover that his cruise story was no fluke — and in reading more of his magazine work (he had already had written several works of fiction), it was clear he was creating something of a signature style: a whip-smart blend of essay and reportage, larded with his witty observational asides and (often copious) footnotes. Taken individually, these stories were impressionistic but detailed sketches of a wide range of subjects, including director David Lynch, the 2000 presidential campaign of John McCain, the state of American lexicography, and the goings-on at an adult-film convention. Collectively, they may be considered an ongoing narrative of American pop culture: brilliant pieces in a now sadly unfinished mosaic. (I also liked what little I read of his fiction: all of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, some of Oblivion, and the first 130 pages of Infinite Jest, the once bright-orange spine of the paperback edition now faded to a sickly salmon.)
But nowhere in my sometimes scarily close readings of his words can I recall any hints of a particularly troubled mind: He may have visited dark places and explored troubling themes, but Wallace always seemed profoundly grounded and self-aware. Which makes his final actions sad and puzzling (and even, to many a fan I talked to this morning, infuriating). In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve really taken in the full measure of his untimely passing. In any case, rather than speculating on what may have caused this gifted writer and married man to take his own life at 46, let’s instead talk about his rich legacy. What are your favorite David Foster Wallace stories? And how were you first introduced to his work?