Monday, September 15, 2008

A Few Thoughts Upon the Death of David Foster Wallace.

In the midst of the slew of election coverage, I heard a very distressing message this past Saturday night. David Foster Wallace, perhaps the seminal author of the X-generation, was discovered by his wife on Friday, dead and hanging in his Claremont, CA house. At 46 years of age, many folks expected Wallace to continue writing and publishing both non-fiction and fiction for many years. I've read several of his books, and personally looked forward to what I thought would be numerous future installments from the brain of an extraordinarily articulate and nuanced thinker. His 1008 -page magnum opus Infinte Jest (1996) was (to my mind) one of the most substantial works created by any contemporary fiction writer.

I heard the tragic news in my car, while I was driving to a friend's house for a small get-together. I tried to locate someone by phone who had both heard of Wallace and had read his work. I wanted somehow to share a moment of consolation, and perhaps raise a virtual toast to his memory and achievements. It was tough to find someone who met that criteria, and I only did so after several attempts. In retrospect, I think it's a bit of a shame that so few intelligent, well-read folks have ever actually read David Foster Wallace. I suppose that fact speaks to the general lack of interest in challenging, well-written literature nowadays. No doubt there would be a rising chorus of melodramatic wailing if the latest American Idol hero had died instead.

Once I was able to contact a few individuals with some knowledge of DFW, I began to reflect on whether or not it was appropriate for me to experience a genuine emotional reaction over the death of someone I had never met. To be honest with you, I felt just a little bit silly. It made me recall the day Charles Bukowski died, and where I was the moment I heard the news from MTV's Kurt Loder. I didn't feel nearly as self-indulgent in my youth for shedding a tear or two for a literary hero. It's a bit embarrassing today to admit that I sat down and wrote a poem in honor of the fallen scribe. Granted its message was intentionally unsentimental, but the gesture itself didn't avoid that trap.

So downing a shot this past Saturday seemed about right. The people I was with had enough grace not to make fun of me for feeling a bit down. After all, another great writer will never again put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as is the current convention). That's sad, but a result of a wholly intentional action. Not knowing the man personally, I wonder why he was driven to make such an extreme and final exit. A very brief internet search has revealed that DFW had been clinically depressed off-and-on for over twenty years. To be completely honest, that would have been hard to guess from his writing. He seemed to have such a deep sense of humor about the world. He was not without a certain level of cynicism, but he didn't appear to be a complete malcontent.

Obviously it is his friends and family members that have the most insight into David Foster Wallace, and thus I will leave it to them to speculate as to why he checked himself out of this existence. Yet I will mark the news of his suicide by suggesting that serious literature fans check out the author's works, if they haven't already done so. DFW did leave a significant body of work behind. We don't necessarily have to dwell on what he could have done, had he chosen to remain alive. Check out A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997) for a selection of essays that revealed an extraordinary mind and a deft facility for seeing through the thin facade of modern life. And if you're feeling really ambitious, tackle his masterpiece- Infinite Jest.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this in the obit section this morning, and cut it out, wanting to mention it to you. As I recall, it was you who turned me on to his "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997)" He was quite a treasure as a writer.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I lent that to you because I believed that you'd appreciate his essays about visiting a Midwestern fair, and taking a trip on a cruise line. Some of his stuff could be a bit pedantic, but overall he was often an amazing writer.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Dagrims said...

RIP DFW. Sorry I wasn't able to talk longer when we spoke. I'll definitely need to take the book off the shelf one of these days and read it.

10:26 PM  

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