Sunday, September 14, 2008

RIP, David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace hanged himself on Friday. He was 46.

Who was DFW? He was most well known for his mammoth novel Infinite Jest, a novel I bought when it was first released in 1996 and to this day have never made it to the quarter mark despite numerous tries. I figured I just was not smart/patient enough to wade through the plot and keep flipping to the copious end notes. Who needs that hassle?

Why even try this book? Well, fresh out of college and working in a completely mind-numbing swing shift job I thought I needed the challenge. And I very much enjoyed a tennis related essay from Esquire entitled "The String Theory"1. So I saved up, bought IJ and found out that attempting to bash my way through a novel in which I had no feeling except sleepiness was really not worth my time. Maybe someday the book will surprise me and I'll get through it, but not yet.

So why stick with Wallace material? Well, a year later a collection of his stranger than fiction essays, including the Esquire article was released. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again contains some of the funniest writing I've ever encountered and it hit me at a time in life when I needed a laugh. I've loaned my copy, bought copies for others, and even own the book in hardback and paperback versions.

Wallace's take on mundane subjects, such as the Illinois State Fair2 are riddled with his own insecurities, prejudices, and elitist notions. He's a Midwestern guy with a northeastern education/mindset, who has returned to write/teach in the heart of Illinois. It's easy to feel elite along with DFW as he wanders the fairgrounds taking everything in from carnies to FFA/4H kids to politicians.3 He seems to look down on the activities, yet want to experience as those who leave their inhibitions and daily cares at the gate. But he's so wrapped up in his own experience of the experience that he can't let go. His own vision of life supersedes the event.
"One of the few things I miss from my Midwest childhood was this weird, deluded but unshakable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me. Am I the only one who had this queer deep sense as a kid? -- that everything exterior to me existed only insofar as it affected me somehow? -- that all things were somehow, via some occult adult activity, specially arranged for my benefit? Does anyone else identify with this memory? The child leaves the room, and now everything in that room, once he is no longer there to see it, melts away into some void of potential or else (my personal childhood theory) is trundled away by occult adults and stored until the child's reentry into the room recalls it all back into animate service. Was this nuts? It was radically self-centered, of course, this conviction, and more than a little paranoid. Plus, the responsibility it conferred: if the whole of the world dissolved and resolved each time I blinked, what if my eyes didn't open?"4

Wallace's other essays are riddled with this same self-centered notion. In writing about David Lynch later in ASFTINDA, DFW is so scared to shatter his own illusions of Lynch that though he has journalistic access to the director, he stays away lest the image explode. We don't want our own notions about the world disturbed, so we leave them alone. It's easier to opine on them from afar than to get into the scrum and enjoy the actual living and experiencing.

This is not a guess or attempt to analyze why Wallace ultimately chose to take his own life, but more my own take on the things that paralyze me in day to day life. I read these essays at a time I was pretty paralyzed by my own notions of the world, but in hindsight I can recognize that in some small way DFW's writing contributed to me popping out of a deep funk and back into the land of the living. Even when supposedly fun things turned out to be blah, at least I knew first hand why they were blah instead of guessing. And in the process I found a lot of life that was not blah that I would have missed.

It's a bloody shame we have lost one of the most unique literary talents of our time.

1. The full and ponderous DFW title of the essay: "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Atristry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness."

2. "Getting Away From Pretty Much Being Away From It All."

3. One critic I read once described Wallace as having an IMAX eye for seeing everything.

4. From essay in footnote 2.


aham23 said...

do you hate tina fey too? just wondering.

Ben said...

Well said. FWIW, I had a nearly identical experience with being unable to penetrate Infinite Jest then discovering the wonderful A Supposedly Fun Thing. I also liked the essays you liked and have repeatedly given ASFT as a gift.