David Foster Wallace: 1962-2008
Several of my artistic heroes have died in recent years, but they were older or no longer productive, and when I learned that David Foster Wallace had committed suicide I was far more shocked and upset. There was the terrible, selfish loss of realizing that I would never have the pleasure of reading another novel or story or essay by Wallace, and the unforgivable fact that he was so young--46--and in midcareer.
But there was something even more profoundly troubling about his suicide, almost personally threatening. Our relationships to the writers we love (and his readers did love him, inasmuch as you can love someone you don't know) are uniquely personal; these are people who speak to you inside your head. And Wallace's voice sounded so much like the voice already in our heads--brilliant but colloquial, cerebral but confiding, like the very smartest and best part of us--that to lose this voice feels a little like a lobotomy.
Just as, when I first read him, I thought that here was the writer I would be if only I were much smarter and a much better writer, reading his recent work I felt that Wallace was the person I would be if I were less intellectually lazy and more honest and conscientious, kinder and truer to myself. He seemed to be way ahead of me on the spiritual-advancement curve. For someone fighting the same battle we all are, and who seemed to have, as he put it, far greater firepower, for him to lose, to give up, feels not just like a grievous casualty but a betrayal, like defeat. As Michael Herr wrote on the death of his own cultural hero, Stanley Kubrick: "If it can do this to him, imagine what it can do to us."
The truncation of his voice is especially wounding and irreparable because Wallace had embarked on a great artistic project. In his last two collections of short stories, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion, he had become more and more concerned with the subject of evil--which he seemed to define as an existential loneliness, "fraudulence," an inability to connect with or genuinely care for anything outside oneself. By this definition, evil and Hell are the same condition. I never felt that these stories were "dark," as so many reviewers called them, any more than I thought his work was "cold." What they were was profoundly moral, urgently concerned with the oldest and most important questions of how to be fully and consciously human and what it means to be good, just as there was always desperately anguished emotion restrained behind the brilliant, virtuosic sheen of his prose.
He wasn't content to diagnose evil and despair, as so many modern writers have done; he was audacious enough to want to find, and give us, answers. In several of his essays he set forth a bold new artistic challenge for himself and his cohort of American fictionists. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" foresaw the aesthetic and humanistic dead end of postmodern irony and speculated that the next revolutionary literary movement might be fiction that risked sentimentality and melodrama and "advocated single-entendre values." In "Joseph Frank's Dostoyevsky" he explicitly set himself the daunting goal of following great 19th-century novelists' example of writing "morally passionate, passionately moral fiction [that] was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction." One got the sense that he was readying himself, like a great athlete in that last quiet moment of concentration and blankness before the crucial moment at the Olympics, for a feat of such artistic hubris it would demand everything he had, and more.
And his most recent essays and stories seemed to be early efforts at fulfilling this artistic agenda. In "The View from Mrs. Thompson's" he wrote of the comparative innocence and defenselessness (taking pains to distinguish this from stupidity or naiveté) of his fellow Midwestern churchgoers watching the collapse of the World Trade Centers on TV. His much-circulated 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College warns the matriculating seniors that "in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance," and offered them the option to choose to interpret their most frustrating and dull daily experience "as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars." "Good People," published in The New Yorker last September, is a grippingly earnest story about a young Christian couple about to have an abortion, at the end of which he unblinkingly uses the line, "What would even Jesus do?"--managing to transform this embarrassing cliché, this cultural punch line, back into a real and urgent personal question.
In a July 2006 reading at Capri's Le Conversazioni literary festival Wallace mentioned that he was less than halfway through his next gargantuan novel. I had looked forward to this book in a way I look to very few works of art anymore--with hope. As something that might actually help. There aren't many artists whom you think of as point men on a Promethean mission on behalf of their culture anymore, and I can't think of anyone who can take his place.
When a hero dies, there is a need to turn it into more than the mundane, sordid circumstances of one individual's death, to mythologize. A friend wrote me the day after DFW's death: "The only analogy I can make is that of a sudden mass extinction or the disappearance of the polar ice caps--it does not bode well for the rest of humanity." I know what he means; it's tempting to look at the headlines and imagine that someone who saw so much further and more clearly than we did, who often put into precise and moving words ideas that had been barely conscious gut feelings for us, saw which way the wind was blowing and decided to get while the getting was good.
But Wallace had evidently suffered from clinical depression for 20 years, had been heavily medicated, hospitalized, and even undergone electroconvulsive therapy, to no avail. He was killed by the disease of depression just as if he had died of diabetes or an aneurysm. It's impossible to imagine what pain he must have been in to forsake his work, his future, and his loved ones, and to destroy himself in such a ghastly way.
Most of what little I understand about such uttermost states of mind comes from reading Wallace. He wrote with horrifying eloquence about the experience of clinical depression in passages that I'm afraid will now always be tainted with the lurid and dreary fascination of autobiographical confession. In Infinite Jest, he compares people who commit suicide to escape clinical depression to people who leap from burning buildings: They aren't any less afraid of falling than you or I; they just fear the flames more.
There's nothing left to hope for from David Foster Wallace. He gave us what he could, and it was far more than most, and we should be grateful for it. The only thing left to hope for him is that he is at peace.
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