Sunday, Sep. 14, 2008
Appreciation: David Foster Wallace 1962-2008
By Joel Stein
A few weeks ago, I reread the beginning of Infinite Jest, and stupidly cursed right out loud its author, David Foster Wallace, out of jealousy, because I will never write — or even think — like he does in just the first few pages of what is the best novel written since I've been old enough to read. It's a circular 1,079-page book about the impossibility of communication that is so wondrously complex that when I got to meet with its editor, Michael Pietsch, and ask him a basic question about the plot, he couldn't even tell me.
Wallace committed suicide on Friday night, at the age of 46. He might be remembered as the guy who brought footnotes back (his fiction is full of them), or the person who magnified Thomas Pynchon's reader-reaction paranoia into post-modern mega-epic. He did do those things. But Wallace was also the greatest horror novelist ever. In Infinite Jest a corporation-run unified North America of the near-future (dates have been replaced by sponsor names, such as the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar) is being decimated by a videotape so entertaining that people watch it on a loop, mesmerized until they die of dehydration or starvation or lack of sleep. Reading it, you realize how soul-sad lonely you are. And Wallace creates that effect, like Pynchon, while being laugh-out-loud funny.
His was not a cheery worldview, but it was honest. He ate meat but realized, in his essay "Consider the Lobster," that if a crustacean is trying to claw its way out of a pot of boiling water, you are cold-blooded murderer when you eat it. In the 150th anniversary issue of The Atlantic last year, he nihilistically stated an unpopular truth about liberty: The cost of freedom is that you have to occasionally let 3,000 people die in terrorist attacks. His 1999 collection of short stories, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men — which John Krasinki has adapted into a movie to be released later this year — damns his gender as a greedy, cold, oversexed marauders.
Wallace, who won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1997, was a tennis prodigy and a math whiz (his Amherst philosophy major focused on modal logic, whatever that is). His thoughts sprawled beyond the boundaries that most writers observe into notes and equations, one sentence going on for so many pages even Faulkner would have demanded a period. He seemed curious about everything: he wrote nonfiction articles about food and porn conventions and Dennis Hastert and women's tennis. His Essay for the New York Times' Play Magazine celebrating "Federer as Religious Experience" is a classic of sports writing.
At the book party for Infinite Jest, I sat, for a moment, next to him. He wasn't talking to anyone and seemed pretty uncomfortable for a guy who was having a party thrown for him. Years later, I reviewed his collection of short stories Oblivion, and foolishly, jealously wrote this: "David Foster Wallace writes so beautifully, is so show-offishly smart and understands the intricacies of human emotion so keenly that a reasonable person can only hope he is terribly unhappy. Which, if this collection of short stories is any indication, he is." For a far better, less embittered, summation of this loss, read the soliloquy from Hamlet that gave Wallace's great novel its title. It is Hamlet's meditation on mortality, now tragically appropriate, that begins: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio — a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred my imagination is!"