On David Foster Wallace’s Wiki page, some hacker with a twisted sense of humour inserted the word “nigger” into random sentences on Monday. Wallace, who hanged himself this weekend at the age of 46, would have approved of the hack, but lamented the lack of imagination.
Wallace’s own prose swooped into footnotes [i], marginalia, diagrams, parentheses, footnotes within footnotes, parentheses within parentheses, as though he was signalling that life was too big, too unwieldy to be contained by an instrument as puny as language. He wrote relatively little — the mammoth contraption that was Infinite Jest, incisive essays (A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again, his account of life on a cruise ship), short stories — and was teaching at Pomona University at the time of his death. But the Wallace Factor was inescapable. [ii]
As the news of his apparent suicide spread, it triggered deep sadness among two communities in particular — Wallace’s students, and his fellow writers. Some writers are important not for their popularity but for their influence, and his impact on writers was huge. He was sharply aware of how deeply we are immersed in corporate culture, of the television-driven world that governed the lives of many Americans: “Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.” [iii]
Why did he kill himself? “There will never be for us a good enough reason,” wrote a friend of mine who knew Wallace. Some have pointed to the inevitable signs — always seen in hindsight, never in foresight. [iv] He once put himself on suicide watch, having discovered that success could induce despair rather than elation. And he paid acute attention to suicide — one character microwaves his head, after stuffing the gap in the glass door with suitable material, in Infinite Jest; another imagines the death of a character called David Wallace before killing himself. But he paid even more attention to other things — the despair inherent in tourism, the morality of eating flesh, tennis, politics, addiction, advertisements, the necessity of being alive to one’s life.
I was going to write how much I will miss his ability to entertain and exasperate simultaneously, his humour, his way of seeing. But I’m thinking back to 1996, when a friend and I read Infinite Jest the way runners prepare for a marathon. When one of us flagged, the other provided encouragement. We slogged our way through each footnote, cracking up often in helpless laughter. We discussed the plot lines, we took it chapter by chapter, and one day, we were done. I sat back with a sense of bewildered accomplishment, and it would take twelve years to realise how insistently, how often, Wallace’s voice echoed in my head.
The columnist is chief editor, Westland/ Tranquebar; the views expressed here are personal
[i] Infinite Jest, his 1,079-page 1996 opus, contained almost 400 footnotes; enough for a novella. Consider the Lobster, his controversial report on the Maine Lobster Festival in 2004, packed in over 20 footnotes into seven pages, including one that contained two N.B.s and one that unveiled the behind-the-scenes struggle with editors. As far back in 1999, with the short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, he admitted that he felt the need for footnote detox.
[ii] DFW was a major influence on writers like Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith. Smith wrote, “[Infinite Jest] sat like a challenge on the shelves of hipsters everywhere. If you couldn’t write a bigger one you could compete with your roommate to see how far you could throw it from a standing position. Either way, Infinite Jest was the book you were going to have to deal with sooner or later, just as a previous generation had to deal with Gravity’s Rainbow, or Midnight’s Children, or The Recognitions.”
[iii] He also said elsewhere, “But of course we should keep in mind that vulgar has many dictionary definitions and that only a couple of these have to do w/ lewdness or bad taste. At root, vulgar just means popular on a mass scale. It is the semantic opposite of pretentious or snobby.”
[iv] One of his most famous quotes, from a commencement address: “Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master…. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”