RIP, David Foster Wallace

(Now updated with aftershocks)
  • There's an appraisal in the New York Times here.
  • I first read the news in an obituary on Ain't It Cool News here.
My hands won't stop shaking, and it feels like something low and mean sucker punched me in the solar plexus.  Five minutes ago I read David Foster Wallace was found dead in his home Friday, apparently having hanged himself.  Few authors have had such a profound effect on me; not only on what I read, but in how I write.  David Foster Wallace was one of those people.  The first book I reviewed this year was Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays that was manic in its exuberant show of genius.  He was a writer incapable of reigning in his talent, and whether he was indulging in towering 1,000+ page novels (Infinite Jest), relating his experiences on the set of a David Lynch film (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) or simply editing The Best American Essays (the 2007 edition), he was a brash, electric spike that challenged me to be a better writer and, more importantly, be a better reader.

After reading an advance review in Time Magazine back in 1996 I picked up Infinite Jest the day it was released.  At almost $30, it was a juggernaut my post-college finances could barely afford, but buy it I did and over the next few months devoured every word.  A few years later I read it again.  Every page, every copious footnote caused a single synapse in my brain to re-wire.  Debate swirled constantly about his style - detractors called upon the constant self referencing, the footnotes, everything being chalked up to a massive arrogance and ego that was a mask for larger literary errors.  I never thought so - to my mind it was an uncanny echo of how I related to the world, doing something and knowing that you're actively doing it and the doubt that comes with the conscious knowledge of participating in an act or thought.  Laura Miller, in her essay about Wallace over at, was able to express this much better than I ever could:

He wrote about the maddening impossibility of scrutinizing yourself without also scrutinizing yourself scrutinizing yourself and so on, ad infinitum, a vertiginous spiral of narcissism -- because not even the most merciless self- examination can ignore the probability that you are simultaneously congratulating yourself for your soul-searching, that you are posing. He tried so hard to be sincere and to attend to the world around him because he was excruciatingly aware of how often we are merely "sincere" and "attentive" and all too willing to leave it at that. He spoke of the discipline and of the abrading, daily labor such efforts require because the one imperative that runs throughout all of his work is the intimate connection between humility and wisdom.

Knowing that he's gone, and that he's gone for reason that we'll never know, feels like too much. It's cliché that often you don't know the effect people have on you until they're gone.  And David Foster Wallace is gone and his words are still here but right now I can't read them without feeling angry and sad and confused because it just feels like the color drained out of the world.



I wrote the above (with a little editing this morning) last night while my wife was visiting her Aunt with Jack.  Afterward I sat downstairs, unable to much except visualize again and again someone roughly looking like Wallace stepping off a chair and killing himself.  I don't know if that's what happened, but for some reason I couldn't stop thinking about it.  When my wife came home and put Jack to bed, she sat down next to me on the couch and I told her what had happened.  When I got to the suicide I starting shaking, and suddenly right there with her legs in my lap I couldn't control myself and just cried.

I didn't know him, and really I couldn't see a reason I would be so affected by his death.  Maybe it's the not understanding why someone you admire would do something so foolish, so profoundly stupid (at least in my eyes) that it felt like the world just wasn't the way I had always believed it to be.  And then, for no longer than a second, I had this feeling of utter hopelessness, a combination of different emotions, all negative, beating on the inside of my skull, and I started to think, in that way that Miller describes in her article, about the fact that I was feeling this specific thing, about this specific event.  And instead of getting lost deeper and deeper in some meta-fiction in my own head, I pulled out of it, and realized that I was doing this to myself, and that I could stop thinking like that and think about something else.  I looked over at my wife and did just that. I don't know if Wallace could have done that, or if he even had a choice.  I was sad, but glad I had that choice.