Remembering David Foster Wallace

Much of my day-to-day is consumed by short pieces of art or tech news – a cool new illustrator, some crowd-sourced work profiled in Wired – and I often fail to see the trees for the forest. I may intensely love a new band for a few weeks, then jump to the next one. This is to explain how, one year ago today, the news of David Foster Wallace’s suicide telescoped my day-to-day into a moment I’ll remember when I’m 75. DFW’s art profoundly altered the way I read literature, the way I write, the way I understand life, and, well, the way I live my life. I can’t overstate his influence. It’s cold comfort to feel my limitations in writing about DFW, given his central concern with the struggle to translate thought into language.

April 1997. I picked up Infinite Jest in the Disney World Virgin Megastore on a family vacation. I had been intensely suffering my teenage ennui. “Parents just don’t understand,” Morrissey, all that. God knows why I thought a thousand-page contemporary novel would help. I hadn’t heard of the author and certainly wasn’t reading book reviews back then. But I liked challenges, and this one looked promising.

It may as well have been Stendhal syndrome for how deeply that book rewired my psyche. Fuck rewiring, there was a wholesale psyche transplant procedure going on. Keith Gessen nails it in his blog post when he mentions how much the late novelist gets things “right.” Despite my allergy to absolutes in literary criticism, DFW’s sui generis style may as well be 21st-century realism. Just look at the structure, scope, and vocabulary of Infinite Jest and you may as well have the internet in literary form. (And those footnotes!)

So, a year ago. I was attending a friend’s birthday party, at Sophie’s in the East Village, when an old college buddy texted me the news. I’ve never been one to feel any loss when celebrities die – it’s hard for me to feel connected to people I haven’t met personally – but this hit so hard I entered a fugue state for weeks. What does it mean when one of the world’s brightest minds couldn’t take it? How does the most articulate novelist born in the last fifty years consider himself a failure at expressing his perceived deficiencies? And what the hell does that mean for the rest of us? These questions that plagued me. I found some solace in rereading his work and became grateful these books existed at all.

As a person obsessed with the confluence of image and word in our culture, coupled with pessimism regarding the continued mass audience for novels… I will always remember September 12, 2008. David Foster Wallace showed that words can matter, will matter, and that the greatest art will always be the novel.


D.T. Max’s consideration “The Unfinished” in The New Yorker

n+1 uncovers the amusing origin of Infinite Jest character Michael Pemulis’ name

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