David Foster Wallace: An Appreciation

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09/15/2008 12:47 PM |

Here is L mag contributor Noam Biale.

It’s a strange thing to be saddened by, quote, celebrity death. Precisely this kind of impulse — depersonalized, worshipful, public — would have met the mockery of David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself last Friday.

In novels, stories and essays, Wallace exposed our late-capitalist foibles to revelation and ridicule, deploying prose at once edgy and nerdy, to slice and dice everything from politics to mathematics, intimacy to international terrorism, with tennis, the state fair and David Lynch thrown in for good measure.

So it’s with some sense of the absurd that those of us who were fans of his writing mourn Wallace’s passing.

With respect to Infinite Jest, his 1,079-page meditation on entertainment, addiction and consumerism, I have only met two types of readers: those who haven’t finished it and those who obsessively consumed it, allowed its style and scope to take over their lives, and emerged forever changed by it.

I had the latter experience when I moved to New York and was working in a pizza shop, which, lucky for me, wasn’t doing much business. I had lots of time to read and I needed it, because every change of voice opened up a new world, every one of the more than 100 endnotes seemed critical to understanding the awesome whole, and each page was more enjoyable than the last — such that I, like many friends, rationed my intake at the end. I would allow only twenty pages at a time, savoring each word and suffering an acute case of the "howling fantods," to borrow Wallace’s phrase, when life interrupted reading.

I’ve tried to impart this aspect of the book to anyone I recommend it to: though tough, Infinite Jest is intensely pleasurable reading. In fact, it reinvents the sensation of reading for pleasure, and plunges it through the blood-brain barrier at a dizzying speed.

The affirmative joy of reading Wallace and the playfulness with which he treated even the darkest themes are hard to reconcile with his suicide. I know very little about his personal life and one cannot presume to question the decision (particularly of a very smart person) to take his own life. Still, his death represents more than the loss of a literary giant: because of the unique experience of reading Wallace, his incomparable style and his heartfelt, yet skeptical, anti-cynicism, it is hard as a fan not to feel some personal sorrow.

As I have said, Wallace himself would have found farce here, though also, I believe, some sympathy. In a 1997 interview he identified himself with other writers who used postmodern themes and techniques to describe old, sometimes cliché, ideas and values. Though filled with black humor, his books contain little irony. He felt deeply the desires and (often futile) aspiration of his most grotesque characters, both fictional and real. In Wallace, people behave in ludicrous ways, but their sentimentalities are never cheap.

What little license this offers, I’ll take. And though I am one of many fans, say, "Alas, poor Wallace! I knew him…" The work lives on, but the man will be missed.

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