David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

by Mathew on September 14, 2008 · 10 comments

This doesn’t really have much to do with the Web or new media or anything like that, but I feel compelled to take some notice of the fact that David Foster Wallace is dead. His wife apparently came home Friday night to find that the author had hung himself in their home in Claremont, California. He was 46. It’s not clear whether Wallace was depressed or dealing with any other issues before his death, but suicide and various forms of mental illness, including depression, were a recurring theme throughout much of his work (after his first novel got critical acclaim in the late 1980s, he checked into a hospital and asked to be put on suicide watch, and suicide also appears in a commencement speech that he gave at Kenyon University in 2005).

In one short story he wrote, called Good Old Neon, the narrator — a well-liked, high-school sports star turned advertising executive — recalls feeling like a fraud all of his life and eventually kills himself (you can read some of it through Google Books). Wallace described the story as his attempt to understand a high-school classmate of his, a well-liked sports hero who later committed suicide. Wallace himself was a sports star of sorts in high school, a competitive junior tennis player. Tennis forms one of the backdrops for Infinite Jest, probably his best-known work, a sprawling 1,000-page novel about (among many other things) the life of a young man living at an exclusive tennis training academy.

For me, Infinite Jest — which took me months to get through, not because it was hard to read, but because it was so enjoyable and the writing was so dense and rich and multi-layered (something Shane Richmond mentions as well in his post about Wallace’s death) — was up there in the top 10 novels of the past few decades, almost on par with David Eggers’ incredible book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers and Wallace were very similar, and as more than one person has noted their writing was a lot like hypertext, except instead of Web links there were multiple footnotes.

Both Wallace and Eggers got early acclaim, much like Jay McInerney did with his novel Bright Lights, Big City in the 1980s. Eggers has continued to write and publish — including the excellent McSweeney’s, which is also a quarterly literary journal — and founded a non-profit writing school. Wallace has written for places like Harper’s and the New York Times (including a profile of tennis ace Roger Federer that my friend Paul Kedrosky singled out) and was a teacher at a private college in Claremont. Did he hit his 40s and start to wonder whether he would ever recapture that early glory? McInerney continued to write, but never got the acclaim he did in his 20s, and spent years on the New York party circuit, had several divorces and is now the wine columnist for House & Garden magazine.

Before he turned to writing, Wallace got a degree in philosophy from Amherst College, where his specialty was an arcane subset of logic known as modal logic, which he described as being a form of mathematics (there’s video of an interview he did with Charlie Rose in 1997). I think he probably would have made a great programmer, and in many ways he was a geek’s writer, with that intense focus on detail and description and getting things exactly right. Was he tortured by that kind of obsession? We will never know. But I think a world without him in it, writing (and thinking) the way he did, is definitely a poorer place.

Further reading:

There are links and a lot more about David Foster Wallace at a fan site called The Howling Fantods, including a link to an excellent Metafilter thread. I highly recommend reading a piece Wallace wrote for The Atlantic in 2005 if you get a chance (the Atlantic has even helpfully turned the footnotes into hyperlinks), and there’s an interesting look at him and some of his recent work in a Salon profile in 1999. Meanwhile, a colleague at Pomona College remembers his friendship with Wallace, and McSweeney’s has a collection of reminiscences as well.

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