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INFINITE JEST: David Foster Wallace Kills Self

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NEW YORK TIMES: David Foster Wallace, whose darkly ironic novels, essays and short stories garnered him a large following and made him one of the most influential writers of his generation, was found dead in his California home on Friday, after apparently committing suicide, the authorities said. Mr. Wallace, 46, best known for his sprawling 1,079-page novel “Infinite Jest,” was discovered by his wife, Karen Green, who returned home to find that he had hanged himself, a spokesman for the Claremont, Calif., police said Saturday evening. MORE

NEW YORK TIMES: David Foster Wallace used his prodigious gifts as a writer — his manic, exuberant prose; his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse avant garde techniques with old-fashioned moral seriousness — to create a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification, and to capture, in the words of the musician Robert Plant, the myriad “deep and meaningless” facets of contemporary life.

wallace.gifA prose magician, Mr. Wallace was capable of writing — in both his fiction and nonfiction — about everything from tennis to politics to lobsters, from the horrors of drug withdrawal to the small terrors of life aboard a luxury cruise ship, with humor and fervor and verve. At his best, he could write funny, write sad, write sardonic and write serious. He could map the infinite and infinitesimal, the mythic and mundane. He could conjure up an absurd future — an America in which herds of feral hamsters roam the land — while conveying the inroads the absurd has already made in a country where old television shows are a national touchstone and asinine advertisements wallpaper our lives. He could make the reader see state fair pigs that are so fat they resemble small Volkswagens; communicate the weirdness of growing up in Tornado Alley, in the mathematically flat Midwest; capture the mood aboard John McCain’s old Straight Talk Express back in 2000.

Mr. Wallace, who died Friday night at his home in Claremont, Calif., an apparent suicide, belonged to a generation of writers who grew up on the work of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Robert Coover, a generation that came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s and took discontinuity for granted. But while his own fiction often showcased his mastery of postmodern pyrotechnics — a cold but glittering arsenal of irony, self-consciousness and clever narrative hijinks — he was also capable of creating profoundly human flesh-and-blood characters with three-dimensional emotional lives. In a kind of aesthetic manifesto, he once wrote that irony and ridicule had become “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” and mourned the loss of engagement with deep moral issues that animated the work of the great 19th-century novelists.

For that matter, much of Mr. Wallace’s work, from his gargantuan 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” to his excursions into journalism, felt like outtakes from a continuing debate inside his head, about the state of the world and the role of the writer in it, and the chasm between idealism and cynicism, aspirations and reality. The reader could not help but feel that Mr. Wallace had inhaled the muchness of contemporary America — a place besieged by too much data, too many video images, too many high-decibel sales pitches and disingenuous political ads — and had so many contradictory thoughts about it that he could only expel them in fat, prolix narratives filled with Mobius strip-like digressions, copious footnotes and looping philosophical asides. If this led to self-indulgent books badly in need of editing — “Infinite Jest” clocked in at an unnecessarily long 1,079 pages — it also resulted in some wonderfully powerful writing. MORE

PODCAST: David Foster Wallace At The Philadelphia Free Library, 2004

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deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY When David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was released I was an undergrad at the University of Chicago and living in the kind of cavernous and dumpy five bedroom basement apartment that only an impoverished student could love. I remember being sold on the book after reviews compared it to the Naked Lunch. I read the first chapter and immediately started nagging people around me, demanding that they get a copy. It was clear that this wasn’t just another new book. This was a major new book, a literary event. Everyone needed to read this.

U of Chicago is known as a wonky school full of nerdy intellectual types so it wasn’t surprising that I was able to easily gather a group willing to pick up this 1079 page cinderblock of a book. My girlfriend at the time was child prodigy-smart and had been writing essays about the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein since high school. I attempted to read Wittgenstein in college but all I got out of it was a headache and the dismal suspicion I was not nearly as smart as I thought I was. Foster Wallace was big on Wittgenstein and incorporated the philosopher’s extraordinarily complicated logic into his writing, so it was good to have an expert on board.

My roommates got sucked into the book next and we all brought our various areas of relevant knowledge – math, psychology, film – to bear on the text. We spent endless afternoons in that dark and dank basement cave with our copies in our laps, trying to decipher the book’s many riddles. We were consumed with Foster Wallace’s ideas and frantically argued our interpretations of many notoriously ambiguous passages. It was an exhilarating experience, exactly what college is supposed to be.

The book also resonated with me on a personal level.  Don Gately, the affable but dimwitted working class drug addict at the heart of one of the novel’s three major story lines was a carbon copy of every burnout dude I grew up with in Delaware County. At 22 I had already been to rehab and had personal experience with the addiction recovery culture that Foster Wallace clearly admired and placed at the center of his novel. The book was important to me not only because it was a major literary effort by a young novelist, but also because the author was saying that these things I experienced, that defined who I was, were important for defining our times.

For months after reading Infinite Jest our love affair with it continued; there were constant references made to various characters and scenes during casual conversations in my circle of friends. Then, just as the Infinite Jest afterglow was fading out, Foster Wallace released his next book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It was a compilation of essays introducing his quirky and occasionally exasperating nonfiction style. Many of the essays were outrageously funny, and the book also came loaded with another exhaustive set of footnotes (there were 100 pages of them for Infinite Jest).  Some readers still loved Foster Wallace’s idiosyncracies, such as his insistence on footnoting, but others like me were starting to find them seriously tedious.

The most important essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing, and possibly of Foster Wallace’s career, was “E Unibus wallaceoblivion.jpgPluram,” a critique of television’s impact on fiction writing and the tyranny of irony among contemporary young writers. His central message was that irony, while often devilishly satisfying, is cheap and easy. Sincerity and serious artistic statements are increasingly difficult for young writers to pull off because they leave the writer open to mockery by his trendsetting, hipster peers. Caring isn’t cool, and risking looking uncool is a cardinal sin for young writers.

Foster Wallace’s argument about irony is probably more important with the advent of blogs than it was when he wrote it. Now there are bloggers whose writing exists solely to sarcastically deride the work of other writers. Wallace knew that snark, as it has since come to be known, is a brain-dead proposition that serves no function but to satisfy the author’s own smugness and assure readers of their own hipness for being in on the joke. Unfortunately, this fundamentally toxic reliance on irony and mockery continue to define much of blog culture; hopefully as the medium matures more writers will grow out of it.

There are disagreements in opinion about the arc of Foster Wallace’s career in the post-Infinite Jest era. My own opinion is that he began to crash and burn after A Supposedly Fun Thing. His writing became increasingly, intentionally more dense, and it was pretty damn dense to start with. He stopped crafting engaging and funny protagonists and started to dwell on narcissistic types who were drowning in their self-absorption. Foster Wallace’s own self-absorption was starting to suffocate me as a reader; I wished a gutsy editor would finally handcuff him on the footnote thing, which in my opinion reached farcical proportions in his last couple books. I saw him speak at the Free Library in 2004 and remember being left ice cold by his reading. By this point his characters didn’t even have names; they were faceless sketches, vehicles for abstract logic games whose point, it seemed, was to confirm Foster Wallace’s own encroaching solipsism.

There will be a lot written in years to come about this shift towards darkness and increasingly diffuse abstraction in Foster Wallace’s later writing. Already on blogs some are positing that Wallace was sending messages about his own internal struggles through such characters as “The Depressed Person.” The hunt is on for other potentially illuminating passages in his works about various psychopathologies and metaphysical proclamations that might help explain his seemingly inexplicable decision to end his own life.

What is most unfortunate about Foster Wallace’s death, as is the case for all great artists whose lives end prematurely, is that we’ll never know what he would have said about things to come. He saw our increasingly bizarre and fractured culture with such tremendous clarity, and nailed his often complicated but spot-on conclusions about our world with an Olympian elan. He will be dearly missed.

wallacebriefinterviewsbook.gifDAVID FOSTER WALLACE: Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

[excerpted from a commencement speech delivered to the graduating class of Kenyon College, May 21st, 2005]

PHAWKER: Damn.

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One Response to “INFINITE JEST: David Foster Wallace Kills Self”

  1. KingEd Says:

    Nice piece, Jeff.

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