Writer David Foster Wallace was found dead in his home late last week. He hanged himself. He was 46. And today’s blog is brought to you by the letter, why?
There is no answer. Even if there WAS an answer, it wouldn’t be an answer, how could it be? A question wrapped in an incomplete explanation is what it would be. So, a better question might be, now that he has left us, what has he left us with? He was not exactly prolific, there are only 2 novels, and a handful of short story and essay collections. Perhaps you may stumble across an old article of his at some point. So, what does he leave? Most notably, he leaves behind the Biblically-lengthy novel Infinite Jest, a 979-page behemoth of a book, with an additional 96 pages of teeny-tiny foot-notes. What is the novel about, though? And here we are, back to the questions again.
With all suicides, there is that tendency to say either, “We had no idea, he seemed so normal,” or “If only we’d stepped in sooner.” Both are well-meaning, and I’ve thought both recently. To me, reading his work, he seemed incredibly intellectual, and, by his writing, put-together. Then, because he will not leave my mind, I went online and looked some stuff up. Watched about a 30 minute interview with Charlie Rose from 1997. And I was startled by how manic he was. Manic in the saddest, scariest sense of the word. He seemed constantly embarrassed, unsure of himself, apologetic for his answers. Near the end of the interview, Rose mentioned some thoughts of suicide, and DFW said he hated that people talked about that, because it felt so ordinary a thing to feel. Watching it felt eerie. But, honestly, if I’d seen it while he was still alive, I would’ve had a completely different reaction. Would’ve assumed he’d exorcised some demons. Would’ve assumed that was his eccentricity shining through, not a legitimate part of himself.
Fairly, or not, artists are summarized by their work. It is, after all, why they are known to us at all, so there is a posthumous fluency to this categorization. About his life, what really do we know? What is known is what is known publicly. His family and friends are allowed to feel the loss on a deeper, more personal level, but the only effect he can have on us, or at least me, is what his work did personally to me. And in that way, I guess, he lives on, and he does not. For his work will live on, for those who read 979 page novels and essay collections. And the lines like “He seemed to be a writer who…” will amass and disperse into the air.
So, what is there to say about him?
I could list for you all of his accomplishments, the Genius Grants, the Fellowships, the accolades, since many of you reading this likely do not know such trivia. But I didn’t know it either, while he was alive, so what point could possibly be served by it now that it has ceased to matter? I don’t know most of it now, still. I would have to look it up, just to write it down. It would seem much more impressive than it is. A rallying cry to remember a man who I forgot to learn about in the first place, you know, while he was alive…? Remembrance is for those who have a history, a relationship. I read two of his books, both of which have parts that stick out and a stylistic flair, and both of which left me equally as annoyed as elated. Not much of a history. So perhaps this note is much less memorial and much more apology.
At least now I might actually read Infinite Jest.