I was out of town all day on Saturday when the news broke that David Foster Wallace is dead, apparently a suicide. Wallace was one of my favorite writers, probably my favorite living writer, and the news that he committed suicide, I’m sorry to say, was a greater shock to me than it was for others. Before I finished reading the LA Times story, I thought about “Good Old Neon,” one of his best pieces of writing and, fuck it, probably my favorite short story. Scott Eric Kaufman went there too, and along with the ” I couldn’t finish Infinite Jest but still that guy could write” tropes and wide-eyed invocations of the Kenyon commencement address, the story has been one of the top DFW reference-points of the day.
What to say about an author whose work juggled formal innovation, a refined moral sense, and a sustained meditation on the proliferation of psychic damages wrought by postmodernity? That his fiction is already being re-read through the palimpsest of his suicide goes without saying. That the Times Online reports that Wallace is now part of the sacred pantheon of American writers who ended their own lives is hardly unexpected – as though “Those Who Would Eventually Commit Suicide” were a kind of Borgesian genre of American writer, or as though suicide was particular to American writers. How you fit Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Sylvia Plath, and David Foster Wallace into any kind of category that makes sense is a mystery to me.
One of my favorite qualities of his non-fiction was it’s non-participatory participation. Especially in pieces like “Consider the Lobster,” “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” he constructs something between standard first-person reportage and New Journalism, something like “on-location thinking.” Especially in “Consider the Lobster,” where the ostensible journalistic interest of a report from the Maine Lobster Festival gives way to an ethical consideration – a la Peter Singer – of the practice of eating for pleasure, and so (in the case of boiling a lobster alive) inflicting pain in order to attain pleasure. In such pieces (and not all of them are like that), we lose the thread of journalistic narrative at the inward turn of Wallace’s narration. That is, at some point, Wallace grows interested in the abstract dynamics of a situation to the exclusion of concrete events.
Luckily, Wallace’s navigation of those dynamics is always fascinating. While talking about how you decide what your favorite band is, a few friends and I agreed that a band is your favorite when you like the crap just as much as the good stuff. Talking about your favorite band to others, then, is something like repeatedly discovering that you’ve been using the word “ambivalent” incorrectly for the last twenty years: you understand what it really means, but you retain a secret belief that it “really” means what it meant to you before you discovered the truth. People find it easy to grade their best and worst albums, but such talk is nonsense to you, as all is equally good. So you eventually consent to the understandng that “Remain in Light” is better than “Speaking in Tongues,” but you retain your secret belief that you who cannot judge remain the only fair judge.
David Foster Wallace is my favorite band, and I’m helpless to tell you anything beyond personal preference because there was something about his writing that I found, perhaps perversely, absolutely addictive. Many people did. Though he probably won’t achieve that stature of someone like Saul Bellow or Don Delillo, nobody speaks of Herzog or Underworld with the same exhiliration as they do Infinite Jest or “Good Old Neon.” It’s a cliche to say after the death of one’s favorite author that the worst of it is that we’ll have no more to read. That’s obviously not the worst of it. Almost nobody knows the worst of it – maybe Wallace’s widow does, or his family, and we may think that we got some glimpse into how bad things got for Wallace himself by reading his work and its accounts of depression, addiction, people damned to the infinite regresses of fakery and pose, &c, but we’ve only gotten what he wanted us to see. I think one thing I’ve taken from Wallace’s fiction is that the projection always reflects back onto the projector, that the tragedy of the fakery of narrator of “Good Old Neon” is not that it’s fake, but that fakery has become his mode of sincerity, that when there is no end to dissimulation save for dissimulation itself, then the there is no way to distinguish between an image and its original. And there is no difference, really. That’s a lesson that’s been taught a thousand times in a thousand different bits of theory and fiction, but Wallace’s worked through the emotional vicissitudes of this mirror-play. I can think of nothing dumber than simply reflecting back on him as though he were nothing but one of his own fictional surfaces.