If it wasn’t for David Foster Wallace you may not be reading these words from me right now. In 1996 I was working at a Waldenbooks on Wall Street, and Wallace’s Infinite Jest was published. I still have the huge, hulking hardcover copy I whisked away from the store in my bag, a book I have revisited many times over the years. A book that inspired me to get the fuck out of the dead end world in which I was living and move on.
It’s a great book. A Great Book, all capital letters earned. It’s a book that requires a lot of work and it pays back all that work in a big way, a sprawling, exciting, beautiful, challenging, satirical, science fiction story that tweaked my brain in a massive way. You know all those asterisks that litter CHUD articles, all the little digressions that my writing goes on? They began in that book. You know those Devin’s Advocates where I write about some non-movie thing I did, hopefully with a bit of good humor? Those all began in the pages of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Wallace’s incredible essay about a cruise he took.
I know that the quality of my prose doesn’t reflect it, but no writer other than Kurt Vonnegut has had a bigger impact on me.
And now David Foster Wallace is dead. He hanged himself last night in Claremont, California. He was 46 years old and he had so many amazing words to still write down. He never published a follow-up novel to Infinite Jest (although he produced much short fiction and many amazing essays), and you almost can’t blame him. The few who have been able to make it through the novel’s immense 1000+ pages will tell you that this work was a masterpiece, the kind of novel that defines a career.
Wallace has defined his own life by ending it. Weirdly enough, I almost hope he wrote one last essay about his decision to kill himself – I know it would have been filled with generous humor and keen insight. It also would have been possibly the only suicide note in history to feature footnotes longer than the note itself.
Wallace is about to become better known to the film community soon, as Brief Interviews With Hideous Men has been adapted into a film by John Krasinski, of The Office fame. But I hope that people don’t just think that his legacy begins and ends there. Even if Infinite Jest is too daunting a challenge for the casual reader, essay collections like A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider The Lobster are delights that can be enjoyed in small chunks.
There are a lot of sides to David Foster Wallace – he had an incredible head for math and he was also a stellar tennis player – but I’m sorry that it might be the darkest side for which he’ll be remembered. He was no Sylvia Plath – in print, anyway – and his suicide robs of us one of the brightest, funniest, most intelligent and most inspiring voices of an entire generation. Too often the internet lights up with overheated grief when aged, marginally talented people pass on, and I always stand in the shadows shaking my head at how overblown things get. Knowing that, and knowing the dangers of making a statement as sweeping as the one I am about to make, I’ll say it anyway: our entire culture is poorer because David Foster Wallace will never write another word.
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