I've been debating for two days now whether to write a post about the death of one of my all-time favorite writers, David Foster Wallace. The problem is that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of writers more talented than I will have already written about it, and better than I could. I doubt that I have anything original to say, except perhaps this: There is no other writer whose death--especially by suicide--would sadden me more than Wallace's has.
If you're not familiar with his work, it's kind of hard to explain. See here and here for good overviews.
I first came across him when I used to subscribe to Harper's magazine. He wrote a long experiential essay for them about taking a cruise. In expanded form (or, more correctly, in its original form, because it had to be condensed for magazine publication) it became the title piece for a collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. By the time that book came out, I had found a couple of other things he had written, and was a solid fan.
I was much more fond of his non-fiction writing than his fiction. I read The Broom of the System and Girl with Curious Hair maybe eight or ten years ago. They were OK, but never grabbed me the way his essays did. For that reason, Infinite Jest remains unread on my shelf. I also never bought Interviews with Hideous Men, after reading one story from it excerpted in Harper's. Didn't like it. But I absolutely adored his non-fiction writing, every bit of it. He had that rare gift of being able to explain a subject to somebody who previously knew nothing about it, and make it compelling. He was as good at this as Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Steven Jay Gould were in the natural sciences, though usually tackling non-technical subject matter.
It was just a few months ago that I finished what will presumably be his last book (unless somebody puts together a posthumous collection), Consider the Lobster. It illustrates perfectly what I so admired about him: He could write about anything. I saw an interview with him once in which he said, approximately, "Anything is interesting if you look at it closely enough." And that was his trademark in non-fiction: looking at a subject more closely than you might have thought possible, thinking about it in more detail than anybody else had ever done before, then being able to express what he had learned and thought with exquisite clarity, insight, and humor.
In that book, he tackles, in order, what it's like to attend the Adult Video News awards in Las Vegas, John Updike's decline as a writer, an explanation of the humor in Kafka, dictionaries and English style guides, how 9/11 was experienced in a small Midwest town, what was great about Tracy Austin's short tennis career and what was wrong with her autobiography, life with the John McCain campaign of 2000, a Maine lobster festival, a reflection on a biography of Dostoevsky, and a profile of a conservative radio talk-show host. I simply cannot grasp how it is possible to write intelligently on a range of subjects that broad, let alone do so with such rhetorical brilliance. Those essays have become the first things that I think about when I come across anything related to those subjects. That's also true, for me, for the variety of things he wrote about in A Supposedly Fun Thing, including pieces about a professional tennis player, David Lynch movies, and a trip to the Illinois State Fair.
There's another aspect to all of this that makes it even more poignant: Wallace and I grew up in the same city (Champaign, Illinois), at the same time, he being a year younger than I. He describes, in one of his essays, having played tennis in Hessel Park, which was the park nearest to where I lived. It was the usual location for our church picnics. When I attended the nearby elementary school, there were innumerable group walks to that park. I played tennis there with my high-school girlfriend, in the same courts he was describing having learned the game on. We may have gone to the same high school. I'm not sure of that, but there were only two in the city, and if he lived as close to me as suggested by us having frequented the same park, he would have been assigned to my high school (unless he was one of the kids who instead went to University High School). Obviously, though, I didn't know him. That shared background is a large part of what makes it so seriously weird for me to think of him dead.
The main point of writing anything about this is to use whatever influence I have with my readers to urge you to make an effort to find a Wallace book and introduce yourself to him, if he has somehow escaped your attention to date.
I like what is said in the second link above, and will close with it:
Writers check each other out. If you care about the work, you invariably
envious or just infuriated when another writer's success far exceeds
his or her
talent. Others make you want to do what they do. And then there
special few who make you think, "Crap, I could never do that, but
I don't care.
I just want to read more."
Wallace was one of those.
Addendum, September 16, 2008
If you want to sample Wallace's work without buying a book, here are some links: