In his novels, short stories and nonfiction, David Foster Wallace's voice seems like one that cannot be silenced. The whole sweet old world poured into his head, it seemed, and out onto his pages, mysterious and astonishing and hilarious and heartbreaking.
Wallace died, an apparent suicide, on Sept. 12. He was 46 and, according to his family, had struggled with depression for two decades.
Although he published two novels, several collections of fiction and nonfiction and articles in magazines from Atlantic Monthly to Sports Illustrated, Wallace was never a household name. Some found his work unreadable: Complex, dense and layered over elaborate footnotes, it left no doubt that he was the son of a philosophy professor and an English professor who had followed in both parents' footsteps, and beyond.
But readers who love Wallace's work really, really love it. What's more — and this is exquisitely rare in a culture that values novelists somewhere below losing reality show contestants — those readers really love him. To his fans, Wallace was a rock star.
His work has most often been compared to Thomas Pynchon's, and they certainly share a polymath exuberance, a Joycean command of language and a fondness for meshing the absurd and the serious. But unlike Pynchon's novels, which are written with an Olympian reserve about the author's personal life, Wallace's work is a constant interplay between the horrors and delights of the wider world and the solipsism of the inescapable self.
I met him a couple of times in the mid-1980s, when I was teaching at the University of Arizona and he was completing an MFA in creative writing there. It was just before he became a sensation; he was in his mid-20s and looked younger. I was surprised to learn later, when The Broom of the System was published, that he wasn't from Tucson — with that bandanna-wrapped mane and that paradoxical laid-back intensity, he seemed like a textbook example of genus artistic hipster, species desert rat.
As it turns out, a legion of people met him, and just about every one of them has written about him in the last week. Magazines that published his fiction and journalism — the New Yorker, Harper's, Playboy — showcased his pieces online. On Thursday, three of his books were in Amazon.com's Top 50 — a feat he never achieved in life. His 1,079-page magnum opus Infinite Jest was No. 15.
But even more striking was the level of personal response to his death. McSweeney's posted dozens of heartfelt personal remembrances; acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith began hers simply with "He was my favourite."
The Howling Fantods, a Wallace fan site, compiled links to hundreds of obits and tributes, and countless blogs mourned him. His students recall his encouragement; his editors stand in awe of his massive manuscripts' flawless grammar and spelling; his fans write of how his books touched their lives. Even irascible New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote an almost-entirely-admiring tribute (but couldn't resist a crack about Infinite Jest's length).
All of it is touching and heartening to anyone who loves literature. But somehow I suspect Wallace would have homed in on the mock tribute posted by Onion.com: NASCAR Cancels Remainder of Season Following David Foster Wallace's Death, complete with Dale Earnhardt Jr. showing off his Infinite Jest-inspired tattoo and reminiscing about literary arguments with Dale Sr., who preferred Pynchon.
That spoof gets at perhaps the saddest irony of Wallace's death: His suicide puts a lifetime of originality in danger of being reduced to cliche. Is he now the artist who is recognized only posthumously, whose intensity powers his work but drives him to madness and suicide (cf. Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Hunter S. Thompson, et al)?
The imminent peril of that cliche may be what drives his fans to mark his spirit. As the hanged man (what a perfect high culture-low culture allusion, to T.S. Eliot and the Tarot), Wallace has placed the last deliberate mark of punctuation on his life. There are no footnotes. The man with so much to say and so many brilliant ways to say it finally came up against the unsayable.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.