Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Few Words about the Words of David Foster Wallace

My cousin gave me a copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest as a Christmas present sometime during college. Intimidated by the sheer size of the book (weighing in at over 1000 pages) it sat unread on various dorm room shelves for several years while serving to impress other undergraduates whose literary aspirations, like mine, exceeded our resources of time and attention span.

Finally, the summer after graduation, I cracked the book open. I don't know what stream of frenzied superlatives could truly do that experience justice. For anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their skin, who has wished they could turn off the constant stream of metanarrative generated within their skulls, yearned to reach out and find companionship and kinship, found themselves with too many words and no easy way to express themselves... let's just say it might resonate. The characters are deep and real and likeable--a truly bold and experimental move for postmodern fiction. Not only that, it's fun to read. The language, the humor, the familiar-yet-strange future world in which the novel takes place all kept me eagerly turning pages. I was dismayed when the novel abruptly came to the end--it was sort of like when you get given a giant bag of candy for a holiday, and you munch and you think it will last forever and then there is no more.

I learned of David Foster Wallace's passing on cable television, of all places, through one of the text bumpers on Adult Swim. (This was during the week when I had no Internet.) He seems to have battled depression as well as anybody could--years of medication, ECT treatments, and enlisting the aid of close family members. See Salon's respectful, detailed account of the weeks leading up to his suicide.

Even casual acquaintances speak of somebody who was courteous, kind, and thoughtful to an unusual degree.We sort of expect artistic geniuses to be volatile, difficult, and egotistical, but Wallace appeared the exception to the rule. Being a global literary superstar never went to his head.

Harper's Magazine has posted a free online archive containing many of David Foster Wallace's best essays in memory of his recent passing. If you're not familiar with the author, this is a good place to start.

This is a writer whose words and ideas stay with you. When I visited the Franklin County Fair a few weeks ago, Wallace's essay on the Illinois State Fair kept popping into my mind. A friend and I impulsively discussed taking a cruise for the first time in our lives, and I knew immediately that I would be riffing on "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" throughout the entire excursion. Footnotes are his signature stylistic device, but they are really there just to contain an overflow of tangential brilliance. I have read entire novels with less substance than some of those pagelong footnotes.

Wallace's death is a tragedy, but he leaves one hell of a legacy. Give it a read.

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