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Issue 119

A Life in Letters

On the death of David Foster Wallace, a writer who reflected upon the joys and complications of language and living

BY Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Profiles | 01 NOV 08

David Foster Wallace, 1996. Courtesy: Gary Hannabarger/Corbis.

The news of David Foster Wallace’s suicide on 12 September 2008, at the age of 46, left me with an acute, confusing sense of loss, even though I never met him and knew him only as a writer, a voice on the page. From the testimonies of those who did know him, he was as kind and unassuming a human being as he was an awesome creator of literature. Reading the flood of tributes, memories and obituaries that have accumulated in the weeks after his death – over at the McSweeney’s website many friends and readers have posted their reflections – it’s hard to say if the shock is assuaged or merely deepened.

Wallace was a true original. Everything he wrote broke new formal and stylistic ground, pushing through into fresh zones of thought and feeling: mapless terrain which he tracked with a ruthless precision and complexity. I first encountered him in his essay, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’, in the non-fiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). In its epic length, its strange combination of slacker jargon and close argumentation applied to a topic I had never seen receive such intense scrutiny, it was utterly unlike anything I had ever read. There was something of a generational call to arms in Wallace’s analysis of how television had swallowed up the ironic strategies of US postmodernist fiction writers such as William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. No writer I’ve come across since has registered so carefully the impact of television not only on fiction and storytelling but also on experience generally and the internal landscapes of human emotions.

In his non-fiction, tackling wildly diverse subjects – mathematics and tennis, John McCain, infinity, David Lynch, the use of language – Wallace sometimes appeared like a clued-up, intellectually savvy, younger exponent of 1960s’ New Journalism. But his antic style went several steps further, eschewing the mock-omniscient default mode of much non-fiction (what Tom Wolfe refers to as ‘that pale beige tone’, ‘like a radio announcer at a tennis match’) for a slangy, super-alert voice, stretching journalistic forms far beyond their usual capacity in his dissections and explorations of American culture.

Acutely aware of how easily both language and human feelings are debased, David Foster Wallace constantly challenged how much one means what one says or writes.

All these reinventions of the essay, the magazine piece and the journalistic assignment, however, seem timid and slim when set beside his fiction. Of his two novels, the second, Infinite Jest (1996), is notorious for its thousand-page-plus sprawl, its overspill of characters, its reams of footnotes. It is, I think, a terrifying achievement: the Great American Novel in an advanced state of hypertrophy. My personal preference is for Wallace’s three books of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), and Oblivion (2004).

Back in 2001, in a literary response to 9/11 in The Guardian newspaper, the critic James Wood mentioned Wallace, along with Salman Rushdie, Pynchon and DeLillo, as an exponent of what Wood calls ‘hysterical realism’ – a novelistic aesthetic of over-exuberance and encyclopaedic knowledge that fails, in all its brilliance, to ‘know a single human being’. As Zadie Smith pointed out in a spirited riposte to Wood, this slightly distorts and belittles what Wallace, in particular, attempted. For all the ‘postclever metaformal hooey’ (Wallace’s phrase) in his work, his fiction cracks open, in its most breathtaking flights, a metaphysical terrain of thoughts and feelings that is both earned and ‘true’.

Wallace’s fiction often pursued a lost sincerity – or at least a lost something – in post-industrial American life, overwhelming a poisonous irony with a highly wrought maximalism: a textual purging through excess. Acutely aware of how easily language and, by extension, human feelings are debased, he constantly challenged how much one means what one says or what one writes. Wallace’s work often clears an open space through a proliferation of information, mimicking the language it attempts to rise above or see beneath. It’s a high-risk strategy, with high rewards. The prose flirts with being misread and being taken at face value; it taunts, exhausts, repels; yet it also gives a complicated, unexpurgated sense of what it feels like, ‘inside’, to be alive today. I can’t say that it always works – it’s too bristling and strange to be straightforwardly functional – but when it does, it’s revelatory.

The pieces in Brief Interviews are steeped in psychic and emotional pollution, frequently revolving around mental glitches – desires, fears, obsessions, neuroses, convoluted and exasperating cycles of depression and addiction. The style is ‘dense and inbent’, as discordant voices trace endless ‘networks of misconnection’. Some stories are funny, like sick, slick stand-up routines. (I’ve not said half enough about how funny his work is.) Some are like a horror movie. Others are just beautiful, such as ‘Forever Overhead’, about being on the cusp of adolescence, climbing a high diving board. The maximalism often extends to a spiritual dimension, as self-disgust and neural knots are transfigured by the inflections of the writing. At other times it merely leaves curiously damaged, hyper-real surfaces, as US media culture is absorbed and regurgitated in its entirety.

In Wallace’s most recent stories from Oblivion, there are carefully orchestrated, exalted stretches where, with an extraordinary hold on the rhythm, letting words unravel very gradually and then run free, Wallace makes time stop as you read. If you move past the surface noise, you often find deeply atypical, transcendental effects and concerns: with the simultaneity of feelings and emotions, the non-sequential flow of time and thought (indeed the very speed of thought), the flickers at the edge of consciousness.

The facts of any writer’s life and death shouldn’t overshadow the work and how we read it, but it’s as hard to forget biographical facts once you know them as it is to undo things once you’ve done them. And the facts, insidiously, do odd things to the work. Wallace’s ideas and many styles, still rapidly metamorphosing, were so original that they have been more easily assimilated through the many writers he inspired. As with many suicides, his death sadly makes his work seem more urgent. I know his literary presence will spread far and wide for years to come.

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London.