Two and a half years after the shocking suicide of celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace, a conversation is emerging — in fits and starts — about how Wallace’s readers can possibly comprehend his life story, and how the book industry may be processing it. David Freedlander wrote an article for the New York Observer titled “Dead Author Breeds Big Business“. Closer to the heart, Wallace’s good friend Jonathan Franzen set off a Twitter firestorm by musing during an interview with Tim Walker of the Independent:
The author struggled for years to get to grips with [The Pale King, a newly published posthumous novel] and, says Franzen, who was a close friend, “If he’d finished it, I think he’d be alive today. Boredom is a tough subject to tackle in a novel and, arguably, Dave died of boredom.”
At least one blogger was infuriated by “Dave died of boredom”:
It’s enormously disingenuous and insulting, not only to people who are still alive and dealing with severe depression, but also to Wallace – who is ill-served by such poorly-executed mythologizing nonsense – and, well, *Wallace’s goddamn wife*.
I would give Franzen a pass here, since I think he was waxing ironic, pointing us piquantly towards the incomprehensible koan that the suicide of every talented artist or public figure leaves behind. Boredom is as noble a form of anguish as any other (as Lee Rourke or Lars Svendsen would confirm). I’m not completely sure what Franzen is alluding to with this remark — boredom with literary possibilities? boredom with success? boredom with the inside of his own brain? — but it’s an interesting point, and Franzen could not have meant it to be understood in a trivial or demeaning sense.
I learned how raw feelings still are about David Foster Wallace when I reviewed his philosophy book Fate, Time and Language on this blog last year and referred to his suicide as “inexplicable”. One commenter pointed out that David Lipsky’s book about David Foster Wallace explained his suicide in starkly pharmaceutical terms: he was taking medicine for severe depression, was knocked off kilter by a change in medication, and was doomed.
As I mentioned in my responses during that comment conversation, I found David Lipsky’s explanation for the suicide extremely unsatisfying. Of all possible explanations, including Franzen’s, Lipsky’s remains the most tone-deaf, the most trivializing. To reduce a massively talented writer to a chemical automaton, surviving at the mercy of pharmaceutical correction! His life must have had more meaning than the right selection of pills could have provided. I think it’s strange that Franzen’s remark should cause an uproar when Lipsky’s did not.
But it’s easy to say the wrong thing about a suicide, and I ended up regretting (and apologizing for) some of my own blatherings in the conversation that followed my blog post. Maybe The Gift of Writing, a blog post by Steve Mitchelmore from 2008, remains the best thing I’ve read yet about David Foster Wallace’s suicide (and Cesare Pavese’s suicide, and Thomas Bernhard’s suicide). Mitchelmore ponders the unponderable:
Whatever the clinical facts, his work displays, in its size, scope, ambition and worldly success, an energy and optimism unique to his nation’s literary life, and unique to its demands. The incredulity of his fans at news of his death supports this impression. Infinite Jest embodies a certain hope; a hope that everything could be contained in a book, unified by narrative; that with enough talent and hard work, a novel might become the world, exceeding the limits of the self, a hegemonic power against the regions of the ungraspable. All this is apparently contradicted by the manner of his death.
So what of the darkness spoken of by his friends and family? “Suffering from near-crippling anxiety” Salon says, “Wallace found himself unable to write”. Perhaps the literary tragedy, which remains a human tragedy, is that he could not produce a work that maintained itself in the actuality of suffering. It may be instead the margins of the novels and stories he left will grow wider and we will see it there. The movement towards his books in the library evokes a longing for such a space, a space in which something appears. His death would then indeed inflect his work.
I never even finished Infinite Jest. but I was always fascinated by David Foster Wallace’s demeanor, his confidence, his style. I still can’t comprehend his death at all. I’ve begun reading his first novel, The Broom of the System (I find this easier to enjoy than Infinite Jest). I remember his suicide about once per page; it’s impossible to read Wallace’s sardonic observations about life and not remember that this is a writer who ultimately seemed to prefer death to the continuing possibility of life.
But it’s also impossible to imagine that Wallace would have wanted this patina of despair and sadness to cover his cherished life’s work. David Foster Wallace’s death remains a puzzle completely unsolved.