Reviewing the David Foster Wallace Obituaries: September 14 2008

I occasionally grazed a David Foster Wallace book, but I never finished one. The New York Times writes in a brief death notice today that Infinite Jest was “roughly, about addiction and how the need for pleasure and entertainment can interfere with human connection”. I didn’t know that, probably because I only got through the first 50 pages of the 1079-page book. As far as I could tell, the book was about footnotes.

The brief death notice above is better than the Times obituary by Michiko Kakutani, which must have been written very quickly. That’s the only possible excuse for Kakutani’s extravagant and boring prose in this long piece. Kakutani’s style guide clearly allows cliched phrases (“laugh-out-loud funny”), tired imagery (“Mobius strip-like digressions”) and sonorous language (“a dark threnody of sadness”), as these sentences show:

But while his own fiction often showcased his mastery of postmodern pyrotechnics — a cold but glittering arsenal of irony, self-consciousness and clever narrative high jinks — he was also capable of creating profoundly human flesh-and-blood characters with three-dimensional emotional lives.

The reader could not help but feel that Mr. Wallace had inhaled the muchness of contemporary America — a place besieged by too much data, too many video images, too many high-decibel sales pitches and disingenuous political ads — and had so many contradictory thoughts about it that he could only expel them in fat, prolix narratives filled with Mobius strip-like digressions, copious footnotes and looping philosophical asides.

Although his books can be uproariously, laugh-out-loud funny, a dark threnody of sadness and despair also runs through Mr. Wallace’s work.

Even some of the worst writers at the New York Times Book Review could have written a better piece. It’s no surprise that the blogosphere has more moving essays on this weekend’s sad news. Here are Ed Champion, Amy King, Garth Risk Hallberg, Jeff Bryant, Ben Casnocha, Mark Hemingway, Tom Nissley.

For me, this doesn’t feel like Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Cobain’s songs were so emotionally naked that nobody had to ask why; at least six songs on In Utero explained why. One of my favorite writers, Richard Brautigan, killed himself, but Brautigan’s best novel In Watermelon Sugar worked just fine as a suicide note. The poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton did too. As for Yukio Mishima, his most famous short story “Patriotism” was about suicide, and Mishima’s entire literary/political career pointed to his chosen “heroic” ending.

But I never saw suicide in a David Foster Wallace book or article. Undoubtedly I will read his work differently now. One point that several of the blog writers above suggest that Michiko Kakutani completely fails to grapple with is that Wallace’s suicide immediately changes the way we read and understand his work.

When a famous artist commits suicide, this suicide is their final statement. Kurt Cobain, Richard Brautigan, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Yukio Mishima, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace all must have understood — and may or may not have regretted — the way they were inevitably punctuating their careers. It’s changed the way we thought of the earlier artists named above, but how will it change the way we think of David Foster Wallace?

I’m not an expert enough to answer this, but I look forward to reading more illuminating pieces about this sad death of a writer in the prime of his career on blogs and elsewhere. And I’d love to hear what you have to say about DFW, and about how this news affects your understanding of his work.

* * * * *

Out of respect for the loss of one of our most popular and influential postmodern authors, we’ll skip reviewing this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, which features a cover article on The Forever War by Dexter Filkins by Robert Stone, whose best paragraph is not in this review but in the accompanying “Editor’s Note”:

As for the 2008 presidential election, Stone had this to say: “If, in this campaign, illusion triumphs over what we must believe is reality, we will fail as a nation. There is, after all, a point of no return. If McCain wins, history is here big time, scythe, sackcloth and all four horsemen.”

I wonder what David Foster Wallace, whose most recently published book was a journalistic study of John McCain, would have said about that. But apparently Wallace was dealing with a private apocalypse all his own.

14 Responses

  1. He wrote a short story (which
    He wrote a short story (which I had thought was as famous as “Infinite Jest”) entitled, “The Depressed Person.” The footnotes are astonishing and poignant, and serve not so much as a trope as a clear demonstration of how various aspects of life vie for prominence, just as people compete for recognition and sympathy. (Suspense spoiler: suicide shows up in those footnotes.)

    He wrote an marvelous collection of short stories entitled “Oblivion, which includes “The Suffering Channel” and the transcendent, very short story, “Incarnations of Burned Children.”
    Other pieces he wrote are titled: “Death is Not the End” and “Suicide as a Sort of Present.”

    Yet, his suicide shocked me: Besides showing an intelligence so vast it may have scared or threatened people, his writing presented wonderful humor and deep affection. If his mastery and playfulness struck critics as an exhibition of cold pyrotechnics, I can only wonder how carefully they read his writing. David Foster Wallace was a writer who revealed the truth so beautifully that his prose delighted and hurt me at once.

  2. “When a famous artist commits
    “When a famous artist commits suicide, this suicide is their final statement…how will it change the way we think of David Foster Wallace?”

    Another question: if this is found to have been a case of erotic asphyxiation how will it affect the way we think of David Foster Wallace?

    A bit premature to “review” his death and obituaries, perhaps?

  3. I’m not really a member of
    I’m not really a member of that club either(1). But I can say that he did it — he came up with the goods.

    The footnotes: yes, that’s what I remember from the little I read of Infinite Jest. And a part I remember was footnotes on pharmacology that was accurate. He was writing down scientific correct stuff about how the drugs work via specific receptor interactions(2).

    The footnote thing was done by Joyce in that one section of Finnegans Wake (Meenly Aboout Peebles). I thought he was inspired by that. I always thought that was an intriguing way to do literature.

    I don’t know how good Wallace was really. But I have to give him credit for doing it. A book like Infinite Jest I didn’t have that much interest in and wanted to give it a “pshaw!”, but that was a bit of jealousy as well in that, well, he did do it — he wrote in and got it published.

    The decades will tell if it was anything other than an impressive effort and accomplishment.

    I get mad at suiciders(3), though. I want to shout at them, you moron. Just wait. Your going to die soon enough(4). We all are.

    1. The “fanbase” for Wallace of LitKicks participants referred to above by Levi.

    2. The theory of a receptive substance was put forth by researchers studying the formation of cyclic adenosinemonophosphate induced by adrenaline. The lipid bilayer fluid-mosaic model of cell membranes which matured in the 1970’s allowed a conceptualization of receptor structure and function. Subsequent development of radioligand binding methods were able to demonstrate receptors in central nervous tissue for drugs such as morphine. The full genomic sequencing of human, mouse and other mammalian genomes have shown genes for receptors are among the most abundant among gene classes within genomes. Many receptors identfiied by bioinformatic analysis of genome sequences are orphan receptors in that the endogenous ligand (e.g. hormone or neurotransmitter) or drug for the receptor is not known.

    3. A friend committed suicide by hanging a long time ago and I was tremendously sad but was also quite angry at him. I wanted to shout at him to not be so stupid, but he was dead having hanged himself from a tree in the forest.

    4. With the exception of those currently living, 100% of all human beings have died throughout the history of mankind. It is expected that of humans alive today, each and every one will die.

    So just wait, don’t kill yourself. No need to hurry.

  4. Awesome that without power or
    Awesome that without power or phones at my house (due to hurricane ike) I can still get this sad news so quickly. Strangely enough, Girl With Curious Hair is a book that has never quite made it to my bookshelf, always lingering around counters and bathrooms. I have read parts of it more than I’ve read any other book, yet never moved onto his larger works, which in retrospect is because I never knew quite what to make of it. That being said, he writes with a style entirely his own. It is complex, intelligent, and well-researched; everything that makes you unpopular with the public. And while it is “difficult,” he does produce some startling human moments, all the more shocking as they come in the midst of scientific and technical jargon. I have seen the book sitting on my kitchen counter many times as I wander through my house in the candlelight, and every time I want to pick it up and peruse just a page or two. One can only hope that his suicide will raise his profile enough to boost his book sales, and if people actually read his books, our collective intelligence will tick higher.

  5. I was shocked and saddened by
    I was shocked and saddened by the news and, as a fan, sickened by Kakutani’s treatment in her “appreciation.” She Harps on (again) about IJ being overlong, grasping at a place for herself in the critical pantheon instead of doing justice to a great American writer.

    I’m doubly sickened by reading the various web posts here and elsewhere either chastising DFW for committing suicide or inferring that the act was either somehow a reaction to world events/politics or somehow “plotted” with an eye towards impact. It’s major clinical depression, people, not a state in which one makes wholly rational choices.

    In his own words, from Infinite Jest:
    “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

  6. TKG: Death doesn’t come quick
    TKG: Death doesn’t come quick enough for some. Desiring to be free of suffering fools, some decide to be done with it directly, rushing to create their own punch line for this absurd comedy, rather than wait for the idiots to slip on a banana peel. Callous sentiments such as yours only serve to tighten the rope.

    RIP David: your genius and wit will be missed.

  7. Cal, I certainly did not mean
    Cal, I certainly did not mean to say anything callous and I didn’t think I did.

    I don’t know why you would think my sentiments were callous.

  8. I only just heard about DFW’s
    I only just heard about DFW’s suicide and am upset by it.
    I don’t like blogs – as a general rule of thumb. I wish people would learn the differnce between blurting and reflection.

    (I know, I just blurted. That’s our species)

  9. One of my favorite pieces of
    One of my favorite pieces of his is A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. While it is a funny, satiric narrative of a pretty darn fabulous Caribbean cruise, odd darker images appear. It is a very unusual person who associates a “pampering cruise” with despair and the oceanic pull of death.

    What seemed just a stylistic quirk — sour with the sweet — now takes on a different meaning.

    Some of the most appealing writers, ebullient and over-the-top like Hunter Thompson have terrible darker sides too. Very sad.

  10. some of you may remember the
    some of you may remember the joy i used to take in trashing dfw on the old boards, and the subsequent joy i afforded myself, on the flames board, ridiculing any that would come to his defense. i stand by all of my previous vitriol, yet hope, somehow, that i won’t be accused of hypocrisy when i say that news of his death made me sad. both things are true: i hated him and i am sad.

    p.s. levi, did you pick the anti-spam words yourself?

  11. The New York Review of Books
    The New York Review of Books ran an excellent article in their summer issue of David Lipsky’s book about writing a Rolling Stone article profile of Wallace, that never ran: “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.”
    The reviewers’ name, which I’m afraid I can’t find, contended that Lipsky didn’t “get” Wallace. And like so many of his critics never realized the writer’s relentless and extravagant prose was a deliberate and incredibly risky attempt to present reality as he experienced it, which was so vast and multi-layered as to make sharing it with another person who was experiencing a similar influx, an astonishing feat.
    Wallace demands his readers invest themselves in his work, which has always been my definition of art. A reader, watcher, or listener must contribute his or her creative vision to it or it’s incomplete–an artistic attempt. Art always takes two, minimum. It’s not TV. You can’t sit back and tune out.
    Book reviewers reading on deadline are not in a position to contribute their personal creative life to stories that run 150 pages or novels stretched past 1,000, all of which end ambiguously.
    But to me, that’s further proof his writing was of the highest order, which for me was often–not always (I didn’t always “get” him either)–lasting art.

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