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.