Late last night, after returning home a little hazy following a fun night out at an east London pub with karaoke and an odd mixture of ageing locals, including some fine singers, and younger, cooler non-locals trying to decide whether they were enjoying things ironically or authentically or whether it mattered so long as they were enjoying things, I heard that the author David Foster Wallace had committed suicide.
Until four years ago I didn’t understand why people could be very upset when someone famous died. I didn’t see any kind of meaningful connection there. But when John Peel died I understood the kind of gap such a death can leave in one’s life. Wallace didn’t have as prominent a presence in my life as Peel but, counting him as one of my favourite authors, if not at the very head of the tiny pack, I’m surprised and upset by his death.
I guess that there are some distant but famous people who we identify with to an extent that we invest more of ourselves in them. “He knows just how I feel,” we might think as we read his writing. We can imagine, in our day dreams, that we’d get on well with them if we weren’t separated by such physical and social distance. Or, even if we’d never be best buddies, we’d find them just as awe-inspiring in real life as we do through their work. They wouldn’t disappoint, they feel what we feel and we feel what they feel.
It’s more than a decade since I read Wallace’s most well known book, Infinite Jest and it’s since been top of the list for my Desert Island book, were anyone to ask me. This is my favourite summary of its thousand or so pages, written by A.O. Scott in the New York Review of Books:
[It is] the longest novel about tennis ever published. It is also a dystopian political satire set on a North American continent menaced by paraplegic Quebecois terrorists and splintered into new territorial arrangements, the most wildly metaphorical anatomy of drug abuse since William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and a tender, heartfelt, coming-of-age story.
It’s the kind of near-future fiction that creates a fascinating and complex scenario without letting the science-fiction-ness of it get in the way of a fascinating and complex story.
You don’t need to read a thousand pages to get the gist of Wallace; he also wrote short stories and many wonderful pieces of non-fiction, some of which are available online:
- ‘David Lynch Keeps His Head’
- Written for Premiere, a wonderful account of hanging out on the set of Lost Highway and having no idea what Lynch is really like.
- ‘Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars of Usage’
- For Harper’s mostly on, if I recall correctly, the Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist attitudes to language. More entertaining than that might sound.
- ‘Federer as Religious Experience’
- In the New York Times and the only piece of writing I’ve ever read that has left me fascinated by tennis, or pretty much any sport. (Wallace was a near-pro tennis player in his youth.)
- ‘Consider the Lobster’ (PDF)
- Written for Gourmet magazine and the title piece from a recent collection of his writing, more interesting than an article about lobsters really should be.
(UPDATE: Harper’s have made a bunch of Wallace’s articles available for free on their site. ‘Shipping Out’ is one of my favourites.)
One of the things I love about this non-fiction work is how personal it is, full of reflection on what his subject makes him feel, a searching for why that is and whether he should be feeling something different. It’s an honest self-awareness and self-scrutiny that too few people seem willing to go through. And the self that was exposed to readers was one I wish I could have known. The world, mine and yours, is worse off for his passing.
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