Remembering David Foster Wallace

Davidfosterwallace_l"…I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lamé projectile-vomit inside a glass elevator…. I have now heard — and am powerless to describe — elevator reggae music. I have learned what it is to become afraid of one’s own toilet…" And so, in a sublimely wry and supremely hilarious 1996 article in Harper’s magazine, the late David Foster Wallace captured the soulless pleasures and infantilizing excesses of a luxury Caribbean cruise.  I remember reading — and hurriedly rereading — this story while flying across the Pacific in the crowded cabin of a 747, unsuccessfully suppressing guffaws and chortles as my brother shot me looks of bewildered annoyance.  It wasn’t DFW’s first published piece, but it was for me and many friends the one that placed him firmly in our radar — one that started, in those pre-Google days, frantic searches for whatever else he had written. (I can say, with absolute certainty, that I’ve recommended this article, now the title piece in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, to no fewer than 100 persons, including some complete strangers.)

I was able to track down another story he had written for Harper’s, a travelogue describing a weekend visit to the Illinois State Fair, which he turned into a harrowing journey through the soft underbelly of Middle America. Even better, I was delighted to discover that his cruise story was no fluke — and in reading more of his magazine work (he had already had written several works of fiction), it was clear he was creating something of a signature style: a whip-smart blend of essay and reportage, larded with his witty observational asides and (often copious) footnotes. Taken individually, these stories were impressionistic but detailed sketches of a wide range of subjects, including director David Lynch, the 2000 presidential campaign of John McCain, the state of American lexicography, and the goings-on at an adult-film convention. Collectively, they may be considered an ongoing narrative of American pop culture: brilliant pieces in a now sadly unfinished mosaic. (I also liked what little I read of his fiction: all of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, some of Oblivion, and the first 130 pages of Infinite Jest, the once bright-orange spine of the paperback edition now faded to a sickly salmon.)

But nowhere in my sometimes scarily close readings of his words can I recall any hints of a particularly troubled mind: He may have visited dark places and explored troubling themes, but Wallace always seemed profoundly grounded and self-aware. Which makes his final actions sad and puzzling (and even, to many a fan I talked to this morning, infuriating). In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve really taken in the full measure of his untimely passing. In any case, rather than speculating on what may have caused this gifted writer and married man to take his own life at 46, let’s instead talk about his rich legacy. What are your favorite David Foster Wallace stories? And how were you first introduced to his work?

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  • Stephen Gibb

    He mentions suicide in Infinite Jest. He has a whole story about a suicide: Good Old Neon. Who’s the moron who wrote this piece?

  • allan

    … and a reviewer who admits to reading a tad more than 10% of the book under assignment?


    David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College on 5/5/05 is the most perceptive, empathetic and thoughtful piece on the human condition that I have ever read. Humans view reality and base opinions on reality from vastly different prisms and understandably many (most actually) do not view reality nor base opinions on reality in a way that David did. Doesn’t make anyone a better or worse person than anyone else. Nor is it a bad or good thing it is just a- “thing”. But for those whose prism is similar to David’s, the Kenyon College piece offers hope and brings us just a that much closer to whatever it is we are seeking. For me it brings me closer in that the collection of ideas within that speech comes closer to explaining the meaning of life than anything I have previously been presented. For those whose prism is different from David’s, I hope that you have found or will find soon your “Kenyon College” speech. David, I hope you can daydream now. You deserve it.

  • Jess

    If you were there at Kenyon to hear the speech in person, it was doubly thrilling. Unlike most commencement speeches, you felt you were watching a genuine human being sharing with you something he’d pondered over and quietly refined, and he stood there sweating in the heat, long hair and looking barely older than any of the graduates. He was funny, sincere, direct, honest, and thoroughly engaging–anyone who wasn’t a fan of his before that speech became a total and complete devotee. He will be sorely missed, and forever remembered.

  • mike f

    uh, he does alot more than mention suicide in Infinite Jest, the entire book is motivated by the suicide of Hal’s father “the Man himself” who started up the tennis academy and is always being quoted, referred to, anecdotes told of, etc, who killed himself by blowing up his head in a microwave oven. there’s a point there, a hint of something to come for sure. but lots of writers kill themselves- heightened consciousness a killer of sorts , perhaps. but there had to be some circumstances, some problems in his life to bring this on. Even if his writing is rife with despair over meaninglessness and, perhaps more importantly the overwhelming vapidity of pop culture, of american culture, in his personal life, what we know of it, there don’t appear to be any hints of actual problems, no drug busts, divorce, rehab stints, etc it’s pretty puzzling . but the fact is, we can never really gauge another person’s pain nor the sources of it.

  • Anonymous

    I read Infinite Jest when it came out and was blown away. What a great, sprawling, hilarious, poignant … I am running out of adjectives. It’s up there for me with Joyce’s work, with Sterne and Beckett and Doyle and a host of other Irish writers. I never knew that much about him, but if Wallace wasn’t Irish, he certainly captured our world view. What a sad, sad end, and my heart goes out to his family and friends.

  • sarita

    i’m devastated. i love DFW. whatever his demons were, i hope they’ve been silenced. i will miss your wit and the way you looked at the world. much love DFW, see you on the other side.

  • Nicole

    This is a real tragedy for fans of modern fiction and creative writing. More so for his friends, family, students and colleagues. There was definitely a sense of darkness and tragedy that flowed through DFW’s writing – at least that was my interpretation of it. But there was also much light and humour. He will be sorely missed by millions of fans, but his work will live on for generations to come (that may be a cliche, but in DFW’s case I have no doubt that his work will be admired and studied well into the future).

  • Edie

    My condolences to DFW’s family. We’ve lost a great talent far too soon.

  • thad

    who??? More famous for being dead or alive?

  • Me.

    A friend of mine gave me Girl with Curious Hair back in high school…it’s kind of funny to think back on a bunch of 17 year olds reading metafiction (whether we got it or otherwise) but since then DFW has always been one of my favorites. The Broom of the System is one of the great novels of all time. What a shame.

  • Justin

    This is the most depressing thing I’ve heard in a long, long time. He cannot be replaced.

  • Eric Moore

    The ones he hadn’t written yet.

  • Brian

    DFW’s essay, “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage,” appeared in the April, 2001 issue of Harper’s Magazine. I am not a huge fan of his fiction, but that essay remains the best piece of magazine writing I have ever read. An article about dictionaries somehow manages to include profound observations about so much more.

  • Stephanie

    I was friends with DFW while he was writing Infinite Jest. Even then, with successful novels published, and serving as guest editor at Harpers, he was by far the most successful person my age that I knew – he was also the nicest, most thoughtful and least affected.
    His magazine pieces are written exactly the way he talks. Today I heard his voice quoted on NPR. There is a gentleness, a generousity and a love about him that I know lives on – and that I appreciate knowing here on this earth for the years that I did.
    We lost touch, I think really I became shy of his success – and now I can see how silly that was. When I heard about his death, and how he died, I was blinded by grief and by anger. I wish I knew his wife so I could give her a hug. I have tried to imagine what she must be feeling, and what I imagine is that it’s very rough for her right now. My best wished to her, and David, I hope you have found some peace from your head now. xxx I’ll love you forever, Stephanie.

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