Last week I found my copy of David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel Infinite Jest in a closet in my parents' house in Oxford Station, Canada, and this morning here in the Philippines I read that the celebrated author had committed suicide by hanging himself in his home in Claremont, California. He was 46 years old.
Wallace was one of those writers who made you want to quit writing. Meaning, he was so good, so sharp, so compassionate, so bizarre, so perceptive, that anything you tried to write not only paled in comparison but seemed downright pathetic in comparison. I read him at the age of twenty and wondered who the hell this guy was, and how the hell he managed to write a 1200 page novel with dozens of pages of fictional footnotes that nonetheless remained absolutely riveting. The book was about a tennis academy, a halfway house for recovering addicts, and a film so entertaining that people literally laughed themselves to death. The notion that we are competing against ourselves to death, medicating ourselves to death, entertaining ourselves to death -- this was what Wallace was getting at. He never wrote another novel after this, but his short fiction and lengthy journalistic pieces are a worthy continuation of his singular, eclectic mind.
He was a satirist with a heart, alongside a mind that thought things that nobody else thought, or, if they did, they never said. His journalism on such diverse topics as the 100th ranked tennis player in the world, the films of David Lynch, the absurdities of modern-day cruise ships, the genius of Roger Federer, the wonders of Illinois State fairs, amongst others, made you think not only about how mundane most non-fiction writing was, but how life itself could be viewed from an alternate perspective. If you looked close enough, like Wallace did.
I got the chance to meet him when he gave a reading in Toronto in the mid-nineties. He signed my book, and I asked him for some advice on writing. He recommended taking writing workshops, which I was already doing, and really listening to my teachers, which I probably wasn't. In recent years Wallace himself taught creative writing in California. He was, by all accounts, a vigorous, inspiring teacher. As the school semester is undoubtedly just beginning, I can't imagine what his students are feeling right now.
And for all of his mathematical logic, brilliant, withering sarcasm and convoluted, meta-fictional plots, Wallace was chiefly concerned with feeling. How to feel in a synthetic world. How to not allow ourselves to be numbed to death by the corporate mendacity of modern society. How to connect to others, if only through prose.
This is the subject of a commencement speech he gave, the best commencement speech I've ever heard, or read, the type of speech that acknowledges to young people how bloody hard life is, but how there is a way to retain a smidgen of humanity, if we try very hard and stay wide awake:
Last week I was flipping through my old copy of his book. He was alive then. He's not now. That disconnect doesn't make sense to me. How we are here then, and can be gone now.
And I keep thinking: What would Wallace have made of that?