Two people e-mailed me last night to tell me that David Foster Wallace, novelist/essayist/teacher, had killed himself at his home last Friday. Since I'm on record as being a fan of his, and even said so fairly recently, I feel obligated to come up with something to say about this, but I find I'm really not all that terribly surprised by the news, and it's not like I have any words of wisdom or comfort to share. So I'm a little lost.
It's not surprising because, more than anybody I can think of, DFW acknowledged in his writing that life can be extremely shitty sometimes, even when one has food, a warm, clean place to live, a prosperous country with marvelous technological gadgets and distractions, and the love of a good person of one's preferred gender, that brains will sometimes do everything possible to try to tear themselves to pieces. This is described in Infinite Jest thusly, as part of a chapter which is just a list of things one can learn in a halfway house for people with substance abuse disorders:
That 99% of compulsive thinkers' thinking is about themselves; that 99% of this self-directed thinking consists of imagining and then getting ready for things that are going to happen to them; and then, weirdly, that if they stop to think about it, that 100% of the things they spend 99% of their time and energy imagining and trying to prepare for all the contingencies and consequences of are never good. Then that this connects interestingly with the early-sobriety urge to pray for the literal loss of one's own mind. In short that 99% of the head's thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of itself.
Which if you've had this experience, you will recognize it immediately, and if you haven't, hope that you never will.
Poking around at the various websites that have mentioned this, I see there are a few people who are angry with DFW about this, angry with him for killing himself. This is totally understandable, but kind of misdirected: it wasn't DFW the person who did this. By all accounts, DFW the person was a nice guy, concerned about the needs of others, overall decent and kind-hearted. And DFW the person would never kill somebody. The real culprit was his brain. The brain that took him from us was the same brain that gave us the stories and essays, and there is no separating the two. Brains tear themselves up, sometimes. Drugs speed up the process (DFW had had substance-abuse problems with I believe cocaine, in the early and mid-90s, which was part of the backstory of Infinite Jest. Though this had supposedly been resolved some time ago.).
So I'm not angry. I am sad, but even then, that doesn't seem quite right: he could be really annoying to read sometimes. So many of the bits in Oblivion, his last book, are intriguingly built-up, go through all kinds of twists and turns and insights, and then end before the ending, so that the story winds up all being about the build-up and never contains a pay-off. It's a valid and clever thing to try once, but he took it to the point of being a stylistic tic, and got me wondering whether he'd maybe forgotten how to end stories at all.
There are three writers I read a lot when I was writing fiction, who wound up influencing the way I write more than anybody else. Lorrie Moore (Self-Help, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Anagrams), Margaret Atwood (I don't like her later stuff, but Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Lady Oracle, etc., are all great), and David Foster Wallace. Wallace was probably the one with the most obvious stylistic influence: I still think of him every time I start a sentence with "which" or insert a footnote.1 Which I do both of those a lot.2 At the same time, I never really had the sense of knowing Wallace the person, through his fiction, which was sort of a perpetual frustration for me. There were certain recurring ideas, things one assumes he spent a lot of time thinking about (television, tennis, mathematics, depression, substance abuse), and his non-fiction (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster) gives a somewhat clearer image, but you can never really know a writer personally. He's always too conscious of what he's saying, how he's presenting themself.3 So I don't feel, as some people apparently do, that I've lost a friend. I was looking forward to his next book -- aggravating though he may be, nobody else was doing what DFW was doing -- but I didn't necessarily feel close. What I felt was, here's someone I can learn from. And I did.
Even so, he did leave a wife. Which is sad. And, as someone in one of the comments on one of the blogs noted, the world just got a lot dumber. Which it's not like we had a lot of intelligence to spare. So.
See also: http://infinitejesterings.blogspot.com/2008/09/dead-at-46-david-foster-wallace-hanged.html
1 I had used footnotes in my early writing, as a kid, through junior high and high school: I don't know where that came from exactly, but I was reading books meant for adults as a kid, especially shark-related books -- something DFW and I have in common, actually, as he was also shark-obsessed as a kid -- and so I suppose I must have picked up the idea of footnotes without realizing that they're more a technical and academic tool than an ordinary part of writing.
3 (Joan Didion talks about this sort of thing a lot. It's kind of endearing, coming from her, except that after you've seen it a number of times, it starts to dawn on you that this stance she's taking of, you can't trust me, I'm a writer, writers are always selling people out and lying and etc., is itself a posture, and is not necessarily any more authentic than postures of the other, supposedly less forthright writers. DFW took this to the next level in his short story "Octet," which is a meta-story about writing a meta-story, and which is either as forthright as it's possible for a writer to be or is a new high-water mark in cynicism and manipulation. Or both.)