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David Foster Wallace, Revisited

If any good comes out of the sad death of David Foster Wallace last week, surely it will be the eagerness of his fans to revisit his work, and the willingness of the unitiated to dive into his oeuvre. Here at The Plank we posted links to a number of his finest pieces--essays, dispatches, fictional stories--and after re-reading a number of them and engaging for the first time with others, I am struck by the difference between his reputation and his writing. Here is A.O. Scott, in a nice piece from today's NYT Week in Review:

The moods that Mr. Wallace distilled so vividly on the page — the gradations of sadness and madness embedded in the obsessive, recursive, exhausting prose style that characterized both his journalism and his fiction — crystallized an unhappy collective consciousness. And it came through most vividly in his voice. Hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware (and nearly impossible to quote in increments smaller than a thousand words) — it was something you instantly recognized even hearing it for the first time. It was — is — the voice in your own head.


Another way of saying this is that Mr. Wallace, born in 1962 and the author of an acclaimed first novel at age 24, anchored his work in an acute sense of generational crisis. None of his peers were preoccupied so explicitly with how it felt to arrive on the scene as a young, male American novelist dreaming of glory, late in the 20th century and haunted by a ridiculous, poignant question: what if it’s too late? What am I supposed to do now?

The adjectives in this first paragraph are well chosen, I think. But the second paragraph--as well as the fact that he was a suicide victim (one can almost see him footnoting these two words, since they look and sound so awkward together: suicide victim? perpetrator of suicide?)--suggests that he will forever be regarded as an Angry Young Man whose tremendous talents could not obscure (or conquer) depression and even nihilism. Whether or not there is truth to this analysis, I do believe--especially after talking to some Baby Boomers unfamiliar with his work--that this may indeed be his legacy. The depressing thing--to belatedly return to the original point--is that DFW's essays are full of life and joy and excitement.  

His John McCain profile from 2000 struggled with the temptation to become sentimental and even naive in the presence of a lifelong politician--admittedly one who was in the midst of a remarkably interesting campaign.  His lobster piece (really, it's good) is about animal rights and morality, but it also has a levity that one does not find in the works of Peter Singer or Michael Pollan. If the appeal of John Updike has always remained elusive to you, his takedown of the Pennsylvanian novelist will be a real treat; regardless, it is full of clever lines and Wallace's manifest excitement with wrestling a larger-than-life figure to the ground. His outstanding tennis pieces are clearly written by someone who loves and appreciates that underrated (or perhaps just underwatched) sport; I dare readers to finish his Roger Federer profile without finding the writer's enthusiasm infectious and invigorating. There is also his superb piece on talk radio, a smart analysis of literary biogrpahies (via the recent Life of Borges by Edwin Williamson), and, best of all, an extremely long and fascinating study of the usage wars (his enthusiasm about tennis is surpassed only by his fervid passion for language and words). 

I never did read Infinite Jest--and perhaps that opus is as forbidding as some people say it is. Scott is right, too, about what he terms the man's "pathological self-awareness." At times, DFW really does appear to need to ask the questions that most of us do not want to confront because, well, if we spend too much time confronting painful things, we might end up feeling more pain (although perhaps lobsters would end up feeling less pain). Still, his work is so full of energy and vim and vitality that it is imperative to tell readers who have not dipped into his work that they should do so without any fear it will be too heavy or too dark. It is only fitting that the best antidote to sadness over his death are the words he so beautifully strung together.

--Isaac Chotiner