So, it has been several weeks now since the writer David Foster Wallace hung himself.
Usually, when we hear that a public figure has passed away, if it’s someone we like, we get sad for a few minutes. We talk about it with friends or coworkers: “Did you hear that so-and-so died? It’s so sad. I really liked him/her.” You might even get misty when you see the tribute in People magazine or read the AP article.
For me, it was different with Wallace. The news made me gasp with disbelief. I cried about it. And then a few weeks later I looked him up online and cried again. I revisited A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, wishing I’d revisited it earlier, as if appreciating DFW more when he was alive would have made a difference in how or when he died. Then this weekend I thought about it again, and read this speech, and cried again.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I'm reacting this way. After all, as DFW himself would point out, it’s not completely about him. When you mourn a death, you’re not sad for the deceased, or at least that's not the whole story. You’re sad for you, because someone or something has been taken away from you.
I mean, I didn’t know the man, never had a correspondence with him. Never saw him speak. Didn’t follow his career particularly closely. Hell, I haven’t even read Infinite Jest. Where do I get off, really?
The fact that it was suicide, obviously, is the most salient thing about how upsetting his death is. I just didn’t know what he was dealing with. Apparently, many people didn’t. We had only experienced the benefits of his massive brain. Now, reading his writing with the knowledge that he ultimately strangled that brain into submission, it becomes clear that its power to torture was as great as its power to produce amazing language and insight.
The essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” DFW’s account of his experience aboard a cruise ship, first appeared in Harper’s in 1997, and it was my introduction to his writing. I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like that piece before. I couldn’t believe it. And using my own clumsy writing in an attempt to adequately praise or describe his feels like an insult, so I’ll leave it there.
The point is, he was deeply inspiring to me. I didn’t hope to match his level of skill, but I hoped that exposure to it would make me a better writer. One of the jarring things about his death, to me, is the revelation that someone whose intellect vibrated so loudly and whose writing screamed with life was so shackled internally that even his own talent could not unlock him.
And so I guess if I look at this from the me-as-center-of-the-universe perspective that DFW has chronicled so well, what's grievous is how he has bluntly shattered a notion with which I liked to comfort myself sometimes: that language and intellect are unassailable buffers against darker things. He had one of the biggest, fanciest minds I'd ever encountered on a page, and he was forced to pack it up and take it home.
Anyway, it just makes me profoundly sad, to learn how he suffered and to know that he is gone. In one sense, I’m glad that I was such a lazy admirer, because it’s left me with more yet to discover than his truly diligent fans have.