David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

David Foster Wallace hanged himself on Friday.

As with many true innovators, his critics were as passionate as his fans. Some hailed his experimental prose style and his ear for the polyphonic babble of consumer culture. Other readers were frustrated by the tortured self-consciousness of his meta-fictional devices, or repelled by the world he showed us, in which psychological trauma collides with air-brushed entertainment to produce the grotesque.

All these reactions have some truth to them. DFW pushed the limits of consciousness and language, perhaps at his own expense, and the products of such a Promethean struggle are always unsettling and sometimes, in artistic terms, failures. Did he feel that way about any of his work? Did he wonder whether the pain of exploration had been for nothing?

DFW is most famous for his massive novel Infinite Jest, a dystopian commentary on addictive entertainment and environmental destruction, in which most of the plot takes place in the footnotes. But I mourn today for the writer who gave us extraordinary glimpses of grace in two short prose pieces: “Good People”, published last year in the New Yorker, and a section toward the end of his book Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

It chills me to think that someone could understand sin and redemption with such piercing vision, and be able to write brilliantly about it, yet not think his life was worth living. That is, after all, the pursuit I have broken my heart over for the past year. One could repudiate the goal, but what else is there that will not also disappoint us? Perhaps the only lesson is that there are casualties even in the good fight.

“Good People” is a perfectly crafted story about Christian teens facing an unwanted pregnancy. DFW sets us up to expect all the usual cliches and then gives us a genuinely startling breakthrough at the very end. We realize, along with the protagonist, how much of our life is spent in the fog of our own self-serving assumptions about other people. Like him, we are convicted of sin at the very moment that we are given the hope of mercy (and thank God, no sooner).

I remember thinking, when I finished this story, “I hope DFW is happy that he wrote something this great. I hope he recognizes how special it is,” because I have looked into the black hole of my inability to be satisfied with my work. I probably couldn’t write a story this good (hopefully someday I will), but would I be happy even if I had? If not, is that a reason to stop writing? One of DFW’s obsessions was questioning the whole idea of happiness, not only the distractions and intoxicants that we mistake for it, but the quintessential American notion that we are entitled, if not obligated, to pursue it in deadly earnest.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is an uneven collection of stories, essays, and meta-fictional sketches, sometimes shifting genres mid-story. Its themes are loosely woven together by interspersed excerpts from fictional interviews with some repellent yet oddly vulnerable characters–men who reveal their perversions and strategies for sexual exploitation, with a mix of self-justifying bravado and confessional self-loathing.

The second moment of grace I mentioned comes here, as one man recounts second-hand his former girlfriend’s story of how she was almost raped. At the moment she thought she was going to die, she channeled unconditional love for her abductor and he let her go, not understanding himself why he was doing it. But we see all this through the filter of the narrator who treated her badly and can’t quite bring himself to respect her story, because of what it would imply for his own life. This is exactly how Christ-like goodness looks in a fallen world–not surrounded by sentimental plaudits, but slightly ridiculous, a bit incredible, even (if we are honest) unwelcome to the point of provoking our cruelty. I’m reminded of Shusaku Endo’s novels Deep River and The Girl I Left Behind.

DFW had a maddening habit of leaving his stories unfinished (The Broom of the System ends mid-sentence, and I’ve never been able to figure out the ending of Infinite Jest) or collapsing them into anguished commentary about his failure to be authentic in the writing process. Did his glimpses of transcendence make the disconnect between writing and reality more acutely unbearable? When a writer sees God, the real God who is “not this, not that”, he falls speechless, or speaks and hates his speech for being less real than what he has seen. And what is a writer without words? What makes him real?

David, I pray for you, I thank you for looking into the abyss on our behalf, and I pray that you can hear this poem:

from The Man Watching
by Rainer Maria Rilke
trans. by Edward Snow

…How small that is, with which we wrestle,
what wrestles with us, how immense,
were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
be conquered thus by the great storm,–
we would become far-reaching and nameless.

What we triumph over is the Small,
and the success itself makes us petty.
The Eternal and Unexampled
will not be bent by us.
This is the Angel, who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews
in that contest stretch like metal,
he feels them under his fingers
like strings making deep melodies.

Whomever this Angel overcame
(who so often declined the fight),
he walks erect and justified
and great out of that hard hand
which, as if sculpting, nestled round him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be the deeply defeated
by ever greater things.

    from The Book of Images (New York: North Point Press, 1991)

15 comments on “David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

  1. Leah Gregg says:

    I was extremely saddened to hear this as well. Apparently, he once listed Screwtape Letters as his favorite book, I found that kind of comforting when I read it this morning.

    From psalm 139:
    7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?

    8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, [a] you are there.

    9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,

    10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

    11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”

    12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

  2. SEIngraham says:

    Dear Jendi,
    I came here to thank you for publishing my poem, “The Trees Stand Watch” and for your marvellous critique of same. I had always felt that something was wanting about the end of the poem but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Of course, you could and did. I will be re-working the last stanza before it goes out again, probably to one of the places you so helpfully suggested I send it. Again, thank you so much.

    While, the above was the reason I came to your site, I also found myself drawn to your essay about the late David Foster. What a frustrating troubled artist. Having some familiarity with the abyss myself, I’m unwilling to judge anyone that finds themself ultimately drawn over the edge; there are sometimes just no answers I fear. I thought the Rilke poem you more or less dedicated to Foster was both fitting and touching. I too hope he hears it.


  3. Hank Rodgers says:

    I had read this wonderful little story, “Good People”, in the New Yorker; a story with some implied but still unclear, “epilogue to come”. Despite the interior monologue form of the story, it reminded me of the couple and the situation in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, updated; and the prose style also smacked somewhat of Hemingway.

    Understanding “sin and redemption” was not part of the Hemingway story’s character-revealing dialogue; and, while recognizing the inevitable need to “fight the good fight”, when it came to what other pursuits “might not also disappoint us” Hemingway consistently discouraged us, right to his own “missing epilogue”.

    Like Hemingway’s characters most of us are in an impassioned, if doubtful, pursuit of “happiness”, without knowing of any reasonable alternatives. While “enlightment” can be seen as knowledge of “sin and redemption”, and some devote themselves to pursuit of it and some few claim to have found it; whether pursuing happiness or enlightenment we often must, and so think we have, found what we seek, when we have committed enough to the seeking.

    Hemingway and Wallace, seeking, probably found neither happiness nor enlightenment, or found them both brief and fleeting faster than their pursuit; and despaired.

    Both Hemingway’s and Wallace’s personal ends make us wish for satisfying “epilogues”; and it is also interesting to contemplate one or more epilogues for the characters of “Good People”. I know of some good and likely stories to tell, but only bleak and discouraging ones.

  4. Jendi Reiter says:

    Interesting comparison to Hemingway. DFW’s ending appears more hopeful, offering the possibility of grace breaking into our airless, fearful imaginings, while Hemingway leaves us with only our inadequate selves. Yet DFW was unable to find that hope for himself. Of course, his problem may have been neurochemical rather than theological, but it reopens some questions that preoccupy me as a writer of faith: Does the credibility of our work depend on the witness of our lives? Can we share what we haven’t got? Or should we say that a writer’s true faith is revealed in the writing, and the moment of despair is an aberration where he forgets what he knew? Belief operates at many levels, and a powerful mood can so overwhelm one’s consciousness that the memory of truth disappears. Ultimately, whether the ending of “Good People” convinces us depends on our decision to choose hope over despair, regardless of what the writer was able to do in his own life.

  5. Alegria Imperial says:

    Dear Jendi,
    I have stayed away from your blog because like I wrote you I am licking my wounds, hoping that a potion of magical quality from my mouth could heal them. For I feel I’ve since been rendered mute. But these deeply deeply sad passing of two writers have drawn me out of the cave to mourn–lash at the wind with my hair, the stars with my moaning. Any movement and sound, of course, is hollow in the vastness but the heart needs to unburden. And here, I believe lies all artists’ wringing endless pain. They, who witness truths and bare realities are derided. It is as if they make it up for their own ends. They who use words, out of which truths are created–the universe included–find these thrown back at them twisted or frozen. Wherein lies the melding point, perhaps? Wherein lies the understanding that could breach this seeming infinite crack? When does the path of truth break or twist or does it ever straighten? Most artists struggle through their Passion, apparently, scraping their shins and their being, and impaled by degrees on their way to achieving and witnessing truths. A few others like Reginald Shepherd and David Foster–and last year Sarah Hannah–let fall or simply fall. Who then takes notice? Whose wing is arrested in flight? Not they who needed their truths, of course, but those who like them have stayed or hope to stay on the same path bleeding. Thus, truths keep being reborn. You write of your struggles, Jendi, but if you cease what then?

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