Rest In Peace, David Foster Wallace

by Karen Gsteiger

I read about it late last night on September 13, 2008. Just some of my normal obsessive skimming of election coverage on Daily Kos, and there it was, a recent diary, informing the world that David Foster Wallace had committed suicide at the age of 46.


Here was this intelligent, funny, talented, likeable writer, who, I would like to add, seemed to have absolutely everything I want out of life, creatively speaking, and he took his own life.

Wait. What?

He had everything I want. The ability to write novels with seven kajillion brilliant pages. The critical acclaim. The legions of devoted fans. And oh my God, was he smart. I decided all this before I actually read a word of his writing.

I usually try not to concern myself with contemporary authors, except for maybe David Sedaris, because I am by nature an extremely jealous and envious and covetous person. If I think really hard about what I want and how I'm not likely to get it and how someone else has it, well, I think it's quite reasonable that it drives me nuts.

A friend bought me Infinite Jest, and I took a half-hearted stab at reading it. At the time, I thought it was too...I don't know. Long. I set it back down after maybe 30 or 60 pages and have yet to pick it back up. There was a long period of time where I didn't think about David Foster Wallace at all, except to vaguely hate him for having everything I want. To be the literary superstar. To have people read him and care. To have people eagerly anticipate the next words he would compose. To be creative in a way that I will never be, me who usually starts off some sort of insignificant story by thinking, "See, there's this girl, and she likes this guy..." To steal the footnote and make it like his own personal punctuation/citation thing, to the point where I'm not even going to pepper this tribute with footnotes because it would just be too obvious, too trite.

Forgive me, please, if I sound somewhat insensitive, given the current situation. I'll turn it around soon, I promise. I had to feel bewildered before I could feel sad. And I remain pretty bewildered.

But I'm also very sad. I went through a world of changes between the time that I gave up on Infinite Jest--thinking it too Po-Mo, too pretentious, too precious, and too fucking long--and now. Between then and now, I had given up on writing. Then it occurred to me, maybe I should do some writing exercises. Maybe I should read new, different things.

So at some point fairly recently, I was reading something or other on Slate, and it mentioned an essay that David Foster Wallace had written--20,000 words overanalyzing some Caribbean cruise, and I was intrigued. I couldn't find it online, and I learned that it was published in a collection of essays entitled A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. In fact, the cruise essay was the titular work. I bought it, somewhat impulsively, at Border's, even though I had given up on Infinite Jest. That was the same day I bought a plain black journal (on clearance) in which I would do my writing exercises.

Just those simple things...reading and writing, just for myself. I was reborn.

And through those essays, I discovered that I liked David Foster Wallace. Even when he was going on and on about tennis, a sport I find dull. Even when he started busting out challenging literary criticism in "Greatly Exaggerated." (I mean, the guy was really fucking smart.) During the course of reading this book, I realized that I was developing somewhat of a crush on him. Because he was, along with being a literary superstar genius person and having everything I want, a regular Midwesterner at heart, surrounding his esoteric vocabulary with profanity and slang. Because he was so free to reveal his phobias and insecurities along the way. Because it seemed as though he still deeply mourned the lost tennis career, still blamed himself somewhat because his natural talents forced him to go a different path. Because even though he must have known that much of his audience wasn't nearly as smart as he, he never condescended to us. Because he wrote "The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh how banal.'" which made me realize that it's okay to be the kind of writer that I am. And because he was really, really funny...and not polite "ha ha" funny. I'm talking laugh-out-loud funny, the kind of funny that compels me to grab my husband and read him various lines even though it's not as funny out of context. The kind of funny that I always fall in love with.

But he had a wife, and God, do I feel awful for her. Having to find him like that. I was once in the terrible position of talking to someone who was suicidal, or at least claimed to be, and I don't like to reflect on the paralyzing fear of that night, the inability to sleep, the fear of leaving that person alone. "Should I call for help? Will that just set him/her off?" I truly and sincerely hope that his wife didn't have to experience a lot of those nights. I won't even begin to imagine how she feels now.

And it makes me angry on her behalf that he went out this way and on the behalf of anyone else who knew him and loved him, yet I too remember how on certain occasions I very much wanted to be dead, to not feel the anguish I was experiencing because I couldn't even comprehend a future without that anguish. I've matter-of-factly told a therapist once, "I'm not going to kill myself, but I wouldn't mind being hit by a car." And shortly after that I wound up on the anti-depressants, but I know that that doesn't work for a lot of people. So it makes me terribly sad to know that someone whom I admired and (yes, envied) and whose work I enjoyed was in that kind of pain and for long enough and without any hope that he felt that he had to take his own life. If only he could see that he really did have everything. Or maybe he didn't. I didn't know the man. Or maybe, scariest of all, all the things that I want won't make me or anyone else happy.

But I think I'll try reading Infinite Jest again. Even though it really probably is too fucking long.