David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

The death of David Foster Wallace, who killed himself on Friday, is terribly sad news. Sad, of course, for his wife, his family and his friends. Sad too, for us, that he will never write any more of his breathtaking prose. He was 46 years old. I can’t pretend to be a DFW expert. I read The Broom of the System more than ten years ago and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men a year or so later. I loved them both but was too intimidated to try Infinite Jest, DFW’s mammoth, frustrating and hilarious masterpiece.

I finally started reading it this year. I’m halfway through and I’ve been reading it on-and-off for months. It’s utterly extraordinary and I find that I’m reading it slowly, not because it’s difficult, but because there is so much to digest. I can’t quite believe that, with 400 pages to go, the genius who created this work has gone. The book is still here, obviously, yet DFW is not. I don’t know why that is such a strange thought.

It’s not clear why DFW killed himself and perhaps it never will be. However, it’s clear from reading Infinite Jest that this is a man who knows something about mental illness, more than the average person.

"And then but no matter what I do it gets worse and worse, it’s there more and more, this filter drops down and the feeling makes the fear of the feeling way worse, and after a couple of weeks it’s there all the time, the feeling, and I’m totally inside it, I’m in it and everything has to pass through it to get in, and I don’t want to smoke any Bob, and I don’t want to work, or go out, or read, or watch TP, or go out, or stay in, or either do anything or not do anything, I don’t want anything except for the feeling to go away. But it doesn’t. Part of the feeling is being like willing to do anything to make it go away. Understand that. Anything. Do you understand? It’s not wanting to hurt myself it’s wanting to not hurt."

Discussing DFW’s death with my friend James Higgs this morning, James said that it somehow seems wrong for someone so talented to come to the end of their ability to endure life. Even though it’s understandable that they might do so, it seems wrong, more so in the case of a novelist because you feel like you’ve somehow been inside their head. James is right.

My world was better for having had David Foster Wallace in it. I have lots more of his words still to read but I’m sad that there won’t be another novel. He leaves behind a wonderful, illuminating and joyful body of work. Whatever happened to him, I hope he knew that.