Monday, 15 September 2008


My obituary of David Foster Wallace appears in today's Guardian, you can pound the link here. What follows is the Guardian piece, with a few notes on my writing of it, and a few more re-interpolating(1) my original copy into the piece as it appeared. As you'll see, it was mostly the literary criticism that got cut. (2)

David Foster Wallace was not necessarily the "literary voice of Generation X", as he was once billed, but he wrote perhaps his generation's most audacious novel, and, along with Richard Powers, was a throwback to the excitement of the early post-modernist "metafictions" of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo or John Barth.(3)

His death, at the age of 46, apparently by his own hand, came as a shock in US literary circles, although he confessed in interviews to having undergone one "suicide scare" 20 years before. In his best-known novel, Infinite Jest (1996), three of the main characters, the Incandenza Brothers, labour under the shadow of their father's suicide, a failure of his communication with them. Wallace's work was often built around the difficulties of communicating. (4)

Infinite Jest was only Wallace's second novel. His first, The Broom of the System (1987), grew out of his thesis in English at Amherst College, Massachusetts, where he also majored in philosophy. His philosophy thesis, on modal logic, received the college's prestigious Gail Kennedy prize. Not surprisingly for someone who first taught at a college in Normal, Illinois, and later held the Roy E Disney chair of creative writing at Pomona College, in California, Wallace's novels are laced with irony, often delivered through extensive footnotes, accommodating epic diversions. This ironic mode balances loftier themes with the more mundane concerns of popular culture: in Infinite Jest, virtually every aspect of life in North America has been taken over by corporate sponsors.

Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, where his father, James, was studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Cornell.(5) James Wallace became a renowned professor at the University of Illinois, while David's mother, Sally, (6) taught literature at a nearby community college. David was a regionally ranked junior tennis player, (7) and followed in his father's footsteps to Amherst. He received a master's degree in writing from the University of Arizona in 1987, and began studying for a PhD in philosophy at Harvard, but left before completing the degree.
Although he had published a novel, and some short stories, and, in 1987, won the Whiting Writers' Award, by the end of the 1980s Wallace's life was in a downward spiral which included at least one stay in a psychiatric hospital.(8) He later characterised his generation as being full of people like himself, "successful, obscenely well-educated, and sort of adrift".

In 1991 he began working on Infinite Jest. "I wanted to do something sad," he said, "real American, about what it's like to live in America around the millennium." The following year, he moved to Normal to teach at Illinois State University. Although he finished it in 1993, his massive manuscript was cut by nearly a third, and published only in 1996. (9) Despite, or perhaps because of, its size, it was a massive hit, and Wallace was rewarded with a MacArthur "genius" grant, and a Lannan prize.(10)

He said he aimed for a middle ground between writers he described as "avant-garde ... writing just for other writers" and those who produced "crass cynical commercial fiction", believing that both were driven by "contempt for their audience". But success created another problem; this popular cult writer described himself as "agoraphobic".

In 2002 he moved to Pomona, where a lighter teaching load allowed him more privacy and time to pursue journalistic projects. He wrote about David Lynch for Premiere, holiday cruises for Harper's, the US Open for Tennis magazine, and covered John McCain's 2000 campaign for Rolling Stone. His essays have been collected in four books; the McCain article, reprinted in Consider the Lobster (2005), was expanded into a separate book, McCain's Promise, released just a few days before the writer's death.(11) Although he published two collections of short stories, most recently Oblivion (2004), he had gone 12 years without producing another novel. (12)

In 2005 Wallace, invited to address a graduating class (13) at Kenyon College, Ohio, told them that the purpose of education was to teach "how to keep you from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable, adult lives dead, unconscious, a slave to your ... natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperiously alone". His wife, Karen Green, found him dead at their home in California. (14)
· David Foster Wallace, writer, born February 21 1962; died September 12 2008

(1) It was sorely tempting to write the original in this style, but parody is not appropriate in an obituary, so I didn't. Re-interpolation of the original, however, serves the function of restoring my restrained thoughts as to my appreciation of him as a writer.
(2) Note too that cutting is not necessarily a critical comment. Obituaries are not literary criticism, and indeed, some of the most irritating obits I've read occur when a critic takes a last pot-shot at a now-defenseless target (I think of Tom Milne's gratuitous broadsides at Lindsay Anderson in his obit of Karel Reisz in the Guardian). The paper is very busy with notable obituaries at the moment (indeed, I also filed Gregory McDonald's yesterday) and with space at a premium my own critical appreciation is not the Guardian's priority. The important thing is the outline of the facts and context of the life.
(3) Showing my age perhaps. Metafiction is always a dangerous word to bandy about. It was tempting as well to note his influence on younger British writers like Zadie Smith or David Mitchell.
(4) The next sentence, making the point that the ambiguity of his detailed exegesis is often as confusing as clarifying, which may have reflected his own state of mind, was cut: Wallace's work is often built around the difficulties of communicating, as if the dazzle of his own erudition were either necessary to get his point across, or perhaps persiflage designed to keep the real point from being seen.
(5) I didn't write anything about it, but for a moment I was excited by the possibility that Wallace's father and Thomas Pynchon may have crossed paths at Cornell, but since Pynchon graduated in 1959, it is unlikely.
(6) I began this paragraph by noting 'Wallace's combining of philosophy and literature reflected his parents.' and later gave them their full names. Sally's was Sally Foster Wallace, that her maiden name was David's middle name, and that he used it in his writing, echoed the importance of his choice of his mother's trade (literature) over his father's (philosophy).
(7) My friend Michael Goldfarb, whose NPR interview with Wallace can be linked from Wikipedia, described him (today, sadly, or I might have stolen his description) as looking exactly like an international tennis bum when he showed up for the interview. On the other hand, in some photos he appeared to be going for the Russell Crowe look, and that isn't a sign of excess stability.
(8) It was here that I noted his first suicide attempt, mentioned earlier, had occured.
(9) There was another reason for the delay. What was cut from the piece was the comment that the novel was 'only published in 1996 after extracts had appeared in a number of literary magazines.' This was a marketing strategy, which worked to build interest in the huge book as a literary phenomenon.
(10) The Lannan Prize is a sort of MacArthur-lite, like the Mac Arthur generally given to very mainstream writers after their success has been fully recognised and amply rewarded, but sometimes awarded to those more overlooked by the establishment, like the poet August Kleinzahler. Not that I wrote that, I just thought you might like to know.
(11) I did not try to speculate on whether the positive nature of his original 2000 McCain article might have prompted feelings of guilt now that the 'new' McCain is running for president, and whether the despair that might have been engendered by watching the appeal of a McCain/Palin ticket grow among American voters played any part in his suicide. But it was certainly a irony worthy of any in his novels.
(12) This passage, which followed 'without producing another novel' was cut completely: While his non-fiction often resembles his novels, with extensive use of ironic and digressive footnotes, his stories are surprisingly crystalline, and more in the inwardly reflective style of the Gen X mainstream. For example, 'Good People' (2004), about an Evangelical Christian boy and his pregnant girlfriend, is subtly nuanced to recall Theodore Drieser's 'An American Tragedy', but remains touchingly contemporary.
(13) I'm not sure why, but when I wrote 'the graduating class' the Guardian changed it to 'a graduating class'. There is only one at each commencement exercise, but maybe there's something we Americans don't understand.
(14) In my first draft I had mentioned that he had hanged himself, and I edited it out by mistake. It is something that needed to be said.


Anonymous said...

Better late than never...your idiotic (albeit in-jest, you `claim`) comment that McCain had changed, blah blah, just goes to illustrate the utter vacuity coupled with ignorance, that the American Left propogates. McCain was the same on almost every serious issue as he'd always been. He didn't suddenly become pro-life, or want to see the country protected, etc.. It was the media who figured McCain's criticisms (and they were constructive, often partial) of Bush or the GOP were their entree into politically bludgeoning Bush before the 2004 elections. As soon as McCain became an allegedly viable threat to win, the media started its new narrative - "He's...CHANGED." They had to spew that because they'd been so "supportive" in the past. It was a ruse before, during, and after. So, no, DFWallace wouldn't have given a shit about that; he wasn't as vapid as you are. By the way, the rest of the piece wasn't bad. Now, go enjoy President Teleprompter, stutter, stutter.

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