Saturday, March 21, 2009

Davis Foster Wallace

When David Foster Wallace killed himself last September, it depressed me more than I thought it would. His books, especially his nonfiction, were unlike any other. He could juxtapose the concrete with the abstract in a way that showed his incredible erudition and his powers of observation. One of my favorite books is his "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," the title story of which I first read in Harper's Magazine and caused spasms of tears and laughter. In short, I really loved the guy's writing.

Since his death, there has been a mini-Renaissance of appreciation for him. A recent New Yorker article wrote about his life and final days, and alongside the article, the mag published an excerpt from his unfinished novel. The excerpt was a little tedious, but hey, it was unfinished. But the article reminded me why I loved the guy:

His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”
His magnum opus is "Infinite Jest," a medicine ball of a book, 1000 pages, all heavily endnoted. From what I understand, reading it requires the patience of a Talmudic scholar. But every description also makes it sound really cool. I may never get to the book, but I will listen to this Slate podcast of a roundtable discussion of people who HAVE read the book.


Lane said...

I'm about a hundred pages into Infinite Jest. So far it's actually quite readable (and amazing), despite the fractured structure and his enormous vocabulary. I'll tell you if I ever finish it.

Eric said...

I love his nonfiction, but I have yet to tackle a complete book of his fiction. I think "Infinite Jest" would be very rewarding, but I don't have the courage to begin. I am eager to hear your assessment.