Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace - 1962 - 2008

In the grand scheme of things in 2008, the shocking death of a literary celebrity barely passes for news, particularly when we are just a month and a couple of weeks away from an highly historical election. It doesn't help that it first started getting reported the night of a rather historical, happy occassion in Chicago. On Sunday, September 14, 2008, what remains of my family living at the base compound was gathered around the television, watching Carlos Zambrano accomplish the highly unlikely. He did it. He threw a no-hitter. It was the first one thrown by a Cubs pitcher since 1972. At a highly tense moment, just before Zambrano induced a foul pop fly which he rushed over to catch, my little sister, on a laptop computer, said, "David Foster Wallace."

I said, "What, what did he do?" Thinking perhaps he may have been nominated for the Nobel prize for literature, or had a new book coming out that was going to be news-worthy, or Pulitzer worthy...

"Is dead. He killed himself."

I said, "No way, that's unbelievable."

My parents didn't know who he was and I went off about how intelligent he had to have been.

Zambrano caught the foul pop fly and my father went nuts over the athletic feat that he had just accomplished, which was the first or second out of the 9th inning, and my mom seemed temporarily more concerned about my concern for this modern author who probably only wasn't more famous because he wouldn't want to sell out and be accessible, despite her being a lifelong die-hard Cubs fan. After a couple sentences exhibiting my shock, I stopped, and enjoyed the enthusiasm that everyone on the Cubs began to show. Screaming and shouting, excitement, this was the big milestone that was going to psyche them up, that proved that they truly were a different team this year and that it was no question they could play with anyone in the World Series.

The next day there was a short article in the Chicago Tribune written as a tribute to Wallace, and there was a segment on NPR that I happened to hear that was very moving. Both mentioned his previous musings on suicide. Some of the ideas they discussed were exceptionally powerful. And to think that I myself questioned Wallace, found him to be a bit more difficult than he needed to be, thought him to be something of a snob-genius, elevating himself above the masses, publishing a book that could insult anyone who ever thought they were intelligent. The NPR tribute made the exact opposite claim, that he wrote to prove to readers that they were intelligent.

That book of course is Infinite Jest, his most famous, and it should be a love-it-or-hate-it volume. Whenever I meet anyone who has happened to read it, and who has happened to love it, I am always shocked and feel they are lying for saying they liked it, or actually got all the way through it. I stopped around page 350. It may be an odd coincidence (but I am not making it up) that I had a vivid dream about reading that very book, about three weeks or a month ago, how in the dream I had picked it up again and come across a very revelatory section, something clear and precise and comprehensible, much like the second "chapter" of the book that I liked very much, and how I was going to finish it now that it seemed there might be another part like that too. Well it is in storage in a box in a garage in Northbrook, and soon enough I will go and reclaim it. Perhaps on Sunday when I have to evacuate this house along with the pets for an open house showing.

In the Paris Review anthology released on their 50-year-anniversary, there was a story by Wallace which was my first introduction to him and I was totally, totally blown away. The story was called "Little Expressionless Animals" and concerned a lady who was about to become the all-time longest-running Jeopardy! champion (many years before Ken Jennings began his famous streak) and I read it in one sitting and considered it as close to a perfect short story as a person can write, particularly in our present cultural milieu, which is so distracting and makes you wonder if literature has any place at all in it anymore. After trying to read Infinite Jest, I had the sense that Wallace himself (strongly resisting the urge to capitalize that) could have gone on Jeopardy! and had his own ridiculous streak--it almost seemed like there was no limit to the knowledge he had accrued in his lifetime.

As far as literary giants go, I feel this is nearly as cataclysmic event as Ernest Hemingway's suicide, or at least contemporaneously, those of Kurt Cobain or Elliott Smith in the music scene. Since barely anyone on the major media outlets seem to notice that this happened, and only those who are more-or-less dedicated to the literary cause seem to care, it is very depressing indeed, for more than the obvious reasons. At the very least, one could hope that Wallace's books will enjoy a resurgence in popularity (I particularly want to get Oblivion), and that challenging, experimental literature will be given a a brief moment of deeper examination. But people would rather hear more about Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin on SNL. It's significantly more prescient information.

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