Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace, RIP*

It was shocking and terrible to read the three-paragraph AP report when it popped online Saturday night near 11 PM. Dead at 46. When I read Michiko Kakutani's moving elegy to David Foster Wallace today, it reminded me of that huge, 20,000-foot view of American life that so few brass-ring-grabbing savant literary egotists even attempt any longer, the one that once seemed possible and today less so. It must have been so overwhelming and solitary to attempt to capture it in the 1990s, at the end of the 20th Century -- to capture, as Kakutani writes, "in the words of the musician Robert Plant, the myriad 'deep and meaningless' facets of contemporary life."

You could see it in Foster Wallace's face and manner, the way he wore the ten-ton weight on his shoulders so delicately, how shy and funny and precise his personality when he was interviewed, how he seemed like a POW who'd spent a decade imprisoned in a library. Here he is talking about his failures at understanding Italian while at an overseas conference:

Like so many of my generation, I didn't quite finish "Infinite Jest," but just hefting it around on subways in the 1990s was a rite of passage, not to mention a bicep-builder. But DFW's literary spike in the ground announced the arrival of our 1970s-baked consciousness to the national conversation, all screwy and tortured and long-winded and air-quoted in triplicate, and everybody had to listen. That was a huge moment. He opened the door and added footnotes with other tinier doors. We needed them all to get through and be understood. Could there have been a Dave Eggers without DFW? I once quoted him quoting someone else in a floridly overwrought newspaper article I wrote about Stephen Malkmus, the shadow of DFW's arguments hovering over my review.

But as David Foster Wallace, quoting the writer Lewis Hyde, wrote: ''Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.'' That Stephen Malkmus still traffics in winky references like Underdog signifies that he has grown comfortable with his sound and with his coterie of critic-fans who reflexively buy and praise his music.

His nonfiction, it turned out, was his true and righteous talent, maybe because his infinite smarts were harnessed by magazine length limits. His tennis profile in Esquire, 'String Theory', was the first one I read and still stays with me, how four dimensional and meta-magazine profile it was. Tennis was beside the point, even though he really did love tennis. His brainy explorations were as deep and map-like as an ant farm. In some ways it's not terribly surprising that he couldn't live with his own mind and all its dark sub-basements. But I'm just so upset that he killed himself. I wish he could have rallied and tied all those kinky strings together and unified our story, finally, especially now as our cultural fissures threaten to widen and bleak Palin-esque clouds darken our horizons. But that's too much to ask of anyone. Still, that he couldn't bear living any longer is itself hard to bear, especially considering what he knew about our collective souls in America.

In response to a question about what being an American was like for him at the end of the 20th century, he told the online magazine Salon in 1996 that there was something sad about it, but not as a reaction to the news or current events. “It’s more like a stomach-level sadness,” he said. “I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness.”

* February 21, 1962 – September 12, 2008

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