Three years ago, David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. “Adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head,” he told the graduating seniors. “They shoot the terrible master.” Those cutting words cut deeper in the wake of Wallace’s own, inner collapse: The 46-year-old fiction writer and essayist took his own life on Friday.
Psychic paralysis — and self-erasure of one sort or another — figured into Wallace’s work from the get-go. “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness,’ ” he wrote in his best-known work, Infinite Jest. “The person in whom . . . agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.” Wallace’s last book of stories is called Oblivion.
In the end, what he communicated best was the intense difficulty of communicating anything at all. “We all suffer alone in the real world,” Wallace said in an early interview. “True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”
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