A dozen years ago, I spent three weeks with David Foster Wallace. Not the guy—not the man who hanged himself, age 46, on Sept.12—but the writer, the novelist who invaded my house with a huge, wonderful, impossible book, Infinite Jest. For 20 days or so I did virtually nothing but read and re-read the 1,079 pages of a novel that thrilled and infuriated me. There were long hours, pinned on the couch under his 3-pound, 5-ounce tome, when I hated him with a pure and righteous rage—my wrist hurt from holding the thing, my brain was weary from the footnotes and the cleverness and the strangeness of the world he’d plunged me into. I think I was dazed by the tenacity of his obsessions (drugs, tennis). But even when I hated him, I never doubted, after the first day, that I was reading an amazing book and that the 33-year-old author was some kind of wild genius.
And no sooner had I finished than I began to miss him. I called him up for a telephone interview—he was funny and delightfully odd. (Within minutes he was telling me about the penis on his sister’s potbellied pig: “an odd, sort of corkscrew-shaped phallus that’s really scary; way scarier than a dog’s phallus, which is itself pretty scary.”) So of course I wrote a valentine to him and his novel, a 3,000-word essay which ran in The Observer in February 1996. And I nominated him for the MacArthur Fellowship he was awarded the following year.
Next he published a book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The title essay, about a seven-night Caribbean cruise, is one of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve ever read. The passage about on-board skeet shooting is a great comic performance, slapstick edged with mock-epic melancholy: "[K]now that an unshot skeet’s movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean’s sky is sun-like—i.e. orange and parabolic and right-to-left—and that its disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad." Six months later, in the fall of 1997, The Observer hired him to write about the near-simultaneous publication of novels by Philip Roth, John Updike and Norman Mailer. The result (“Twilight of the Phallocrats”) was very entertaining at the time, but in retrospect makes me cringe, especially the first sentence: “Mailer, Updike, Roth—the Great Male Narcissists who’ve dominated postwar American fiction are now in their senescence.” Part of the problem of course is that over the course of the last decade, Mr. Roth, anyway, has written a half-dozen vigorous novels, including The Human Stain (2000), The Dying Animal (2001), The Plot Against America (2004) and the brand-new Indignation—while David Foster Wallace has published two collections of short stories, only one of which lived up to the standard set by Infinite Jest, an impenetrable book about the history of infinity, and a second book of essays, much weaker than the first.
That second book of essays, Consider the Lobster (2006), shook my confidence in Wallace’s sense of direction. It seemed he was doing anything and everything except write another great, huge, big-hearted, brainy novel. It was just greedy of me: I wanted more fiction of the kind that hooked me 10 years earlier.
Did I mention that the central character in Infinite Jest, Hal Incandenza, a 17-year-old tennis prodigy with an impressive marijuana habit, is still recovering four years later from the shock of discovering his father’s dead body? It’s gruesome, but Wallace manages to make it funny, too: Hal wandered into the kitchen wondering what smelled so good and found his father with his head stuck in a microwave ingeniously custom-fitted for suicide; he’d killed himself by cooking his own brains.
Death is gruesome. I don’t have the talent (or the heart) to make Wallace’s suicide seem funny. Wallace, who wrote a bitter, shaggy-dog joke of a story about the hall-of-mirrors unhappiness of a character obsessed with mental health (“The Depressed Person”), could have done the job himself—and who knows? His auto-obituary, a piece of writing that will heal the hurt of his sudden absence, may be among the works published posthumously.
Until then, I’d urge anyone who wants to mourn David Foster Wallace to go back to “Forever Overhead,” a gorgeous story from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), about a boy on his 13th birthday at a public pool just west of Tucson, Ariz., who screws up his courage, gets in line, and climbs to the top of the tower for the high dive.
Wallace leaves him up there, on the board, clenched by fear.
But first he gives us the climb to the top of the tower’s ladder: “The rungs are very thin. It’s unexpected. Thin round iron rungs laced in slick wet Safe-T felt.”
And then there you are, you and the boy and your sudden vertigo: “The rough white stuff of the board is wet. And cold. Your feet are hurt from the thin rungs and have a great ability to feel. They feel your weight.” The boy is disturbed (and so are you) by the two “dirty spots” at the end of the board: “They are from all the people who’ve gone before you. … They are skin, abraded from the feet by the violence of the disappearance of people with real weight. … The weight and abrasion of their disappearance leaves little bits of soft and tender feet behind, bits and shards and curls of skin that dirty and darken and tan as they lie tiny and smeared in the sun at the end of the board.” And below? “The square tank is a cold blue sheet. Cold is just a kind of hard.”
Happy birthday. And welcome to adulthood, the one-way climb to abrasion and disappearance.
If you want reassurance, consider what happens each time a diver’s body hits the “cold blue sheet”: The tank “heals itself.” After each fall a splash, “a great fizzing. Then the silent sound of the tank healing to a new blue all over again.”
The violence of the disappearance of people with real weight. Cold is just a kind of hard. Edge-first and splashless and sad.
Goodbye, David Foster Wallace.