David Foster Wallace 1962-2008

September 14, 2008 | 3 books mentioned 15 6 min read

It seems fitting to begin a reflection on the late David Foster Wallace in a fit of anxiety about reception – about the propensity of words, sentences, personae, to falsify or to be misunderstood.

For example: I know this seems fraudulent and fanciful and like the scratching of some deep narcissistic itch, to write publicly about a famous person’s death. And also: I want you to know I know, and to make sure you know I want you to know I know, so that you don’t mistake me for someone less intelligent, original, precise, and self-critical than I am. Because I am terrified of the ethical misstep, of solipsism, and above all of getting things wrong.

So, I think, was my subject, for whom the vicious regress sketched above could go on infinitely, each new confession forcing a confession about the rhetoric behind that confession. Indeed, in his later work, as in the short story “Octet,” David Foster Wallace found a way to make the regress feel infinite. Some readers saw in this a kind of heroism – a commitment to representing philosophical truth, no matter how ungainly. Others saw it as evidence that Wallace had hit some kind of aesthetic cul-de-sac. Some even saw it as both: a heroic cul-de-sac. But it seems to me that Wallace’s manic sincerity was merely the obverse of our age’s reflexive irony. Each was an expression of deep suspicion of abstractions like “trust” and “faith.”

Which makes Wallace’s achievement even more impressive. Ultimately, his characters and narrators managed to push beyond paradox and to risk saying something about what used to be called the human condition. In honor of those risks – and with the preliminary apologiae more or less in place – let me try here to risk saying something about David Foster Wallace.


David Foster Wallace was a large, shaggy, uncomfortable, funny person who once held me and 75 other people hostage for over an hour in a basement room in St. Louis. He was reading from his new book, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I was 19, and when the reading was over I squeaked out something like, “Infinite Jest really meant a lot to me,” and he said something like, “Do you want me to sign your copy?” and I said something like “I checked it out of the library” and then I ran away.

That is, Wallace was a person I did not, in any respectable sense of the word, know, though I am currently feeling a dreadful temptation to pretend otherwise, to insist on a connection between reader and writer, to assert some rights over the body, and over the life, and over the work. Then again, in another sense, I knew him – I did. I heard the critic John Leonard say one time that the great writers, the ones who matter, are “friends of the mind,” and David Foster Wallace was mine. Simply put: his work has mattered more to me, and for longer, than any other writer’s, and when he killed himself last week at age 46, I felt like I had lost a friend. His voice is still in my head.

I came to that voice in high school, when I first read Infinite Jest. This was immediately and not incidentally prior to my discovery of literature per se. I read the thousand-page book more or less continuously for three weeks (as would be my habit every few years) and I felt like someone was speaking to me directly, in my language, about people I knew, or had been. “Like most North Americans of his generation,” Wallace wrote, in a passage that hooked me early on, Hal Incandenza

tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency. 

The secret power of this voice, as Wallace would discover in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” lay in its immense ethical appeal. Although his descriptions of Hal’s life at a tennis academy, and of pharmaceutical habits or Eschaton, did not stint on arcana, Wallace was perfectly willing to admit that certain things were “hard to say.” Moreover, there was the seeming correspondence between the authorial persona and the real person I glimpsed through the interstices of the fiction, and, later, nonfiction.

That person was like an extreme caricature of many generational traits: polymathic, ironic, brilliant, damaged, and under intense pressure to perform. The difference was that DFW (as I came to think of him) had performed. Unlike so many of the other great minds of our time, he had made good on his promise, less by virtue of talent than through moral courage and hard work. I still think the elucidation of Gerhard Schtitt’s tennis philosophy in Infinite Jest is some of the best writing about writing I’ve ever read: “How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.” Wallace somehow managed to pay attention to everything.


Of course, nothing is so unforgivable in postmodern America as an assertion of one’s own value, and in various large and small ways, Wallace’s critical reception would be dampened by schadenfreude. The surest way to marginalize the literary high-water-mark of the 1990s would be to exaggerate its (considerable) length and difficulty. “Sure Infinite Jest is great,” the logic went, “but does anybody actually read it?”

Similarly, I think, it would be both inaccurate and reductive to blame the burden of following up a masterpiece for driving Wallace to his death. In the 10 years that followed Infinite Jest – which might have been a perfectly reasonable gestation period for another long novel – Wallace published five books, for a more than respectable average of one every two years. The short stories “Church Not Made With Hands” and “Good Old Neon,” and the essays on the porn industry and John McCain in Consider the Lobster would be among his best work.

Furthermore, it was impossible to read about the Depressed Person in “The Depressed Person” and not to understand that the author had known depression on the most wrenching and intimate and long-term terms. The suicide that now hangs shadelike over the Wallace corpus in fact predated it, at least as a potentiality; think of The Sad Stork and Kate Gompert and “Suicide as a Sort of Present” and the narrator of “Good Old Neon.”

Or don’t, because revisiting Wallace’s work is liable to offer more questions than answers. E.g.: How can someone with so much going for him have felt so bad? How could such an ambitious communicator have settled for this final muteness? And what, in the end, can we say about it?


We can say, first of all, that David Foster Wallace’s death is a historic loss for readers. To me, the self-annihilating qualities of “Octet” and “Mister Squishy” and “Oblivion” didn’t read as fictional dead-ends, but as attempts to solve, once and for all, the preoccupations of Wallace’s youth, prior to some astonishing new novel.

And we can remember that that book would have reflected a side of David Foster Wallace his critics didn’t often acknowledge: the metaphysician. In retrospect, Wallace’s belief in something larger than logic is everywhere: in Schtitt’s philosophies, in the prayerful ending of “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” and in “Good Old Neon,” where a suicide suggests that “all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life [turn] out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward.” Indeed, it offers some solace to recall that Wallace imagined death, in Infinite Jest, as a restoration, a

catapult[ing] home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues. 

This lovely image of connection posits death as the antithesis of depression, whose cause and effect, as Wallace diagnosed them, was the ontological problem of aloneness. Wallace revisited the proposition again and again, most recently in a soon-to-be-minutely-parsed commencement address at Kenyon College:

I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of what your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. 

But on this point, Wallace, who got so much right and saw so much so clearly, fell prey to a junior-grade fallacy, which now deepens into irony. As he himself put it in Infinite Jest: “sometimes words that seem to express really invoke.”

Even as Wallace’s darkest images expressed the anguish of existential solitude, the act of writing fiction, of writing it so well, was itself an invocation of community. His finest creation, Don Gately (the Leopold Bloom of Infinite Jest) bodies forth the possibility of true empathy, and we learn, through a series of hints, that he will try to lead Hal Incandenza out of the prison of the self.

Gately’s secret? He has come to understand that there is no proof, that some things one simply takes on faith. And as Gately observes, it works. David Foster Wallace’s death looks, from where I’m sitting, like a failure of communication. But his life, and his work, are an affirmation of it. Death is not the end.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Yes, thank you, Garth.

    Empathy is something that seethes through DFW’s fiction. Last night I re-read “Lyndon.” For those intimidated by Infinite Jest (I’ve read it and am still intimidated by it) I urge you to read “Lyndon,” my favorite of his short stories, and certainly one that elevates empathy to something approaching the divine. One of its themes is the notion of how to understand responsibility, which, as DFW limns it, is like the sky; it can’t be held or touched, though it is always there, hovering above. What happens the day it vanishes?

    The implication is severe, but not the real point of trying to dissect responsibility. The real point is to re-imagine how we conceive such broad, evasive concepts and our relationship to them. Lady Bird Johnson tells our protagonist David Boyd: “Lyndon says he shall cherish the day when love and right and wrong and responsibility, when these words, he says, are understood by you youths of America to be nothing but arrangements of distance.”

    In “Lyndon,” suffering yields empathy, through proximity both physical and metaphysical. It is the distance that affirms community, because distance requires at least two markers. The story makes clear that distance should be a challenge, though a challenge that can be met. It is tragic that the distance has gotten the better of DFW.

  2. Thank you for this, Garth. This is the first I've read of the many remembrances online that really seems to *get* the connection between what DFW offered up of himself in his writing and how to contextualize, if not "make sense" of, the way in which he silenced his voice.

    Anyone who spent time in Wallace's works understood this was a man writing brilliantly against the odds of his struggle with some harrowing and black-mawed demons. If you happened to be a reader who had wrestled with the self-same beasts, then the raw human heroism rang forth even more clearly. Here was a fellow traveler who was making every attempt – and exceeding what many could ever hope to achieve – in staying connected to the world, to others in it, not allowing the self to occlude the sense of meaningful connection to the world. The terrifying and lonely place in which DFW found himself when he took his own life is one that chills me, b/c I've stood there too and been able to pull myself back, or allow others to help myself do so, when I couldn't really see my way out. Given the degree to which Dave's writing seems to have connected with so many on the deep level it did – so that we feel we have lost a friend, whose voice still rings in our minds – it's particularly painful to know that there was no one there to pull him back into the fold, one more time. That he stepped off the hard diving board of time and into the soft, dark waters of oblivion – alone – when all of us were standing around him, hanging on his every word in our hearts.

    Thanks, again.

  3. The first thought I had when I learned DFW had hung himself was non-shock. "Oh. Yeah. Sounds about right." Not good, but really, not shocking. A brilliant man, and thorough, and utterly incapable of the absolutely American trait of phoning it in once in a while. I mean, the guy made a Lobster Festival into an Existential Crisis, for god's sake. Everything he wrote, including, for god's sake, a review of a usage dictionary, was a complete 100% effort, and that drains on a man.

    I mean, imagine the ontological levels on which he most likely ate his cereal, and thought about eating his cereal, and, and, etc., etc….It's truly a miracle the guy could get through a day, let alone so much of a life.

    What I though about when I heard DFW hung himself was that he knew that Infinite Jest was the apex of the curve of his life and the peak of his talent and that he knew that a) he could not reach it again and that b) he was incapable of not trying to reach it again, and c) he may have suspected that his readers knew a) and b), and d) man, that's frustrating/maddening.

    A lot of writers hit their peak, write that one brain-bending book and, while they keep writing, are satisfied phoning it in. HST after the Campaign Trail and Las Vegas books is a great example. His suicide was caused by his hips giving out, not his pen. On the other hand you have someone like Joyce, who wrote Ulysses and promptly went mad, wrote an unreadable book, and eventually died.

    There are limits to how hard you can push the human mind before the damn thing gives out…..

  4. I think he found a solution to his existential loneliness, that in death he would reach more people than alive. In a way this can be seen as self-indulgent, that he reached his pinnacle of success, but in his ironic way, success is not what he wanted, he couldn't define success, so in his infinite regress, his work could only stand on its own, without an author. His selflessness stands as an antidote to the society he confronted, in a way he got the last laugh.

  5. A lot has been written about this, but your tribute is the best. He was a fragile guy the whole time, but that's not something that came across from a shallow perusal of his work, mainly because it was easy to be in awe of his intellect without thinking too hard about the struggle that lay behind it. I totally appreciate and am grateful for your understanding what he was really saying so very well (or, at least, for understanding it the way I do.) And for putting it with such elegance and compassion. With warm thanks from one reader who feels far less alone, having read this.

  6. Great article. The empathy shown in his work is what sticks with me. Underneath all the zaniness in Infinite Jest, the characters feel so fleshed out and so human. I keep rewatching this interview he did in a hotel room and another of him on Charlie Rose. He was always overflowing with honesty and insight. Truly a great writer.

  7. Such a thoughtful, honest essay. Thank you very much. It is pretty self-indulgent, but there is something about authors who are exactly your own age. I still remember watching the film about Wallace, “The End of the Tour” a while back. What really stuck with me was the last scene, where Wallace is jumping around at a freestyle dance get-together at a local church out where he lives. He looks so happy there. I kind of like to think of him in that scene and not think about what happened later.

    Can’t stand to link someone hanging themselves with any kind of career issue or “peak.” To me, his suicide is just a sad, sad, thing. Just this morning had the image of a kiln. A kiln may produce works of astonishing delicacy and beauty. Does anyone ask “Is the kiln happy?” What would be the point? The kiln is a kiln, whether it is happy or sad. At the same time, as well as being the vessel where his magnificent work was created, Foster was a human being, who liked to dance, fell in love, hugged his dogs. Why demand some sort of sacrifice of the human for some aesthetic reason or some arbitrary standard such as being at the ‘apex” of his career. I just don’t get it.

    One thing is for sure, long after we’re gone, his work will be alive!

    Moe Murph

  8. Clarification: Didn’t express myself clearly at the end of the last comment. It is not accurate to imply anyone is ‘demanding” a sacrifice. What I was trying to get across was more of a value statement of my own. I believe at a core level that we are all so precious, regardless of whether we write 1, 100 or no novels at all.

    One of my mother’s best friend’s sons (a fiction writer) commit suicide when he stopped taking his meds because he was afraid they “cut his creativity.” He went through with killing himself when he gave up hope of ever being published. The loss was horrific and, to me, the world of “success” as a writer seems so shallow in comparison to the depth of the empty space this young man left. In my clumsy way, that was what I was trying to get at.

    Moe Murph

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