The first thing that struck me about the suicide of David Foster Wallace, after the initial catatonic sadness, was my complete verbal inadequacy to describe anything about it. Our obituaries, next to his work, are inevitably going to look weak and limited: rushed by the news cycle, squeezed by space constraints, sterilized by the safe generic distance of obit-writing—crippled, in other words, by precisely the things against which DFW stood in open (yet somehow polite, humble, apologetic) rebellion. He was the great enemy of word limits, proportion, and journalistic restraint. He aimed, in every single project, for the grand totalizing exhaustive gesture—whether it was a 1,000-page novel seeking to catalogue an entire culture (Infinite Jest) or a 100-page “experiential postcard” recounting his week on a cruise ship (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”). For Wallace, a thought could never, in good conscience, realistically, be finished—there was always one more reversal, one more qualifying clause, and an honest writer had to follow it out. Hence his famously never-ending sentences that spun off into even more famously never-ending footnotes. The black hole of his self- consciousness drew everything into it, even and especially self-consciousness itself.
Public deaths usually strike me with all the emotional force of the deflation of a giant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. Wallace’s was the first ever to cause in me a visceral reaction: It knocked the spiritual wind out of me—made me actually, shockingly, cry, and then, for a good 24 hours, choke up whenever I tried to talk about it. He was my favorite living author, and the contest wasn’t particularly close. (Judging by the thousand-odd appreciations that bloomed instantly across message boards, this was not a minority opinion.) For a generation of aspiring intellectual-populist writers, he represented the shining ideal of literary glory: the perfect hybrid of hilarious-serious, colloquial-formal, personal-public, emotive-analytic, youthful-ancient. He was one of very few writers to pick up the DeLillo-Pynchon mantle and have the shoulder strength not just to stand there showboating but to carry it off into his own territory, where it could do real emotional work. At his best he managed to dissolve his personality so purely into text that it felt like he was in the room with you, or more accurately right there inside of your head—as Emerson once wrote about Montaigne: “Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.” I didn’t realize, until he was gone, how much emotional energy I’d invested in the fact that he was actually a living human being. He consistently, to quote his own highest praise for the writers he loved, “rang cherries.”
What makes Wallace’s death exponentially sadder is that the bedrock of his work was always simple human connection, and the basic daily struggle to be happy—questions on which he struck me as uncommonly wise. Over the last week we’ve seen the obligatory rifling through his oeuvre in search of latent suicidal messages, the most quoted of which has been a little paragraph from the 2005 commencement address he gave at Kenyon College: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” That passage, along with a handful of others, is unfortunately always going to glow now with a little extra flare of significance.
But what’s most impressive, and touching, and heartbreaking about not only the Kenyon speech but Wallace’s work as a whole—what makes it worth reading not just for clues to his suicide but for life strategies that might help the rest of us handle our own day-to-day unhappiness—is its positive wisdom. Although there was clearly real pain behind it, Wallace’s final message to the graduates was life-affirming, practically Buddhist. Adult happiness, he said, comes down to a nitty-gritty, moment-by-moment struggle for mindfulness—the ability to positively reframe the inevitable disappointments of daily life: “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is … if you want to operate on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
One of the reliable surprises of Wallace’s writing, even his most cerebral, is that it tends to verge right on the border of self-help. In his very public struggle with uncool, lonely emotions (ambition, contentment, self-worth), he found a way to fuse, unembarrassingly, a rift that’s divided creative writers for decades: writing as hyperintellectualized pomo high art versus writing as therapy.
Wallace had fought off suicidal urges before, especially when he first hit literary stardom in his twenties. Knowing that he’d recovered was part of his vitality for me—that history counterintuitively made his actual death doubly surprising. He was a complicated genius: the analytical kind, the literary kind, but also the spiritual kind. I like to imagine alternate endings in which, instead of suicide, he did something drastic like joining a monastery in the Himalayas.
I met Wallace briefly, once, five years ago, across a signing table. All I could think to say, as I handed him my absurdly highlighted copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, was one of those idiotic fan clichés that leave no room for a reply: “Your book meant a lot to me.” To which all he could say, of course, was: “Thanks.” I walked away kicking myself for not having come up with something more impressive. Today, though, I’m glad it happened like that. What I said wasn’t clever, but it was true—his book had meant a lot to me—and equally true was his response, which I’d like, now, finally, unimaginatively, to return to him. Thanks. And maybe it’s best to just end things there.