Back in the long years when I was struggling to get into it, I read a fair bit about the publishing industry, and the new books and authors it produced including and in particular in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. I suppose it was probably there that I read a notice for Infinite Jest, and something about it must have grabbed me I don't really know what, nothing in any conceivable description of the novel, and there's no real way to describe the novel, sounds like anything I'd be interested in and but so nonetheless I ended up with a doorstop paperback edition of this 1,079-page novel, David Foster Wallace's second. That must have been 1997.
And I remember vividly going home every night for months thereafter and poring over those thousand-plus pages, savouring each line of this seemingly endless story. (Alas, as my sister Sara has pointed out, the story never really does end; it just stops.) I also remember vividly the night I finished it and feeling distinctly sad that I would no longer be going home and spending my evenings with it. Sad.
Later, I came across a first-edition hardcover (quelle bon chance!), snapped it up and then transferred, line by line, my highlighting from the paperback, before giving the latter to my then girlfriend. (Who, incidentally, didn't nearly deserve it.)
It was then, and remains now, my favourite novel of all time. (I'm the only person I know who has read it twice. (So far.)) It is pretty much indescribable; but let's just say, for something to say about it, that it is rich and warm and lovely and wrenchingly sad and weirdly meticulous and obsessive and utterly hilarious and blitzingly original and so completely blindingly brilliant that it leaves one astounded and squinting to stand so long in the presence of such an intellect. And, even more remarkably, it makes you grateful and humble that such stunning intelligence could somehow yet be married to such compassion and humour. Everyone who knew David Foster Wallace, by all accounts, found him a warm and patient and unassuming and lovely man. I kind of think everyone who read him (well, those of us who read and loved him) had very much the same impression. He was beautiful. His writing is beautiful.
Luckily, there was other Wallace to get through after Infinite Jest. I'll refrain from a comprehensive rundown of his books, except to note that his non-fiction (especially A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) is as winning as his fiction; and that his short fiction is the equal of his magnum opus of a novel. Let me put that last bit a better way:
Before I read Girl With Curious Hair Wallace's second book and first story collection I literally didn't get the point of short-form fiction. I knew there was something important that was supposed to be there. But all I saw were gauzy little vignettes, author-indulging-seeming fragments of fiction. Wank, if you'll pardon the expression, in many cases. But then I read GwCH, and it was all suddenly there. Instantly, I saw why the short story was needed and, more importantly, what it could do. The last lines of the title story haunt me today. (So much so that I plagiarized them for the last lines of a story of my own, "The Universe Fails to Amuse".) Other lines flit around my consciousness, year in and out. ("Unexplained panic sharpens the senses almost past enduring.", "As if her feelings were outside her, not in her control, like a bus she has to wait for.", "These kids should be out drinking beer and seeing films and having panty raids and losing virginities and writhing to suggestive music, not making up long, sad, convoluted stories.")
That last line, of course, has turned out to be all-too prophetic. I suppose I should very belatedly mention, for what belatedly occurs to me is possibly the majority of you reading this who didn't catch the news at all, that David Foster Wallace took his own life last Friday, aged 46.
That final datum and of course it is final seems strange to me. Strangely old. Wallace was always young. That was the thing about him. His first novel, which earned him one of those "young writer to watch" labels, came out when he was only 24. For the publishing industry event that was Infinite Jest, he was still only 33. He really was the young turk of the new young post-post-modernists. Moreover, he was always only nine years older than me. I suppose "only nine years older than me" ain't as young as it used to be. And now of course David Foster Wallace will never be that much older than me again.
I reckon it's equally pointless to try and figure out what was going on in his head to cause him to decide to check out, as it is to try retrospectively to look for clues in his work, clues to his fate. Nonetheless, I am reminded of the fact that every character is always one little reflected aspect of the author. And many, if not most, of Wallace's characters were a mess. Lovely and of good will and trying real hard, but hurting and stumbling. I guess we always thought they'd make it in the end.
Honestly, one of the very many ambitions (mostly vain, in both senses) that I attached to becoming an author was that I thought I might one day get to meet him socially. (He also, incidentally, wrote the single wisest and most true bit about writing fiction that I've ever read.) Now I, and all of us, are left with only the diverting and strange and wonderful company of his work and the characters he left behind. As stunningly great as they and it are, it seems like a mean trade.
David Foster Wallace, we miss you.