Obit: David Foster Wallace

Writer, novelist, teacher. 21 02 1962 – 12 09 2008

Contributing author: Adam Rivett

1. Writing/Ethics

Please bear in mind this is a delayed and indirect response to DFW’s dying; that I wanted to write something critical/writerly as opposed to the usual obit-minded gush and hyperbole; neither some sarcastically styled imitation by way of excessively footnoted ramble, nor a personal-reflective fan-letter with woodwinds and strings.

In writing this, I’m taking for granted what many should already know about DFW: his ferocious intelligence, his absolutely precise and masterful writing style, his humour, impact and lofty status in contemporary literature. And know something of the nature of his work and themes, his perspicacious relevance. As well as a human picture of the man. And his fan base.

DFW, big brain, was I think affected by two problems. As far as it’s possible to hypothesise and extrapolate, let alone observe (in the writing itself, the recollections of others), and admit the possibility of gross error in such things as literary criticism or even in simple respectful writing, I shall proceed with these perceived hypothetical problems.

  • The problem of a genuine literature, that is both utterly human and literarily engaged with the times. This includes everything from post-ironic referentiality and the consequent where-to-afterward questions, to demanding of his students a high degree of honesty and sincerity in their writing.
  • The problem of the person who acts. Or rather, who cannot act because he’s in some paralysed mind-funk brought on by addiction, obsession, dictionaries, loneliness, depression, (self-) analysis etc. But who still wants to act because he recognises or hungers for the essential function of communication, empathy and giving. Which also makes him (DFW) extremely mindful, conscious of how he acts, talks. And also superbly courteous and generous.

I deliberately cast the latter as an ethical problem — back to that later.

But notice how the two problems feed into one another: the obsessive lexicographer worried about imprecise speech, parsing and limiting meanings in every expression at the same time as worrying about his mediated image, his self-conscious appearance to others — especially as celebrated author. His hyperintelligence exaggerating both his own recursive mind-funks and stasis as well as peppering his writing with an absolute and humorous style.

His hunger for sincerity in writing (and communicating legitimately with other souls) has roots (I believe) in an acute analysis and understanding of personal limits, generalised from self and yet also read into the experience of literature. DFW’s acute awareness of modern loneliness and fragmented society inform his way of engaging with these through fiction, because he saw them as intrinsically literary themes. The personal, careful questioning ethics of the man determined his tactical approach to literature.

The thing is, ethics implies a role model of some sort, a guide on how to live and act. For DFW, ethics was a thoroughly writing-centred issue: it’s in his writing that his ethics function: all his choices and suggestions and identifications. His way of dealing with the world and himself is in the body of the text; it doesn’t call for recourse to biography, criticism, interpretation or hearsay. That’s where you as awed reader or fellow-writer also engage with writing’s how and for whom — in the text — chortling all the way in unison, recognition. And even though he’s probably an instance of the ultimate writer (the right DFW superlative is hard to mint, no other writers to my mind have been so total in recent memory) in the sense that his writing was so powerfully crafted and honestly genuine in terms of its own standards and integrity (among other things) — you can trust these ethics intuitively, sincerely. You can trust his concerns about the rest of literature too. DFW is like a compact but pervasive Ethical Appeal for the potential of literature, enacted through writing. This makes him a beacon of sorts, a shining light of dedication to the art, in league with the greatest writers. (Nothing quite as powerful as a DFW list of recommended reading.)

There is now some difficulty about his tenor as role model. Because the writing also, ultimately, failed him. Which, granted, is a wily bit of hagio-extrapolation that has nothing to do with the black dog depression, suicide etc. His engagement with the problems of writing was so intense and the rewards so plentiful, that it makes the personal facts of the situation look grim, closed off and helpless — as though there was only one way out of the regressive loop. The point being that the ethics (and the whole sensibility of DFW) are there, in print, alive to the reader and worthy and hopeful for any writer lost in the metaphorical woods. The ethics of example are way more significant and optimistic than the circumstances that lead to his end; it’s only a great pity that no treatment worked so well it could ultimately save him.

It’s also a great pity that there won’t be another novel like Infinite Jest. This puts even more weight on the Jest.

I can’t help but think that everything from Infinite Jest on is firstly an act of diagnosis and secondly a bringing of order to things again, especially as literary act and form. And also something of a personal ordering.

The diagnosis is of a late capitalistic society in cultural decline, riddled with addictions and broken people and extremists. And plenty of lonely and (self-)isolated characters.

One protagonist is an addiction-survivor struggling with near-death trauma; another is broken by small-scale addiction and traumatically robbed of speech and communication. Two others are playing a shadowy game of counter- and counter-counter-espionage as they diagnose society and plot mutual betrayal. Others teeter on the edge of some barely-sane personal extremity. The book itself is a closed entertainment loop, the literary analogue of a totally addictive video.

To strike a sociological pose for a minute — every societal fragmentation invites a corollary action. After things break apart, disperse or break down, there is also a drive, need or reactive move to bring together, unite and harmonise things again. It’s a simple directive of life, a resolve for change. After addiction: the 12-step guide to recovery and a normalised life. After the mirror-halls of Post-Modern irony: a quest for sincerity in literature despite the surface hint of sentiment or realism. After extreme philosophic or psychologic paradoxes and infinitely regressing loops: a desire for simple acts, people and non-abstract sincerity. An absolutely broken man will seek order, family or God again. Or not, and die.

This might be part of what makes the Jest so humane and sympathetically sad; thematically, the force of any unifying or ordering drive is depleted, distorted, or spent. The characters are all stuck in private hells and only act with strange control in the public world; yet the book itself, despite bleakness and humour, is a treasure of empathy and honesty.

Given a textual-ethical reading, the narrative doesn’t offer much literal hope, at least not beyond AA wisdom on how to order life after personal disaster. Much of the story is concerned with the AA process and the redemptive power of deep but simplistic clichés and cultish cant. It’s an ultimate expression of brass-tacks emotional survival and dealing with private horror. However, the Jest is written with such acute precision and empathy that I believe DFW must have personally gone through a similar process of recovery and realignment with life. It might explain some of his personal behaviour and choices since then — but that, again, is hagiography.

It is I believe possible to draw some literary interpolations from AA dogma in or via the Jest.

  • There is a power in words to change perception and whole ways of life — even in the most banal or illogical clichés. A mantra of repetition can make suggestion become action and hence true; especially for those who can’t or don’t want to act unselfishly (because addicted for eg). This involves things like surrender to something bigger, calling on a higher power etc. For literature: this redemption lies in the community of shared experience, identification and unironic heart-to-hearts.
  • There is a no-shit sincerity and a way of speaking from the heart that makes self-delusion immediately apparent and suspect. There can be no put-ons or abstract  mental defences for their own sake; no brains without some greater connection to the heart. This is also DFW’s imperative in writing.

This doesn’t mean there’s a glut of repetitive clichés or overtly honest and sincere statements of authorial intent in the book. But there are values and examples in the spirit of the above points, as ways to genuine literature, which seem cogently significant, post-Jest. They have a suggestive, parallel aura to them, a hint of direction forward. They are messages to writers. I tender the idea that the AA experience might have been DFW’s House of the Dead, with all its (now sad) implication of great novels to come. There’s also a cogent implication of writing as essential therapy, as sanity-control and the disciplined direction of personal forces, to hold on and order life and disarm the rat cage of {addiction, solitude, depression, logical solipsism, grammar, literary cliché etc}.

And yet the final narrative conclusion: It’s too late. Disaster is inevitable.

Despite not leaving much hope for his closed-in characters, it’s writers and readers who get to enjoy this new (if post-apocalyptic) direction and progression in literature — this feast of the literarily possible. The Jest means that great and involved literature is possible again; that the novel can be infused with humour and epic humanity as well as absolutely sterling prose and writerly smarts. That the form has an immediate and relevant future despite its subject (in this case) being so bleak. And that it can mean so much. I want to rob Dave Eggers of his titular rights, because it is Infinite Jest that is truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

DFW was a model writer who will always be difficult to follow because his brain was literally and literarily the size of a planet. His depth and control of language are intimidating and profound. But his writing choices, suggestions and examples are accessible, humorous and completely unpedantic. They offer hope. And his one great novel offers scope like no other.

Rino Breebaart

2. No Conclusions.


David Foster Wallace’s writing is a wrecking ball, taken to eternally appealing escapes of literary sophistry. It took a fierce mind to do it: a very particular and atypically equipped mind. His mathematical training bestowed upon him a sharper and more technically know-howish ability than other writer sniffing after proofs on the same conclusion. This worked, somehow, against every likelihood; thanks to Wallace’s ability to retain some semblance of character and humour in a game given over to humourlessness within mere seconds of commencement.

So much of his writing details and dramatizes a plague of self-consciousness and falsity by extending that plague to every aspect of life. Finally, as the cliché runs, everything is called into question and the patient is made sick, without secure likelihood of cure. Further, the idea that the patient can identify herself as patient or conscious sufferer, as a step on the road to recovery is, if not mocked, then handled without much in the way of comfort. Self-awareness does not help; it ultimately lacks its own curative.

Endless amounts of cant and doublespeak are spun, punctured or over-amplified in Wallace’s work. The most horrendous and unbearable distortions of language are placed in the mouths of frequently repellent narrators. The acute awareness of how dead and off-putting their language actually is does not make the not overlong time we spend with these brief men, these occasional narrative loiterers, any more bearable or conventionally ‘enjoyable’.


The worst — to make a possibly unfair character assessment — of Wallace’s characters “frequently” place words in quotation marks, to signal their awareness of them as familiar or tired “signifiers”. I say it’s unfair to assess these people because these people are rarely “these people”. Take the apparent narrator of Oblivion, for example.


The series of interviews Michael Silverblatt conducted with Wallace are a vital reminder of Wallace’s wit, nuance and sensitivity. They’re also rather excruciating, as we hear Wallace devour himself with an eloquently worded performance of debilitating self-consciousness and audience-reaction second guessing. The standard thing to say here would be that all his peculiar verbiage and qualification gets in the way of discussing the work at hand. Yet this was the work at hand. Sometimes quite literally, though, of course, it would be unwise to make such a crass connection between the author and his work, and doing so would no doubt earn you justified sneers from your friends and family (should they be familiar with the work of Wallace, which they might be now, if they weren’t before).


The great cry among the scattered mourners was primarily of wonderment: that someone as intelligent as Wallace could not have thought his way through to a refusal of suicide, and fought against the voices (to give them a rather hammy presence). After all, doesn’t ‘David Wallace’ in Good Old Neon continue on after fighting years of “literally indescribable” war against himself? And does he not tell the reader, at the end of that extraordinarily sustained piece of imagination and empathy, that inverted suicide note, that he’s in possession of “quite a bit more firepower” than he was back in the dark old days? The needier reader might ask what’s changed. Then again, it wasn’t ‘David Wallace’ speaking for himself in that story, but an unnamed narrator who imagines how his high school classmate, who just happens to be named David Wallace, might comprehend his suicidal actions.


The idea that anything as grand-sounding as intellectual heft and weight could face down the tedious persistence of depression is as misguided as Wallace’s own notion, as a young man and writer on the make, that literary success would make him happy, or fulfilled, or complete. This sour realization improved his writing — he retained the most philosophically sound questions of metafiction and cut it with stronger human resonances and demands. Old fashioned fiction stuff, in other words.


Now for some necessary romanticism.

Whatever is tortuously self-involved or indulgent in Wallace’s work is the result of the man’s bravery, his unblinking attempt at getting the particulars of his depression down in comprehensible terms. A story like The Depressed Person is a case study from hell, with no escape, no relief. Yet the sentimental contract of art allows us a mode of access to that pain, that unnamed person’s pain, while allowing us something like genuine relief that our world is not as comparatively doomed.

The Depressed Person is a piece of fiction — a story. Wallace’s suicide, however, retroactively seeks to decimate any notion of fair distance, or perspective. It runs a scythe through his art, which is complicated, and answers the yawp of biography, which presumes to comprehend. Wallace was a depressed person, yes. Now we know for sure — he killed himself because of it. It says so on Wikipedia.

I’m close to certain that some towering works of art are nothing but glorified diary entries — it’s not a powerfully reductive idea, because look at the glory of the final diary. That painting, this song, etc. A suicide can turn works of art back into diary entries. A lot of people prefer it this way. I think — grossly presume, let’s say — that Wallace also knew this all too well, in advance. Another price for acute perception and intellectual heft.


What any hack journalist or over-emotive blogger would do faced when with such a story, is to ferret around the work for clues. In Wallace’s case, even a Leavisite would turn into a gossip — so rich is the work in quotable lines on suicide.


“So I won’t really even try to describe the several different times that day when I sat in my living room and had a furious mental back-and-forth about whether to actually go through with it. For one thing, it was intensely mental and would take an enormous amount of time to put into words, plus it would come off as somewhat cliché or banal in the sense that many of the thoughts and associations were basically the same sorts of generic things that almost anyone who’s confronted imminent death will end up thinking. As in, ‘This is the last time I will ever tie my shoe,’ ‘This is the last time I will look at this rubber tree on top of the stereo cabinet,’ ‘How delicious this lungful of air right here tastes,’ ‘This is the last glass of milk I’ll ever drink,’ ‘What a totally priceless gift this totally ordinary sight of the wind picking trees’ branches up and moving them around is.”


Any conclusion, lesson, or even authoritative final paragraph feels, in this particular case, misguided to the point of offensiveness.

Adam Rivett

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor. Writer. Secret bass player.

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