A terribly sad thing I never want to hear again

Infinite Jest has been on my bookshelf for about six years. I made it through the first 80 pages two or three times, but never mustered the willpower to plow through the whole thing. I read Broom of the System and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, also about six years ago, but don’t remember them well other than that some of the short stories in Brief Interviews were depressingly impressive.

So I can’t properly speak to the importance, quality, or influence of David Foster Wallace’s fiction. But, boy, his nonfiction was good.

Some of the essays and articles — okay, all of them — collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster are incredibly pretentious in parts. But Wallace still somehow managed to be one of the most interesting, thoughtful, observant, and absurdly smart writers I’ve ever read.

He took the cliche of cultural essay writing — the discovery of grand meaning in banal American minutia, or in a movie, or in an athlete, or in anything — and repeatedly made it true, through sheer force of intellect, imagination, and accumulated detail. I agree with John Seery: “Already it seems as if some special portal of human intelligence has been closed off.”

After Stephen King and Stephen Hunter, Wallace was probably the biggest influence on my own formative writing and thinking. (In college that influence expressed itself as blatant copycat pieces. I hope by now his influence is more a part of my thought process, and shows up in my writing primarily as purposeful homage, like using the word “tummies” in this post.) And I’m really, really sad that he’s dead.

I wish I could write more of a tribute, but I’d have to reread all his stuff to do it justice. You should just go read those two nonfiction collections (some of the essays in them are available online: a dispatch from the Maine Lobster Festival; an article on Roger Federer; a piece on David Lynch).

Anyway, writing about the suicide of creative-genius heroes sucks. So I’ll just end with the beginning of an appreciation of Elliott Smith I wrote in 2003. Replace the word “musician” with “writer” (and ignore the addiction part, I assume) and the sentiment still holds.

There’s a terrible irony to suicide. In too many cases when overwhelming loneliness and self-loathing ultimately end in death, it turns out that love and appreciation were there in abundance. They just couldn’t get through the barriers built of depression and addiction.

It’s even worse to think about musician suicides: They were unable to accept or process not only the affection of family and friends, but the joy, pleasure and awe they inspired in their many fans.

The truth is, I didn’t just want to be as good a writer as DFW — I wanted to be as smart as he was. But if this is the price of genius, I’m happy never to know what that’s like.

Blarg.

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