Far Beyond A Literary Footnote
Monday, September 15, 2008
In the footnotes of the brief life of David Foster Wallace, a reader might discover that in addition to penning one of the seminal novels of the latter 20th century, and in addition to trademarking a dizzying writing style populated with parentheticals and those brilliant footnotes, and in addition to becoming a symbol of pop culture and intelligentsia for a large segment of Generation X, the "Infinite Jest" author lived for a time in Normal, Ill.
Normal is a corn town in the middle of the state. It is not postmodern. It is not terribly ironic. It does not seem, in short, the type of place that a towering, postmodern writer such as David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself Friday at age 46, would live. And yet he did, for about a decade until moving to California. I grew up in Normal, and I knew him a little.
My father, a colleague of Dave's at Illinois State University's English department, knew him better.
They team-taught courses and co-directed theses. Sometimes they watched "The X-Files." Dave came over for dinner occasionally or attended faculty picnics. He once mentioned that if his television began to distract him during the course of a writing project, he would throw it out. That seemed very eccentric.
When my dad married my stepmother, they asked several writer friends to perform readings at the ceremony. Most composed poems for the occasion; Dave selected not a passage from his own work, but 1 Corinthians 13:4-8.
The personal and the public David Foster Wallaces were very different.
He loved dogs, humanly and with abandon. Rumor had it that he would not accept a position at Claremont College, where he was teaching when he died, until he knew that his mutts would have safe transport to California.
He was modest. Whenever someone would pay him a writerly compliment, he would respond with a complex gesture, pretending to feed himself with one hand while wiping his rear with the other. Loosely translated, it meant: "Don't congratulate me. It contaminates the work."
Many people who knew him in Normal had no idea that he was a big deal. When "Infinite Jest," his four-pound masterpiece, was released in 1996, the local Barnes & Noble reserved for his book signing the same tiny corner that they reserved for carolers from the local high school.
In 1999, I left for college in a big city on the East Coast. By then, Dave's unique writing style had launched a swarm of aspirational copycats, and he had become the author whom every hipsterish student liked to cite as a favorite. Whether he actually was, or whether it just sounded impressive, was never clear.
So on arriving at school, I learned that most of my fellow English majors had a much better understanding of what David Foster Wallace meant to society than I did. They had read not only "Jest," but also "The Girl With Curious Hair," "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" and any number of the short stories Dave published in magazines from Harper's to Gourmet.
My friends dissected his sentences, praised his footnotes and compared him to Thomas Pynchon. They assumed him to be a deeply sardonic and jaded person, which I thought was funny.
In the end, neither those who knew him personally nor those who worshiped him artistically can explain why his life ended how it did.
And in the end, the best commentary comes not from fans, but from Dave himself. In a 1996 essay titled "Shipping Out," he discusses learning that a teenager committed suicide on a cruise ship:
"Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes yet simple in its effect: on board the Nadir (especially at night, when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety ceased) I felt despair."1
1Oh, Dave, we will miss you.