We're sorry to learn of the untimely passing of David Foster Wallace this weekend. There may be only a handful of genuine literary artists at work today who have so generously pushed the boundaries of fiction and journalism through the force of their brilliance and originality. In the pure substance of literature he had a classical talent, yet it was his immediate style, like a mad rambling email you couldn't read in one sitting, that made him stand out. He was completely of his time and yet ahead of it. His journalism, most often for Harper's, was wild and askew yet dead on the mark, crushingly honest and eye-opening. And love it or chuck it, his break-out novel Infinite Jest is a benchmark for contemporary literary experimentation.
We are proud (well, some of us anyway) to admit that we read the infamous Infinite Jest in its entirety many years ago, and feel lucky to have even met him once, more recently, outside a restaurant in Los Angeles. Terrified that he'd make us seem small and barely sentient in the shadow of his staggering intellect, we found him instead to be extremely charming and down to earth and have ever since approached his challenging work with patience and interest. He asked after a friend of ours, William Gay, whom he declared his favorite writer at the moment. This was a great surprise to us and fairly astounding to William.
In addition to this nice appreciation of Wallace in the Los Angeles Times, we must recommend the title story of his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which, if you're interested to read just one thing of Wallace's and have been terrified or disinterested in Infinite Jest, you should find and read. This 100-page essay documenting his 7-Night Caribbean Cruise is a great entry-point for its humorous take on great cheesy fun, but in its typical DFW touches (lengthy footnotes, short-hand style, linguistic invention, obsessive listing and documentation) the piece demonstrates Wallace's use of every experience and idea to entertain while making a larger point about social custom and comfort in a disengaged age.
Particularly interesting and poignant when we looked back on this essay — and something Wallace might have loathed, yet possibly referenced anyway, admitting his loathing of it and suggesting that it was in bad taste and forging ahead anyway while declining to be excused — was this passage that probes the rolling ocean of his mind:
"There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir — especially at night, when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased — I felt despair. The word's overused and banalified now, despair, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture — a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It's maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it's not these things, quite. It's more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I'm small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It's wanting to jump overboard."