14 September 2008

RIP David Foster Wallace

I'm not deeply versed in his canon or anything, but I've been greatly affected by what I've come across and was surprised at how bummed I was reflecting on news of his death. Plenty of blogs and newspapers are filling up with eloquent obituaries so please go check a few of them out. The obit on salon gives a good general account of the sort of writer he was, if not an exhaustive survey of his contributions (which would be nearly impossible in a reasonable space, he was so prolific).

Wallace was probably a genius, Infinite Jest making with Ulysses intimidating literary bookends for the 20th century. More than an entertaining writer, he was engaged with the world. He wanted us to reclaim language for communication beyond amusement; he appreciated irony but feared that it was subverting our ability to be brave in making connections with each other. His writing is both rich in craft and a vector for important ideas; it is technically overwhelming and often prodigiously long, but not imprecise, usually hilarious, occasionally profound, and possibly hopeful, as no one would give us anything like that without suspecting that we deserved it. I don't know what he was like as a person, but he was clearly a man of enormous intellectual generosity. It is good news for us that such people can exist at all; and as they are rare it's sad that we have such a hard time keeping them here.


mani said...

thanks for point this out, Tormp. I haven't read a single thing by him. What do you recommend as a first book?

tormp said...

the only book i've had contact with was about 60% of 'Infinite Jest', which had taken me about 5 months to work through. i stopped reading it when i went on my honeymoon, and then just failed to pick it up again after the fact. i hope that's not too embarrassing of an admission (it's a book a lot of people fail to finish), but i was deeply infatuated with it at the time. it's probably a good book to read with a friend, because it really wants discussion and that can keep you engaged. it's not dry or unentertaining; it's quite the opposite, sort of a sensory overload, structurally complicated and deliberately slow to read (he forces you to backtrack constantly to really track what's going on). the book has a lot of haters, but i suspect much of that was jealousy.

there's a bit of his journalism available freely online. his short nonfiction is definitely less of a chore and might get you hooked. read consider the lobster and host and see what you think. also, with his stuff it's critical to always read the subtitles and endnotes. consider the lobster especially -- which is at least 50% formal ethical treatise and managed to get published in freaking gourmet magazine.

tormp said...

also, i think his book 'broom of the system' is set in mid-80s cleveland, which might be a fun read to take in his impression of local color.