The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


David Foster Wallace is dead, apparently a suicide by hanging.

Foster was a creative-writing professor at Pomona College but his greatest fame, of course, was as a writer--a novelist, journalist, essayist and short-story writer. His 1996 INFINITE JEST sparked an almost infinite number of title-inspired bad jokes about its length (almost 1100 pages) and the fact that over 10% of the novel consists of footnotes. He started out as a Pynchon imitator and many critics have noted that his first novel, THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM, is essentially a rewriting of THE CRYING OF LOT 49. He developed his own voice with his short story collection GIRL WITH CURIOUS HAIR but when INFINITE JEST came out, and then was shortlisted for the National Book Award, everyone began to know his name. He might be most famous for INFINITE JEST but certainly his most-read writings are three journalistic pieces: "Consider the Lobster," commissioned by GOURMET as a piece about going to a Maine lobster fest, I think, and ending up as a philosophical meditation on cruelty to animals; "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," a magazine piece about taking a cruise appearing originally in HARPER'S; and "Up, Simba," a ROLLING STONE profile of 2000-era John McCain that needs to be reread, at least for those of us (like Wallace) both in love with and quickly, deeply tiring of irony as an approach to the world. This last essay slobbers all over McCain, fully buying the "Straight Talk Express"ness of it all and basically making the argument that the 2008 McCain campaign is making, albeit with loads more cynicism: pay no attention to those hard-right views, McCain is really a good guy and will reform things.

I'm not going to write about Wallace's technique, his arch postmodern voice that covers a deep yearning for authenticity and meaning (in this, he's like a MCSWEENEY'S writer without the fetishization of childhood), or his apparent unwillingness to take constructive editing suggestions. (Can you imagine what a great 700-page novel INFINITE JEST could be?) Several other writers in the NEW YORK TIMES, SALON, and elsewhere have done so.

I "met" Wallace at a reading he gave at Book People in Austin, Texas, in 1997. He seemed nervous and uncomfortable, hiding behind a shock of hair that he used as a prop, flinging it out of his eyes. He read a very painful section of INFINITE JEST about a man with a terrible cold who has been bound and gagged, and who is suffocating because he can't clear his nose. Unlike some other writers I've seen read (Martin Amis, for instance), Wallace didn't seem to feel that the attention of the crowd was his due; he could have been in a graduate workshop as a student, not the prof. After the reading he asked the audience where he could pick up some UT gear (he said he liked to collect college apparel). I got him to sign my paperback copy of INFINITE JEST and exchanged brief pleasantries with him; later that summer I found a first edition of the book and rued not having that for him to sign. Mercenary.

Several years later I was interviewing for a position at Illinois State U. and learned that he was teaching there. I was very excited to meet him at my on-campus day but he didn't come to my talk. I learned that he was in the process of leaving ISU and moving to Pomona at the time. Disappointing. I didn't get the job, anyway.

It's a cheap observation to make that it's not terribly surprising he did himself in; any reader could easily conclude that he was manic-depressive (bipolar?) just by reading Wallace's prose. That's probably too easy. I'm sure there were all sorts of problems in his life. It's been a while since he wrote anything important, and this was probably the cause. It's sad. I'll miss having him as a voice on the literary scene.


  • At 7:51 PM, Blogger Anna said…

    It's so tough. I found out yesterday from a family friend & writer about his death, and it just kind of shocks me. Not because he wasn't depressive,but I just felt this loss in our generation. Like, we needed him. Angry at him for the whole bit of leaving himself for his wife to find, but I probably have no right to feel anger *for* her. Anyways, it's like Elliot Smith. Just sad. And, our loss really. The cruise lines piece was so great.


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