09.14.08

David Foster Wallace, RIP

Posted in Dead Authors, Tennis at 12:53 am by

I graduated from Pomona College one year before David Foster Wallace began teaching there. His professorship, the Roy Disney Writing Chair, was also inaugurated the year after I left. When I graduated, I had some idea that being a writer was what I wanted to try to do — I’m, uh, still trying — and I was very disappointed not to get to take a class from Wallace. That’s in part because he was the towering young literary dude of that period — the first girlfriend I ever really cared about had read Wallace’s canonic (and canonically huge) Infinite Jest twice, which seemed very cool to me; his short stories and nonfiction, when they popped up in magazines during those years, always made me feel a dozen different emotions at once, but usually left me with a sort of worn-out and confused awe at his virtuosity. I never felt — and didn’t feel until later — the joy I should’ve been feeling, as a reader who loves good writing, at reading what was so obviously that.

Somehow, with the grandiosity only a 22-year old can feel, I think considered him a peer: I thought he dressed badly and abused the bandana/ponytail thing unpardonably; that he was a show-off; that he overdid it on the grad student theory-speak shit, and that it didn’t help him. I think, now, that I was bitter (if not wrong on all those complaints). I know, now, that I resisted what he was writing because it was new, and because I couldn’t do it, and because I was pretty envious of that.

I’ve become a fan since, and while I didn’t always agree with the literary (or sartorial) choices he made — and while I still can’t get as into his fiction as well as I feel I should — I feel bad about the time I spent pretending he wasn’t a brilliant writer. Wallace is to my mind inarguably that: incredibly deft with dialogue and supremely in command of his always just slightly out-of-control style.

From my friends who did get to take classes with him after I graduated, I learned something else: that he was also an engaged, attentive teacher who — despite his fame, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the deluxe chair-por-vida — really did care about his students. I’m sorry I never got to take a class from him for many reasons. But I’m sorriest that future students will not get to learn from him. He killed himself Saturday, in Claremont, at age 46.

The writing I most admired of Wallace’s was his nonfiction stuff, which always seemed to me to channel his empathies and cynicisms and idealisms and multiple ambivalences with more nuance and less indulgence than his fiction (which, of late, I found pretty hard to take — anyone who wants my copy of Oblivion is welcome to it). In Consider the Lobster his last, excellent collection of essays, Wallace — himself a former junior tennis player (the experience is all over Infinite Jest) — turned in a very fine piece of sportswriting about the women’s tennis star Tracy Austin and how disappointed he was by her “breathtakingly insipid autobiography.” I recommend pretty much everything in that book, but I’ll leave you with this, which I think is one of the best things I’ve ever read about being a sports fan. Just because I never got to take a class from him doesn’t mean I’m not trying to learn from the dude. I’m transcribing it, because I can’t find a copy of the essay online.

Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere — fastest, strongest — and becaue they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.

Plus, they’re beautiful…There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man. So actually more than one theory, then. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.

…So, the point, then, about these sports memoirs’ market appeal: Because top athletes are profound, because they make a certain type of genius as carnally discernible as it ever can get, these ghost-written invitations inside their lives and their skulls are terribly seductive for book buyers. Explicitly or not, the memoirs make a promise — to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semidivine, to share with us the secret and so to reveal the difference between us and them and to erase it, a little, that difference…to give us the (we want, expect, only one, the master narrative, the key) Story.

Of course, he goes on to say, we don’t get that story. The full story of Wallace’s death may come clearer in the days to come, but for now we don’t have that, either. For the moment, though, I’ll just salute Wallace for the abstractions that he made so memorably and uniquely incarnate, if no less abstract, in his work.

7 responses to “David Foster Wallace, RIP”

  1. andrew says:

    Absolutely awful news. The Tracy Austin/sports biography essay was very good but I especially loved the Michael Joyce essay in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

  2. Dave says:

    Just this afternoon, some co-workers of mine saw me reading Infinite Jest and told me they had poor opinions of it. But fuck them, Wallace drew me into his world. Now, coming back home with a bunch of whiskey in my belly, I find out he’s dead, just like Thompson and Vonnegut. Roth, if I ever start counting you as a literary influence, you better take out a life insurance policy.

  3. maura says:

    thank you for writing this, david. to say that i am pretty devastated by this loss would be a huge understatement. i treasured his ability to poke and prod at the underbelly of americana while performing devastatingly correct tricks with the english language, and the stories i’ve heard about him as a person (including the tales of his menschy professorial attitude) in the wake of his passing have made comprehending his passing even more difficult for me. he was one of the good ones, in many ways.

  4. David Roth says:

    I’m kind of surprised, myself, at how hard this hit me. He’s a writer I admire, but he’s not someone I usually list as one of my favorites, but I’m startled and saddened not to get to read more of his work. I’m now going back and reverse-engineering all of his essays, looking for secret coded messages of despair or something. I’ve been down in my life — emotionally, not in the singing-the-blues/riding-the-rails sense — but I have never, ever considered what he did. And it’s surprising to me that someone whose life, from where I stood, seemed to be entering a very interesting and very productive second act, could look at it and see something no longer worth pursuing. I get a lot of empathy in his nonfiction writing, and a sort of maybe-not-so-healthy willingness to perseverate and fixate and try to get to the bottom of bottomless things. But that’s the way I thought writers were supposed to be; I’m like that, most of my friends are like that, and I never thought of it as a potentially fatal affliction. Just a literary-ish thing, even besides the melancholy: a way of looking at the world, but not a reason to leave it.

    Also, Dave, if you wind up counting me as a literary influence at some point, you’ll have bigger problems than worrying about my life insurance coverage. Although I know how you feel, in terms of the last few authors to pass. I want to have George Saunders and Howard Norman moved to secure locations, stat.

  5. james says:

    I came here to read this over a week after the fact despite not going out of my way to read very many of the tributes to DFW that are out there, in print and on the Internet, the whole thing feeling kind of ephemeral, and also despite the fact that I admittedly haven’t been reading CSFMB with the regularity that I used to (not subscribing to cable and avoiding the radio has meant that I haven’t had to endure, in real time, the flaccid White Sox pennant chase, and combined with my equally flaccid fantasy football teams, sport really hasn’t been at the top of my agenda lately). I just kind of knew you guys would have something to say about Wallace’s passing, and I’m glad you did. Thanks.

    Appreciating Wallace was difficult, for me, too, and again came with a lot of “despites.” Despite completing a degree in fiction writing, which of course necessitated a lot of reading and being around others who read, a lot, and despite working in libraries and bookstores, where, again, a lot of reading. I just ignorantly assumed he was of the Eggers/Franzen ilk, of whom many of my classmates @ CCC aped and admired (in that specific order) which was a definite turn-off. Then, a year or so after the diploma, a good friend shared with me his copy of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and now, a year after being turned on to his writing, the man’s gone. I’m reading Infinite Jest now, for the first time, and at 400 pages in I’m really not looking forward to that post-partum sensation, unique to books, you get when you finish reading a great one and your mind gets stuck, anxious and hungry for more, that sensation now magnified.

  6. M says:

    Are you serious about giving away your copy of Oblivion?

    I’ll take it!

  7. Geoff Fieldbinder says:

    I stumbled across the author (DFW) while googling on the internet trying to figure out just where all of my scattered family resides. There was some comment about a link to some grad student’s paper linked to someone named Monroe Fieldbinder.

    I thought it was a person. After a while nosing around the net I realized it was a charactor in a novel named “The Broom of the System,” by David Foster Wallace. I looked into the author on the internet and found he had lived in the Champaign-Urbana area of Illinois.

    I wondered if perhaps he had known my cousins, who still live in the area. I bought the book, and was just starting to read it when-well you know.

    Now I am somewhat disappointed because I was never able to ask the author directly, and maybe now I’ll never know.

    Geoff Fieldbinder

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