It was just one item on a list of a newspaper’s top ten cultural happenings of the week. Sandwiched somewhere between “TV star demands pay raise” and “Bombshell gives birth” were the lines: “David Foster Wallace, author of the novel Infinite Jest, was found dead in his California home last Friday.”
His September 12 death was called “an apparent suicide” – and that was it. Wallace, a skillful satirist of American pop culture and consumerism, would have expected nothing more.
Perhaps it’s for the best that this impromptu obituary was kept so sparse. Print has its limits; it can’t push a book under its readers’ noses and say, “Why was Wallace so important? Find out for yourselves.” And with Infinite Jest running at over a thousand pages, Wallace’s talent required a lot of legroom.
The 46-year-old American, most recently a professor at Pomona College in California, also authored the less wordy novel The Broom of the System and the short story and essay collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, among others. “I’m no good at titles,” he once said; we beg to differ.
Despite myriad comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, Wallace’s writing style was nothing if not iconoclastic. He was often cited as a proponent of his generation’s newly forged addiction to irony, when, in fact, he saw it as a literary tool like any other. “When irony and ridicule become cultural currency,” he once said in an interview, “then the great terror is not that you’re gonna hit me or that you’re gonna disagree with me – it’s that you’re gonna make fun of me.”
Rather than cashing in on this cultural currency, Wallace’s protagonists are remarkable for their earnestness. Setting his stories in a world shaped by branding, where the omnipresence of technology keeps people disconnected and aloof, Wallace both celebrated and lamented North Americans’ bumbling pursuit of emotional connections. “The idea of writing realistic fiction where people aren’t spending six hours a day watching TV seems absurd to me,” he said, “because that’s what people do.”
Infinite Jest, published in 1996, is set in the United States of the early twenty-first century, a world where even calendar years have been sold to the highest bidder (resulting in such monstrosities as the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”). Wallace explained he wanted to write a book about what it was like to live in America at the turn of the century, saying he felt “there [was] something particularly sad about it, something that [didn’t] have very much to do with physical circumstances or the economy. It manifest[ed] itself as a kind of lostness.”
Jay McInerney, a New York Times book critic, criticized Infinite Jest, saying that Wallace’s momentum “seem[ed] to be sideways rather than forward.” Wallace was undeniably wordy and unapologetically intellectual, and for those reasons he will never appeal to everyone. What was refreshing about him, in a world dominated by ratings, was his acknowledgement and acceptance of his own marginalization. “If novelists were treated the way TV stars or musicians are,” he reasoned, “it would so warp us and so distort our capacity for standing on the sides and watching.”
Sorry, Mr. Wallace, but all eyes are on you.