First, I confess. This is not a full and learned appreciation. Perhaps it should be, perhaps I should fake it. But the truth (and truth was an obsession for him) is that I lack the time and the smarts for the exalted overview. Especially the smarts. The guy had a teemingly big brain and the subject, after all, is difficult. No, this is just personal.
I came late, and late in life, to the work of David Foster Wallace. I came careening between his fiction and his non-fiction, bouncing from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men to A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, from Consider the Lobster to Infinite Jest. Since his death by suicide a week ago, others have extolled, sometimes eloquently, the virtues of these and other of his books. The canonization has begun, Kurt Cobain-like, a process that's inevitable and deserved, yet one that I can't advance - at least, not by scholarship or closer reading or by anything that his admirers haven't already expressed. I read a lot and I forget a lot. Plots, characters, hell, even titles, stuff slips easily out of my head, ever more easily.
However, with Wallace, something beyond the content always remained. What stuck, what sticks, is his sensibility, his way of looking at today's fractured world, his penetrating insistence on "considering," deeply considering, so much and so eclectically - that lobster or a porn convention or the "great liquid whip" of Roger Federer's forehand or the very language he toiled in. In his considerations, he can, when packing himself onto a cruise ship with a host of geriatrics, be hilarious; he can, when finding the beauty inadvertently woven into sport's elite fabric, be joyous; and he can, when plumbing the labyrinthine inner hell of "the depressed person," be frightening, harrowingly frightening. The tone changes.
What doesn't change, ever, is the honesty - or, more precisely, the attempt at honesty. Great writing, in fact or fiction, is the art of being honest. Easy to say, infinitely hard - maybe impossible - to do, and that attempt infused every word Wallace wrote. Or spoke, in public anyway. If you doubt that, watch his PBS interview with Charlie Rose, where he mockingly and mercilessly deconstructs himself - the great author, on TV, spouting wisdom - even while gracefully fielding Rose's boilerplate questions.
Honesty, then. But what to be honest about? Quite simply, the never-simple verities of our daily lives, the ones that lurk everywhere and are everywhere hard to define, whether in the angst-ridden confines of a fictional rehab centre or amid the pig shit of an actual state fair - he looked in both. But how to find these truths? If you're Wallace, the search gets filtered through a mammoth intelligence wedded to a conflicted heart. Of course, all hearts are conflicted, but very few intelligences are as vast, at home (if not at ease) with everything from higher mathematics to dribbling drop shots.
So Wallace, in his various searches, wrote as his unique, encyclopedic mind obliged him to: He wrote long. And he wrote using all the tools at his disposal - his piercing intellect, his abundant curiosity, words small and big, colloquial and arcane. And using, too, those famously infamous footnotes, because the quest for a basic human truth demands qualifications, and qualifications of the qualifications. If some find his looping prose untidy, an aesthetic weakness, well, it's a weakness that's inseparable from his strengths - one informs the other. And if some find his verbal pyrotechnics show-offy, well, then so is Federer's forehand. If you have the arsenal, deploy it, especially when the target, the honest-to-God truth, is so goddamned elusive.
That's why reading Wallace, particularly the abundantly footnoted Wallace, is like surfing the Internet, but so much better since his mind is our hard drive. Click, and you're down a rabbit hole, deeper into the subject; click again, and you're down another, deeper still, brushing up against something funny or lovely or sad. In that sense, the computer of his human sensibility seems first to mimic and then to supplant the computer of the information age, burrowing through all that bloody racket towards some nugget of quiet truth - burrowing in Byzantine spirals, bypassing all the b.s. and the sentimentality and the stupid conventional wisdom, getting closer, so much closer than I could on my own, almost there.
Where, exactly? Inside the bedroom of a troubled marriage, inside the bus of John McCain, inside the white lines of a sport. It doesn't matter; in places exalted or not, the search is difficult, a truth seeker is a terrier. And his was a postmodern hunt.
Yet Wallace gave that hoary po-mo label both real meaning and sharp teeth. His best work captures the incessant barrage of mind-numbing, soul-fracturing noise that is modernity. But that's just the first and easiest step. The next is to isolate within that noise the very battle that most of us are waging inside our heads, that three-pronged battle among the forces of irony, cynicism and idealism. Then comes the hardest part: To sign an individual truce, to find a still point, where irony fights to win a victory over cynicism that isn't Pyrrhic, that doesn't in the fray also obliterate our hopes and ideals, doesn't slay the fragile (and so un-chic) angels of our better nature. That's terribly brave and enormously difficult. Yet essential. And crucial to Wallace's sensibility.
Sensibility, then. Although my intelligence isn't a fraction as large, or my heart nearly as conflicted, his sensibility stays with me even when the content doesn't. In my readings, only a few writers have had that effect on me. I just instinctively trust their take on the world, their perspective. Sure, full comprehension sometimes fails me, and I may well disagree with specifics, but I'm still hugely glad that their sensibility is out there, struggling, it seems, on our behalf. And why does that matter to me, to me personally? Actually, Wallace answered that, not in anything he wrote but in his response to this behemoth of a question - "What do you think is magically unique about fiction?" - posed in a Salon interview.
Listen: "Well, the first line of attack for that question is that there is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don't know what you're thinking or what it's like inside you, and you don't know what it's like inside me. In fiction, I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way. ... There's a kind of ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn't happen all the time. It's these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel un-alone - intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and un-alone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and in poetry in a way that I don't with other art."
Ah-ha, indeed. That's it. Whether causing me to laugh out loud at "the howling fantods," or to cower in fear with that hunkered-down depressive, the sensibility of David Foster Wallace, out there in the real world, waiting to be tapped into, makes me feel for brief flashes more "human and un-alone." Made me feel. That shift to the past tense wounds me. Yes, I know, me, me, me. And Wallace warned against that kind of solipsism too, arguing for the need to break free from your "natural hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self."
Yet I can't, at the moment, stop seeing his death, his suicide, through my lens of self. I can't, at the moment, adjust my default setting, or resist writing an inappropriately minimalist tribute to an obviously maximalist writer. Because it's absolutely true - that the presence of his sensibility, manifested in his work, made me feel less alone. But then the converse is absolutely inescapable - that his absence makes me feel more alone. And, for the same brief flashes, less human too. But this is just personal.