What an odd thing it is to mourn the loss of someone you didn’t know and can’t have known and have no personal right to mourn. It had happened to me twice in recent years before tonight.
The first time was Steve Irwin. When I learned that he had died, I felt much sadder than I really figured I ought to feel. He was a guy whose zest for life was so great and so contagious, whose wonder at the natural world and its discovery and preservation could hardly but be admired. When he died, I felt as if the world had lost a great vessel of happiness and verve. It was as if a light had been punched out. As shocking as it was, I can’t say that it was ultimately all that unexpected. He swam with dangerous animals and he flirted with death and lost, and the world was dimmer for the loss.
The next surprisingly saddening celebrity death for me was Heath Ledger. I actually hadn’t seen Brokeback Mountain to know first-hand before his death that he was a sure talent, but all indications seemed to be that his trajectory was upward. His death, though less personal (even than Irwin’s, which felt more personal because of his affability), made me feel sad because it seemed the loss of a great potential talent. His performance in the Batman movie suggests that he drew from a deep well indeed, and so I mourned his death in what impersonal way I could for the sake of his art.
Tonight, I learned that David Foster Wallace has died, having hanged himself. This is the celebrity death to which I actually do have a personal attachment, although a very very tenuous one.
About a decade ago, my sister gave me for Christmas DFW’s book Infinite Jest. She confessed that she had originally gotten the book for herself but couldn’t slog through it and thought I might like it, given my interest in tennis. And slog through it I did. I was in college at the time, home on Christmas break. During the remainder of my Christmas holiday, I stayed in my room reading 10 – 20 hours a day and completed my first reading of Infinite Jest within 10 days of having received the book. (If you haven’t read it, you should know that this is a feat of endurance, though a most rewarding one.) I’ve read it a few times since, though not in the last few years.
I’ve read his other work too, of course, and have gone so far as to evangelize it, pressing upon friends and acquaintances (willing and unwilling) my own copies of several of his books. One copy of Broom of the System I never got back.
Several years ago, having just read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (I believe), I wrote Wallace a one-or-two sentence letter thanking him for what seemed a very real honesty in his work. Months later, I got the pictured postcard in reply. What can better humanize and personalize an author than getting a thank-you note for a letter of appreciation?
Well, his work, that’s what. Wallace wrote with what seemed a devastating honesty about being a writer and, more importantly, about being human. In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he wrote of despair (invoking another of my favorite authors, Melville); in “Consider the Lobster,” he wrote of the omnivore’s conundrum, something with which I’ve been struggling even just recently; his “Good Old Neon” I thought upon my first reading was perhaps the best short story I’d ever read precisely because of how it dealt with the sorts of insecurities we all feel; many of his brief interviews with hideous men I’m mortified to confess had a kernel of truth relevant even to my own experience. So much of his work was so, so good that the loss of more of it hurts hurts hurts.
A few years ago, I learned about an author named William Gaddis. He wrote only a few books, and two of them are great books and one of them is a funny but sub-great book and the others are ok. Having read the two great books, I was sad that he was dead having left no others. When I first read Steinbeck a few years ago, I found myself wishing he had managed to write just a few more books, so good were the ones I really appreciated. Pynchon has written a couple of really hard, really good novels, and a couple of other really hard worthwhile ones, and I’ll regret his death when he goes.
Wallace, in a similar but broader, much more approachable, human way, has always left me wanting more. For years, I’ve anticipated the release of his next great novel, and I’ve actually thought about the fact that, as a fairly young novelist (he’s 46 at his death), he has had the potential to write at least a few more great ones. The masters he’s followed have averaged a great book every decade or two, so we could have hoped for at least two more had he died relatively young (there has been speculation that he had a brick in the works). I feel so much more bereft as a result of Wallace’s death because he still had great potential during my lifetime and was in fact a young, budding author during my lifetime.
He wrote in various contexts of entertainment and its addictive nature. What could be more validating of his theses than the fact that so many are mourning the loss of the entertainment and stimulation that he provided us?
How much more selfish could one be — and of selfishness he wrote extensively — than to stay up late one night writing a piss-poor elegy for a man one didn’t know personally? Was this the final jest?
To hang oneself. What person in the industrialized world outside of a prison cell hangs himself? It’s morbid to think of this, but I don’t think morbidity is out of bounds for Wallace. What an awful way to go, swinging and jerking and thinking probably all the while about the best way to describe the scene in prose, how best to footnote the actual physiology of one’s own death.
To really express my admiration for David Foster Wallace and his talent, I’d have to quote most of his fucking ouvre.
I’m as sad over this as I’ve been over anything since my mom died.