Two years ago next month, the writer, philosopher, and literary genius David Foster Wallace hanged himself in his backyard. I didn’t know DFW, and initially I disliked his work. True, I took some pride in the fact that we attended the same alma mater and shared professors (many years apart). But I’d badmouthed DFW’s novels to friends as “mannered and faddish,” a criticism along the lines of James Wood’s coinage of the category “hysterical realism.” I resented his footnotes and piling up of details and jump-and-splice style of narration. I thought his tone was arrogant.
Then two months before DFW died, a friend loaned me Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Somewhere in the middle of the second story, “Death Is Not the End,” I abruptly got it, and I devoured the rest of the book with a feeling of voracious pleasure and nausea, as though I were compulsively eating an entire three-layer chocolate cake with jalapeno frosting. What I realized was that DFW wasn’t trying to make his readers feel stupid, or to intimidate them, or to bludgeon them with his own unreasonably encompassing intellect. He was simply trying to get his readers to feel something, to break through the anesthetized shell most of us walk around in all the time. He was trying to bring empathy back into our lives, an awareness of others as well as of ourselves. In this way, he was in a lineage not of literary figures, but of religious leaders—gurus and sages and mystics. He just also happened to be able to tell an incredible story on the page.
It wasn’t until this summer that I could finally pick up Consider the Lobster, one of his incredible collections of essays. For me, DFW’s work is inescapably recontextualized by his death: everywhere in his books are hints of the kind of flagellating self-hatred that must be behind suicide. Evidence of the cruel cost his writing exacted from him is there in the amusing confessions and casually self-deprecating meta-commentary. But perhaps, and I believe this simultaneously, his writing was the only thing that could keep him alive, until—in the midst of brain-chemical issues created by the psychotropic drugs he was taking and then not taking—it wasn’t enough.
There are questions we want to ask every time an artist commits this act of ultimate self-destruction. What makes some creative people find life unbearable, and do they find it more unbearable than investment bankers or store clerks or construction workers? Is there something about the kind of sensitivity and openness required to do creative work that makes people more vulnerable to the suffering in this world, including their own? Did writing save DFW or drive him crazy? How could someone so brilliant have been so cruel to himself and so uncertain of his own talent? And for god’s sake, why didn’t somebody save him from himself?
But we can’t save others from themselves: we can only love them when they’re here and continue to love them once they’re gone. What made DFW a genius as opposed to just a damn good writer was his basic humanity, his deep and unrelenting questioning of his own morality and moral failures—the same qualities that made him vulnerable to despair. Everything hurt him, as though his psyche were a wound exposed to the air. And maybe that makes it more selfish than anything else to wish, as I do, that he were still here.
Tomorrow: DFW’s essay “Consider the Lobster” and the strange case of the marinating cat