One year ago today, David Foster Wallace killed himself.
I can remember where I was and how I found out, but not any real emotional impact. I was of course disappointed that a writer I had read and enjoyed was dead, but it was an abstract sense of disappointment; I mainly remember feeling surprised.
Now, however, it doesn’t seem weird or surprising at all: Reading Wallace’s fiction, pretty much any of it, is to become intimately acquainted with a mind that contemplates death and dread and depression on a fairly regular basis. This, of course, is in addition to the public knowledge that Wallace battled depression for twenty years. Wallace was, it turns out, a prime candidate for suicide.
Instead of surprise, I now feel intense and profound sadness about the death of David Foster Wallace, the kind of sadness that borders on anger. Almost every time I read or re-read one of his pieces now, I think about how terrible it is that the mind that wrote these words is no longer with us. I think about how many more years, and consequently how many more books, he should have had. I think about the things he might have written about the world as it has changed just in the last year, and would have written in the coming years. I think about the implications of a man that brilliant being so hopelessly depressed.
The only things that can make us feel so angry and upset, however, are the things that make us proportionally happy. And the truth is that these emotions make up only a small fraction of those I feel while reading Wallace: What I feel most of all is happy.
“Happy” is one of those prosaic and overused words that are hard to properly define, but it seems quintessentially appropriate here. The feeling I have while reading Wallace is akin to that of listening to the climax of your favorite song, or being in the company of a really good friend. It is the feeling of being completely and utterly at peace with the world.
Wallace’s writing is intelligent and complex, and engaging on an intellectual level in a unique way; it is funny and clever and insightful—but all of this was clear to me from reading his first book of essays. What his fiction showed me, though, was a narrative voice that is all of these things, but also transcends them. His writing is not just intended to be funny and smart and insightful, but also to make us happy (in a way that is also funny, smart and insightful). His writing is good because it inspires the morally good, nonhedonistic kind of pleasure (more on this to come).
At the time of his death, I called Wallace my “second favorite living writer.” In hindsight this feels absurd. Not only had I read far too little of his work to make that kind of judgment, but upon reading more I would realize that he is, for me, the best writer who has ever lived. Continue reading