A Summer of David Foster Wallace

A page of Wallace's handwritten draft of "Tense Present"

It started before the summer, actually. With “Tense Present,” David Foster Wallace’s painstaking work of genius, a treatise on the “usage wars” in the form of a review of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. 

Two things are obvious in “Tense Present”: one, that Wallace is an extremely intelligent man (an understatement on par with “Usain Bolt is fast” or “Facebook is far-reaching”); and that, in “Tense Present,” Wallace is having such an unquantifiable amount of fun it simply defies description. He is in his element, performing at an incredibly high level, so confident that his relaxed cockiness would be grating if the reader was able to contemplate anything but the greatness of the piece.

He is Ali dancing around the ring. Seve Ballesteros yucking up the crowd at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

His prose is sharp and his wit acerbic. His tone casually academic or academically casual; he cites his favorite philosopher—Wittgenstein—in the footnotes, while accusing one particular argument of being “so stupid it drools” in the main text. Wallace does everything in “Tense Present” in a way that both reveals his immense genius and says, simultaneously, Yes, I know this is an incredibly intelligent and fun piece—about a usage dictionary and the different factions in the fight about how dictionaries should be compiled, no less—and I want you to know, reader, that I too am enjoying it, not least because it’s a topic for which I possess a true and earnest love.

It is meta-genius. And it’s a flourish, really. Read it.

When I first read “Tense Present,” I knew little about Wallace’s suicide. In fact, I knew little about Wallace, or his work. I had never read Infinite Jest or The Broom of the System or any of his short stories. But I decided, in the aftermath of reading “Tense Present,” that Wallace’s craft was so arresting that I had to keep reading. Thanks to the Harper’s archive of Wallace’s work for the magazine, I was able to print “Shipping Out” and “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes” and “Ticket to the Fair.” I devoured them. Then I bought Consider the Lobster, to read and reread these amazing pieces in a new form—paperback—and read others, “Up Simba,” “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” “Host,” and the title essay. I bought A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and digested those likewise.

Wallace’s essays are devastating and moving and incredible not only for their cleverness but also for their ability to impart an experience. I felt I had gone on a cruise—that I had felt pampered (and liked it, regrettably) and incredibly lonely. I felt that I knew what it was like to be a skilled-but-not-otherworldly-good junior tennis player in the 1970s. I felt I had tasted lobster and traveled on John McCain’s bus and met a bevy of pornstars.

I was in love. Never in my life had I read anyone with such breadth—linguistically or emotionally or otherwise.

I felt his neuroses, his awkwardness; absorbed his gift for introspection and observation. I wanted more. I bought Infinite Jest and The Broom of the System and received The Pale King as an extremely emotional and meaningful gift. I read his letters to the college newspaper at Amherst and poured over the peeks allowed by the University of Texas library, which, somewhat oddly, owns the Wallace papers. I read about him as much as I read his own work. I was tickled that he lived in Somerville—my favorite city in the Boston area; amazed that he was accepted into the PhD program in philosophy at Harvard; heartened that he loved his dogs more than anything in the whole wide world; oddly intrigued that his personal library contained many mass-market self-help books.

Something loomed over this period of Wallace-absorption, however. The suicide—the knowledge that David Foster Wallace, this real-life genius, seminal writer of his generation, etc. had actually felt so down and out and worthless that he took his own life. The same guy who wrote “Tense Present” with gleeful exuberance also hanged himself; left his dangling corpse for his wife to discover; left his follow-up to Infinite Jest unfinished; left countless in paralytic grief.

It was inevitable, then, that I read about his suicide. Extensively. I had read some pieces memorializing Wallace—specifically the Five Dials memorial, which features thoughts from Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Amy Wallace-Havens, and Bonnie Nadell, to name only a few. But most of these pieces were celebratory, touching on the very finest aspects of Wallace: his writing, his kind heart, his propensity for writing smiley faces on drafts of his work. The nitty-gritty, however, remained untouched. The fact of his suicide was there—but the how slash what slash why remained a mystery.

I did not have a purpose for wanting to know why or how someone so gifted and meteoric decided to end his life. It wasn’t hurtful, necessarily; it’s difficult to have a horse in a race that’s long finished; no amount of grieving could bring him back. Rather it was upsetting—but not in the teary-eyed way; more of a are you kidding me? sort of thing.

Wallace, as he notes in “Tense Present,” seemed to have grown up in a pleasant environment. Both of his parents were in academia. They were, by all accounts, supportive. He was a gifted tennis player (as was mentioned earlier). An even better student. Admitted to his father’s prestigious east coast liberal arts alma mater. While no one can know precisely what happened in his childhood and adolescence but Wallace himself, the most cursory of analyses seems to yield a simple conclusion: it was a damn fine time, all things considered.

Yet his path diverged at some point. He tried to kill himself. He left Amherst for a while. He had demons, obviously, and spent the better part of his life trying to deal with them—medicinally or otherwise. But why? How can someone with so much understand so little about themselves? About their own limitless potential? About their own ability to make others—even now, posthumously, and perhaps especially so—feel rescued from the most plunging and overwhelming depths of grief?

How can someone containing so much good feel so bereft?

When I finally read specifically about the suicide—in a police report (which is all over the web—I won’t bother linking it) and in David Lipsky’s Rolling Stone tribute—it was almost too much to bear. The details—the knowledge that Wallace had bound his wrists, that he had gone off his anti-depressants and (perhaps selfishly) refused to consider any sort of medication when things took a wrong turn, that he had planned his demise with such gleeful meticulousness, that he waited for the precise moment his wife would leave the house for a short time to do it—showed something about Wallace that his essays and fiction could not: he was a deeply and irretrievably sick person. It seemed that his suicide was not only an engine for his own relief, but also an opportunity to inflict hurt upon others. Those closest to him. His wife. His friends. His agent. His editors. Anyone who had ever known him.

It pissed me off.

I just stopped. I stopped reading about him. I tried to put him out of my mind; tried to keep him out of conversation. In my head, I tried to rationalize a summer spent reading him as a sophomoric hajj that I had somehow put off until after college. Just a phase that everyone goes through at some point.

Anger overtook sadness.

Today is the third anniversary of Wallace’s suicide. And I don’t think I’m mad anymore. Resentful, perhaps—but a little more understanding that I don’t and can’t and never will fully understand that kind of sickness.

I keep coming back to a conversation I had with someone earlier this summer—during, say, stage three of my Wallace period (between “Big Red Son” and “The String Theory”)—about the tragic nature of his death. When, I am sure, I kept muttering inarticulate variations of “It’s just…sad,” repeatedly, my counterpart offered a one-upper that has haunted me since, an interpretation of his passing that confuses me to the point that half of me believes in a benevolent, loving higher power and the other half wants so badly for there to be nothing but worms and dirt and decomposition and hollowness in the after.

I am, of course, paraphrasing.

The real tragedy is that such an amazingly constructed cache of energies exited him and probably entered no one else in similar configuration.

The idea that that might be true is too heavy. I don’t want to believe that when Wallace walked out onto his patio on September 12, 2008, bound his wrists with duct tape, ascended a chair, and hung himself from the roof rafter, all of his creative and emotional and intellectual energies died with him. It’s an unspeakably sad thought.

So much so that it makes me want something to take solace in—on this earth or in this universe or anywhere else—so much so that there’s no more room for anger; no use for pettiness or jealousy; room enough only for the love that inspires an earnest and unexpected hope for something more.

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