Today is something of a literary anniversary for me. It was one year ago today I conquered David Foster Wallace's epic tome, Infinite Jest. The book took me more than two months to read (and blog about), and even with a companion guide book to help me navigate its twists and turns, it was still the most difficult book I've ever read. But, it was very, very rewarding and I count it as one of my favorite novels of all time.
Even before being totally blown away by Infinite Jest, I'd already considered David Foster Wallace as my favorite writer. I picked up his book of essays Consider the Lobster on a whim about three years ago, and since then, I've been obsessed with him and have devoured just about everything he's ever written. I love his essays. I love his short fiction. And I LOVE Infinite Jest. Probably my favorite DFW piece, though, is the commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 — recently published in book form as This is Water. Please, please do yourself a favor and spend 30 minutes or so reading it. Not a day passes when I'm not somehow reminded of DFW's simple message about empathy and respect. It's absolutely beautiful.
DFW's special gift was to allow his readers to think along with him and discover what he was trying to explain almost simultaneously with him. No topic was too far afield for him (tennis, porn, rap, infinity), as evidenced by the fact that his essays would often end up miles from the original assignment. The best example is his piece for Gourmet Magazine, which was supposed to be a simple slice-of-life report from the Maine Lobster Festival, but which DFW turns into a philosophical treatise on whether lobsters can feel pain, and if so, whether it's ethical to eat them.
When you read DFW, you discover that in the span of a single paragraph, he could make you think very, very hard, make you scramble for a dictionary, and make you laugh out loud. He had a knack for seamlessly mixing high and low-brow. Two of my all-time favorite DFW essay moments: 1) In the midst of a long, rather academic essay on descriptivism, he quotes a long passage contrary to his view, and then immediately dismisses it with "This is so stupid it practically drools." 2) In "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," about his experience on a cruise, he spends a long footnote (one of his signatures) discussing the service industry/customer relationship. He explains why he feels slighted when he doesn't get the obligatory smile, but then explains why it's not necessary, and then throws up his hands and ends with "What a f@cking mess."
His short fiction was as fun to read as it was bizarre, as he experimented and pushed the limits of what he thought fiction could be. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is an often hilarious, but often frustrating, genre-bending book. Oblivion is dark, and many have argued it represents a window into the last few years of his life. Girl With Curious Hair is just, um, curious.
Like every other DFW fan, I was absolutely devastated when I learned of his suicide last year. As explained in this brilliant Rolling Stone profile published soon after his death, he'd been battling depression most of his life. Until the year before his death, he'd managed it with an antidepressant, but he'd gone off the medication in 2007 because the side effects were interfering with his work. When he tried to return to the medication, he discovered it no longer worked and he spiraled deeper into his depression, until it got the better of him once and for all. He hung himself on the patio of his California home the evening of Sept. 12, 2008. He was only 46 years old.
The good news is that DFW left a nearly finished manuscript of a novel titled The Pale King, which is scheduled to be published in April 2011. A short story titled "All That", most likely an excerpt from The Pale King, was published a few weeks ago in The New Yorker. Read it!
Have you read DFW? What are some of your favorite DFW pieces, moments, ideas?
(RIP, DFW. I wish you way more than luck.)