David Foster Wallace was a famous writer, which is not that common anymore. He wrote “Infinite Jest,” arguably the most important novel of the past 20 years, and certainly the one that took America’s avant-garde out of its incessant postmodern navel-gazing. He was probably more famous for his essays, which were published in magazines like The Atlantic and Harpers. He had another novel too, and various collections of short stories and non-fiction. He studied philosophy when he was younger and those who know said he could have been one of the most important mathematical philosophers of his generation. He also sweated a lot, which is why he always wore a white bandana in interviews and at readings.
And he was really good at tennis. Really, really good. He was nationally ranked as a junior player, and some of his best essays were about tennis players, including one of his last, for the New York Times sports magazine, Play. This is one of the many things that Wallace was better at than me, but I didn’t realize that I ought to be impressed by this until the first time I played tennis, which was against my girlfriend on our first date. I had no idea that a game with two people grunting at each other—neither of which ever looked like they could take me—could be so strenuous, or so difficult, or so beautiful. But it was. Well, at least, it could have been. It was certainly strenuous and difficult, but there was nothing particularly beautiful about me regularly swatting tennis balls into the baseball games on the other side of the tennis court.
Wallace’s writing was like this. It looked simple, at times even too conversational. His sentences would run on, or they’d end with prepositions, or he’d try to excuse his digressions by literally writing “sobutanyway” to bring us back to his point. And then there were the footnotes, which showed up in his articles and his fiction, and would sometimes go on for pages, about the chemical makeup of recreational drugs or the intricacies of advanced trigonometry or why this one actor was in no way a nice guy. These tricks could have made his prose look sloppy, or even lazy, yet there was a clear intelligence obvious behind it, and a casual flow that used words like jejune next to the f-bomb. Once you tried to write something like it (this article, for example), you realized how impossibly talented the man was. Here’s an example from his most famous essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” which you can find in the book with the same name. The quote’s about the despair that Wallace felt on a cruise ship, and, knowing how he died, it has an uncomfortable relevance:
It’s more like wanting to die in order the escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard. … I, who had never before this cruise actually been on the ocean, have always associated the ocean with dread and death. As a little kid, I used to memorize shark-fatality data. Not just attacks. Fatalities. The Albert Kogler fatality off Baker’s Beach CA in 1959 (Great White). The U.S. Indianapolis smorgasbord off the Philippines in 1945 (many varieties, authorities think mostly Tigers and Blues); the most-fatalities-attributed-to-a-single-shark series of incidents around Matawan/Spring Lake NJ in 1916 (Great White again; this time they caught a carcharias in Raritan Bay NJ and found human parts in gastro (I know which parts, and whose)). … And when I teach school now I always teach Crane’s horrific “The Open Boat,” and I get bent out of shape when the kids find the story dull or jaunty-adventurish: I want them to feel the same marrow-level dread of the oceanic I’ve always felt, the intuition of the sea as primordial nada, bottomless, depths inhabited by cackling tooth-studded things rising towards you at the rate a feather falls.
This lingering sadness is in everything Wallace wrote. There are other common elements too: the unceasing energy, for example, or the righteous anger at smart people who don’t really care about the ideas but just want to make you feel dumb. This is all in “Infinite Jest,” which I put off until I got to graduate school. It’s over 1000 pages of small font, big pages, and complicated endnotes. Despite the good things I heard, I didn’t feel ready to read a book like this while the bulk of my day was spent convincing teenagers that a copied Wikipedia page did not constitute a term paper. When I got to grad school, I suddenly had a lot more time, and even though Wallace still looked hard, he looked a lot better than multivariate stats. So, I started light. 20 pages one night, 30 the next. It’s actually a lot more readable than it looks, and, after I got about halfway through, I finished the rest in two all-nighters. The book’s about a tennis academy, a drug rehabilitation center, and a nefarious plot to addict all of America to a video you can’t stop watching. But it’s really about a bunch of people who are too smart for their own good, painfully aware that life can be avoided and that anything serious could be more fun as a game. Within all the footnotes and self-reference and convoluted analyses of tennis matches is a remarkable, almost embarrassing earnestness. Let me connect to you, Wallace asked. It’s this compassion I’ll miss most.
Wallace struggled with depression throughout his life (about this, check out a beautiful postmortem article in Rolling Stone). His fans knew this, but we were still shocked when he killed himself on September 12. It was one of the few times in my life when I felt I had lost a hero. I know what mental illness can do to someone, and I know I can’t judge Wallace. Life is hard. But it felt easier knowing someone like him was around, someone smart and funny and wise who wasn’t embarrassed to care. I think about Wallace every day, and his picture is above my desk, right next to Dorothy Day and Emile Durkheim. If I were as eloquent as he was, I could say more than that I will miss him and our world is worse without him. But, for a man as decent as David Foster Wallace, sincerity is enough.