Essays on Technology and Culture

A More Substantial Series of Thoughts on the Death of David Foster Wallace

There are times when I really wish there was an afterlife of some sort. ((This whole essay is based on a [comment I posted to the Metafilter on DFW]( As a devout non-believer, I never went for the traditional notion of Heaven or the afterlife. I always picture it as more just an infinite social gathering where all the folks you knew, or wish you knew, gather and reflect on the past, present, and future. My hypothetical afterlife is David Byrne’s Heaven: a place where, ultimately, nothing ever happens. Tonight, musing on the sudden, stupid death of a brilliant man, is one of those times where I wish for an afterlife. It is a selfish fantasy, a dream that I will one day meet those people I never met, and share with them the impact they had on my life. David Foster Wallace and I will never get to meet, and never get to share anything that wasn’t already written by him. Now, there will never be anything else.

I only recently began to understand death. It was, I think, my Grandfather’s funeral when I learned. I was both old enough to grasp the concept, and close enough to have an emotional connection. The other people who were close to me that died, aside from my Grandmother on my Mom’s side, were too distant for me to connect. When my Grandmother died, I was too young to grasp the loss. True, I never knew David Foster Wallace. To say one can know a writer from his writing is short-sighted and disingenuous. There are confessional aspects to some of DFW’s work. Someone had the courtesy to post [the final paragraph of “Good Old Neon”]( in the obituary thread on MetaFilter, in which it is revealed that the story’s deceased narrator was a classmate of one “David Wallace.” It is difficult to tell whether DFW was channelling true feelings about the suicide of a real person, musing on the impact of suicide in general, or simply enjoying the pleasure of metafictional reference. Maybe it was all three.

What is hitting me more with DFW’s death, more than the death of any other beloved writer, is both the suddenness, and that it was self-inflicted. Of all of the non-family/non-friend people I mourn who died in recent years, none have been suicide. In the field of literature, the only two people I had a similar reaction to were Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. Douglas Adams’s death was sudden, but it was a tragic accident. Kurt Vonnegut’s death, despite the tragedies that caused it, came after a long life, and a rich career. DFW’s death is different. He did it to himself, and though people have been pouring over his work for clues as to why—the story “Good Old Neon” is a popular focal point for this sort of speculation—the reasoning is going to be beyond our grasp. Yet, one of the hallmarks of great fiction is how it draws the reader in, finds a commonality with them. This can happen in a myriad of ways: sympathetic main character, a familiar voice, a reflection on a universal theme or experience. DFW did all of these things.

Perhaps because of this, I have often inferred a bit of myself into DFW’s work. _Infinite Jest_, for example, for all of its beauty, its prosody, and its epic scope—I saw a lot of myself in Hal Incandenza, the _wünderkind_ protagonist. From what I know of DFW, there might be a lot of him in Hal Incandenza as well. ((Both DFW and Hal Incandenza are tennis players and bookworms, for example.)) I never played tennis, but I was certainly able to connect with the Hal as _wünderkind_ aspect of the novel. Being one sets you apart from your peers, making it hard to relate to the social structure and behavior of the appropriate age group. Hal is isolated by his talent. Was DFW isolated by his talent? Just an analysis of the problems in Infinite Jest related to communication, isolation, substance abuse, and being a child prodigy could take up its own essay.

The other focal point for the DFW suicide cause analysis has been [his 2005 Commencement Speech at Kenyon University]( It is a speech so full of choice nuggets, not only for suicide theorists, but for anyone else with a liberal arts education, ready to go out into the “adult world” ((This is not the same “adult world” that DFW wrote about in the short story “Adult World,” either.)) and try to actually live without the safety net of academia, that it’s hard to choose what to quote. This selection seems most appropriate right now:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Right now, I am in a similar position to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon University. There is, for better or for worse, this real “adult world” staring me in the face, and I have no choice but to throw myself into it, or be pushed into it. Even with my limited experience, I can tell that DFW is absolutely right: “It is unimaginably hard… to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” Perhaps the difficulty of this task became too much. Reading DFW’s work in light of his death, I am beginning to worry about my own future. Am I even capable of tackling this challenge of living in the “adult world” without becoming dead on the inside? It’s a frightening prospect, and it takes a lot of willpower to not simply say “Fuck it,” and cling to whatever handholds are available to resist. ((I know people who are like this, refusing to accept the inevitability of, let’s call it “growing up” for lack of a better term. There is a frustration that is, I suspect, linked to the childhood benefit of getting what you want without much effort. Suddenly, you graduate and the training wheels come off, forcing you to pedal—and keep your balance. Some of us just can’t handle the pressure. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was eleven.)) I am reminded of “Forever Overhead” and the climax wherein our protagonist, or rather you, the reader, has reached the final point—standing on the diving board, ready to face your fear, without the possibility of turning back, only to be caught up thinking about how “…they should clean the board, anybody who thought about it for even a second would see that they should clean the board…”

If there is a bright side to this tragedy, it has been the shared reactions I have read: the outrage, the shock, the confusion, the memorializing and shared experience of a transformative literary event. David Foster Wallace touched people. The measure of writing isn’t simply artistic ability—which DFW had in spades—but using that ability to touch people, to communicate something, whether for a brief moment, or for however long it takes to go through 1079 pages, including endnotes. Written communication, however, feels woefully inadequate right now. Nothing I can say, even as this essay approaches the fifteen-hundred word mark, seems to be appropriate. Maybe I should sleep on it. What I want most right now, is to read “Forever Overhead,”—my favorite DFW story—or “Good Old Neon,” or “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” or any page of Infinite Jest. I want to finally get around to reading Consider the Lobster, but all my books are in a box in a storage shed, and I can’t get to them. It’s almost midnight, and the libraries are closed.