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Death Was Not the End: David Foster Wallace Ten Years Later

by Hannah Smart 3 years ago in literature

A Tribute to the Tumultuous Life and Writings of David Foster Wallace on his 57th Birthday

Wallace Delivering His Famous "This is Water" Commencement Speech at Kenyon College (2005)

Last October, while reading a David Foster Wallace short story entitled “Death is not the End” from his 1999 collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, I happened upon the following (very long, as is typical for DFW) sentence:

“A fifty-six-year-old American poet, a Nobel laureate, […] lay outside on the deck, bare-chested, moderately overweight, in a partially-reclined deck chair in the sun, reading, half-supine, moderately but not severely overweight, winner of two national book awards, […] a poet who was among the first ten Americans to receive a Genius Grant from the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, […] an eminent American poet now four months short of his fifty-seventh birthday, a poet whom Newsweek magazine’s chief competitor, Time, had once rather absurdly called ‘the closest thing to a genuine literary immortal now living,’ his shins nearly hairless, the open umbrella’s elliptic shadow tightening slightly, the thongs’ simulated rubber pebbled on both sides of the sole, the poet’s forehead dotted with perspiration, […] an indisputably accomplished poet, reading his magazine in his chair on his deck by his pool behind his home.” (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men p. 2-3)

Upon reading this passage, two things became immediately clear to me. The first was that Wallace was clearly describing himself, or more likely some hellish, futuristic caricature of himself (replace “poet” with “writer” in the above passage if you don’t believe me), and knowing the fears and insecurities he had about not being able to write anymore and forever living in the shadow of his earlier accomplishments, this assertion should come as no surprise. The second was that I was reading the story in October 2018, which would be, if he were still alive, exactly “four months short of” David Foster Wallace’s own 57th birthday, which happens to be today. In other words, I had the sudden feeling of intense surrealism that I was reading about what David Foster Wallace feared he would become by this point in his life, in real time.

I don’t believe in fate, and I’m not superstitious, but that moment was the closest thing to a “spiritual experience” I’ve ever had. That day, more than anything else, I felt like I was reading something that had been written for me at that exact moment. This feeling is not always as blatant and plain as it was when I read that story, but it is always present, to some extent, in all of DFW’s work, and I can’t fathom any other reason why I would keep returning to his stories and essays time and time again, consuming every word the man wrote as if it were gospel truth.

His words may not be gospel, but it is true that David Foster Wallace’s writings could not have found me at a more critical time in my life. I read Infinite Jest last summer, and for the first time since reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school, I experienced the startling but strangely comforting sensation of not being alone in my own mind. Now, as my final year of college draws to a close and as I ponder over my future, I can almost feel the time behind me expanding, pushing me forwards towards some elusive cliff—some critical point of determination at which I must decide what I want to do with the rest of my life, and the closer I get to that point, the more I fear I might not have enough time to deploy the life-saving parachute. In a way, all of his writing is about the metaphorical realities of what he literally wrote about in “Forever Overhead.” It’s about the anxiety and discomfort and sometimes even pain that comes with facing the unknown.

I can’t think about David Foster Wallace for more than several moments without beginning to feel incredibly sad about a few immovable realities—the fact that he’s never written a single healthy relationship into any of his stories or novels seems to be one of those. From the Incandenzas to the Beadsmens, from the married couple in the comically absurd “Oblivion” to the many subjects in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, from familial to romantic to platonic relationships, one thing is painfully, startlingly clear across all of his fiction, and that is the fact that all of these relationships are strained, tortured, obsessive, toxic, or, in the vast majority of cases, several or all of the above. That inevitably leads one to wonder whether DFW himself had ever even experienced a truly healthy relationship, and anecdotal evidence (New Yorker: "The Unfinished") seems to suggest the contrary, pointing towards the author’s own life and interpersonal interactions mirroring those of his most beloved yet flawed characters. It’s true that DFW was a deeply flawed human being, but he was also incredibly self-aware, and the writings of DFW the author are inextricably tied to the experiences of David Wallace the person. The man’s painful self-awareness is apparent in the fact that every single character and interaction in his fiction is in some way him.

And they’re also in some way me. That tragic and yet oddly comforting realization hit me when I found myself sympathizing with the recovering drug addict and ex-criminal Don Gately and then again with the obsessive, neurotic Rick Vigorous of The Broom of the System as he handcuffed himself to Lenore Beadsman in the middle of the fictional Great Ohio Desert to stop her from leaving him. As I read the short story “Good Old Neon,” in which the protagonist spends nearly 40 pages explaining to readers that he’s a fraud, and he knows he’s a fraud, and that is why he must kill himself, I found myself wondering if I’m a fraud myself, until DFW, as if reading my mind, employed the following line at the most critical moment:

“Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s called free will, Sherlock. But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali—it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.So cry all you want, I won’t tell anybody.” (Oblivion, p. 179-80)

That sensation that someone is reading your mind—that there’s someone else in your head who not only knows exactly what you’re going through at any given moment but can also articulate that feeling so much more eloquently and coherently than you ever could—is a comforting one, and it never gets old. David Foster Wallace got that feeling, and he got it more than anyone else I know of. Though his mind was in many ways extraordinary—a diagnosed “genius” and prodigy from a young age who suffered from severe mental health issues, he chose not to focus on those extraordinary aspects of his own experience but instead seemed to recognize, highlight, and illustrate the ordinary parts of the universal human experience in the extraordinary way only he could.

He calmed down a lot towards the end. He settled down and got married, he sobered up, and he seemed genuinely hopeful about his future. Listening to him say in a 2004 interview that he’s “looking forward to his fifties” [YouTube: David Foster Wallace - Conversation (San Francisco, 2004)] with the knowledge that he would never make it there is heartbreaking in a way that constricts my throat and makes me nearly forget to breathe. The man who wrote about the painful realities of living and being human and has helped me face those realities was unable to handle them himself and chose to end his life after a long battle with depression that began when he was in college and never, even after 25 years of intense treatment, hospitalizations, and medications, truly eased up.

And so I reach aforementioned cliff, much like the unnamed, 13-year-old protagonist of Wallace’s short second-person story “Forever Overhead” reaches the edge of the diving board, and also like the protagonist of that story, I find myself looking down at a drop so daunting and unpredictable and unnerving that it makes me want to turn around and go back. But I can’t. Time has closed in on me, finally, and I’m here, the wind blowing my hair as my shoes skid through the dirt, kicking up dust in slow motion as I struggle against all odds to remain a child for one just one second longer. I struggle with my parachute not knowing if I will be able to deploy it in time but knowing that my entire life—my entire future—depends on my ability to do so.

And David Foster Wallace has given me that ability. He has made the drop seem like little more than a ten-foot drop into a cool swimming pool on a scorching summer’s day.

“Happy birthday. Did you think it over? Yes and no.Hey kid.”*

*This final quote, the citation exempt from the main text so as not to detract from the ending of the article, as well as to honor David Foster Wallace’s famous tradition of using lengthy and copious footnotes throughout both his fiction and nonfiction, was taken from “Forever Overhead,” page 14 of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999).


Hannah Smart

Middlebury College class of 2019. Amateur musician and writer.

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