Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Supposedly Fun Thing


The writer David Foster Wallace was found dead by his wife on Friday. He had hanged himself. He was 46.

Twelve years ago when I read David Foster Wallace’s mammoth, gloomily comic novel INFINITE JEST, my immediate thought was that the novel as an art form was alive again. Metafictionists had declared the novel dead decades before, but here was a book that was as vital and socially astute as any nineteenth-century British novel, as playful and self-aware as any post-modern metafiction.

I sensed that the book was something big—bigger than perhaps it really was, as I half-expected it to resuscitate the role of the publicly-engaged intellectual in America, which was fading away—its last vestiges, at the time, being Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, and Gore Vidal, the latter being the only one now alive. I thought the book was going to be the new generation’s MOBY-DICK or HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

Immediately after I finished INFINITE JEST, I caught up on my Wallace, reading his brilliant short-story collection GIRL WITH CURIOUS HAIR and first novel THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM. The nonfiction A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN came out the next year—and in each case what impressed me was Wallace’s mastery and personal ownership of the various literary forms—short story, essay, novel.

The central event of INFINITE JEST is the appearance in the near future of a video so entertaining that people watch it to death—so captivated and entranced that they forget to eat or attend to the business of living otherwise, so they starve to death, sitting in front of their TVs. This sterile absorption by amusement also appears in the fact that the USA, Canada, and Mexico have merged into one corporate entity, the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN, recalling Onan, the biblical figure who “spilled his seed on the ground,” whom clerics in the Middle Ages interpreted as a type of the self-defilement of masturbation).

At a daunting 1079 pages, the book covers an array of subjects including Quebecois terrorists, child abuse, and tennis. I was mainly struck with its satire on consumerism—in the future, the years would be no longer numbered anno domini, but sold to the highest corporate bidder as advertising—so that a year would have a name like the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment or the Year of the Burger King Whopper.

All in all, the book imagines the soon-to-arrive twenty-first century as dumbed-down, vapid, and doomed—contentedly soulless, proud of its superficiality and mastery of the obvious.

Back when the novel first appeared, Frank Bruni stated in a NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE article, "Wallace is to literature what Robin Williams or perhaps Jim Carrey is to live comedy: a creator so maniacally energetic and amused with himself that he often follows his riffs out into the stratosphere, where he orbits all alone."

If Wallace left a suicide letter, I have not yet heard about it. INFINITE JEST will remain his legacy, if not his suicide note. He inspired other writers, his contemporaries, for instance, George Saunders and Jonathan Franzen, to enter the stratosphere in their own ways. Whether the public will remember him, except as that rarefied being, a writer’s writer, is impossible to say. A film of his book BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN, directed by actor John Krasinski, is set for release this year.

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