Finite Jest

Editors and writers remember David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace in 2002

David Foster Wallace hanged himself at his home in California on Friday, Sept. 12, 2008, at the age of 46. A precocious and preternaturally talented writer, Wallace was regarded by many critics, novelists, and readers as the foremost novelist of his generation. He is perhaps best known for Infinite Jest, a 1,000-plus-page epic published to wide acclaim in 1996. In the following roundup, editors and authors remember Wallace and the qualities that made his work indelible.

Gerald Howard, editor, Random House
One fine—really, really fine—day in this editor’s life in 1986 the manuscript of David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System arrived in my inbox at Viking Penguin. This is why I get up in the morning and go to work. It was the damnedest thing. With Carver Style still reigning supreme in the MFA programs and the Brat Packers still riding high, some nervy kid had gone and brilliantly recapitulated the imperial novel that had held sway in the ‘60s and ‘70s—the sort of book I adored as a younger reader. Here is what I wrote on the dust jacket when I got to publish it: “The inventiveness, reach, and fine disdain for ‘reality’ of this novel will remind many readers of the works of John Irving, Vladmir Nabokov, John Barth, and especially the Thomas Pynchon of The Crying of Lot 49. The Broom of the System is one of the most ingenious, original and exciting novels to appear in recent memory.” That’s a heavy burden to pile onto any novel, let alone the work of an unknown (and at that time you really could be unknown) 24-year-old who had published precisely nothing until then, but I’m glad I wrote that because it is clear now that I got it right.

I would go on to publish one other book by David, the wonderful short-story collection Girl With Curious Hair. I have read every word he has written, including the entirety of Infinite Jest (yeah, the footnotes, too), which I consider the greatest American novel since Gravity’s Rainbow and its worthy successor in its diagnosis of our American disease. I have vivid memories of David from our too short years as author and editor—all sorts of triumphs and crises. His letters to me, usually explaining, why, yes, Mr. Howard, I understand exactly why you are suggesting that I try to do this to my book, and I am sure you are completely right, Mr. Howard, but you see I … (there then followed three pages of insanely closely argued reasons why he could not do it, worthy of the virtuoso practitioner of analytical philosophy that he was) were all typed (not word-processed) single-space without a typo or correction. They went on, big surprise, for pages and pages and were the product of a mind firing on more neural cylinders than any I encountered before or since. I have wondered endlessly what it might be like in there, inside David’s mind. Clearly there was terror as well as exaltation. Lost in the fun house? I know this: We have lost the most original and profound (and, not to forget, the funniest) American writer born after 1950.

Martin Riker, associate director, Dalkey Archive Press
David Foster Wallace was a pen name. It was also the author’s actual name, but he never went by it. Using Foster was his agent’s idea, he said, because Da-vid Wal-lace was syllabically unmemorable. This has proven to be sound marketing advice, although I don’t think David or Dave Wallace was ever very comfortable with it. He was deeply skeptical of all contemporary mythologies, particularly the ones about himself.

I knew Dave for 10 years, the first two as his student. (He directed my master’s thesis.) Much has been written already about his teaching—I’ll add only that his real strength was in his example. He was an exceptional listener, probably the best listener I’ve known. The kind of person who could walk into a room full of heart surgeons and walk out 20 minutes later able to perform bypass surgery or, at least, to describe the procedure convincingly. He listened to his students, and he listened to our culture, and he gave discerning responses to both.

The last time I saw him in person was just before he left central Illinois for Pomona, Calif. I was dog-sitting in the countryside for John O’Brien (Dalkey Archive’s publisher), and Dave brought his own two dogs out to play with John’s, and we sat on a porch swing and talked about writing and life. He said there are plenty of mediocre writers who are able to make careers for themselves, and that’s fine, but what’s tragic are the few really promising writers who give up before they ever publish anything. I remember one thing I said to him, which was that his intelligence and generosity were not the only things he had to offer students, and that personally I had gained a great deal simply from knowing him as a human being. I said that coming to think of him as Dave Wallace rather than David Foster Wallace was actually very important for me. It realigned my sense of what matters.

Joyce Carol Oates, author
Like so many other readers, I was much engaged by David Foster Wallace’s enormous energy, ebullience, and brilliance. His vision was both playful and apocalyptic and beautifully matched by his inimitable style. There is a heartbreaking short story of his, of only four pages, titled “Incarnations of Burned Children”—which I was fortunate enough to include in the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. Known as a “maximalist”—for his massive novel Infinite Jest— David Foster Wallace could be a brilliant minimalist as well. Two years ago we had hoped to get David Foster Wallace to give a reading at Princeton; he had been scheduled to visit, then cancelled and never rescheduled. It’s very sad to think that he will never come now, and those of us who had not met him now never will meet him.

Sean Wilsey, author
I met David Foster Wallace during a writing residency in the town of Marfa, Texas, where we lived across the street from each other in houses on loan from the Lannan Foundation. The first time I saw him, he was running back and forth, just outside my window, where a wall cut off the lower 3 feet of my view, shouting encouragement to something hidden from sight. I stood up and saw that he was walking a pair of exuberant golden retriever puppies. So I went outside to say hello. He told me the dogs belonged to a local rancher. He was dog-sitting. Or, it became clear as I watched him, dog-training. After talking about Marfa for a bit and agreeing that the monotony of West Texas food—Dairy Queen, beef, refried beans—was getting us down, I said I was planning to blow off a morning’s writing to drive 50 miles through the desert and buy fish at a supermarket called Furrs.

He looked intrigued but advised, “You’d better give that the old sniff test.”

A week or so later we went down to Mexico, looking for a fish restaurant, and he spent the whole car ride teaching my friend’s son, a 9-year-old Icelandic boy, American show tunes: “There is nothing like a dame: Nothing … in the … world!” They were both incandescent with joy by the time we arrived in the blasted-out town of Ojinaga—where our quest for fresh fish met with resounding failure. Then, after I mistakenly drove through a puddle of raw sewage and our vehicle commenced failing the sniff test, we all sang show tunes, with the windows down, led by Wallace—”Tsssssssteam heat!” When we got to the border, an agent took one sniff, said “Woah!” and waved us through. 

After his residency was over, he gave me the keys to his place, saying, “If you ever need some space, you should use my house. Nobody’ll bother you. I don’t think they’ve got anyone else coming.” I sat in his living room, where he’d turned all the foundation’s copies of his books spine-to-the-wall, and, attempting to relive my reform-school days, shouted and cried and took notes for a memoir I was working on. This did not go unnoticed in a small town. Locals, I discovered later, thought that my cries were coming from David Foster Wallace and gossiped about his passionate outbursts. But in my brief encounters with the real David Foster Wallace, I knew only a writer who was humble, kind, gentle, and playful in everything he did.

Sven Birkerts, essayist
I first encountered David Foster Wallace’s work in 1989. I had a monthly column in what turned out to be a very short-lived magazine called Wigwag. My mandate was to find the unlikely, to ponder things that were off the main spectrum, and his book of stories Girl With Curious Hair, which had snagged me with its title, was just the business I needed. The prose was beautifully abrasive and seemed to be filtering something from the moment that no one else was filtering. It was a sardonic cloth with a lyric lining. I offered my praises in the column. A few weeks after the piece came out, I received a letter—thankful, sweet, even ingenuous—from the author. He said he was living in Cambridge, Mass., and wondered if we might not have coffee.

We met at the Café Pamplona. David would have been in his late 20s then, and it is with shocked disbelief that I peel away the accreted overlays, so many of them, to get my image of a tall, thin, and, yes, young-seeming man standing on the sidewalk. Smoking a cigarette then and never not smoking one from the time we sat down until we parted. My kingdom for a better memory! We talked about John Barth and Harvard (he was doing work in philosophy), and he told me about his father, who had, if I have this right, studied with Wittgenstein’s disciple Norman Malcolm in England. And David told me with very great seriousness how his father had read philosophy to him when he was putting him to bed. He was nervous and polite to a fault.

Our paths crossed only a few times after that. In the early mid-’90s (pre-Infinite Jest and pre-The Corrections), he and his great friend Jonathan Franzen agreed to join me on a panel assessing the outlook for fiction that I hosted at the Arlington Center for the Arts (Arlington, Mass.), and we had maybe 30 people in attendance. And then—maybe five years ago—we were paired at a Boston radio station, talking over … the outlook for fiction. By then he had doubled into his shaggy eminence, and I spent our studio time doing double takes. I remember that one of the callers, the last, was Cynthia Ozick and that when we were off the air, he asked our host, Chris Lydon, if he could finish his conversation with her. I had to hurry off and tapped him on the shoulder to say goodbye. He looked over. He was saying—I remember this—nervous and beautifully polite, “Thank you, Miss Ozick.” His tone was perfectly deferential. I think he said “Miss.”

Colin Harrison, author and editor, Scribner
You didn’t really edit David. Instead you played tennis with him using language as the ball. At Harper’s, we did three lengthy pieces together—on attending the Illinois State Fair, on sailing on a luxury cruise, and on the usage of the English language—and with each one I increasingly came to see how competitive David was. Not with me, his magazine editor, nor particularly with other writers, but with the great maw of horridness, to choose a word he might use. He was competing against the culture itself, and his pieces arrived on my desk way too long, letter-perfect, and appended with a one-line note that said something like “Here, maybe you’ll like this.”

Well, of course at Harper’s we did like his pieces—knew immediately that they were fabulous, the work of a genius. But then we had to get them into the magazine. Our publisher, Rick MacArthur, was generous with space for David’s pieces. But still they needed to be cut, sometimes by many thousands of words, and this was where the tennis came in. The trick was to make a perfect thing smaller but still perfect and still itself. In David’s case, this meant confronting the corresponding substructure of footnotes, which interlaced not only with the main text but with each other. And simply getting the footnotes into the bottom of the same narrow magazine column was a challenge. It made for some very long conversations, going over every comma, period, and Wallace-esque construction. David liked the push and push-back of this, the here’s-what-I-think, what-do-you-think rallies that sometimes went on for many minutes. It was exhausting and exhilarating, with points won, points lost. He liked defending his work, explaining the motivations behind his choices, but like a great athlete, like the great writer he was, he also enjoyed the opportunity for the spontaneous shot, the sudden chance to make something even better. And he did—literature.

Charis Conn, author and editor
Although I edited David’s fiction in Harper’s for years, I met him the way that many have, through good old-fashioned letter writing. The only fan letter I have ever sent was inspired by his first story collection, which walloped me not only with its brilliance but on a more profound personal chord than I had ever experienced as a reader. My instinct was right, and we became good friends. He was always generous with praise of my own efforts, as a writer as well as an editor, and when I took a leave to work on a novel, he insisted I spend it in his home, dubbing it Yaddo West, a reference to the artists’ colony we both adored. The landscape of autumnal, suburban Normal, Ill., was indeed a perfect place to work—flat, featureless, chilly—but especially because of the sound of DFW clicking away in the next room (a room painted black, which I found surprisingly soothing and inspiring). Between teaching, errands, endless favors for friends, and caring for his enormous dogs, he made a point of devoting increments of as little as 15 minutes to writing if that was all that was available. His social world then was not what any of his readers might imagine, I suspect. Our entertainments during those months included a hayride, some fairly goofy movies on video (he had no TV), and several evenings lounging on the living room carpet of a local middle-aged couple, overeating and watching goofy crap on their TV.

Although his own brilliance, along with the accolades it brought, could easily have cut him off from the vast majority of people (who, after all, still don’t recognize his name), David truly connected with everyone he encountered. Unlike many literary stars, he had a foot in both worlds, and he often found his new fame utterly uncomfortable and embarrassing. I remember hiding out with him in a tiny room high atop a screaming nightclub at what must have been his Infinite Jest book party. We had fled there after a barrage of flashbulbs had unnerved him, agreeing that the party was best enjoyed from this vantage point, viewed from behind a tiny window, safely hidden. David was as amazed as a yokel by New York City, (where, by the way, his very first reading boasted a crowd of four, including me and Gerry Howard). He was a person who drew—unironically—little happy faces beside his signature on letters and was prone to uttering the syllable “awwwwww,” also unironically, at anything he found adorable. He once made this sound over a drawing I did of his dog Jeeves, and it seemed to me at the time perfectly eloquent. Because when someone like David chooses this simple sound, among all his vast array of things to say, and ways to say them, it is reborn as a true expression of humanity, as are all the words and sounds and symbols he chose and arranged with such loving, raging care.

Jordan Ellenberg, author and professor
David Foster Wallace was well-known as an appropriator of prose registers that are not conventionally literary: the language of the bureaucrat, of the academic theorist, of the focus group, of the Hollywood agent. Less spoken of is the debt his writing owed to the language of mathematics—presumably because that language has no native speakers.

Some of the mathiness of Wallace’s prose was superficial—he liked to present careful definitions of terms to be used, and he decorated his arguments with side remarks and corollaries, labeled as such. He liked numbered lists and specialized acronyms (cf., w/r/t., u.s.w.) For mathematicians, this business imparts a kind of homey charm.

But there’s a deeper likeness, too. “We live today,” he told the Believer in 2003, “in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life.” Technical complexity, a turnoff to most, was Wallace’s bread and meat. He was never interested in the kind of truths that you could sum up in 10 words—which is why it’s so hard to quote Wallace 10 words at a time. You usually get something as inert as a single line of a long proof.

Wallace’s writing was driven by his struggle with contradictions. He was in love with the technical and analytic; but he saw that the simple dicta of religion and A.A. offered better weapons against drugs, despair, and killing solipsism. He knew it was supposed to be the writer’s job to get inside other people’s heads; but his chief subject was the predicament of being stuck fast inside one’s own. Determined to record and neutralize the mediation of his own preoccupations and prejudices, he knew this determination was itself among those preoccupations, and subject to those prejudices. This is Phil 101 stuff, to be sure; but as any math student knows, the old problems you meet freshman year are some of the deepest you’ll ever see. Wallace wrestled with the paradoxes just the way mathematicians do. You believe two things that seem in opposition. And so you go to work—step by step, clearing the brush, cataloging what you find there, separating what you know from what you believe, your intuition sounding at all times the nauseous alarm that somewhere you’ve made a mistake. And until you find the mistake, there’s always a bit of hope—that your intuition is wrong, that your work isn’t wasted, that what seems like a paradox really isn’t one, that maybe the incompatible beliefs you hold can be satisfied all at once.

Usually it doesn’t work out that way.