Infinitely Sad

David Foster Wallace, self-absorbed genius.

David Foster Wallace in 2002

David Foster Wallace began his review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time by classing Updike, along with Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, as “the Great Male Narcissists who’ve dominated postwar American fiction.” The word narcissist isn’t strictly disapproving there. One reason that the piece, 10 years after its publication, remains more memorable than its ostensible object is that Wallace offhandedly engaged the “radical self-absorption” of this Greatest Generation of Quality Lit—“probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV”—in a complicated way. He saw that narcissism as the force both animating moving prose and repelling younger readers in its involute explorations. He imagined—in a gorgeous little gesture of telescoped perspective—how things might appear to the GMNs, “in their senescence”: “It must seem to them no coincidence that the prospect of their own deaths appears backlit by the approaching millennium and online predictions of the death of the novel as we know it. When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him.”

Of the three older writers, Wallace most closely resembled Mailer. Both earned their celebrity and electric esteem—becoming not just famous writers but author-heroes—on the strength of maximalist novels  of ambition-announcing bulk and scope (Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Wallace’s Infinite Jest). And both produced nonfiction so bold and inventive as to surpass their achievements as novelists. As a journalist, Wallace, who died in a suicide last Friday at the age of 46, left American literature with a body of work as fine as any produced in America in the last two decades.

His own self-absorption played no small part in the achievement. In his fiction, Wallace drew on the examples of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and their less famous peers in an attempt to invest Postmodernist high jinks with pathos—to give soul to novels about novels. The journalism shows him as practitioner of metafiction not merely by trade but by fundamental inclination. The implicit premise of his reporting is that reporting the stories behind and around and beneath the story is an essential part of reporting the story. You could say that he always intruded on these pieces—loudly announcing his methods, coughing just a touch coyly at the process of writing a piece for “a swanky East-Coast magazine,” stage-whispering to his editors, and appending his own doubts, anxieties, and second thoughts (of which there were usually plenty) as both a writer and a human.

Mailer, striding through Armies of the Night in the third person, was, even at his most unsparingly buffoonish, a royal presence. Wallace’s autobiographical I, whether writing about tennis, porn, television, or John McCain, was humble, curious, always on high alert for glinting irony, and consistently ingratiating in practicing a strain of confessionalism that was somehow ego-abasing. The I was frequently to be seen sweating heavily in its nervousness, a condition exacerbated by its frequent worrying about serving the reader by working to get at that most un-Postmodern abstraction: the truth. Naturally, then, the nerves would be part of the article, each “self-indulgent twinge of neurotic projection” emerging as a figure in a sweeping interior landscape. It requires a fair deal of writerly nuance and human understanding to pull off such shenanigans without achieving instant audience alienation. Do not try this at home.

That “twinge” line above is from the title piece of Wallace’s first essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, an account of a week of strenuous relaxation on a luxury cruise line first published in Harper’s in 1996. In its Balzac-like detail and fervent curiosity—Midwestern skepticism gone to Northeastern grad school—the article was an instant classic. It stands as the second work in a trilogy of what you might undersell as travel pieces or exalt as insightful tours into all-American pleasure domes. Two year before, Harper’s ran “Getting Away From Pretty Much Being Away From It All,” in which the writer, who grew up on the outskirts of Urbana, Ill., went back to Illinois for its state fair and, without condescension, threw new light on what we’re doing when we amuse ourselves with such a “self-consciously Special occasion of connection.”

David Foster Wallace in a 1997 excerpt from The Charlie Rose Show:

In 2004, the editors of Gourmet, doubtlessly expecting another further late-model Tocqueville-izing, sent Wallace to the Maine Lobster Festival. He sent back an essay on “the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue” so acute and supple in its consideration of uneasy questions about aesthetics and morality that it ranks as a must-read for anyone even thinking of having dinner. In memorializing a writer who has killed himself, there is an impulse—wholly human and totally ghoulish—to rifle through the work in search of clues and cries and suicide footnotes, and in the case of Wallace, the rifling requires no strain. (Like any smart writer aspiring to greatness, despair was a regular theme, and “A Supposedly Fun Thing …” got some of its considerable energy from the author’s association of “the ocean with dread and death.” Despair, he wrote, is “wanting to jump overboard.”) But if you must dwell on pain and suffering, why not pay the man tribute by reading the Gourmet essay, the title piece in Consider the Lobster. It’s about boiling lobsters. It’s about the neurological capacities of crustaceans and the spiraling motions of the human mind. It’s not a tract, just an argument guided by a sure sense of “moral duty,” and Wallace’s achievement was to make thinking about the facts of Postmodern life, and thinking about thinking about them, one of the keenest pleasures of being alive.