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.--David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College commencement address, May 21, 2005
I first encountered David Foster Wallace sometime in the summer of 1994, reading the essay he wrote for Harpers about the Illinois State Fair (1). I can't remember exactly what my first impressions were, but I do remember being really captivated by his descriptions and his style. It was interesting and intelligent (2), and to a wide-eyed 19-year-old kid (5) with delusions of a future life swimming in the ocean of literature, it was a beacon.
I saw the essay again, along with a bunch of others, in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which I bought during my employment at Borders and brought with me to Lincoln when I began my illustrious (6) graduate career. It was through that book that I first encountered what postodernism was (7), and it laid a lot of the intellectual framework that I used in grad school.
When I was in grad school, I got into reading his novels The Broom of the System (8) and Infinite Jest. And I enjoyed Jest enough to actually sign up for an Internet mailing list discussing the book (9).
But after a while, it seemed that the thrill was gone, somehow. I don't know why, exactly-- maybe I got older and my tastes changed (10), maybe I was knee-jerking against all things intellectual and academic (11).
All this is a very roundabout way of saying that I haven't read anything by him in a long, long time. But tonight, I saw the news of his death, and it gave me a bit of a nasty shock.
I'm sure the inevitable hipster pissing match has already begun (13), with all the readin' folks on the Internet fighting their little battles over who can care the least about Wallace's death (14) or who can slag off his writing (15) the most cuttingly.
But for right now, I'm going to quietly remember that his writing was a significant part of my life, when I was someone younger.
(1): "Getting Away From Being Pretty Much Already Away From It All."
(2): And, as it was riddled with footnotes, it looked literary as hell. Nothing I'd ever read for pleasure before had had so many footnotes in it. This was because I had yet to learn that there's a very, very good reason for that (3).
(3): Namely, that footnotes basically take a chainsaw to the flow of any piece of writing. But I can't help myself from using them in this blog post, out of homage (4).
(4): So why don't I dog on Terry Pratchett for his use of footnotes? The world may never know.
(6): This is sarcasm.
(7): Or, I should say, I first encountered it in a context where somebody was pointing out and explaining it.
(8): And, as apis_mellifera can attest, I threw the book across the room when I finished it, mostly because the novel ends literally in the middle of a sentence.
(9): Which I would unsubscribe from after about four months due to the huge amount of petty wankery involved in it. This makes it pretty much like every other discussion forum on the Internet in pretty much any form whatsoever.
(10): Interesting and intelligent writing can't cover up the fact that there's not much of a story there. In the case of Infinite Jest, I thought he had some good points there, but I also thought he was doing too much po-mo grandstanding and, as a consequence, drowning the points he was trying to make.
(11): What I really knee-jerked against was his whole postmodern-irony-must-be-destroyed hobbyhorse, because I was all about the irony back then (12).
(12): More on this in a future post.
(13): I say "I'm sure" instead of providing a link because I haven't been to Metafilter yet.
(14): The Ben Folds reference is deliberate.
(15): Or postmodern literature in general, honestly.