The limits of bleakness

In a Times magazine article this past weekend, the philosophy background of one of my favorite authors, the recently and prematurely deceased David Foster Wallace, was discussed. And it gives me an excuse to write about him. (The philosophy per se I will leave to Elizabeth, as it soars right over my head.)

I loved DFW's writing for a variety of reasons. It was unapologetically intelligent, if sometimes maddeningly so. He gloried in language, and I had to keep a running list of words he'd used that I didn't know. (Some of them, such as "ascapartic," I could find in no extant dictionary, and have since come to understand as simply having been made up.) He was famous for his lengthy end-notes, which required the use of at least two bookmarks. His writing was wildly funny, and deeply insightful.

However, beyond the simple intelligence of his writing, it was also genuinely humane. He wrote idiosyncratic but believable characters (by and large), and he obviously had affection for them, despite their myriad flaws. While his fiction was often dark, at its best it glimmered with a distant but reachable hope that happiness, though elusive, is attainable. In Infinite Jest, his magnum opus, when one character recognizes another character as being happy, it is a moment of heartbreaking poignancy, particularly since the character in question is a recovering alcoholic in charge of a motley band of addicts in a halfway house.

Part of the reason I didn't care for Oblivion, his most recent (and, thus, last) collection of short fiction, is that the glimmer has faded to a pinpoint. I agree with Jason Zengerle that it will be all too easy to find "clues" into his depressive state of mind in DFW's fiction, Oblivion in particular, and that it would be a regrettable oversimplification to focus on that one aspect alone. Ironically, it is "Good Old Neon," which is narrated in a quasi-third-person during a suicide, that has some of the more heartening passages.

I am glad, in a very melancholy way, that his last published work was the clear-eyed, tender-hearted story "Good People." It feels like a restoration in his faith that courage, that simply doing the right thing, can result in genuine grace. It is sad that the truth he seemed able to write didn't hold for him as a person in the end.

Which brings me to the end of my post, and my question to ponder on my weekly break from blogging tomorrow (Wednesday being my day of rest, if you will): what does one do when one grieves for the death of a person one never truly knew? I had hoped to meet him one day, and pepper him with questions about Infinite Jest, which doubtless he wouldn't have answered. I didn't know how he took his coffee, or which radio stations he listened to in his car, or any other banal details that accrue with "knowing" someone. All I know are his words, which remain in the same state as before he died. I haven't even read all of his available books, so in that sense he is still "alive" to me. And yet, I am left with the loss, all the same. It seems silly and presumptuous to mourn for someone I didn't know (and I'm not wailing or covering the mirrors), but the feeling remains.


  1. I believe David Wallace was the former David Wallechinsky, whose writer son changed his surname back to the original name. Or am I thinking of someone else?


  2. I believe you are thinking of someone else.