Wednesday, September 17, 2008

David Foster Wallace, RIP

I was deeply saddened at the news that David Foster Wallace committed suicide last week. 

For me, the experience of reading Wallace's writing is not unlike that of watching an olympic gymnast.  While the right side of the brain is being entertained by the grace and artistry, the left side is frantically marvelling at how the human body can do that at all.  The tension between the two -- where your brain can't decide where to focus, not wanting to miss either part -- adds all the more to the experience. 

Wallace's mastery of the language is undeniable; one could read his work simply to marvel at the construction of each sentence or his ability to move effortlessly from one writing style to another.  But, unlike other authors known for their "style", the writing is merely the surface layer; Wallace actually has something to say, his arguments are compelling and challenging and beautifully constructed, and supported with relevant data drawn from disciplines ranging from literary theory to mathematics.  And somewhere along the line he also manages to make you laugh out loud -- right before you have to pick up the dictionary for the seventh time. 

One is, at the same time, amazed, informed, challenged, entertained, and, honestly, filled with that feeling of "I'm not worthy" on multiple levels. 

I would like to be able to say "I knew him when"; he and I overlapped for a year or two at Amherst.  But I never actually met him, I only heard the stories, such as his senior English thesis being published as a novel ("The Broom of the System"), or being the only student in then-recent memory to have achieved the distinction of summa cum laude for his thesis work in two separate majors (English and Philosophy.) 

Harper's Magazine has graciously made the pieces he published in that magazine available for free on the web:  If you've not had the pleasure, I suggest you read "Tense Present" -- which probes "the seamy underbelly of US lexicography" -- and then marvel at the notion of how entertaining and actually useful a book review of a dictionary could be. 

Rest in peace.