Tributes to David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace frequently broke my heart with lines like this: “The sun was starting to go down over the West Newton hills through the double-sealed windows, now, trembling slightly, and the windowlight against the far wall was ruddled and bloody. The heater vents kept making a sound like a distant parent gently shushing. When it starts to get dark out is when the ceiling breathes. And everything like that.”
In 2004, I got laid off from my adjunct job teaching creative writing at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. One of the factors for my firing was the fact that I assigned DFW’s story “Girl With Curious Hair” (not part of the approved textbook!), which the school higher-ups found disturbing and inappropriate. They thought that by exposing students to his work I was encouraging them to write violent, gratuitous stories. I loved what DFW said when James Sullivan asked him about it (for a San Francisco Chronicle story):
Wallace, a creative writing professor at Pomona College who holds a chair endowed by Roy Disney, was surprised to hear that his story might have been instrumental in an expulsion and a fellow teacher’s dismissal. “If this college is taking it upon itself to protect kids,” he said, “there are going to be a whole lot more books other than mine that they would not want them reading. You don’t punish a kid for doing a story that’s all [gratuitous content], because they’re beginners,” he said.
He acknowledged that potentially offensive material was a delicate topic on college campuses. “This stuff gets really tricky,” he said. “It’s a combination of moral spasms and legal terror.”
Like so many, I am heartbroken over the loss of my favorite living writer. He has expanded my understanding of fiction, and, yes, of life, to include millions of subtle possibilities, all of them sparkling and tricky, none of them morally simple.
— Jan Richman
In the early 1990s, I was a creative-writing student at the University of Arizona. DFW had blown through there a little while before my time, but his presence was still felt. U of A was a grind and a little insular, and there was always the sense that you could be ostracized for not writing a certain way, so I’m not surprised he didn’t stick around. There was always a sense that this Wallace guy—who was already published and in his early days of celebration—would be huge once people found out about him outside the walls of academic fiction. I followed DFW around over the next few years, even lived in some of the places he writes about in Infinite Jest (Tucson; Beverly, Massachusetts; etc.). He wrote so beautifully about pain, but who knew he was just like us?
The first time I finished Infinite Jest, I had to pick up the phone. I needed to talk to someone. I needed human contact, a genuine connection, in the face of the loneliness of the book. I’ve wondered if this was intentional: that we were meant to be so saddened we had to reach out, to forget our petty concerns, and to feel the warmth of other people.
The commencement address DFW gave at Kenyon convinces me that this compassion and connection, this humanness, was what he wanted. This passage comes to mind:
But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
I did not know Mr. Wallace, but I know what his work means to me. Whether he was writing about addiction, John McCain, tennis, or dictionaries, he taught me that irony and apathy mask the truth of how we feel, and that we are capable of much more, that beauty and transcendence are out there, and we just need to know to look for them.
The word “genius” is so overused that it is now nearly devoid of meaning. Yet I can’t think of a word that describes David Foster Wallace more accurately. His writing reflects knowledge and understanding and perhaps even command of a multitude of disciplines, from mathematics to medicine, to a degree that can only be achieved by someone with a truly rare intellectual gift.
And what he did with words, and imagination, was simply startling. My jaw literally dropped the first time I read him, and it has never stopped dropping each time I pick up something of his to read.
As bizarre as it sounds, DFW felt like a loved one to me. Reading him is like conversing with a wise and compassionate teacher, one who understands how hard it is to feel human in our fractured world.
It might be a total cliché to claim that a book, writer, song, film, whatever, changed your life, but DFW understood that clichés contain an essential truth that we feel too cynical or cool to accept. I don’t know how else to put it—his work changed my life. It’s impossible to read his Kenyon commencement speech without feeling a renewed sense of compassion for everyone you encounter. His essays, short stories, and novels helped alleviate the anxiety of our times by documenting and sharing them in palpable form.
David Foster Wallace’s work has had such a significant impact on my own journey as a writer that it’s hard to imagine where I’d be without him. When The Broom of the System fell into my hands, it was revelatory to me in terms of what a writer was allowed to do. Certainly Wallace had his own well-known influences, and other writers out there were doing some revolutionary stuff, but his was the first that I’d read, and it completely rocked my world. It was the equivalent of someone coming up and giving me a good shove, saying, “Hey, lady, you know, we already had a Jane Austen and she didn’t suck. Maybe try doing your own thing, however ‘out there’ it might seem, and see what happens.”
A dozen or so years of doing my own thing later (during which time I read everything else he ever wrote), I had the good fortune to be offered my first book deal by none other than Little, Brown, longtime publisher of my literary hero. No one with any lick of sense would consider my work with the seriousness of Wallace’s—not the point. But in my small mind there is an indisputable link between those events, and I’m sticking by that. My heart is broken, and I offer my thoughts and prayers to those who were close to him.
The Tuesday after his death, I put aside Sophocles and had my students (high-school seniors) take turns reading aloud the beginning of DFW’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” New to his prose, they laughed aloud, marked phrases with relish, shook their heads in awe and puzzlement, and left the room chatty, under a spell, way more alive than usual.
David Foster Wallace must have understood our time, our predicament, better than anyone. He was the anti-Rosencrantz/Guildenstern. He writing is persistent, thorough, and therefore optimistic. He dared to follow ideas into the abyss, beyond the normal barriers of patience and trepidation. I loved him for this. It’s not enough to say that he was a genius as a writer. He was a master purveyor of empathy. Something to aspire to.
I talked about him all the time, to the point that friends and family begged me to desist. I found myself grabbing people by their shirt collars at parties and telling them they had to go buy A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again—like, right now.
For a long time, my litmus test with new boyfriends was what they thought of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, especially “#6,” the one about the hippie, the cad, and the serial killer. If they weren’t into it, I could already see the sun setting on our relationship. He made me feel less lonely. His kindness astonished me and forever changed my ideas about what writing could do.
I only met him once. At the Skylight Bookstore in L.A. He was giving a reading, and I made my boyfriend get there two hours early with me so we could get good seats. Afterward, I waited an hour in line to meet him. I said nothing coherent. All I remember is blushing deeply and babbling useless words, like “thank you,” wishing I could explain.
I am heartbroken. David Foster Wallace is no longer around: keenly observing, forging acronyms, reanimating lifeless OED entries, and creating sentences that make us spit out our beer, sputtering as we reread and shout to whoever’s nearby: “You gotta listen to this!”
There will be no more stammering at readings as he scrunches his brow and adjusts his glasses and waffles over how he really feels about an audience question. Those things actually mattered to him, visibly so. There will be no new moments of shaking our heads at new DFW prose, no reading words so spot-on that we are changed, forever changed, by his insight, his way of seeing, his ability to make you cry and feel and beat your head against a wall and kick your sneakers at the heavens.
I travel a lot. Years ago, I encountered a new kind of toilet on jetliners. When you flushed, the toilet unleashed a tremendous vacuum force that produced a terrifying howling sound. It made you think that, if you were not careful, you might be sucked into the toilet and lost forever. If you’ve been on a train or a plane in the past decade, you’ve seen this toilet. That first time I used one, I jumped in fright and still looked shaken when I returned to my seat.
A few years later, I was reading David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Suddenly, there, in his piece about a nightmare cruise, was the howling toilet. He described the shock of the toilet’s industrial force, and then the fear he might be sucked into it (footnote 72). Until I read that passage, that toilet had been a private memory, the possibility of being sucked into it a secret fear. But now there it was in the pages I was reading. The toilet made a second appearance in the essay, when, to DFW’s (and the reader’s) amazement, the cruise-ship director tells the passengers about the time his wife was actually sucked partway into one of the ship’s suction toilets.
Among the million other things he did, David Foster Wallace picked out details that were absurd, unlikely, hilarious, and yet, somehow, completely familiar. It was one of his ways of reminding us we are not alone, that we are all in this mess together. It made his stories reassuring and tender and heartbreaking, and it made reading them seem like listening to a friend.
All missing is selfish? While I’ve only ever read enough of his writing to make me flee immediately from the page in terror, joyful at its beauty—and loved to listen to him speak—and looked forward to the day I’d be brave enough to truly read him, I always hoped someday to write something he would enjoy reading. Knowing his ears were out there made better thinking possible, yes? Now we have to imagine them.
Yesterday, I carried around Infinite Jest in anticipation of reading it for the fourth time, stopping at stoplights to crack to any page and find that, even in the face of such sadness, we still can laugh aloud, and that, though David Foster Wallace might be gone, there is still so much of him to treasure.
Infinite Jest was my introduction to metafiction, and I waxed evangelical about it to anyone who would listen. To me, he was the new millennium’s new Dostoyevsky. He saw people as we really are, and he tried to love us anyway.
I felt a strangely personal connection to his writing, to the quirky and dangerously intelligent narrator behind it. I often found myself blown away at his disregard for the rules of standard writing, as if he were flaunting his intense knowledge of those rules by ignoring them.
Through Wallace, I developed a zeal for grammar and, believe it or not, much of my philosophy of teaching English to high-school students. I would not be who I am without David Foster Wallace’s writing. I never knew him, but it felt like I did.
I remember first reading his account of the Illinois State Fair in Harper’s. I was blown away by his reporting skills. He saw the same things anyone else would see, but he would mentally arrange his observations into a narrative that only he could share. Also, it was fucking hilarious. I’m a journalist, and it inspired me to look at everything a little closer, with a little more empathy than irony.
I am an 11th-grade English teacher committed to exposing my students to different, vibrant authors. It was in that spirit that I presented “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s” to my class this year on September 11. My students instantly warmed to Wallace’s wit, sincerity, and willingness to speak the vulnerable truth. Teaching writing is easy when you have writers like David Foster Wallace to work from. Delivering the news to some of his newest teenage fans was not.
Mine is not the story of an encounter with DFW but, rather, a note recognizing the weirdness of this, the problematic depth of loss, something which, seeing that it has been caused by a stranger, is new and unsettling to me. In reading him, we fought to varying degrees to keep pace with the extraordinary scope and elasticity of his mind, perhaps flattering ourselves that we “got it,” and perhaps that we “got him,” if not in totality, at least in part. The part that treated the most incredible collection of real and imagined characters with respect and care, pulling humor and hope out of some unlikely scenarios. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that his had become a friend’s voice, one we looked to for entertainment, information, a good argument, for laughing. This contributes, I think, to the extent of the loss. His work had become a balm for soothing the modern head. It is nothing but sad.
David Foster Wallace was my favorite author. I am better because he wrote books. I recognize my own inclinations toward sanitizing cruelty and objectification because of Orin Incandenza. I can hold at bay my need for constantly streaming paralyzing self-criticism because of Don Gately and Brief Interviews. I am funnier and more patient because of Mario, Pemulis, and Himself. I am kinder because of the Illinois State Fair.
I loved him like a teenager, and I feel completely awkward and unsatisfied to be a grown woman carrying around this gaudy, pink broken heart.
Last winter, I won a scholarship and left my home in Chile to attend Amherst College. I knew that DFW went to Amherst, so I tried to find something about him at the school. I also knew that he liked tennis. So I went to the gym. I looked all over the walls, all over the photograph gallery. Then I found a picture of a guy playing tennis. It seemed like DFW. But maybe it wasn’t him. I just felt comfortable thinking that it was him. And I’m still not sure if the guy in the picture was DFW. But I believed (and I believe until this day) it was him. And when I read about DFW’s death I thought about that picture. Then I went to my bookshelf and I picked Oblivion.
I read until it was very, very late.
—Antonio Díaz Oliva
The stories he wrote and the ways he told them have had a profound effect on the way I think about the world, from the way I speak to the way I write interoffice e-mails at work—especially the way I write interoffice e-mails.
I never met David Foster Wallace, and I won’t presume to say that I felt that I knew the man through his writing, but he sure seemed to know me. The wry observations of life and the people that live it in the late ‘90s and early ’00s, their foibles and petty triumphs, all were immediately recognizable in both myself and in the people around me. Wallace’s gift was that he was able to pick out the minutiae in people’s mannerisms and extrapolate them to a larger, more common condition that we all, knowingly and unknowingly, labor under. I’m thinking here of his discussion of being a tourist in his essay “Consider the Lobster,” or what it was like to feel slightly alienated from people feeling much stronger emotions than myself on 9/11 in “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s.”
I was very taken with the controlled rage he displayed in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” The piece starts as a dissection of the sports memoir, but then moves into what it means to be able to verbally articulate one’s talent. The sense of disgust with the genre is palpable throughout the essay, but the conclusion he reaches, that the very inability to intellectualize about one’s talent is the very essence of that talent, opened a whole new method of thinking for me. As did his commencement speech at Kenyon College, which, for me, boiled down to a simple plea for people to treat each other as people and not be so quick to judge based on our preconceptions of them.
David Foster Wallace tempered his cynicism and his irony with a sincere humanity that is largely lost in popular fiction. That’s what I related to when I read his words, and what I admired most. The courage that it takes to stand up and say “I don’t like this aspect of how our culture has progressed, and I don’t know what to do about it, but maybe acknowledging that this exists in myself may somehow make it better or easier for all of us.” I will truly miss that.
The promise of a talking parrot was enough to entice me to read The Broom of the System. I had no idea what I was getting into. It was so smart and so funny, but, more importantly, it was heartfelt and inspiring. When I watched interviews of him on YouTube, I was so glad to have found a smart young contemporary writer who wore bandannas. I’m sad that he’s gone, but at least I have Infinite Jest to look forward to.
I found David Foster Wallace’s work while I was in graduate school for Classics. Infinite Jest was a wonderful escape from my coursework (and one that lasted for quite a while, happily). But now I realize that his writing ushered me into the real world. It was thoughtful and hopeful, and encouraged me to be the same. I am a better person for having read him.
Requiescat in pace.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!
Toward the end of 1996, I was in my parents’ living room reading a Time magazine. It was one of those year-end wrap-up issues, with various lists and capsule reviews of the best books, films, art, and so on of the year soon to bow out. This was my senior year of high school. I had a girlfriend, or was moving toward having a girlfriend—my first “real” girlfriend. I was reading the magazine and in the books section one book caught my eye: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I don’t remember why, but something in the capsule review sparked my interest. I had always been a reader, but this book—1,079 pages, about an “entertainment” called Infinite Jest that is so pleasurable that those who saw it lost all desire to do anything but watch it, and thus died—seemed a whole other order of magnitude beyond what I’d been reading.
I bought the book. I think this was in December. I bought the book and started reading it. For the whole second half of my last year of high school, January through May or thereabouts, I read Infinite Jest. I read it in class, and got in trouble for it. I gave it to my girlfriend, Shannon, for Valentine’s Day, and she was touched because a boy had never given her a book before.
Infinite Jest was indeed about this entertainment, but it was about so much more. It was about addiction and a real American sort of sadness; it was about the future, and maybe where we were headed. It was also about two characters, Don Gately and Hal Incandenza—characters that are as alive to me as any other real living and breathing person. They live with me still today.
Infinite Jest turned me on to serious reading, and to the style of writing that I’ve come most to prefer: the sprawling, encyclopedic novel. David Foster Wallace turned me on to Pynchon, to Joyce, to Gaddis, to DeLillo. DFW—as he would come to be known to me—made me want to be a writer. But why?
For this reason: Infinite Jest made me feel less alone. And DFW meant to do that. In an interview published in 1993 in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, he said the following:
I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of generalization of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with characters’ pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might be just that simple.
And but so, ever since that late winter, spring, and early summer of 1997, I’ve been trying to write—and trying somehow, in my own small way, to follow in David Foster Wallace’s footsteps: to make others, through writing, feel less alone.
Rest in peace, DFW.
—Hunter R. Slaton
David’s search for existential understanding, his merciless self-examination, and his quest for a compassionate authenticity were so brave. I reread his story “Good People” this morning—that last line—"to pray for … simple courage … and trust his heart."
His loss is a shard in my heart.
—Lauren B. Davis
As a writer who focuses almost exclusively on popular culture, I turned to DFW’s work whenever I felt like the deeper meanings were slipping away from my grasp. To read his books of essays, or to go back to Infinite Jest for a few minutes of random reading, was to see again how sharp thinking and even sharper writing could bring it all back into focus. He looked beyond the seemingly random details around us and not only identified the patterns of behavior but connected them to the deeper yearnings of the soul. He made it seem effortless, too, which it clearly wasn’t. But there was joy in his writing, and real respect for the people he was writing about, no matter how silly they could be.
If it weren’t for Dave, I really don’t think I’d have any understanding of the world around me. It sounds hyperbolic, but the man was a genius—he managed to say so much with so little, and, considering how long his works were, it just meant that he was saying so much more than anyone else around him. I willfully gave months of my life to Infinite Jest, and I’m still reaping the rewards. What hurts me most is that I had just started reading him a little less than a year ago; I was looking forward so eagerly to growing up with the rest of his stories and novels and articles, and probably something from an entirely new literary genre that he would make up some few years down the road. I know I miss him terribly.
When I began Infinite Jest, I wasn’t impressed. Or, rather, I was, but he was so obviously pyrotechnically clever that my initial reaction was, “So this guy is clever. Big fucking deal.” For people who’ve read Infinite Jest, I’ve found it true that the turning point happens somewhere between pages 250 and 300. That’s where you either give up or come across a scene or moment that hits a chord and you’re handcuffed to the book until the end.
For me, it’s the scene where James Incandenza’s father talks about the holiness of inanimate objects, and the way that Marlon Brando performed a major disservice to the world by treating objects with such seeming contempt and dismissiveness. When, actually, Brando was such a poet of casual, seemingly flippant behavior that the incredible care he took had become invisible. And that the consequences of such craft and skill were monstrous. Worlds opened up inside me the moment I read that section, at a café table in North Beach.
David Foster Wallace was a writer who just had a way of guiding you through the most complex, frustrating, discouraging, and nauseatingly normal problems people face in their everyday lives. He’d address an issue, explain to us in words we could understand the layers of intricacies that were the actual foundations of the angst, disillusionment, anger, or sadness we were feeling, laugh with us, and then guide us to cope.
He was never a writer to express anger for the sake of anger. He was never volatile, off the cuff, or whiny. He was calm, focused. He was the wise voice of reason that could make your mind careen and your throat close up with despair and then explain why it was all worth it.
A couple of nights after his death, I was at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a Juliana Hatfield concert. I worked the merchandise table, hawking copies of her memoir for the bookstore I work in. During Hatfield’s set, I kept zoning out; DFW had been in my head all day and I kept attempting to conjure up exotic adjectives that he would, potentially, implement in order to describe the theater. Then, as if on cue, she dedicated a song to him and added simply, “So sad.” In lieu of a personal story or further description, she had summed it all up perfectly in two words. It was so sad, I thought as I snapped out of my daydream.