Saturday November 29, 2008

Early this last September, I was in the back seat of a rented car full of college friends I hadn’t seen for years who’d come together for a wedding in suburban Virginia. We were on our way back from Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown made his last stand, driving past clusters of ungainly, oddly exposed mini-mansions scattered across rolling hills when for some reason the subject of David Foster Wallace came up. To my surprise, no one in the car—a group of fairly voracious readers, at least once upon a time—had read him, so I started waxing poetic about the essays in Consider the Lobster, which I’d read late last spring, in particular the one about attending the Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas and encountering a porn starlet who actually had valves inserted in her armpits that allowed her to inflate and deflate her breasts, and the very long one for Rolling Stone about the trials and tribulations of riding John McCain’s Straight Talk Express back in 2000, which of course had special relevance since we’d just entered the home stretch of the election. Then I moved on to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (tennis, TV, David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair, the cruise alluded to in the title), and Infinite Jest (its weight, its hilarity, its frustrating ending, having to use two bookmarks), and so on. When I’d finished advocating, we turned to other subjects—McCain’s nefarious transformation, passing the bar exam, who had to pee—and then got back to our hotel to catch the shuttle to a vineyard where we watched the lovely ceremony and clinked glasses and danced.

The next afternoon I was on the deck of the bride’s parents’ house, struggling to stay upright with my hangover in the unbearable humidity, when a guy I didn’t know said, “Oh, shit.” He was staring at his cell phone. “I just got a text message that David Foster Wallace hung himself.” A few hours earlier I’d sent a text message to my friend Virginia listing the DFW titles she should read. The news submarined me. Later, waiting for my flight at Dulles, I searched for information on my Blackberry. Standing in the security line, riding on this massive Winnebago-like vehicle that took me to my terminal, sitting at an airport bar, it was me communing with my device, trying to find an answer—to what, exactly, I don’t know. The critics had been quick to post their eulogies, most balancing DFW’s massive literary achievements with perspectives on depression, many looking for clues in his recent prose. The commenters had come out in force, and I found myself scrolling through hundreds of posts on Salon.com with my miserable scroll wheel, half an airport hamburger on the bar in front of me. There were a number of remarks about cowardice, invariably refuted by a mental health professional or someone who’d known someone who was severely depressed. Mostly there was just sadness, appreciation, and the same longing for some kind of answer that I felt.

There was so much that was disorienting to me. For one, he was prolific, and busy people don’t seem like suicide candidates. More than that, underneath all the bravura prose and ostentatious experimentation, which mostly delighted me and occasionally irritated the hell out of me, I saw someone who was deeply empathetic, kind, and engaged with the world around him, even at its most fucked up. More than his peers, he was looking for a way out of the cul de sac of consciousness that the inheritors of the postmodern literary tradition, and by extension, fin de siecle Western creative culture, found itself in. Even the infamous hatchet man Dale Peck gave him credit for this. Even when he was dealing with the really dark shit, which was not infrequently, there was a generosity, a refusal to pass easy judgment, and an evident pleasure in unravelling the layers of an idea, an issue, a story. I thought about the election as it related to him, because it was a really fantastic story then two months away from its conclusion, because it seemed he’d have real insight into the reinvention of John McCain based on his past experience and writing, because Sarah Palin, who’d then been in the public eye for only two weeks, must have been a truly fascinating creature to him. If he didn’t want to see this particular story through, I couldn’t help thinking, he must have really been in the weeds. In a moment like this, I always go back to the first famous suicide that floored me, which was Kurt Cobain’s, but Cobain was obviously a self-pitying narcissist trapped inside himself; DFW seemed anything but those things, with the implication being that he’d decided there was no way out of the cul de sac, for any of us. If anything, he was trapped by the very qualities that made him such an appealing writer. I still don’t have any kind of answer and never will, but since he died, this takeaway has been haunting me, especially in my darker moments.