Listen. As you know by now, possibly from these very pages
—although this kind of news now always comes via text message, tragedy's new lightning bolt—David Foster Wallace, fiction writer, essayist, professor, hanged himself this weekend. The news reports all state his age, 46, as if it were a totem of the act itself. It is, I suppose, the only objective measure we have of a life.
Well, we are saddened here at Willamette Week
. They are saddened in Claremont, at Pomona, where they have lost a teacher. At McSweeney's
—where they are assembling anecdotes and appreciations of the man and the writer—they are devastated and lost. We assume there is little consolation for his wife, Karen Green, who found him. As for myself, I have been rapidly descending the steps down Kuebler-Ross: Saturday in disbelief, yesterday downright angry, and today merely, finally, sad, but without acceptance.
Most of us, me included, have only tenuous ties to the man, so the question some of you might have is: Why is this man so publicly mourned? Why him and not, say, Ruslana Korshunova
, young, beautiful, tragically in love and in love with love, who earlier this summer threw herself off a lower Manhattan balcony and landed, amid scores of bystanders, with a sound abrupt and resounding as a gunshot?
Some of it is his prodigious talent, his intimidating intellect—Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth
, refused to interview him for the Daily Telegraph
because he was too smart and it scared her—the fact that in the 1990s with The Girl with Curious Hair
and Infinite Jest
he redefined what it was to be a young writer in America, wrote ambitious, expansive, profoundly moral fiction that was ironic but never sarcastic, that along with being every bit as inventive and formally structured as your average James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, also sought sincerely to capture what it is to be alive right here and right now, and even, also, what keeps us alive in a life that was to him always unbearably sad.
He ventriloquized LBJ ("My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson. I own the fucking floor you stand on, boy."), wrote about wheelchaired Québécois terrorists, women so beautiful you forget to eat, alcohol treatment centers, all possible forms of obsession and compulsion, and, of course, that now retrospectively harrowing story ("The Depressed Person") about the self-feeding spiral of depression, from which he himself also suffered.
And he looked like one of us—a guy you might know, who might be your friend. In his essays, he wrote to you as a friend, albeit as a friend with God's omniscient eye, clever enough and literate enough you forget to laugh and instead stare gape-mouthed; honestly, think about this: He was sometimes too funny to even laugh at. He was a writer able to put words to what did not have them, or to paint the world anew with language that is also new.
So part of it is, of course, what we lost. We lost far too early one of our great observers, a clear-eyed, uncynical commentator, and one of our language's most sophisticated practitioners. We lost the benefit of getting to see—beyond his next, posthumous novel—what would become of him as a talent. He could have been, and would have been, one of America's most effective curmudgeons, an essential naysayer who said no only because he cared about life and its possibilities.
So he was a badass, and that's part of it. But there's also the John Ritter factor. Some people are simply lit from within by humility and a fundamental decency and sanity, are people on whom others rely for sanity and for perspective, and when they die, even when you don't know them, you feel it more than you should really be expected to. His commencement address
in 2005, at Kenyon College, is a testament to this broadened humanity. So he will be mourned, and he will be missed. Godspeed, Dave.
I leave you with his words, from "Forever Overhead," a story about a young man on his 13th birthday and at the very beginning of his adolescence, at the pool, readying himself for the plunge down into the water.
"But at the end of the white board, the edge, where you'll come down with your weight to make it send you off, there are two areas of darkness. Two flat shadows in the broad light. Two vague black ovals. The end of the board has two dirty spots.
They are from all the people who've gone before you."