By A.O. Scott
Reviewing a biography of Jorge Luis Borges in The New York Times Book Review a few years back, David Foster Wallace attacked the standard biographical procedure of mining the lives of writers for clues to their work, and vice versa. Borges’s stories, he insisted, “so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.”
What’s true of writers’ lives is also, surely, true of their deaths. The temptation to regard Mr. Wallace’s suicide last weekend as anything other than a private tragedy must be resisted. But the strength of the temptation should nonetheless be acknowledged. Mr. Wallace was hardly one to conceal himself within his work; on the contrary, his personality is stamped on every page — so much so that the life and the work can seem not just connected but continuous.
Beyond this, Mr. Wallace was the kind of literary figure whose career was emblematic of his age. He may not have been the most famous novelist of his time, but more than anyone else, he exemplified and articulated the defining anxieties and attitudes of his generation.
Mr. Wallace’s vibrant body of work — reportage and criticism as well as two novels and three volumes of shorter fiction — pursued themes that in retrospect look uncomfortably like portents. His last book of stories was called “Oblivion,” and an earlier collection included the stories “Death Is Not the End,” “Suicide as a Sort of Present” and “The Depressed Person.” Even his most exuberant explorations of absurdity are edged with melancholy. “Infinite Jest,” the enormous, zeitgeist-gobbling novel that set his generation’s benchmark for literary ambition, is, for all its humor, an encyclopedia of phobia, anxiety, compulsion and mania.
The moods that Mr. Wallace distilled so vividly on the page — the gradations of sadness and madness embedded in the obsessive, recursive, exhausting prose style that characterized both his journalism and his fiction — crystallized an unhappy collective consciousness. And it came through most vividly in his voice. Hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware (and nearly impossible to quote in increments smaller than a thousand words) — it was something you instantly recognized even hearing it for the first time. It was — is — the voice in your own head.
Or mine, at any rate. When, as an undergraduate with a head full of literary theory and a heartsick longing for authenticity, I first encountered David Foster Wallace, I experienced what is commonly called the shock of recognition. Actually, shock is too clean, too safe a word for my uncomfortable sense that not only did I know this guy, but he knew me. He could have been a T.A. in one of my college courses, or the slightly older guy in Advanced Approaches to Interpretation who sat slightly aloof from the others and had not only mastered the abstruse and trendy texts everyone else was reading, but also skipped backward, sideways and ahead. It was impressive enough that he could do philosophy — the mathematical kind, not just the French kind. But he also played tennis — Mr. Wallace, in fact, had competed seriously in the sport — and could quote lyrics from bands you only pretended you’d heard of. Without even trying, he was cooler than everyone else.
All this shone through Mr. Wallace’s fiction. He had the intellectual moves and literary tricks diagrammed in advance: the raised-eyebrow, mock-earnest references to old TV shows and comic books; the acknowledgment that truth was a language game. He was smarter than anyone else, but also poignantly aware that being smart didn’t necessarily get you very far, and that the most visible manifestations of smartness — wide erudition, mastery of trivia, rhetorical facility, love of argument for its own sake — could leave you feeling empty, baffled and dumb.
Another way of saying this is that Mr. Wallace, born in 1962 and the author of an acclaimed first novel at age 24, anchored his work in an acute sense of generational crisis. None of his peers were preoccupied so explicitly with how it felt to arrive on the scene as a young, male American novelist dreaming of glory, late in the 20th century and haunted by a ridiculous, poignant question: what if it’s too late? What am I supposed to do now?
This is a common feeling for those of us born in the 1960s (for the record, I’m four years younger than Mr. Wallace). If you were, let’s say, a faculty brat in the 1970s, living in a provincial college town — Champaign, Ill., in Mr. Wallace’s case or Chapel Hill, N.C., in mine — you felt a weird post-traumatic vibe from many of the adults you met. And, if, as an adolescent or an undergraduate, you found your way into books, you kept seeing — on syllabuses, at the campus bookstore, on your parents’ shelves — the monuments of the previous era, most intriguingly the masterworks laid down by brave exemplars of experimentalism, iconoclasts who disassembled the worn machinery of the novel and put it back together in crazy, ingenious ways: William Gaddis and John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. These guys — and most were guys — pointed the way forward.
But they also blocked the path. Mr. Wallace knew this very well. He regarded the lions of postmodernism as heroes, but also as obstacles. “If I have an enemy,” he said in the early 1990s, “a patriarch for my patricide, it’s probably Barth and Coover and Burroughs, even Nabokov and Pynchon.” That’s a lot of fathers for one Oedipal struggle, and Wallace expended a lot of energy trying to assimilate and overcome their influences.
But he was not only preoccupied with staking out a position in relation to other writers. Again and again, he returned to a basic, perhaps the basic, philosophical question facing anyone with a blank screen and a story to tell. What am I going to say? How am I going to say it? It’s never an easy question, but perhaps no one illustrated its difficulty with so much energy, good humor and conceptual rigor. In the story “Octet,” a section begins “you are, unfortunately, a fiction writer” and then proceeds, hilariously and infuriatingly, to diagram the dimensions of that misfortune. One long, brilliant, crazy footnote ends: “None of that was very clearly put and might well ought to get cut. It may be that none of this real-narrative-honesty-v.-sham-narrative-honesty stuff can even be talked about up front.”
And yet Mr. Wallace never stopped trying. Even when his subject matter took him outside himself — into the world of lobsters, tennis players, cruise-ship vacationers or presidential campaigners — the fundamental problems of writing remained in the foreground. I suspect that Mr. Wallace’s persona — at once unbearably sophisticated and hopelessly naïve, infinitely knowing and endlessly curious — will be his most durable creation.
“Infinite Jest” is a masterpiece that’s also a monster — nearly 1,100 pages of mind-blowing inventiveness and disarming sweetness. Its size and complexity make it forbidding and esoteric. The other big books published since by members of Mr. Wallace’s age cohort — “Middlesex,” by Jeffrey Eugenides; “The Corrections,” by Jonathan Franzen; “The Fortress of Solitude,” by Jonathan Lethem; “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” by Michael Chabon — are more accessible, easier to connect with and to give prizes to. They are family chronicles, congenial hybrids of domestic melodrama, immigrant chronicle, magic realism as well as the more traditional kind. Not easy books, necessarily, but not aggressively difficult, either.
In their different ways, though, these novels and their authors — along with other itchy late- and post-boomer white guys like Richard Powers, Rick Moody and Dave Eggers — stand in Mr. Wallace’s shadow. Not because his version of their generational crisis was better or truer than theirs, but rather because it was purer and more rigorous. In some ways, the figure he resembles most is Ezra Pound. Not the loony, ranting figure Pound eventually became, but rather the innovative and uncompromising modernist he was in his prime. Pound, in the teens and 1920s, understood the literary logic of modernism, with its poetics of difficulty and allusiveness, more clearly than any of his contemporaries. He pushed his insights further, into an extreme, enormous, all-but-unreadable book — the “Cantos” — that is to high modernism what “Infinite Jest” is to late postmodernism.
Outside of graduate classrooms, not many readers swallow the “Cantos” whole, and a similar fate may lie in store for “Infinite Jest.” Mr. Wallace is likely to remain available to general readers in the smaller, less daunting doses of his stories and journalism. He will also survive as an ally and an influence, a link between the giants who inspired and enraged him and whoever comes next. But he will be terribly missed by those of us who were lost with him in the maze of self-consciousness and self-doubt that defined our peculiar destiny. He illuminated the maze brilliantly, even if he couldn’t show us the way out.
Reposted from The New York Times. Photo of David Wallace courtesy of The New York Times.