Monday, September 15, 2008

Suicide and Literary Loss

It's weird: as much as famous writers committing suicide is almost a cliche, and as much as I've studied, researched, read and written about suicide over the years, the news over the weekend of writer David Foster Wallace's suicide really knocked me for a loop.

David Foster Wallace, whose darkly ironic novels, essays and short stories garnered him a large following and made him one of the most influential writers of his generation, was found dead in his California home on Friday, after apparently committing suicide, the authorities said.

Mr. Wallace, 46, best known for his sprawling 1,079-page novel “Infinite Jest,” was discovered by his wife, Karen Green, who returned home to find that he had hanged himself, a spokesman for the Claremont, Calif., police said Saturday evening.

Mr. Wallace was a professor in the English department at Pomona College in Claremont.

DFW, as fans referred to him, was a member (in lesser standing) of the literary "brat pack" which made a splash in the late 80's. Writers such as Jay McInerney, Brett Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, Wallace, and later in the early 90's, Doug Coupland, Mark Leyner, Donna Tartt and Jonathan Franzen, were part of a wave of writers generally born in the 1960's, who came of age as teenagers and young adults in the 1980's, and wrote novels that came to define "Generation X" and its ironic, post-modern pose.

And while I read them because they were my generation's writers, none could hold a candle to David Foster Wallace. I came to him late, long after the hype of 1987's "The Broom of the System" and 1996's "Infinite Jest." I resisted, mainly because I was always disappointed when I would read a contemporary's fiction, and figured he would disappoint as well.

Then I read two essays he did in Rolling Stone magazine; a brilliant take on John McCain's first run for president in 2000, called "Up, Simba," and a year later, following 9/11, the essay "The View From Mrs. Thompson's" which was moving.

A few years later I finally picked up "Consider the Lobster," a collection of ten non-fiction essays, including those above, plus a hilarious riff on lobster festivals in Maine, the snarky "Authority and American Usage," and an ode to to tennis great Tracy Austin, who every pubescent male was in love with in the early 1980's.

That sealed it for me. "Infinite Jest" was work, but through it and other books, I finally came to Pynchon (mentioned last month) and tackled him.

DFW's writing style (the footnotes, arcane asides, leaps in linearity) isn't for everyone, but maybe it was the pseudo-academic way he referenced everything (even in his fiction) that really grabbed me. I even read a few years ago (and re-read last night) the infamous Kenyon College commencement address he delivered in '05.

Suicide was a theme there and in other works, and apparently he struggled with it (being hospitalized in the late 80's on a suicide watch, which would find its way into "Infinite Jest"). Nevertheless, the suicide of such a prominent and well-regarded figure always leaves more questions unanswered than answered.

There are many labels we put on suicide to understand it, but his would seem more altruistic than anything. The theme of altruism in much of his work was what separated him from several contemporaries (not to mention the pointless "memoir" genre), who value and vaunt solipsism and navel-gazing over substance and form and utility. If you read the commencement address, you feel he is excoriating students to not place yourself at the center of the universe....that life is not just about YOU.

No word yet on whether there was a note, but I'm sure it will shed light on his thinking last Friday night. For now, the hole and void his fans feel, including me, will have to be filled with his works, which thankfully, live on in a kind of infinite jest.

UPDATE: A.O. Scott of the NYT had a nice tribute up over the weekend which speaks to many of the same generational themes as I did. Check it out.

No comments: