Had he not committed suicide in 2008, David Foster Wallace would have celebrated his 50th birthday on Tuesday, 21 February. The message he has left from his writings is that we’d do better to take heed of how he tried to live than of how he died.
In 1999, when David Foster Wallace had already published two novels, two short story collections and two works of non-fiction – including the ground-breaking A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – his alma mater Amherst College ran a Q & A interview with him in the university magazine. Among the questions that the famous writer chose to ignore were numbers 3 and 4, which asked, respectively, how he thought people at Amherst would remember him, and how he best remembered Amherst. This was unsurprising, not because the questions were shallow and somewhat obsequious (as they undoubtedly were), but because Wallace, a generous man given to pardoning another human being’s shortcomings, had trained at Amherst as a philosopher: the existential and metaphysical conundrums posed by memory and the fluidity of identity would conceivably have rendered any attempt at a pair of answers redundant. What he did answer, however, was question 5, where the interviewer posed the far more subtle query about his “disappointments” while at the school.
Wrote Wallace in response: “The things about Amherst that, in hindsight, disappoint me are things not about Amherst but about who I was when I was there. I let almost no one know me, and I lost the chance to know and learn from most of my peers. It took years after I’d graduated from Amherst to realise that people were actually far more complicated and interesting than books, that almost everyone else suffered the same secret fears and inadequacies as I, and that feeling alone and inferior was actually the great valent bond between us all. I wish I’d been smart enough to understand that when I was an adolescent.”
Given that a few years after graduating from Amherst, Wallace was, by his own admission, a late-stage addict and alcoholic, had been in rehabs and psych wards, had undergone ECT treatment, and had made at least one serious suicide attempt, his effort to compare his own sufferings with those of his fellow students is emblematic of a deep compassion. The fact that he ultimately did take his own life, on 12 September 2008, is evidence of the sad truth that he never quite managed, despite his prodigious talents, to extend that compassion to himself.
On 21 February 2012 David Foster Wallace would have turned 50, and the question regarding the above dominates once again the English-speaking world’s literary pages – why? It’s a question that was best put by his close friend Jonathan Franzen in the weeks following the death: “And so now this handsome, brilliant, funny, kind Midwestern man with an amazing spouse and a great local support network and a great career and a great job at a great school with great students has taken his own life, and the rest of us are left behind to ask (to quote Infinite Jest), ‘So yo then, man, what’s your story?’”
Wallace had many stories, of course, which was Franzen’s point. His fiction, specifically the monumental Infinite Jest, was – and is now more than ever – lionised for its unbridled vitality, its sizzling unpacking of America as the land of addictions (to television, to narcotics, to the self) told through a range of narrative devices that are truly deserving of the qualifier “Dostoevskyan”. Similarly, his essays and journalism, which only on very rare occasions fail to hang their mind-boggling digressions on a blistering narrative spine, have raised the ante for all contemporary writers of non-fiction. So can Wallace’s own life story – death by suicide at age 46 – really be as simple as the fact that he suffered from acute depression? Is all we can take from his self-slaughter the insight that he chose to go off his meds?
For a number of critics and fans, there is a better story that can be used to define Wallace’s short time on this earth. It’s a simple one, taken from the opening paragraph to the commencement speech he gave in 2005 to the graduating class at Kenyon College, and it goes like this: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
Wallace’s career – his persona, his very being – was dedicated to understanding and unpacking the element in which we all live. And such an endeavour, by its nature, is guaranteed to challenge every notion of the self, to literally rip up the foundations with which an individual is equipped to confront the world. As Wallace said further on in that address: “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”
Moving away from his own immediate experience was Wallace’s lifeblood. Famously, his 2005 essay Consider the Lobster took that quest to the Maine Lobster Festival, where his enjoyment of the delicacy was spoiled by an overpowering need to deconstruct, in exquisite and compelling detail, the creature’s sensory neurons. The piece was published in Gourmet magazine to much controversy, but like all his best writing, it didn’t moralise or demand abstinence – it only asked us, through the strength of the prose, to be aware of our actions.
“It is unimaginably hard to do this,” he ended the Kenyon address, “to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.”