Writer David Foster Wallace died at the age of 46 last Friday. His wife came home to find him hanging by a noose, an apparent suicide.
In March 2005 I linked to this Atlantic story he did about conservative radio talk show hosts. (It has a cool footnote/sidebar feature which I must figure out how to do.) He could be really, really funny as seen in the talk show piece.
When Mr. Z.'s impassioned, his voice rises and his arms wave around (which obviously only those in the Airmix room can see). He also fidgets, bobs slightly up and down in his executive desk chair, and weaves. Although he must stay seated and can't pace around the room, the host does not have to keep his mouth any set distance from the microphone, since the board op, 'Mondo Hernandez, can adjust his levels on the mixing board's channel 7 so that Mr. Z.'s volume always stays in range and never peaks or fades. 'Mondo, whose price for letting outside parties hang around Airmix is one large bag of cool-ranch Doritos per evening, is an immense twenty-one-year-old man with a ponytail, stony Mesoamerican features, and the placid, grandmotherly eyes common to giant mammals everywhere.
He was really smart too, as show by the great argument he puts forward in this piece. To summarize: we endure thousands of automobile deaths in order that we have the freedom to drive. We should be able to endure inevitable terrorist attacks, without sacrificing our civil liberties or giving government absolute power over its citizenry.
What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer - are they worth it?We should think of the victims of terrorist attacks as "democratic martyrs" for "the American idea."**
Infinite Jest was of course his big hit. I dated a girl five years or so younger than me, who had gone to Northwestern (and hence a braniac with a work ethic) and her and her friends would quote lines from it. I enjoyed it, especially the conceit about the government commodifying time and selling corporations the right to name certain years,*** so for example year 2017 was known as 2017: Year of the Depends Adult Diaper. His many footnotes were very informative and very funny.
Mark Twain said, he's all there in his work. His piece Consider the Lobster.
As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way - hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.Slate has some people write up their memories and thoughts. Jordan Ellenberg writes:
But there's a deeper likeness, too. "We live today," he told the Believer in 2003, "in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it's next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life." Technical complexity, a turnoff to most, was Wallace's bread and meat. He was never interested in the kind of truths that you could sum up in 10 words - which is why it's so hard to quote Wallace 10 words at a time.Michiko Kakutani puts him inside the context of other fiction writers:
Like Mr. DeLillo and Salman Rushdie, and like Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and other younger authors, Mr. Wallace transcended Philip Rahv’s famous division of writers into "palefaces" (like Henry James and T. S. Eliot, who specialized in heady, cultivated works rich in symbolism and allegory) and "redskins" (like Whitman and Dreiser, who embraced an earthier, more emotional naturalism). He also transcended Cyril Connolly’s division of writers into "mandarins" (like Proust, who favored ornate, even byzantine prose) and "vernacular" stylists (like Hemingway, who leaned toward more conversational tropes). An ardent magpie, Mr. Wallace tossed together the literary and the colloquial with hyperventilated glee, using an encyclopedia of styles and techniques to try to capture the cacophony of contemporary America.
* the footnote meister
** in a footnote to "the American idea" Wallace writes "let's just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes - an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency ... the whole democratic roil."
*** I remember a time when sports stadiums didn't have corporate brands in their names.