Death of a genius

By many accounts, David Foster Wallace was the greatest American writer of the past 50 years.

Arts & Culture - Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 4:55 - 0 Comments

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David Foster Wallace, “the most significant writer of his generation”, kills himself at 46.

‘He’s so modern he’s in a different timespace continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him!’
Zadie Smith (2005)

There is a well known story of how Noam Chomsky, the celebrated intellectual and linguist, was so prolific and his intellectual range so wide that a researcher once listed him in a bibliography twice. When asked why, the researcher admitted he had simply assumed the linguistics and the foreign policy papers he was referencing were just too extensive in their expertise to have been the work of a single human being. In fact, the researcher had been going about for years assuming two Noam Chomskys existed: The Linguistics Expert and the Polymathic Public Intellectual For anyone who knows the breadth of Chomsky’s work this “mistake”, committed back in an age where no fast internet access was readily available to all, was understandable.

I mention this story because the same thing happened to me five years ago. When I came across a newly published book on Mathematics called “Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity” replete with equations and dizzying abstractions by someone called David Foster Wallace, the possibility that this could be the same person who was one the world’s leading novelists and short story writers seemed too obscenely far-fetched to contemplate. For a brief period of time (admittedly lasting less than a few minutes) I simply chose to believe the least incredible of the two options: That two David Foster Wallaces existed. But no, the mathematical virtuoso and the prose craftsman were, indeed, one and the same, although for the vast majority of people, he will always be known as writer of fiction and first-class journalism. (Incidentally, his mathematical opus tanked after receiving a reticent welcome by the critics who complained it was “too hard and inaccessible”).

By many accounts, David Foster Wallace was the greatest American writer of the past 50 years. He was the unofficial successor (some would even say “dauphin”) of the golden generation of Updike, Roth, Bellow, DeLillo and (the author he was said most to resemble) Thomas Pynchon.

His Novel “Infinite Jest”, published in 1996, was a sprawling gargantuan beast of more than a thousand pages, endless footnotes and almost criminal levels of comicality and was rightly considered his generation’s answer to Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, a formidable accolade indeed. It was also, inexplicably, a commercial triumph, a remarkable achievement indeed for a novel about (in as far as it is “about” something) tennis, videotapes and the tragicomic undertones of the American psyche.

Alas, David Foster Wallace is no more. He hanged himself last week on Friday 12th September 2008 at the age of 46. The impact of this sudden and catastrophic loss to American Literature will take time to figure out but the early signs (in the countless obituaries and tributes) are unmistakable: We have witnessed the death of a rare and irreplaceable talent.

For many, however, David Foster Wallace will be remembered not only for his stylistic pyrotechnics, his obsession with treating the English language as a laboratory zone, his affability as a human being, his tremendous abilities as a teacher and his astonishing range of register but also for his unique sense of humour.

Indeed, his reputation as a “comedian of culture” (as James Woods described him) is as underrated as it is overlooked. This is particularly resonant considering he himself has decried this very lacuna in relation to other people’s work. In ‘Consider the Lobster’, his 2005 collection of essays, he wrote “For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny”. Let’s hope his many fans will ensure this doesn’t happen to his own work.

May his memory last and may his work continue to bring fascination and laughter to millions for many decades to come.

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

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