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David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

Filed under: In Memoriam   Tagged:

Martin Schneider writes:

Wow. This is very, very, very, very sad. Wallace was one of my very favorite writers, and I'm devastated that he's gone, of suicide, at the young age of 46. I value his essays and journalism as much as anything written since 1990 or so. The one about the cruise, the one about McCain, the one about Michael Joyce.... top marks, all, and so many others. His work wasn't for everyone, but I really took to it. He made the literary landscape more special than almost anyone I can think of.

One day in 2005, I noticed that his Wikipedia page was practically empty. Consternated, I proceeded to contribute about ten moderately feverish paragraphs of questionable accuracy attempting to summarize his work to date. There was a lot wrong with it, and subsequent Wikipedia editors were neither slow nor shy in undoing some of my more intemperate remarks. That page has changed a lot, but I was the first to give it a skeleton. In a very small and inconsequential way, I'm proud to have played a role in the public perception of this very special writer.

I saw him read once, at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in support of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (he was incredibly entertaining) and afterward I lined up to get a book inscribed. A very thrifty friend of mine had brought a battered hardback of Infinite Jest, recently thrown out of the Newark Library System, and Wallace engaged in a little banter about that. I happened to have a Robert Coover novel with me, and rather flippantly handed it to him to sign; in his hyper-scrupulous way, he made it plain that he could not in good conscience put his name in a book by another writer. (I'm an idiot.) Instead he inscribed my copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I'll never forget that chilly blast of ethics; it still reminds me of his essayistic voice.

In the Wikipedia link above, readers will notice that I pursue an extended comparison between Wallace and Norman Mailer. I've put it out there a few times, and I think nobody really agrees with me, but I still think it has legs. Experimental writer of "big" ambitious fiction capable of sublime passages of ten or fifty pages; journalist of genius. That describes both men; how unspeakably horrible to lose both within the space of a year.

A few years ago I started a small collection of original periodicals containing Wallace articles; it's so upsetting that they have become true collector's items so soon.

Update: Those who (like myself) find themselves separated from their collection of Wallace's writings may be eager to know where they can get some online. I know of three complete works to read, and most of one to listen to.

His 2001 overview of the "usage wars," which appeared in Harper's, can be read here.

His 2004 article about the ethics of consuming lobster, which appeared in Gourmet magazine, can be read here (PDF).

His 2005 essay about a conservative radio host, which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, can be read here.

I don't think many people are aware of this, but there is an excellent podcast of Wallace reading from his article about 9/11 that appeared in Rolling Stone right after the tragic event. That podcast can be found in iTunes under "KCET podcast: Hammer Conversations."


Dear Mr. Schneider,
I am sorry to tell you that reading your article about David Foster Wallace, I found you talking alot about yourself rather than talking about your devastation that he’s gone. I would appreciate it very much if you could find out the reasons behind committing suicide, and what does that mean to society in relation to being a novelist and a thinker.

Waleed MuradSeptember 14, 2008

I agree with your assessment. I thought it would be even more presumptuous to venture guesses as to Wallace’s reasons for committing suicide. I don’t know if it means anything in particular about how novelists relate to society.

The death of such people is a literary story in itself. It is not a story to be written by a policeman. What is expected from a policeman to write about a writer. People like you consider Wallace as one of your very favorite writers would guess right such a guy would commit suicide. Death of such people deos not happen the moment they die. It happens in the past. Ending like that is not an event, it is a message to be read by the society, it is a screem of a man said to be one of the best writers for the last 50 years. Regards, Waleed

Waleed MuradSeptember 14, 2008

I saw him read in San Francisco, and I brought friend to whom I had given one of his books. I forgot that I had had inscribed a note in her book about it having been remaindered. He read my inscription, then wrote next to it “And wasn’t that a fucking bitch.”


Don’t sweat Waleed’s weird, inscrutably motivated chiding. I liked what you wrote about DFW.

In citing the cruise ship essay and the Michael Joyce piece, you reveal your good taste, or at least the taste you share with me. Those are the very essays I cite as favorite examples of his singular craft in the remembrance I posted on my site.

See you Oct. 3-4-5, perhaps…

Thanks for posting this, Martin, and so quickly. I recall seeing Hemingway’s suicide described once as a “shot heard round the world”, and while I don’t think that Wallace was quite so instrumental in changing literary aesthetics as Hemingway, he nonetheless grappled head-on with an increasingly noisy, fractured culture, where irony, spin, and sincerity are variously and unpredictably in play.

I didn’t read enough of him while he was alive. I’ll rectify that now, but I’m saddened to think I took it for granted that he’d always be out there somewhere, white-hot talent undimmed, for the rest of my life.

Thanks very much, guys. On Joyce, it’s an interesting thing. 1996, IJ was out and had gotten a lot of attention, but there are plenty of “big novels” that get a lot of attention. I had a copy. But my perception of DFW changed unalterably one day when my father, a lifelong (and well-read) tennis fan who had seen Budge and Pancho play, mentioned that his latest issue of Tennis magazine had arrived with the best article about tennis he had ever read in his life. That piece was not the Joyce piece, it was a US Open preview; I think my father was truly astonished that such a dazzling piece of work could have found its way there. But I think after reading that, he began to occupy a different category for me.

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