David Foster Wallace committed suicide by hanging on Friday. He’s probably best known for his immense, heavily footnoted novel, Infinite Jest, which I relished over the Christmas break of 1999-2000. But the most profound influence his work had for me was in his essays, full of humor and insight. His reporting was what all good reporting should be: riveting, impartial, cerebral.
As a sophomore in college, I read an article about the blurry line between literary fiction and science fiction by Lance Olsen. Among those cited were Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, two authors whose novels would help reshape the way I thought about fiction, and this the way I thought about life. I picked up IJ on a whim one evening, and had to keep a journal of who was who for the first two hundred pages or so. It had everything: an intriguing (if incredibly complex) plot, fascinating characters, hilarity and horror, and a short essay about Hawaii Five-O and Hill Street Blues. I quickly picked up the rest of his published material and burned through it over the next year.
Lying across my bed in the spring of 2000, I slowly read Wallace’s report from the campaign trail with John McCain. His analysis was intelligent and amusing, yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized what was so fantastic about it. It was actual reporting. In a time where most people writing about politics are participating in the practice with the very things they write, it is refreshing to see that a person can give a prosaic and honest report that stands apart from the game they are reporting. I’ve seen it many times in other arenas, yet in politics it seems to be dwindling into nothingness.
Wallace published a story in Harper’s earlier this year, and it seemed to be part of a novel in the making. I’ve been anticipating news of a new publication ever since. Perhaps something is nevertheless still in the pipeline, but tonight I can’t do anything but futilely try to wrap my mind around how someone whose work has been so influential in my life isn’t around anymore.