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Sam Anderson Remembers David Foster Wallace

Edwin Cohen's The rain reveals the hidden names of flowers (2008).

One of the first things that struck me, after my initial catatonic sadness at learning about the apparent suicide of David Foster Wallace over the weekend, was my complete verbal inadequacy to describe anything about it at all. Our obituaries, next to his work, are inevitably going to look weak and limited: rushed by the news cycle, squeezed by space constraints, disfigured by the safe generic distance of obit-writing — crippled, in other words, by precisely the things against which DFW stood in open (yet somehow polite, humble, apologetic) rebellion. He was the great enemy of word limits, proportion, and journalistic restraint. He aimed, in every single project, for the grand totalizing exhaustive gesture — whether it was a 1,000-page novel seeking to catalogue an entire culture (Infinite Jest) or a 100-page "experiential postcard" recounting a week on a cruise ship ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"). For Wallace, a thought could never actually, in good conscience, realistically, be finished — there was always one more reversal, one more qualifying clause, and an honest writer had to follow them out. Hence the famously never-ending sentences that spun off, even more famously, into never-ending footnotes. The black hole of his self-consciousness drew everything into it, even and especially self-consciousness itself. But that compulsion to be exhaustive was, apparently, exhausting.

What makes Wallace's death exponentially sadder is that the bedrock of his work was always simple human connection, and the basic daily struggle to be happy — questions on which he struck me as uncommonly wise. Over the last few days, lots of writers have quoted the 2005 commencement address he gave at Kenyon College, especially his little paragraph on suicide: "It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually long dead before they pull the trigger." The passage, unfortunately, is always going to glow now with a little extra flare of significance.

But what's actually most impressive, and touching, and heartbreaking about the Kenyon speech — what makes it worth reading not just for clues to Wallace's suicide but for life strategies that might actually help the rest of us handle our own day-to-day unhappiness — is its positive wisdom. Although there was clearly real pain behind it, his final message to the graduates was life-affirming, practically Buddhist. Adult happiness, he said, comes down to a nitty-gritty, moment-by-moment struggle for mindfulness — the ability to positively reframe the inevitable disappointments of daily life: "It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down." Wallace's writing, even his most cerebral, always verges on the border of self-help. In his very public struggle with uncool, lonely emotions (ambition, contentment, self-worth), he managed to pull off something miraculous: He found a way to heal, unembarrassingly, a rift that's divided creative writers for decades: writing as hyperintellectualized pomo high art vs. writing as therapy.

Lots of public figures organize their work around the demons that eventually take them down, but few of them ever do so with the apparent wisdom and self-awareness Wallace did. His insight makes it even more tragic that he eventually lost the struggle.

Public deaths usually strike me with all the emotional force of the deflation of a giant Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloon. Wallace's death is the first that ever caused me a visceral reaction: It knocked the spiritual wind out of me — made me actually, shockingly, cry, and then choke up whenever I tried to talk about it. He was my favorite living writer, and the contest wasn't particularly close. (Judging by the appreciations blooming across message boards and newspapers, this is not a minority opinion.) In his best work he hit something like an ideal suspension of personality in text: He was the perfect hybrid of hilarious-serious, intellectual-colloquial, personal-formal, youthful-ancient. He understood, both instinctively and analytically, why literature still matters in an increasingly text-averse culture. He was one of very few writers to pick up the DeLillo-Pynchon mantle and then have the shoulder strength, not just to stand there showboating, but to carry it off into his own territory, where it could do real emotional work. And he consistently, to quote his own highest praise for the writers he loved, "rang cherries."

Wallace had had suicide issues before, especially after his first novel (The Broom of the System) and story collection (Girl With Curious Hair) made him a literary star in his twenties. Knowing that he'd recovered from that was part of his vitality for me — his history of overcoming suicidal urges counterintuitively made his actual death doubly surprising. Wallace was a complicated genius — the analytical kind (in college he studied philosophy and math), the literary kind, but also the spiritual kind. You got the sense, from his work and from interviews, that he was a deeply sweet man looking hard for wisdom. It's easy to imagine an alternate ending for him in which, instead of suicide, he did something drastic like joining a monastery in the Himalayas.

Photo: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images