There have been many fine tributes to David Foster Wallace and some very good accounts of the circumstances leading up to his suicide, but this one, by D.T. Max in the current issue of the New Yorker, is the only one that made me weep.
The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”
So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool. In the interview with McCaffery, he said, “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet.” He also said, “All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.”
I am not one for artistic manifestos. But if I had to have one, "I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff" seems like a good one.