Remembering David Foster Wallace

Remembering David Foster Wallace

It's not without reticence that I will admit one of the highlights of my career, as it were, is having been blurbed in a book by David Foster Wallace. It's in the paperback of his short-story collection Oblivion, which I reviewed here when it first came out. The blurb is nothing to stake a lasting claim to (something about how "his sentences crackle and swoon, patiently peeling back the layers of artifice that cloak the Big Questions"), but what I like about it now is how owning up to prizing that blurb as much as I do owes a lot to the kind of rigorous intrapersonal scrutinizing that Wallace made his project.

I hate deferring to myself so indecorously in anything I write. Really, I do. And especially in light of the death of someone I didn't even know. But it's all I have in this context, and it's all any of us who didn't know him has, if we're honest. It's a vain pursuit to speculate about the specifics of what Wallace was like as an actual guy living an actual life. (Read his indignant, instructive review of this Borges biography if you want to know why.) But, of course, vanity is what steers us so much of the time. Given that, a given if there ever was one, it's a wonder how rigorously and how, well, givingly Wallace made sense of those impulses toward vanity–grotesque, comical, mundane vanity–that we all share. Some of us are more honest about it than others, but vanity is always there, as a factor if not a driving force.

Wallace's work was nothing if not honest. His specialty, to me, was always the seriousness with which he surveyed those little private moments that engender shame, that special kind of embarrassment-before-self that makes us wither and recoil when we're left alone in churning judgment of ourselves and all the ways we flounder in the world. Maybe it was always darker than I knew, but I've always read him in those moments as possessed by a special kind of glee. He was so good at it, so piercing and poignant, that I assumed Wallace must thrill over his own work as much as those of us who lapped it up so electrically. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't.

Reading his novel Infinite Jest when I read it taught me how to read the way I do. I was fresh out of college, where I'd taken to reading as a pursuit but not on the terms that Wallace would soon introduce. I'd never come across writing so exuberant and unhinged–and rigorous. That's a word I can't use without thinking of him, because he used it so well but also because of the ways his writing exhibited rigor in all its most focused, persistent, and morally directed connotations. (Anyone who hasn't should read Wallace's 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College at least twice.)

One book I hope doesn't get lost in all the tributes sure to keep coming after Wallace's death this weekend is Everything And More: A Compact History Of Infinity. It's a non-fiction book about math at its most complicated and abstract, but Wallace winds his way through it like a guide eager to tug along anyone who would even consider the enterprise. In truth it's actually a little bit creepy, his command of subject matter that is by definition limitless in its standing. But then, as Wallace shows, infinity isn't "limitless" in all the ways we might think. It's limitlessly big and limitlessly small in terms of calculation, but it's also something more or less comprehensible that mathematicians have learned to reconcile to constructive ends. Let's count that as a project worth remembering.

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