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Remembering David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

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The death of novelist David Foster Wallace represents a major loss to American letters. In an age in which serious fiction seems content with achieving smaller and smaller effects in a marginalized corner of contemporary culture, Wallace was not afraid of trying for the home run. He reminded us that the novel still possesses the ability to cut through the noise and banality of modern life and deliver something more formidable than even the latest blockbuster on your local megaplex movie screen.

Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a big, sprawling book that scares off many readers by its sheer size. Spanning 484,000 words on almost 1100 densely packed pages, this is a big novel by any definition. Yet the creativity and energy of Wallace’s vision never lag. Few writers have ever been better at delivering scintillating prose, sentence after sentence, without ever seeming to run dry. He is one of those authors — Proust and Nabokov come to mind here — whose books can be opened to almost any page at random, and the reader will be sure to find something brilliant and quotable.

Yet this was more than mere word play. Infinite Jest is not just an exercise in dazzling prose. Wallace crafted one of the more profound works of fiction of our time, an exposé of the follies and foibles of post-modern life. There is a certain paradox here: Infinite Jest was, as its title suggests, full of good humor . . . but with a skull in hand. This is one of the most sober (in more than one sense of the word) novels you will ever read, and also one of the funniest. The novel is also loaded with irony, but also one of the most caustic critiques of irony.

The author no doubt lived much of this paradox. His death by suicide at age forty-six eerily reminds us of the self-destructive characters who populate his fictions. Readers who have spent time grappling with these books may be shocked by the specific details of his passing, but the fact that he wrestled with personal demons will come as no surprise to them. His books are almost painfully honest in this regard.

Although Infinite Jest will stand out as his most significant work, Wallace was also a master of smaller forms. He didn't need a thousand pages to work his magic. His short stories are potent and wicked in their portrayals. Wallace also was an essayist and journalist of note, and brought a fresh perspective to a range of topics, from tennis to politics, food to literary criticism.

Critics will continue to debate his writings for a long time to come. Wallace’s books are multi-layered and complex, and not easily susceptible to pigeonholing. As such, they almost demand heated discussion. But I am confident that this author’s work will stand the test of time. Alas poor David Wallace, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy, you will be greatly missed.

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About Ted Gioia

  • dang, i woke up this morning to hear this news. really sad.

    i’ve loved his essays. he did one about going on a cruise ship that was fall-off-the-couch funny.

  • Ted: Thank you for this – it’s the best thing I’ve read since getting the news last night. You really nailed it re IJ (hands down my favorite book ever) and his writing style.

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    I know, I was really stunned to read of his death, far too young. I seemed like he had it all, all that any writer would want– a really enviable career. But obviously he had some huge demons. Tragic. Thanks for the lovely eulogy.

  • Shocking news indeed, but thanks for a great tribute.