I'm not sure why, but the spectre of death seems to be haunting me lately, with my father-in-law's death a month ago, two relatively young parents of friends, and then a series of celebrity deaths (Bernie Mac, Tim Russert, Isaac Hayes, Jerry Wexler, Bill Coday, Jerry Reed). An hour or so ago, I found out about the death of David Foster Wallace, apparently by suicide, in his home outside of Los Angeles. He was 46.
Foster Wallace's writing (primarily his non-fiction material) was always deeply inspiring to me, especially as he wrestled with the ideas of identity and meaning in an irony saturated society obsessed with flooding itself with media. I picked up Infinite Jest after reading Foster Wallace's work in the now defunct Might magazine and tried and tried to get through the dense narrative to no avail on several occasions, but the following year's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again changed everything for me. All of a sudden, there was a world of possibility opened up in non-fiction, where the writer could be creative, funny, and post-modern while remaining informative and interesting. Since my first obsessive read with the book, I've had my eyes opened to a number of writers able to pull that delicate balance off, but every year or so, I return to A Supposedly Fun Thing... and pour through the stories and their innumerable footnotes, amazed each time. This week, while spending time trying to figure out whether to go to grad school and where, I remembered that Foster Wallace got his MFA from the University of Arizona in my hometown of Tucson, which led me to think that if I ended up there, maybe something would rub off. To say the least, finding out Wallace couldn't find a way to cope with this world, in whatever manifestation did him in, is distressing.
Still, he left behind an incredible body of work. Foster Wallace gave the commencement speech to graduates of Hunter College in 2005, and while the section of the address referencing a method of suicide is heartbreaking, it's still a great read, and, at least to me, thought-provoking. My favorite line, and something I try to consider while making decisions sometimes: "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."
Thanks for everything, David Foster Wallace.
EDIT: Most of DFW's non-fiction work is collected into books and not immediately available online, but I did come across a PDF of his article on Roger Federer for the New York Times in 2006, which is complex, strange and brilliant.