The night I met my friend Sean Murray back in December 2004, he pressed into my hand a CD containing the text of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, a book he described as being one part of a melancholic millennial trinity that also included Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and PT Anderson’s Magnolia. Intimidated by the prospect of reading a 1000-plus-page tome on the screen, I didn’t get around to beginning it until a couple of months ago when I found a copy in the Secret Book & Record Store on Wicklow St in Dublin.
In the interim, Wallace had become something of a talismanic figure, one whose ambition and influence buzzed away like background radiation. While I was toiling over an unwieldy tale concerning a man who re-experiences his entire life in a matter of seconds at the moment of his death, Sean suggested I read Wallace’s short story ‘Good Old Neon’ from the Oblivion collection. That narrative hinged around the notion that death goes on forever in the mind of the dying, a complex idea voiced so simply and elegantly that I conceded defeat, abandoned my yarn and moved on.
That was the problem with Wallace: no matter where you went in the land of language, he seemed to have been there first. He didn’t just colonise virgin territory, he built cities in the wilderness. A philosopher, essayist, journalist and novelist, he hit the ground running when he was still a student at Amherst college, and over the next 20 years blazed a trail as a writer, delivering two heavyweight novels and numerous collections of short stories and non-fiction (his essay on David Lynch was superb), receiving the McArthur Genius Grant in 1997.
It’s become apparent over the past couple of weeks that Wallace was the one the McSweeney’s generation regarded as the master, maybe the only one with the shoulders to carry that odious Voice of a Generation albatross. Infinite Jest was regarded as a modern classic within a few short years of its publication, a sprawling, hyper-original work that used a post-modernist club to beat the crap out of smug, detached Post Modernism itself.
But it was no secret that he was a troubled character, and had written extensively about his struggles with his early success, addiction, and a lifelong battle with depression. Watching the archived Wallace interview on the Charlie Rose Show a few months ago, I was reminded of the line from Julius Caesar: “He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.”
Wallace was found dead by his wife at his home in Claremont on Friday, September 12. He’d apparently hanged himself. It had been a black summer for the writer: his long-term medication had begun to manifest side effects, so he was forced to stop taking it. His depression had grown so severe that he underwent ECT.
It would be unsavoury – if not obscene – for Wallace to become regarded as yet another romantic literary suicide (he was 46, the prime of life for a writer). He was a moralist whose awareness of the many ironies stitched into the totality of existence dovetailed with a staunch humanism and idealism, and he would’ve made a fine old man of letters. One can only hope that he’s found some measure of peace on the other side.