You'd think that knowing all the facts would make you feel a little better about the outcome. But this New Yorker piece about David Foster Wallace's life, death, and career just makes me feel worse. I knew I would miss him, but I am surprised at how often I think of Wallace: at least once a week since his suicide, I've come across something, some cultural phenomenon or political imbroglio or literary controversy, and instantly regretted that Wallace would never see it, never know about it, never weigh in on it. His patterns of thought are permanently imprinted on my mind--more so than those of most people I actually know. That's because he put more of himself into his work than any other writer of my generation. He laid it on the line.
Anyway, the enormity of this loss is finally beginning to sink in. As Rhian said to me the other night, Wallace's ambition was a force that held all other writers aloft. No matter how lazy any of us was feeling, we could always be assured that Wallace was trying harder than everybody else. He was a leader, and there is really nobody to replace him. Oh, there are lots of excellent writers around our age, doing very fine work. But none of them has the personal and professional cachet that Wallace did--he was virtually synonymous with Contemporary American Literature, and it always made me proud to be engaged in the same kind of work as him.
That's not to say he was a writer of great books. I don't think he ever really produced one--he produced great bits of things. There's greatness in all of his stuff. But all of it was interestingly flawed. According to that New Yorker piece, he seemed to know this. His ambition was always three steps ahead of his ability. That's the mark of a great artist, in my book. His struggle to write the present unfinished novel, The Pale King, is incredibly sad and moving to behold.
This excerpt, "Wiggle Room," strikes me as pretty terrific, though I'm sure that it will soon be drenched in haterade, as was the previous excerpt. I am more confident than ever in my long-held opinion that Wallace was both the most nerdy of writers and the most sentimental, and these excerpts suggest that he was trying very hard to actualize his own truest self, the one that I have always been rooting for him to bring to the fore.
The lesson to take away from this, for all of us who write fiction, is to stop being such wimp-assed pencil pushers and get out of our comfort zones once and for all. Wallace isn't going to cover us anymore. If contemporary literature is going to be taken seriously, we're going to have to make literature worth taking seriously, even if it fails, as so much of Wallace's brilliantest stuff did. Otherwise we'll be relegated to the cultural footnote the film industry has been stuffing us into for years. Fiction writing should not be an amusing affectation. It should be the ultimate expression of being human, as Wallace thought it should be. Try harder. That's what we all have to do.
As for the unfinished novel--I'm looking forward to seeing what this thing is, and imagining what it might have been. Clearly Wallace wanted it out there--he left it neatly organized for his wife to find, and I think he would have had no trouble destroying it, along with himself, if that's what he felt was necessary. Perhaps it's a message to all of us who aspired to be more like him: this is as much as I could do, you take it from here.