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What David Foster Wallace Meant To Me

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageWe lost one of the great ones this weekend. David Foster Wallace was found dead by hanging at the age of 46.

Widely considered by the literate press to be one of the great writers of his generation, grieving for David Foster Wallace brings up a lot of slightly uncomfortable questions for me personally. Not particularly because grieving for a man I’ve never met is weird—if you can’t empathize with somebody who’s mental weather was so tumultuous he put his head in a noose to end it, you have some severe personality issues—but because what he meant for me when he was alive. More than any other person I actually don’t know, David Foster Wallace changed my life.


David Foster Wallace was my favorite writer. That in itself is no big deal—everybody who reads has to have someone who is their favorite. What was a big deal was how intensely his writing affected me. Perhaps a little of it had to do with my coming to him  in my early to mid-20s, a crucial age in your life when you’ve left confused, nascent puberty and are coming into your own as an autonomous, functioning mental adult. But that can only explain part of it, because I’ve met a lot of people significantly older than me who feel the same way about him. I think the intensity had more to do with how huge the gulf was separating him from any other artist whose works I had sampled. DFW always seemed several cognitive steps ahead of everyone else working out there—and several steps ahead of me. Much of his stuff just made you shake your head in wonder that anybody’s mental metabolism was speeding fast enough to capture all that he did. The effect, I think, was not to show off how smart he was—which was one of the most common knocks on him, besides the basic length of what he put down—but to make you raise your own game. To use an analogy that risks alienating people who don’t follow professional basketball, the difference between reading DFW and reading a true show-off is something like the difference between playing basketball with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant—one guy uses their gifts to make everyone around him better, and the other uses his gift (in the hack sportswriter’s formulation of Kobe, anyway) to oppress and render teammates meek. How did DFW do this? I’ll get to that.

Let me get back to the notion of literary idols, and the kind of seemingly unhealthily intense imaginary relationships we can have with them—and why my imaginary friendship with DFW has been actually a very healthy, positive thing. So DFW was my favorite writer, head and shoulders above the rest. In a very abstract way, this meant that he was always the final authority I would appeal to in my head, because I literally considered him the smartest human being alive. It wasn’t really even a contest. I’ve never read anybody else who could articulate so much about what was happening both in and outside of his or her own head, and who used that to fulfill what I personally consider to be the overarching goal of serious literature: to tell us about what it feels like to be a human being alive at this particular time in history. He was prodigiously gifted, no one’s ever disputed that. There’s a lot of gifted people in the world—but few people feel such a sense of responsibility and seriousness for not wasting those gifts (God, try and imagine the work ethic writing Infinite Jest must have taken) and throwing himself into putting together books, stories, and essays with such care.

Wallace could dazzle you with his humor, but that’s not the reason he was so important to me. When he wanted to, he could be the funniest person I’ve ever read, met, watched, or even heard about—his ability to choose just the right phrase or telling detail or bizarre corner of human behavior to focus on produced humor that resonated with profundity in a way that could make you shake your head (check out his essays “Big Red Son” or “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” for copious examples). Nor was it because of his mastery of such a wide range of topics—though it is incredible (Wallace was a prodigy at something involving philosophical logic in college (which he described as more math than philosophy), wrote a book on the history of infinity as a mathematical concept, and was the writer who once he chose to write about a subject (say, cruise ships, or David Lynch, or the porn industry awards), all other writers would shy away from writing about said subject because the last word had been written (the true Writer’s Writer)). No, the reason has to do with the very paragraph I’ve just written, in particular the penultimate sentence…wherein I've tried (and failed, no doubt) to imitate his writing style, at least in terms of structure.

It doesn't have anything to do with literary technique. Quite simply, David Foster Wallace taught me how to think better. Not as good as him, but better. His sentences reflected the way human consciousness moves more accurately than any other writer or artist I’ve ever come in contact with. Dense, moving, often entertaining, twining around subjects with little curlicues of self-consciousness and self-consciousness about self-consciousness, seemingly without end, mashing up the High and the Low, deeply existential thoughts with everyday banalities and the little colloquialisms of everyday speech (such as e.g. his unexplained usage of academic abbreviations like the one in this parenthetical or like the way I just used the phrase “or like” as a transition within a sentence, a technique getting closer and closer to the reality of the stream-of-consciousness in your head whereby he purposely used “incorrect” grammar to better reflect the way people like you or me actually think, rather than the way English teachers tell us is how we should think)—his prose style made me feel as if I was stepping into the head of good old Dave Wallace himself (e.g. there’s another example of how his prose worked, I think—he would try and dazzle you with pyrotechnical, show-stoppingly complex sentence that rose and fell between different thoughts without stopping and then ended with a really folksy, “aw-schucks”  reference to the subject in question (i.e. “good old Dave Wallace”)).

As the above two paragraphs depressingly attest, I can’t do it like him. I just don’t have a giant enough genius brain to write the way he does and express every aspect and every facet of what I’m talking about while simultaneously keeping the reader entertained. Many have tried, most have failed, and I know I go in that category. But that’s relatively unimportant, in the long run. In the end it’s only of interest to me if DFW inspired me more than anyone else to stray off the easy path and become a writer (he did). The really deep and important and amazing thing (the run-on adjectives at the beginning of this sentence another trademark of Wallace’s, btw, as would be the “btw,”—and one of the reasons they’re so charming is because you KNOW DFW–the guy wrote a long essay on American English usage in Harper’s and could probably be the most intimidatingly fascistic high school English teacher if he wanted to—knows that that’s not the “proper” way to write, and it’s fun to conspire with him to snub your nose at the rules like this) DFW did was he helped me come to grips with the noise in my own head, the never-ending eruptions and eruptions out of eruptions of self-consciousness. One of the great, palliative things that fiction and belletristic writing in general do is exercise your empathy muscles, make you feel close to other human beings through the pretend reconstructions of characters’ consciousness on the page. It makes you feel less lonely. Literally: you feel less alone, because in writing like his (especially his) you can see that others feel and think and think about thinking just like you, and yet are not you.

And yes, he inspired me to write, often (even in this essay itself) in hopeless imitation of him. Again, what’s important is not that he changed the style of prose I wrote (again, he did, and again, who cares?) The profundity of DFW’s influence on my life is that he changed the style of prose I wrote naturally. The way things came out of my head and were formed into communication with myself and other people without me putting any conscious spin on it. He changed the very way I express myself, which is all even I have access to. That’s what I mean when I say that he changed the way I think. Think about that: he changed the way I think. What kind of higher aspiration could an artist putting his work out for the world have?

So I’ll always be grateful for what David Foster Wallace did for me. Nothing can bring him back or alleviate what he must’ve gone through to get him to where he ended up. But he made a difference in the world while he was here. And that’s something.