David Foster Wallace's novels and short stories teem with laboriously written accounts of various addictions, mental illnesses, obscure medical conditions and suicides, no less poignant for all their spellbinding hilarity. With titles like Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and The Broom of the System, Wallace's books comprise a kind of highbrow Jerry Springer Show for the kind of audience that doesn't think twice about spending half an hour reading in the bathroom after a bowel movement, but still can't find enough time for reading.
I was lucky. When I found Infinite Jest, I was unemployed, blessed with bronchitis and a broken TV, in a tiny, snow-covered town in New England. I was astounded by, among other things, Wallace's vocabulary: Dendriurethane? Megaspansules? Aposiopesis? "Does Wallace have a degree in pharmacology?" I wrote to a friend. "Where's he get this crap?"
The book opens at our own University of Arizona, where Wallace earned an MFA in the mid-'80s. Hal Incandenza, a promising recruit from a Boston-area tennis academy, is being interviewed by college officials while trying to hide the fact that he's paralyzed. Wallace knows the Tucson sun: "... people outdoors down here just scuttle in vectors from air conditioning to air conditioning. The sun is a hammer. I can feel one side of my face start to cook. The blue sky is glossy and fat with heat."
With wheelchair-bound Québecois terrorists rolling in and out of the plot, Infinite Jest explores the ins and outs of Alcoholics Anonymous and the tennis-academy founder's strange films, one of which is so vastly entertaining that its viewers are literally entertained to death. (Wallace's novel, combined with the bronchitis, nearly had the same effect on me.)
For young, unpublished novelists like myself, Wallace's suicide is a splash of cold water; he had as much success as any writer of literary fiction can hope for in this age of diverse, at-your-fingers entertainment. Critical respect and a small cadre of readers amount to the proverbial gold watch for us: what we expect after a lifetime of sacrifice and self-deprivation. We don't get paid for what we do, at least not now, and it'll probably never be enough to live on. Financially speaking, it's a ridiculously stupid career choice, and most of us could have excelled in lucrative fields. But someday, we think, we'll be like Wallace, and life will have been worth living.
"Among pernicious myths," Wallace writes early in Infinite Jest, "is the one where people always get very upbeat and generous and other-directed right before they eliminate their own map for keeps. The truth is that the hours before a suicide are usually an interval of enormous conceit and self-involvement."
This self-involvement isn't just the province of teenagers; the song "Suicide Is Painless" may have been written by a 14-year-old, but there's often a separation between the thought and the deed. Hamlet gives his to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy, then raises Cain before taking his leave.
"It strikes me that EXIT signs would look to a native speaker of Latin like red-lit signs that say HE LEAVES," Wallace writes elsewhere in the book.
Well, Wallace has left the building. Suicide brings on many changes; somewhere, sadly, a young writer will follow Wallace to the noose. We can't judge. All we can do is turn to the young artists in our lives, the most sensitive among us, and tell them we respect what they're doing. Tell them we can't wait 'til they're published. Tell them that though it might seem like the bee's knees to be having coffee with Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace, we need them here. We need them not to leave.
As for me, I won't be following Wallace anytime soon. I'm stuck on my second novel, A Book That Nobody Can Write. Thanks to the vast and endless book that somehow ended up being finite, I know it can be done.