David Foster Wallace is Dead

David Foster Wallace, an American writer with a sharp wit, an illimitable vocabulary, and an odd way with satire and irony, hanged himself at his home in California on Saturday. He was 46 years old.

Tributes to Wallace abound on the Web, so instead I will give you the following anecdote.

Late last winter a friend announced that he and his sweetie had booked themselves on a seven day Caribbean cruise. I immediately thought of an article I’d read in Harper’s magazine some ten or more years earlier, an exposé of the tragically comic world of cruise ships and their inhabitants, from the disinterested yet artificially enthusiastic activity directors to the overly enthusiastic yet culturally neutered “guests.” The article skewered and roasted them all.

When I read that article I was struck dumb. I immediately set it as the benchmark for the best article of its type that I had ever read. It was the one against which all others would be measured (including, unfortunately, my own literary fits and starts, for which I could never muster much enthusiasm given how far they seemed from the marks on that bench).

I read the article several times in the few years after it came out, each time laughing and cringing along with the author, caught up in a dizzying and squirmy hailstorm of schadenfreude as the characters in the story, including the author, staggered through one human train wreck after another. This was the gold standard of satirical writing of a sort that seemed too real and truthful to even be thought of as satire.

Over the years and through the address changes, I eventually lost that copy of Harper’s magazine, even though images from the article lingered in my mind any time I saw an ad for a cruise line, which in these cold climes are abundant in the fall and winter. When my friend mentioned his upcoming cruise, I told him about the article and said I would try to find it. He seemed uninterested, stating that he was aware of the pitfalls of mass consumer holidays and had planned this one as simply a break for him and his freshly impregnated spouse, as their last bit of one-on-one quiet time for the foreseeable future. Fair enough, but I embarked on my search anyway.

I didn’t have much to go on; just “Harper’s, mid-1990s, cruise ships.” The Harper’s web site was of no use, and a Google search netted me thousands of bogus hits. I eventually managed to find a reproduction of the article on some obscure third-party Web site, although it was full of typos, which implies it was created by scanning the article and running it through an optical character recognition application. In other words, it was not the most reliable version, and the typos were highly annoying. Still, I had the thing for better or worse.

But it was long. 20,000 words long. 25% of a novel long. I cleaned up some of the errors and reformatted the article into an easy-to-read, two-column layout and made a PDF that I printed (25 pages, or 13 sheets using a duplex printer). A big read, just waiting to be read.

In the end I never gave the article to my friend because I didn’t want to ruin his vacation. Upon his return he announced that they had enjoyed themselves despite the proliferation of fakery, which for me was an interesting lesson. After all, I’ve never taken a Caribbean cruise, although there is a part of me that would like to. There is something appealing about having a small room on a boat with a view of the ocean, and nothing to do but read your book (or write one), eat, drink, and make fun of the other passengers. Frankly, that sounds like a pretty good time.

My friends, of course, also have pretty good eyes for the authentic and the inauthentic, and they know how to work around things that are not appealing. The writer of the article, on the other hand, boarded his cruise ship alone, with a diarist’s eye and a bit of an attitude. An attitude I can embrace, by the way, but an attitude nonetheless.

Still, that article holds its mark on the bench, challenged only by Charlie LeDuff’s April 2008 article in Vanity Fair on iconic but aging photographer Robert Frank’s recent visit to China. Come to think of it, the LeDuff article (“Robert Frank’s Unsentimental Journey“) probably surpasses the cruise ship one, but barely.

If you haven’t surmised it already, the cruise ship article, entitled “Shipping Out,” was written by John Foster Wallace. It was not his first major publication, but it’s the one that launched him into public awareness. The article was followed by several more reputedly excellent pieces as well as a number of fiction and non-fiction books, none of which I have read.

That article, which appeared in the January 1996 issue of Harper’s, was republished a year later in Wallace’s book of essays “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” As you probably suspect, the book takes its title from the cruise ship essay.

Now David Foster Wallace is dead, by his own hand. While I think I understand why fellow writers Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson took their own lives (which is not to say I condone their doing so), I have no idea why Wallace did it. But I suppose that is understandable given how little of his work I know, even if that one Harper’s piece was for the past 12 years my favorite article.

According to reports on the Web, Wallace had been withdrawn lately, and had shown signs that indicated depression. Presumably a person on his beat could wear such drapery without raising any alarms, as it would be seen as the costume of his literary interests. But apparently it was more than that. He hanged himself at home, leaving his wife to discover the lifeless body, an act that makes me want to slam the book of Wallace shut right now. But I won’t. The writing, what little I’ve seen of it, is just too good. I suspect I will, in the coming months and years, dip further into his written legacy, which will likely leave me cursing him even more for ending his life and his talent at such a young age.

18 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace is Dead

  1. I was introduced to DFW back in 2002, and it took me over 2 months of serious reading to finish “Infinite Jest.” His writing style is definitely interesting, but I can’t say that he’s absolutely riveting.
    However, had I known that the article you were talking about was written by him, I would have been more interested.
    There’s apparently a letter to the editor in Harper’s regarding one of Wallace’s article, written in the exact same style, with footnotes, endnotes, and addenda to footnotes.

  2. Well, to be honest, I can’t imagine I’m ever going to read “Infinite Jest.” It’s just too big. But his essays are something different from what I gather. The “Shipping Out” article was certainly long, and I think there were some footnotes, but it wasn’t what I would call “experimental” in any way. Very first person, very opinionated, and very readable.

  3. I enjoyed the Harper’s cruise ship article very much. You forwarded it to me upon my mention of our impending Caribbean excursion. We will be traveling with in-laws as well as friends & relatives of the in-laws. Perhaps I should keep a diary for you which would serve as sweetener for your morose delectation.

    As suggested, I’ve kept the article away from the rest of the travelers. What they don’t know won’t hurt them. I will simply sit back, drink in hand and nod smugly to myself when I see examples of “disinterested yet artificially enthusiastic activity directors” and “overly enthusiastic yet culturally neutered guests.” If that gets boring… fuggit, I’ll join them for “Scrapbooking 101” and the Crab-flavored Pollack buffet!!!

  4. Way to go, Har. I look forward to your report. BTW, I have a copy of Jeff’s book for you.

  5. It’s short notice, but on “Fresh Air” today,
    Monday Sept 15th (receivable on the Vermont NPR
    station at 3pm) they will run an interview with
    him from 1997, in the second half of the show.

    Michael

  6. I just got this news today, which is horrible. Blork: The whole collection you mention (“Supposedly Fun Thing…”) is great great great.

    Another hilarious footnote (!) is that he was commissioned to write about the Maine Lobster Festival several years ago by Gourmet magazine. He got stuck on the whole ethical/pain implications of boiling it alive, and spoke to vets, pain doctors, neurologists, etc., and eventually (!!!) submitted it as a long screed against animal cruelty. Hilariously, Ruth Reichl of Gourmet was forced to/chose to publish it verbatim–in her tony lifestyle-cooking mag! They got soo many letters for that LOL!

    I love his style, I love his minutiae, and the news that his depression and substance issues finally felled him is absolutely heartbreaking. May he rest.

  7. It’s such a drag he did that, but I don’t think the act carries with it some universal rules or truths about being a writer. Still, I think we are possibly more sensitive to the world than some.

  8. Keep in mind that depression isn’t having the blues or feeling down. It’s a brain disease, a chemical disruption in the brain keeping it from making reasoned decisions and choices and everything just becomes seemingly incurably sad and desperate. Suicide is not a choice, it seems like the only option when the moment comes. Its not selfish, its not about the ego, it’s not about quitting its about brain function collapse. You should reserve any emotional or judgmental opinions about suicide until you understand depression very well. I hope you never suffer one one.

    I’d read any DFW I can get my hands on. A great, great writer.

  9. Dave, I’m aware of that (depression), although it’s always worth mentioning it again. I recently read “Hello to all That” by John Falk, which gives a pretty good rundown of his long struggle with depression and his recovery.

    Still, even if it is a disease, and even if, as you say, suicide isn’t a choice, it can, nonetheless, provoke a lot of different emotions among the survivors, including anger. (There are eight commas in that sentence; a tribute to DFW.)

    In my case I’m angered not only by the fact that he did it, but the method he chose, given the certainly of a gruesome discovery by his wife. It’s not a rational anger. It’s not a justified anger. Hell, you can call it a knee-jerk anger. But there it is. However, I don’t dwell on it, because there is no point, and besides, I didn’t know the guy so I have no right to make any claims on the rightness or wrongness of his act, nor to impose any of my judgments on his widow and family.

    BTW, I bought three DFW books last night (ordered four, but the fouth one was out of stock).

  10. Hey Ed, can you please send me a copy of that article about cruise ships? I would like to read it. Thanks!

  11. Tomas, I can send you the PDF I have, or you can go directly to the web site for Harper’s where they’ve put PDFs of all of the DFW they’ve published. The advantage of those PDFs is that it retains the original layout and side notes. On the other hand, if you have an ink jet printer it’s going to use a lot of ink. (Colored background, etc.) The Harper’s version is 24 pages.

    Let me know which you prefer.

  12. Hi Ed:

    I had a similar experience on Canada Day weekend, about 12 years ago. On a camping trip outside of Yellowknife, I read DFW’s article in Esquire’s “summer reading” issue on professional tennis/Andre Agassi. It was one of the best-written articles I had ever read (title escapes me, but it’s in “A Supposedly Fun Thing…”).

    After that, I’ve picked up all of his books, as they’ve come out. A great (although sometimes difficult) writer. I highly recommend “Consider the Lobster”, a more recent collection of his non-fiction, which contains an often-mentioned article on John McCain’s 2000 campaign, that was writen for Rolling Stone.

    Sad. R.I.P.

  13. I was just putting in my 2¢ about depression because a lot of people make quick snappy judgments about it without really understanding what’s going on.

    Did you order a big dictionary to go along with those books? O_o

  14. According to his father, he had been taking anti-depresents for over twenty years. When he began to suffer side effects, a doctor suggested that he wean himself. The depression returned and nothing seemed to lift it, not heavy medication, not shock treatments.

    While hanging yourself for your wife to find you is horrible, it’s a bit much to comment afterward, “Presumably a person on his beat could wear such drapery without raising any alarms, as it would be seen as the costume of his literary interests. But apparently it was more than that.”

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