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.