2008 seems like an especially bad year for the untimely death of great artists - or is it just that I'm getting old?
The death of Isaac Hayes was certainly unexpected, and untimely, but at least he made it into his 60s. (And, at least it was an apparent accident . . .) David Foster Wallace, though, died on Friday at only 46, and by his own hand.
I discovered Wallace during my dark work-as-a-secretary-while-I-get-my-shit-together days in the late 90s. As with many, my introduction came through Infinite Jest, the sprawling and encyclopedic novel that explored the many facets of addiction as an allegory for contemporary American society. Wheelchair-ridden Quebecois separatists, a woman too beautiful to be seen (and a crack addict to boot), and a film so addictive watching it once, you were doomed to watch it repeatedly until you died of starvation, were only some of the themes percolating through an "alternate universe" US, too close for comfort, too accurate to reject. After Infinite Jest, Wallace produced a number of short stories (which I haven't read) and a number of essays (which I have, and which are on the whole brilliant, funny, insightful, and, perhaps most pleasurable for one like myself, who has spent too much of his literary experience reading works in translation, delivered with a delightful and creative command of the English language. This last itself the subject of Authority and American Usage an ostensive book review cum meditation on the norms of language (and the politics of those who dictate such)).
Despite the brilliant essays and the well-received short stories, it's difficult not to notice the absence of a follow-up to Infinite Jest in Wallace's oeuvre. He had been teaching at Pomona College since 2002, and had certainly continued to write (producing said stories and essays), but no novel, no work on the same grand scale, had appeared since Jest. Speaking for myself, Wallace was on that ever so short list of writers for whom once a year or so, I wander to their spot in the alphabet at a local book store in the hope that I've somehow missed news of the publication of their grand new novel. In the case of Wallace, I was always disappointed; and now, I'll have to stay disappointed forever.
The point is not to belittle Wallace's post-Jest output, but it's simply difficult to think of writer suicides and not think of writer's block (several scenes from a TV doc on Hemingway are burned indelibly into my memory, here). And with writer's block, the question is never one of actual output, but of perceived output. Was Wallace attempting a second grand novel? Was his apparent inability to produce such the source of depression and, eventually, suicide?
Obviously, these are purely conjectures, a bit of fantasy to make sense of a tragedy. Wallace himself was a bit of a recluse, rarely interviewed, rarely exposing his life, thoughts, or goals to the public except through the filter of a witty (and, clearly, guarded) essay. Perhaps his wife knows his motives, but quite likely, we never will.
Hearing this news, it's difficult for me not to think of several I have known personally, possessed of great artistic talent, but, for various personal reasons, frustrated in the attempts to realize those talents. If their earlier output had managed to find an audience, would they have ended up like Wallace anyhow? Is it perhaps even easier on them that their work never was popular, freeing them from some of the creative pressure Wallace himself surely felt?
Perhaps, most importantly, is there hope for the blocked, those who have run out of ideas, or creative energy, to return from that abyss and produce? Call it optimism, or fantasy, but personally I like to think so. I wish Wallace himself had thought so as well. For now we have been robbed of the opportunity to see what might have been, and Wallace, in bereaving his loved ones, has bereaved those who loved his prose, both present and future, as well.