Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace is Dead
I came back today from an overnight trip to Virginia to the awful news that the writer David Foster Wallace killed himself Friday night. He was 46 years old.

Wallace was an outstanding essayist and a supremely talented teller of stories who both "knew all the tricks" of postmodern fiction--and invented a few new ones, for that matter--and could create fully realized, emotionally alive characters to weave in and out of his byzantine, incredibly imaginative plots. His 1996 novel "Infinite Jest" featured some of the most brilliant writing I've ever enjoyed. Like Pynchon, DeLillo, Coover, Steve Erickson and David Mitchell, he both inspired me to want to write stories, and deeply intimidated me that I could ever approach that quality of work.

Any reader of Wallace's fiction knew that he had access to some of the darker places of the psyche. While I was reading Infinite Jest in 1996, I was in Chicago on a work assignment, going through a period of acute depression. I reached a section of the book that featured a character's attempted suicide and subsequent institutionalization, and felt amazed, and in some strange way grateful and even comforted, that he could so vividly capture that kind of despair.

Anyone who suffers depression knows that one of its most pernicious effects is the feeling of helpless, terminal aloneness. I felt a bit less alone after reading that part of Infinite Jest; eventually, and always provisionally, I found other ways of managing my depression. I came to the conclusion that aloneness, like most aspects of the human condition, is ambiguous: you're alone, in the most essential sense, but you're not uncared-for, and great comfort can derive from that. (This might be the single best thing about being married, actually.) Perhaps the saddest thing about Wallace taking his own life with so much of it left in front of him is that he couldn't find any comfort to sustain him against the darkness.

Two very worthwhile critical appreciations of David Foster Wallace can be found here and here.

5 comments:

Brian said...

It takes one to know one is a cliche because it's inherently true. He developed characters with depression so well because he was able to draw upon his own experience.

It's funny because I can usually spot my fellow bipolars I come across whether they are everyday people in a store or celebrities that I have an inkling that they are bipolar. Maybe I should start a book where the protagonist is a whack job like me?

The important thing to remember is that 99.5% of suicide is illogical and is the direct result of a disorder (usually depression). It's hard to save someone who doesn't want to be saved because their synapses aren't firing as fast as they should be.

David said...

I don't know if Wallace's condition was bipolar, or good ol' unipolar (yo), but either way I think you're right. My wife said something similar yesterday when we were talking about this.

Before I went on medication (and also realized that I probably wasn't as good a writer as I thought I might be, when I was in my teens and early 20s), one reason I always gave was that I thought it would limit my creativity and realign my personality. This turned out to be total nonsense in my case: I wasn't able to write anything at length until my depression was manageable, and was no less creative (faint praise though that might be) when I went on antidepressants. But I wonder if he had some similar objection to getting help.

Brian said...

Suicide happens usually when a depressed person feels just a little bit better. It's why prozac and other anti-depressants get a bad rep and there is a increase of suicide rates among users. (and why it's extremely important for doctors to monitor patient's behavior during this period) Severe depression causes a person to just crawl in a hole and they don't have the ability to take any sort of action. It's when they climb out of the hole that they gain the notion to commit suicide. (I speak in generalities of course) I'm just saying that it's often when a person seems better is when they are apt to attempt to kill themselves.

BTW- I was in the same boat as far as the fear of losing my creativity to medication. It's true that upon taking the initial doses that you feel this way. It's working with your doctor/therapist to find the right mix of meds and doses that ultimately enables you to focus better and funnel that storm of madness into some damn fine work if I don't say so myself.

The Navigator said...

"aloneness, like most aspects of the human condition, is ambiguous: you're alone, in the most essential sense, but you're not uncared-for, and great comfort can derive from that. (This might be the single best thing about being married, actually.)"

I can't adequately express how much I agree with that last line. A lot, suffice it to say.

David said...

I found this online:

According to his father, David was treated for depression for the last 20 years. His doctor advised him to stop taking medication last year because of the toll the side-effects were taking on him. Following this, his depression returned. Over the past summer, he was hospitalized multiple times, and his even tried electro-convulsive therapy to combat his depression. His father described him as recently being “very heavily medicated”. And in the end, he could not take it anymore.

It's hard to believe that there wasn't another treatment out there for him. Terrible.