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Infinite Loss: David Foster Wallace and the Troublesome, Inescapable "I"

The grim news has been out for several days now. David Foster Wallace, novelist, essayist, funny guy, hung himself this past Friday at his home in Claremont. His wife found him. He’d been severely depressed for months, had been taking medication for years.

The first thing I ever read by him was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, his essay about one disastrous week aboard a luxury Caribbean cruise ship, from the collection of stories by the same name. It was one of the pieces that showed me early on what journalism — and I use the word in its most oblique sense — could be. I was in college at the time. Infinite Jest had just come out and was the book to read. The pretentious English-department highbrows were reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the lowbrows like me, Infinite Jest. My then-boyfriend hoarded the one copy of that book we shared. He’d become obsessed with it, actually, and carried it around with him like the Bible, determined to get through all of its 1,079 pages. For a very long time, there was John and there was Infinite Jest, at coffee shops, at restaurants, while watching TV, on the toilet, in line for the movies, anyplace a spare moment could be found. John was clinically depressed, and reading it seemed to cheer him up in a gallows-humor sort of way.

I never met Wallace, though if you read anything he’s written, you may feel as if you know him intimately. That you’ve played tennis with him, or grown up in Tornado Alley with him, or have watched the David Lynch oeuvre with him, or considered the history of infinity, or porn, or lobsters, or any of the other phenomenological minutiae that comprise pop culture with him.

Reading him could be exhausting. The strengths of the first person are the same as its weaknesses. It is self-indulgent. It can show off your brilliance, then turn on you in a heartbeat, showcasing your ignorance. “You have to earn the right to use it,” my colleague Jonathan Gold once told me. Foster Wallace certainly did, in spades. He was an intensely personal writer, a smart, postironic postmodernist who wielded the subjective point of view, the run-on sentence, the bizarre detail and the page-long footnote with a frenetic, hilarious vengeance. It is both surprising and tragically not surprising that someone with those capabilities would feel trapped in the troublesome, inescapable “I” to the point that he’d want to relieve himself of it forever.

After I heard the news of Wallace’s death from a novelist friend, I went the next day like the rest of the reading public to buy his books.

“Was he a good writer?” asked the young sales clerk at the Borders in Westwood, where all his books were sold out, except for one battered copy of The Broom of the System, the novel he published when he was 24. She’d never heard of the man. Never heard about the MacArthur Foundation genius grant he won the year after Infinite Jest came out. Never attended any of the creative-writing classes he taught at Pomona College.

“Which one do you want? We’ve had a run on his stuff,” asked the pretty girl at the information desk at the nearby public library.

“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again?”

“Awww,” she said with a sad pout, typing on her keyboard. No luck. Eleven other people were in line to check that one out. “His books are all back on the Amazon.com best-seller lists again, you know.”

At Barnes & Noble, the ancient Japanese woman at the help desk frowned deeply when I asked to be directed to the Wallace section. “So which book is it you want? Infinite Jest?” she practically sneered. She beelined to “W” in the literature stacks. “We can’t get Infinite Jest. It’s just not available. How about Consider the Lobster? We’ve got that.”

At this point, the Michiko Kakutani obit — glorious, appropriate, definitive; she, like most critics, praised him throughout his career — has been penned and printed in the nation’s paper of record. The people tasked with making sense of his suicide have struggled and found the sensitive, fitting adjectives to describe Wallace and his work: virtuosic, pyrotechnic, heartbreaking, ambitious. The more generous (or is it unoriginal?) among us will quote from the work itself. I found a copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing. Turned the familiar pages and found this:

“There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect ... It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard. I predict this’ll get cut by the editor, but I need to cover some background.”