I cannot think of a better way to begin then with an obituary for one of my literary heroes, the great David Foster Wallace. It is very much delayed, but this was originally penned within days of his death. It was supposed to be published elsewhere, but it just never happened. Story of my life.

David Foster Wallace

February 21st 1962 – September 12th 2008

David Foster Wallace was found dead in his home in California by his wife on the evening of the 12th of September. He had hanged himself and in so doing ended a life-long battle with depression.

Best known for his epic work of fiction Infinite Jest, as well as his penchant for footnotes[1] and lengthy endnotes, DFW[2] was born in to a highly academic family – his father James received his Ph.D. from Cornell University and his mother Sally was an English Professor.

DFW had a profound love of tennis and was himself a talented junior tennis player. This love of tennis provided the setting for Infinite Jest. The novel is set at the Enfield Tennis Academy in a dystopian future and deals predominantly with addiction, depression and a cultural obsession with pleasure. One of the main characters’ is Hal Incandenza, who is arguably DFW’s most biographical character[3], a young man who suffers with depression and addiction after finding his father committed suicide by putting his head in a microwave oven. If you are familiar with his work DFW’s death may not come as a complete surprise. A witty and profoundly funny writer, DFW frequently dealt with dark themes and his battles with depression are recognisable in his fiction.

His nonfiction is widely regarded as his most accessible and entertaining work – but don’t let that fool you. His fiction may be hard going[4], but it is immensely moving, rewarding and for the literary toffs out there ultimately vocabulary-building. From hilarious and absurd characters like The Quebecois Wheelchair Assassins, and Lyle, the guru of the Enfield Academy who enjoyed licking sweat of the young tennis players bodies in return for advice, Wallace somehow managed to imbue a humanity and sadness in his characters that was so endearing and yet inevitably heartbreaking.

An avid critic of American popular culture and its ridiculous forms, an overall theme of much of Wallace’s work was an attack on the very Western consumer driven quest for personal happiness at any cost. A priceless example comes from Infinite Jest where a film was literally amusing people to death and where a down-turn in consumer spending ‘forced’ the government to introduce Subsidisation, where each year was sponsored by a particular product[5].

I must admit, I am a fan of DFW, and as a fan I unsurprisingly implore anybody cynical about the media storm in which we live to take the time to discover a writer who is not only spot-on with his views on popular culture, but who is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I suggest you start with his non-fiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, or the short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men before tackling the epic Infinite Jest. A recent favourite of mine which is currently relevant with regard to the current US Presidential race is DFW’s piece for Rolling Stone covering John McCain’s 2000 presedential election campaign McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope.

In closing, I’d like to share my favourite DFW excerpt. It has taken on a much more personal meaning following his tragic death and, for my mind at least, goes someway to explaining why a genius such as David Foster Wallace felt he could no longer inhabit this crazy world. This is Hal Incandenza on life and death. “I have administrative bones to pick with God… I’ll say God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I’m not crazy about. I’m pretty much anti-death. God looks by all accounts to be pro-death. I’m not seeing how we can get together on this issue, He and I”.

[1] A tribute would not be appropriate without a few nods to this love, so be prepared.

[2] Foster Wallace is also known for his extensive use of acronyms.

[3] Hal was not only a junior tennis player like DFW but also shared his love of chewing tobacco.

[4] Infinite Jest is 1079 pages long with 388 endnotes which was a challenge to both my wrists and my patience.

[5] Imagine as DFW did the Statue of Liberty no longer proudly clutching the flame of freedom but holding a giant hamburger for the Year of the Whopper, or a chocolate for the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar.