© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

David Foster Wallace

They can kill you, but the legalities of eating you are quite a bit dicier.
–from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Just twice in my life have I not wanted a book to end. Twice. No matter how much I love the book I’m reading, I reach a point where I get it, I’ve had my fun, and I start looking forward to looking back at the experience of reading it.

The two exceptions: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

In both cases, the author had put me into a space so compelling and original that I hated to leave. In both cases I riffled the remaining few pages with such regret as the end approached that I actually backed up, rereading previous pages, slip-stepping on a wet hillside to avoid the inevitable.

That was all the more surprising in the case of Infinite Jest, which runs to 1,079 pages (including nearly 100 pages of footnotes, some two words long, some four pages) with a vocabulary like the OED and famously dense sentence structures. But I knew, as I read the maddening last sentence, that every other book in my life would be in its shadow. I wasn’t at all surprised when TIME Magazine named Infinite Jest one of the top 100 English language novels.

I dedicated Calling Bernadette’s Bluff, my own first novel, to Wallace. It was only fair, since his influence is on every page, from namefreaks like Genevieve Martin (the Dean of Faculty, therefore Dean Martin) to sentence-pairs like my description of Martin’s voice:

Half a dozen words in that stainless steel Voice and ambiguity evaporates, padlocks fly open, and underlings collide headlong, Stoogelike, in a frenzy of wish-fulfillment tinged with an inexplicable but highly motivating terror of consequences.

Lovely thing, really.

A shameless theft of technique. Same with Chapter 10, a play rehearsal within a play. Then there’s one of my favorite devices of his, the ellipsis as passive placeholder in unmarked dialogues. Here’s a conversation in Bernadette’s Bluff between two college roommates (an aggressive atheist and a gentle Christian) that is pure homage to Wallace, right down to the speakers’ identities being revealed only in context:

“I know you’re awake.”


“You forgot to switch your halo off.”


“Never did answer the Question of the Day, you know.”


“Ooo looky, there’s an angel hovering over the TV!”

“Ha ha.”

“I knew it. Now answer the Question.”

Even the unresolved ending of CBB was shoplifted in spirit from Wallace. And my travel writing is full of self-referential footnotes, something I learned at his literary teat.

I’m offering my own derived material rather than quotes from Wallace’s work because, as one blogger recently put it, his work “resists encapsulation.” And how. It is the most context-dependent stuff I’ve ever read.
It’s not too much to say that I’m a writer because of the way David’s writing blew my mind in every possible meaning of that phrase. My fiction, my nonfiction, my satire, my talks, and this blog are soaked in his influence. (Example: “I start looking forward to looking back at the experience of reading it” is me channeling Wallace. I don’t even know I’m doing it anymore.)

His nonfiction is frankly incredible in its ability to strip a subject to its essence. He has written about cruises, state fairs, television, tennis, depression, infinity, oblivion, and American material culture, and I’m jolted over and again with the shock of recognizing something I had never seen before. A brilliant piece of reportage about the McCain campaign of 2000 ( “McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope”) has been called one of the most incisive looks at modern politics ever written — and also underlines the tragic difference between the John McCains of then and now.

In the span of a few seconds yesterday, I learned that David Foster Wallace had taken his own life at 46 and that he had suffered from crushing clinical depression for over 20 years. His wife came home and found him hanging.

I don’t give much of a damn that “the world has been deprived of his immense talents and his future literary masterpieces,” as someone somewhere is surely saying. Like Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, Infinite Jest was more than enough. I never needed another thing from him.

But I wish like hell — for him, not for me — that he hadn’t been consumed.

Best of David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

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This was written on Tuesday, 16. September 2008 at 09:05 and was filed under death, reviews. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. I am going to have to read this book. I can honestly say (not just trying to suck up to you) that for me the one book that I did not want to end was none other than Calling Bernadette’s Bluff. Such a simple story with amazingly complex ideas thrown in. Brilliant stuff. Now that I know where the inspiration comes from, I will have to read this as well.

    Thanks Dale for making my ever growing reading list that much longer.

    Comment: jcornelius – 16. September 2008 @ 9:34 am

  2. Damn. I hoped you were sucking up. Nobody ever sucks up to me.

    Thanks for those wonderful compliments, holy cow. I’m thrilled that someone is picking up I.J. on my say-so. I’ve tried for years to get people to read it. Just know that it is not for everyone. I can definitely understand why some people hate it, including many good and smart people. Stick it out for 42 pages. If at that point you are not compelled to continue, you really, really shouldn’t, because it only gets more, uh…well, more like it is. And at that point he hasn’t even begun sending you to the endnotes — something he will do 338 times. And they are essential.

    Comment: Dale – 16. September 2008 @ 10:31 am

  3. I have to admit that I am one of those who couldn’t get past page 42 of Infinite Jest — maybe it’s just not meant for second language readers. It’s been sitting in my bookcase for the last 10 years, though, daring me to give it another go (difficult to overlook, given its sheer…uhhhh, voluminicity).

    Maybe I will.

    Comment: Theo – 17. September 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  4. The Onion on the death of DFW:


    By the way. I look forward to seeing you in Iowa City!

    Comment: Scotty B – 18. September 2008 @ 8:27 am

  5. Oh my word, that Onion piece is the best laugh I’ve had in months! See you next week.

    Comment: Dale – 18. September 2008 @ 8:55 am

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