In Memoriam: David Foster Wallace

  • Share
  • Read Later

Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.” –David Foster Wallace, Play.

Ask almost any magazine editor or historian, and they will tell you the same thing. The last undisputed golden age of American magazine writing, and U.S. nonfiction in general, occurred somewhere between 1965 and 1975. This was the era of the “New Journalists,” a disparate and ragtag bunch of former newspapermen and would-be novelists, who found in the pages of Esquire, Rolling Stone, Playboy and others, a chance to do something new. These were writers who rode the cultural revolution of the 1960s into print, infusing news stories and profiles with the narrative techniques of fiction, and the literary playfulness of E.E. Cummings. They were innovators with names we all now know–Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and many more.

A grand tradition of brilliant American narrative nonfiction preceded them, from the ink-stained H.L. Mencken to A.J. Liebling on “The Road Back to Paris,” from struggling scribblers like James Agee to the incomparable Mark Twain. But what the new journalists brought was a sense of stylistic innovation and energy that forever changed their craft. As a group, they broke open a new world of writing. They showed what was still possible.

I mention this because I learned last night that the novelist David Foster Wallace, 46, died on Friday, apparently by suicide. This morning, ABC’s “This Week,” during the In Memoriam segment, flashed the screen with his picture–long hair, unshaven face, crooked glasses–along with a caption, noting that Wallace was famous for his short stories and his 1996 novel, “Infinite Jest.” He will be remembered as a great literary force, and that is proper. But he should also be remembered for something else. For a decade at least, he has been one of our nation’s greatest ongoing innovators of narrative journalism, of the magazine story, and a rightful heir to the golden age writers of old.

In addition to his academic work and his fiction, Wallace has written magazine pieces regularly for about 12 years. His byline has shown up in magazines as diverse as Premiere, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Gourmet and Esquire. He has written about the cruise ship industry, the delicacy of lobsters, the pornography business, and the strange mind of director David Lynch. He wrote perhaps the most lasting single magazine piece about the 2000 election, a piece originally called “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub,” about John McCain’s campaign, a piece that won the 2001 National Magazine Award for feature writing.

Through all this nonfiction work, Wallace always found ways to challenge the very form of the magazine story. Like the New Journalists of another age, he often made himself the central character of his pieces, but he did more. His stories–always funny and filled with wonder and joy–regularly broke the rules of structure. He used incomplete sentences and jarring metaphors. He footnoted with abandon, and in a 2005 piece on the conservative talk radio industry, he actually published a piece written like the Talmud, with the text of his actual story overwhelmed by his own comments on the text.

His sentences demanded our attention, as they did in this, from the beginning of his McCain piece, in its unedited form, which is now as vital a point of reference in the 2008 campaign as anything else:

All right so now yes yes more press attention for John S. McCain III, USN, POW, USC, GOP, The Rocky of Politics. The McCain Mutiny. The Real McCain. The Straight Talk Express. Internet fund-raiser. Media darling. Navy flier. Middle name Sidney. Son and grandson of admirals. And a serious hard-ass–a way-Right Republican senator from one of the most politically troglodytic states in the nation. A man who opposes Roe v. Wade, gun control, and funding for PBS, who supports the death penalty and defense buildups and constitutional amendments outlawing flag-burning and making school prayer OK. Who voted to convict at Clinton’s impeachment trial, twice. And who, starting sometime last fall, has become the great populist hope of American politics. Who wants your vote but won’t whore himself to get it, and wants you to vote for him because he won’t whore. An anticandidate. Who cares.

When Wallace wrote a magazine story, he was not just writing about a subject, not just playing with language. He was challenging the very form of the magazine story, trying to push it forward. The quote above is one illustration, a rant of facts driving towards a cliff–“who cares”–that is both a statement and the central question. I could quote a dozen other examples. Wallace took the lessons of Talese and Thompson, and showed us what was still possible. He was a great writer, and though it was only a hobby for him, he has left his mark on American journalism. For the most selfish reasons, I mourn his passing. I want to read what he would write next.

For those unfamiliar with Wallace’s nonfiction, let me suggest a trip to the bookstore for his two collections, “Consider the Lobster,” which includes an expanded version of the McCain story, and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” in which he travels to the Illinois State Fair, and reports, “The Copper Kettle All-Butter Fudge booth does brisk air-conditioned business.”

UPDATE: More journalism of DFW here. Joel Stein remembers here. Laura Miller does same here. David Gates here.