The Perils of Living Dangerously: Remembrance of David Foster Wallace
Ten years has elapsed since David Foster Wallace hanged himself on September 12, 2008. He was 46 years old. I wrote a blog post about his suicide and what it meant to me. In the context of this period in American life, I thought it was something worth revisiting, and seeing with retrospective eyes how much we wish Wallace were still here to navigate the dark terrain of the nascent American landscape. He would’ve had much to say, I’m sure, and he would’ve said it with great passion.
When I heard the news I was shocked. Wallace had reached great heights in his career as a novelist, journalist and teacher. His sprawling, 1104-page novel, Infinite Jest, published in 1996, had become something of a classic of American literature. Bold, expansive, the stuff of great imagination — it challenged the reader to see the American landscape in ways not dreamt of before. By all accounts, Wallace had everything going for him: he was an extraordinarily successful writer, a well-liked and inspiring teacher at Pomona College in Southern California, a worthy successor to Pynchon, Barth, De Lillo, perhaps even the great master of black humor himself — Vladimir Nabokov. A number of critical appraisals have appeared in the days following his untimely death: Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, as well as A.O. Scott’s appreciation, also in the Times, Deborah Treisman’s in the New Yorker, elsewhere in the Village Voice, the UK Guardian, and the L.A. Times. You can read and download his fiction from the New Yorker and from Harper’s magazine, all of it strong and brilliantly crafted, a writer with a philosophical and intellectual bent, bridging (almost effortlessly) the cultures of art, science, and music.
But what about the man? We learn that Wallace had been suffering from depression for almost 20 years. Twenty years! What was going on? We may never really know; and it may not be for us to know, either. Matters of health, of family woes, of grief and loss — all of which can torment the life of any writer — are private, or should be. Every writer knows, in his or her heart, how vulnerable we are. Every stroke of the pen, every word on the page is fraught with danger. You don’t know what damage you can do, or what damage can be done to you. Words are truly like swords. If you swing away, perhaps recklessly, with abandon, you don’t know what you’ll chop down. You may even chop yourself down. In Wallace’s case, he choked himself to death, choked the words that were thrust upward from his guts, from the very air he was breathing.
Depression rises up like a tidal wave, unexpected, powerful in its force of nature, and capable of overwhelming the strongest person. In classic terms, depression is about pressing ourselves down, about grief and loss, about not getting what we want. In every writer’s life, you’re going to have ups and downs, sometimes huge swings in fame and fortune. That’s part of being alive, of watching the pendulum swing, the times change, the mood of the country shift. One day you’re up and the next day you confront the wolf at the door, the bill collector on the phone, the repo man in the driveway, the woman from the government who says you owe back taxes and the penalties, you realize, are going to kill you. What do you do?
Depression is part of the darkness of the American spirit — a darkness every writer worth his or her pinch of salt on earth must take on. Perhaps in Wallace’s case, he was living the darkness, inhabiting its demons, and the beast was eating him alive. One of his stories in Harper’s magazine is entitled simply “The Depressed Person.” It’s a chilling piece of writing. “The literature of the American earth is many thousands of years old,” writes the poet Robert Bly, in his brilliant collection of essays and interviews in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, “and its rhythms are still rising from the serpents buried in Ohio, from the shells the Yakuts ate of and threw to the side. The literature of the American nation is only two hundred years old. How much of the darkness from under the earth has risen into poems and stories in that time?”
Wallace, for all of his expansiveness, his pyrotechnics of language and thought, his experiments with satire and the novel as a form to capture the spirit of the age — for all of that, he paid a heavy price with the darkness he carried around with him, a darkness that, again, every writer must face up to in American life, with courage and bravery, if possible — if possible.