Early on in his masterful 1999 essay “Authority and American Usage,” David Foster Wallace breaks from his explanation of the Descriptivist-vs.-Prescriptivist Usage Wars of modern linguistics (this is already a departure from the essay’s primary task of reviewing Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage for Harper’s magazine) to discuss, of all things unrelated, abortion.
In a typically Wallace-esque footnote, running 468 words long in the kind of fine print normally reserved for check-cashing service ads, the author explains that “the only really coherent position on the abortion issue is one that is both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice.” Though at first perplexing, he soon proves why this position is, in fact, the only one that makes any sense. And just as quickly as he veered off into the Culture Wars, DFW steers us back to the Usage Wars, crafting in the essay’s remaining 44 pages an illuminating, gripping and accessible description of the “seamy underbelly” of American lexicography.
Wallace, who tragically committed suicide last week at age 46, was quite frankly, a genius. In his writing, a dizzyingly complex and brilliant mind is let loose on the page. Often an essay or story of his will, mid-page, careen off into a page-length footnote or endnote — a meditation on Balthazar Getty on the set of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway,” perhaps, or a quick description of the “Bizarro-Sleaze” porn film genre — but this adventure is involved in reading his work. A piece of writing might begin in a certain direction (on a cruise liner, or walking the grounds of the Illinois State Fair), but it certainly never ends there. And though at first we might feel sidetracked choosing to follow his footnotes, interpolations, etc., we soon recognize that with Wallace, the final destination doesn’t matter. The fun is in the detour.
Yet for Wallace, who often seemed uncomfortable in his own skin, the footnotes, endnotes and detours are there to guard against condescension or elitism. To avoid sounding patronizing, he instead scrutinized himself, whether in comparison to the subjects of his non-fiction or through the characters in his novels and stories. Neil, the deceased narrator of “Good Old Neon,” one of Wallace’s finest short stories, painfully illustrates this scrutiny when he tells us, “My whole life I’ve been a fraud.” Neil explains his suffering in trying to impress everyone around him, a suffering that ended only when he kills himself. Like much of his fiction, Wallace’s prose in “Good Old Neon” is cerebral and staggering, and resembles the unceasing thoughts that are always running through our heads.
Wallace won awards for both his fiction and nonfiction, and was equally regarded in both genres. Nonetheless, arguments rage over whether he was better crafting imagined worlds or wrapping his mind around the real one. Many cite his magnum opus, the 1,079-page “Infinite Jest,” as evidence supporting the former, arguing that the book is one of the Great American Novels of the postmodern 1990s, or ever, and making Wallace an heir to novelists like DeLillo and Pynchon. Yet others argue that when untethered to reality, Wallace’s imaginative fiction overwhelms and leaves readers lost in his staggering prose.
Reality is already surreal enough. Porn conventions, presidential campaigns, Caribbean cruises, lobster festivals — Wallace’s dispatches from the more bizarre fringes of our culture are some of the best American nonfiction writing in decades. To watch Wallace grapple with the “zeppelinesque” breasts of the 1998 Adult Video News Awards, or to experience the week he spent on the campaign trail with John “anticandidate” McCain, circa 2000, is to witness the most brilliant among us plunged into what he described as this country’s “Total Noise” culture — “a culture of info and spin and rhetoric and context” — and make sense of it.
Which is in part why the loss is so gutting. Reading his books or watching the few interviews he gave, you understand that this was a guy far more attuned than the rest of us to the everyday lunacies, ridiculousness and unreason of American culture. And yet he took this genius and found the humor in it — a witty and sardonic sense of humor coursing through so much of his writing like electric current. Who other than Wallace would be brilliant and clever enough to dedicate an essay on the Academy Awards of the porn industry to the fact that “between one and two dozen adult US males” are admitted each year to the emergency room for castrating themselves?
Yet there was also a despondence in Wallace’s writing. We can see this when Wallace spoke of his novel “Infinite Jest,” and said there was “something particularly sad about it … a kind of lostness”; or when the narrator of the wrenching story “Incarnations of Burned Children” plainly tells us, “If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.”
Other times this sadness is felt long after reading. Wallace’s most recent story, “Good People,” is like this. It describes a young man comforting his pregnant girlfriend who’s considering an abortion, but also his struggle to tell his girlfriend that, though he supports her and cares for her, doesn’t truly love her.
Wallace was so many things: sad, but also funny; at times effusive, but capable of writing a single sentence that cut straight to the bone. He was one of the few American writers who found meaning in an increasingly meaningless and submissive world; and now, without him, the rest of us are left that much more adrift.