It seems I can't write a sentence about David Foster Wallace without fearing how he might criticize it. What I want to say is this: Wallace wrote intelligently, humorously, and in a deeply affecting way, and the wide reach of and appreciation for his prose has made permanent his place in American writer royalty. He was a master at everything that makes good writing: observation, keen judgment, etymology, probing, and guts. Of course, as many have remarked, Wallace was far too humble to agree to any of this.
Today marks what would have been David Foster Wallace's 52nd birthday. There is so much to celebrate when we remember Wallace: his imposing novel Infinite Jest; his funny and distinct short fiction; his acutely intelligent essays; his ever-moving graduation speech, "This is Water." We took a look at how Wallace was memorialized by fellow writers, including Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, and Jonathan Franzen, and how they recall the shape he occupies in literature.
If the reader was a guy standing outdoors, Dave's prose had the effect of stripping his clothes away and leaving him naked, with super-sensitised skin, newly susceptible to the weather, whatever that weather might be. If it was a sunny day, he was going to feel the sun more. If it was a blizzard, it was going to really sting. Something about the prose was inducing a special variety of openness, that I might call terrified tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a fix we're in on this earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds.
... I don't know much about Dave's spiritual life but I see him as a great American Buddhist writer, in the lineage of Whitman and Ginsberg. He was a wake-up artist. That was his work, as I see it, both on the page and off it: he went around waking people up. He was, if this is even a word, a celebrationist, who gave us new respect for the world through his reverence for it, a reverence that manifested as attention, an attention that produced that electrifying, all-chips-in, aware-in-all-directions prose of his.
To whom much is given, much is expected. Dave wrote like that, as if his talent was a responsibility. He had a radical way of seeing his own gifts: ‘I’ve gotten convinced,’ he wrote, ‘that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent [. . .] Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.’ This was his literary preoccupation: the moment when the ego disappears and you’re able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward.
There’s something very strange and uniquely powerful about meeting a guy whose writing you find world-changing but who also comes from your part of the world—and who seems exactly like someone who would have come from your part of the world. He was funny, decent to a fault, and thoroughly unpretentious. He was, as everyone has said and will say, exactly what you would hope; he was the human you wanted writing those books. You knew it within two or three minutes with him. He was an actual human, far more colloquial and normal than you could imagine, given what he engineered on the page.
Deb Olin Unferth
I always vaguely felt like he was the father of what I was up to — or not the father, exactly, more like the big brother. I remember in grad school there were many traditions of writing being discussed (Tobias Wolff, Gordon Lish, etc.), each with their own set of theories and concerns, and all of us grad students fell in line with one or another of them. And then suddenly here came DFW, hyper, voluble, one in a million, and we were all suddenly rushing behind, as if he were the big brother who rebels and then all the other siblings fall over themselves trying to rebel too, maybe not in exactly the same way but certainly influenced by his example.
Dave could be elusive and evasive. He could be the most maddening person on the planet. He could also be pissy. He could also be annoying. He could be mean. He could be remote, and ruthless, and reckless. He was filled with towering rages. He said that he believed he was 85 percent sincere and 15 percent full of shit. He lied, but then he would admit that he had been lying, and would apologize for it, excessively. But he tried to tell the truth. He tried to find the truth. He tried to be good, and he was. He was good. He was better than all of us put together.
I suspect I speak for a lot of writers, creatures who can keep the ink flowing on the fumes of self-regard, when I say that I know as an empirical fact that I am many, many degrees lower on the talent scale than David Foster Wallace. He was more widely read than seems humanly possible. His talent was a multi-tentacled thing reaching not just into intellectual candy dishes like state fairs and the concept of infinity but into something physical — tennis ... That he chose writing stories and novels as his primary cognitive activity felt like a flattering compliment to literature.
We see him now as a brave writer who struggled against the force that wanted him to shed himself. Years from now, we'll still feel the chill that attended news of his death. One of his recent stories ends in the finality of this half sentence: Not another word.
But there is always another word. There is always another reader to regenerate these words. The words won't stop coming. Youth and loss. This is Dave's voice, American.
At the most microscopic level: Dave Wallace was as passionate and precise a punctuator of prose as has ever walked this earth. At the most global level: he produced a thousand pages of world-class jest which, although the mode and quality of the humour never wavered, became less and less and less funny, section by section, until, by the end of the book, you felt the book’s title might just as well have been Infinite Sadness. Dave nailed it like nobody else ever had.