Goodbye, David Foster Wallace

by Ryan Snyder

Well, the season is changing and so are some of the writing duties here at YES! Weekly. It’s been an aspiration of mine since college to become a music journalist, but those jobs are few and far between and I had no idea how to go about becoming one. After three years writing for advertising and public relations, I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to put to print a subject that I’m most enthusiastic about (except for possibly fantasy football, but I’m still holding my breath for that).

Honestly though, I really don’t enjoy talking about myself and I’m not going to try and entertain you with stories of best concerts, favorite albums, etc. I’ll save those for the Tunes pages or maybe the bar. I am going to use this space to remember a guy who has made a profound impact on my worldview. Really, anyone who has ever put pen to paper owes him a huge debt and he will certainly be missed. David Foster Wallace took his own life recently after suffering from a severe depressive state that he managed to medicate away for many years. It was the “Black Dog,” as Winston Churchill called it. With it, he left a gaping hole in literature and journalism. Not just either/or, but both. His 1,000 page novel Infinite Jest cemented his place as a true American original, but it was his prolific journalistic writing that might have endeared him the most.

He hilariously probed, no pun intended, the irony behind the clandestine nature of the Adult Video News Awards in “Consider the Lobster.” It is indeed a vulgar industry as he points out, but at root, “vulgar” simply refers to something popular on a mass scale. He even blew the lid off of the “seamy underbelly” of our own lexicography in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” a true scorcher for even the most disciplined grammar hound. He didn’t win many friends from the more conservative descriptivist side of the language debate and that wasn’t the last time he would ever write a disagreeable piece.

As a guest writer for Gourmet magazine, he asked, “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” and thus assailed the mores of culinary professionals everywhere right on their trade pages. What starts as a series of witty shoot-from-the-hip observations, delves, in classic Wallace style, into experiential learning for the reader. Does the lobster feel pain? Wallace contended that they do thanks to thousands of tiny hairs protruding through their otherwise rigid armor. The truth of the matter is still undiscovered. What’s notable is that he doesn’t attempt to shape the readers morality in regards to the matter, but rather provide the opportunity for introspection into topics that most are otherwise apathetic towards.

Of course, I’m not his only reader. John Krasinski, who plays Jim Halpert on “The Office,” is currently directing Wallace’s short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The show’s fans might also recognize the name David Wallace as Dunder-Mifflin’s chief financial officer, an homage to the author himself in name only.  

It’s completely ironic that such homage would appear in the very format that Wallace speculated was the greatest source of angst for the writers that succeeded him. He might even say it was a bit closer to ridicule, seeing as his homage involves a medium that he accused of “engaging without demanding.” Wallace certainly engaged with a long list of demands. I concluded that the first and foremost of those be that I read with a thesaurus at arm’s length.

It never ceases to amaze me how one person could have possessed so much insight into so many subjects of wildly varying nature. I suppose that it is the nature of any good journalist to be inquisitive and resourceful in your discoveries. But the depth and breadth of knowledge that he displayed was oddly confounded by the mildly derisive nature which permeated his observances. It always seemed as if he was a perpetual outsider in his pieces, in no small part because his phenomenal intellect seemed to prevent the mundane enjoyment his unwitting subjects received from their activities. This is especially true in the title essay to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, where the excess aboard a corporate cruise line causes only self-inflicted misery.

His writing provided trade advantages to writers (and readers for that matter) much in the same way that BALCO did for Barry Bonds (allegedly). You come away armed with the ability to drive the occasional curveball just a little farther, though the inevitable swelling of the cranium is only figurative. Admittedly, my own observations as a writer pale in scope by comparison and I may never enjoy writing as much as I do reading his work. But I felt smarter afterwards and more affected. I felt like I just guzzled a Thermos of strong coffee.

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