Editors and writers remember David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace hanged himself at his home in California on Friday, Sept. 12, 2008, at the age of 46. A precocious and preternaturally talented writer, Wallace was regarded by many critics, novelists, and readers as the foremost novelist of his generation. He is perhaps best known for Infinite Jest, a 1,000-plus-page epic published to wide acclaim in 1996. In the following roundup, editors and authors remember Wallace and the qualities that made his work indelible.
Gerald Howard, editor, Random House
One fine—really, really fine—day in this editor's life in 1986 the manuscript of David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System arrived in my inbox at Viking Penguin. This is why I get up in the morning and go to work. It was the damnedest thing. With Carver Style still reigning supreme in the MFA programs and the Brat Packers still riding high, some nervy kid had gone and brilliantly recapitulated the imperial novel that had held sway in the '60s and '70s—the sort of book I adored as a younger reader. Here is what I wrote on the dust jacket when I got to publish it: "The inventiveness, reach, and fine disdain for 'reality' of this novel will remind many readers of the works of John Irving, Vladmir Nabokov, John Barth, and especially the Thomas Pynchon of The Crying of Lot 49. The Broom of the System is one of the most ingenious, original and exciting novels to appear in recent memory." That's a heavy burden to pile onto any novel, let alone the work of an unknown (and at that time you really could be unknown) 24-year-old who had published precisely nothing until then, but I'm glad I wrote that because it is clear now that I got it right.
I would go on to publish one other book by David, the wonderful short-story collection Girl With Curious Hair. I have read every word he has written, including the entirety of Infinite Jest (yeah, the footnotes, too), which I consider the greatest American novel since Gravity's Rainbow and its worthy successor in its diagnosis of our American disease. I have vivid memories of David from our too short years as author and editor—all sorts of triumphs and crises. His letters to me, usually explaining, why, yes, Mr. Howard, I understand exactly why you are suggesting that I try to do this to my book, and I am sure you are completely right, Mr. Howard, but you see I ... (there then followed three pages of insanely closely argued reasons why he could not do it, worthy of the virtuoso practitioner of analytical philosophy that he was) were all typed (not word-processed) single-space without a typo or correction. They went on, big surprise, for pages and pages and were the product of a mind firing on more neural cylinders than any I encountered before or since. I have wondered endlessly what it might be like in there, inside David's mind. Clearly there was terror as well as exaltation. Lost in the fun house? I know this: We have lost the most original and profound (and, not to forget, the funniest) American writer born after 1950.
Martin Riker, associate director, Dalkey Archive Press
David Foster Wallace was a pen name. It was also the author's actual name, but he never went by it. Using Foster was his agent's idea, he said, because Da-vid Wal-lace was syllabically unmemorable. This has proven to be sound marketing advice, although I don't think David or Dave Wallace was ever very comfortable with it. He was deeply skeptical of all contemporary mythologies, particularly the ones about himself.
I knew Dave for 10 years, the first two as his student. (He directed my master's thesis.) Much has been written already about his teaching—I'll add only that his real strength was in his example. He was an exceptional listener, probably the best listener I've known. The kind of person who could walk into a room full of heart surgeons and walk out 20 minutes later able to perform bypass surgery or, at least, to describe the procedure convincingly. He listened to his students, and he listened to our culture, and he gave discerning responses to both.
The last time I saw him in person was just before he left central Illinois for Pomona, Calif. I was dog-sitting in the countryside for John O'Brien (Dalkey Archive's publisher), and Dave brought his own two dogs out to play with John's, and we sat on a porch swing and talked about writing and life. He said there are plenty of mediocre writers who are able to make careers for themselves, and that's fine, but what's tragic are the few really promising writers who give up before they ever publish anything. I remember one thing I said to him, which was that his intelligence and generosity were not the only things he had to offer students, and that personally I had gained a great deal simply from knowing him as a human being. I said that coming to think of him as Dave Wallace rather than David Foster Wallace was actually very important for me. It realigned my sense of what matters.
Joyce Carol Oates, author
Like so many other readers, I was much engaged by David Foster Wallace's enormous energy, ebullience, and brilliance. His vision was both playful and apocalyptic and beautifully matched by his inimitable style. There is a heartbreaking short story of his, of only four pages, titled "Incarnations of Burned Children"—which I was fortunate enough to include in the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. Known as a "maximalist"—for his massive novel Infinite Jest— David Foster Wallace could be a brilliant minimalist as well. Two years ago we had hoped to get David Foster Wallace to give a reading at Princeton; he had been scheduled to visit, then cancelled and never rescheduled. It's very sad to think that he will never come now, and those of us who had not met him now never will meet him.
Photograph of David Foster Wallace by Keith Bedford/Getty Images.