- David Foster Wallace used his prodigious gifts as a writer — his manic, exuberant prose; his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse avant garde techniques with old-fashioned moral seriousness — to create a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification, and to capture, in the words of the musician Robert Plant, the myriad “deep and meaningless” facets of contemporary life.
A prose magician, Mr. Wallace was capable of writing — in both his fiction and nonfiction — about everything from tennis to politics to lobsters, from the horrors of drug withdrawal to the small terrors of life aboard a luxury cruise ship, with humor and fervor and verve. At his best, he could write funny, write sad, write sardonic and write serious. He could map the infinite and infinitesimal, the mythic and mundane. He could conjure up an absurd future — an America in which herds of feral hamsters roam the land — while conveying the inroads the absurd has already made in a country where old television shows are a national touchstone and asinine advertisements wallpaper our lives. He could make the reader see state fair pigs that are so fat they resemble small Volkswagens; communicate the weirdness of growing up in Tornado Alley, in the mathematically flat Midwest; capture the mood aboard John McCain’s old Straight Talk Express back in 2000.
Mr. Wallace, who died Friday night at his home in Claremont, Calif., an apparent suicide, belonged to a generation of writers who grew up on the work of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Robert Coover, a generation that came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s and took discontinuity for granted. But while his own fiction often showcased his mastery of postmodern pyrotechnics — a cold but glittering arsenal of irony, self-consciousness and clever narrative hijinks — he was also capable of creating profoundly human flesh-and-blood characters with three-dimensional emotional lives. In a kind of aesthetic manifesto, he once wrote that irony and ridicule had become “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” and mourned the loss of engagement with deep moral issues that animated the work of the great 19th-century novelists.
From Michiko Kakutani‘s appraisal of the work of David Foster Wallace, who took his own life this last Friday.
My thoughts are with his wife, his family and his former students and colleagues. Here at the college, we’re stunned and saddened by the loss of a beloved alum. My students here often felt a personal connection to him, referring to him as DFW in emails to me and expecting me to just know who he was, much the way Thomas Jefferson is revered at the University of Virginia Charlottesville (and referred to as TJ). He was their hero.
David was a writer who was not only among the best of a generation, but who also changed that generation forever. David had become the kind of writer whose work affected your perspective on this life even if you hadn’t read him. We all mourn his loss.