An author remembered



Jonas Kane

When Anna Nicole Smith died last year, there was nonstop coverage in the press and on the cable news channels. The arrest of Paris Hilton, the rehab of Britney Spears, the union of Brad and Angelina – all stick out as examples that highlight the dominance of a pervasive TV culture in our news and lives.

It would take a careful scouring of newspapers and magazines to find remembrances of David Foster Wallace, who died this past Friday from an apparent suicide. Maybe that’s for the best; Wallace was never a fan of irony, anyway.

Upon awaking Sunday, I discovered an e-mail from my oldest brother, with the horribly simple subject, “have you seen this?” and a link to an article covering Wallace’s death. It was he who had given me a copy of the late author’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” for my birthday in my senior year of high school, beginning my enduring love affair with the author’s numerous writings, which have covered nearly everything in life, from tennis to relationships to politics to addiction.

It’s often remarked that the current generation of writers lacks a powerful and defining voice, but if anyone deserved to be the voice of a generation, it was Wallace. To say his writings are ingenius, complex, difficult and hilarious would be accurate, but it would be more to the point to say simply that they are painfully human.

His essay “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s” boils down his feelings of loss and despair on 9/11 to the minute detail that he had no flag to display on his lawn (a kind gas station attendant helps him make one out of construction paper).

But he was also funny – very funny. There’s an uproarious scene in his tome “Infinite Jest” that describes a chaotic attempt by students at a tennis academy to play a game called Eschaton, similar to Risk but played on a tennis court with actual people and physical attacks. The game devolves into one of the most laugh-out-loud funny scenes I’ve come across in any piece of fiction.

Wallace’s greatness, though, didn’t stem from the fact that he could turn a funny phrase and make people laugh; rather, it was his ability to do this and also connect with the reader on a deeper, more thoughtful level.

Perhaps no living writer had a better grasp of the English language, but he somehow managed to display his skill without being condescending. Some readers find him pretentious, but those who like him find him to be one of the most honest and earnest voices they have encountered.

Yes, he wanted to entertain, but he also wanted to challenge readers and make them think. It’s not surprising that he was dismayed by many of the reviews for “Infinite Jest” that labeled the book as funny, when as a whole it is a heartbreaking look at addiction and the struggle for happiness and sincerity and genuine feeling in this modern, TV-driven culture.

In all of the stories I’ve read by him, the line that stands out most for me comes from his brief response to Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to the editor in which Vonnegut claimed novelists merely “dampen their neuroses by writing make-believe.”

Wallace attacked Vonnegut’s claim, saying that creating art is difficult, and people read because “good art is magical and precious and cool.”

And it’s a point that Wallace labored to make throughout his career, both in his fiction and his nonfiction.


Jonas Kane is a junior English major from Harrisburg, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].