A supposedly fun man I’ll never meet

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David Foster Wallace in 1996

Had he not taken his own life four and half years ago, David Foster Wallace would have celebrated his 51st birthday at the end of last month. This seems like a strange non-occasion to be bringing him up again; this time last year would have been more appropriate, perhaps. Then again, I’d like to think that under a similar dilemma, Wallace himself would wonder what difference a symbolic date could possibly make and whether this excuse of an occasion is really necessary.

Wallace famously wrote the intimidatingly long and complex Infinite Jest (over 1,000 pages long, 100+ of which are endnotes, including some which go on for pages at a time). This reader hereby admits to reading only a third before putting it aside in the favor of coming here to St Andrews and reading a bunch of other books for a degree. I plan on going back to it, though.

Why? because I believe it will prove to be a worthwhile, though challenging, endeavor and provide some insight to a truly remarkable mind, with which most of my encounters have been of a non-fiction type. Indeed, Wallace also famously wrote many other essays and short stories from a rather bleak point of view, staring the terror that is modern life right in the eyes and deconstructing every little thing we take for granted, from tennis matches to lobster festivals (well, just the one festival, really). Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20, and it seems almost impossible not to read his work through the knowledge of his eventual suicide. Just like how Sylvia Plath poems seem that much more profoundly grim when you consider she spent her last heartbeats with her head in an oven.

But, see, that’s exactly the thing about reading suicidal writers’ cannons as one life-long suicide note: you tend to miss out on a lot of other aspects of their texts. David Foster Wallace (and Plath as well, for that matter) had a lot of humor in his writing. More strikingly, he had a lot of compassion too. One of his most popular pieces is a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College, Ohio in mid-2005. In the speech/essay, titled “This is Water”, Wallace urges the young graduates to use the new tools they acquired while studying the humanities in everyday thinking; to make mindful decisions on what to think about and how. “This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted,” he says. “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.” To demonstrate, he gives the example of standing in a long traffic jam and getting pissed off at the other drivers standing in your way. Now consider that you are also standing in their way, and that those vague them might be in a bigger hurry than you – trying to get to the hospital with an injured kid, for instance – and in fact have good reasons to be cutting you off.

This advice, Wallace stresses, is not meant to be severe ethical guidance from above but instead is intended to remind the listenerreader that there is a world of other minds and lives in which they themselves are not the centre. It’s not about the right or wrong way to behave, but about a more challenging and truthful way to see life.

It is exactly this combination of dark insightfulness and sympathy that draws me – and many others, evidently – to Wallace’s writing. He seems to have the ability to find something interesting to say about any situation. This ability encourages the reader to be more inquisitive and critical about the world, but at the same time to remember the behind all and everything there are real, live people and real, live consequences. The fact that reading a person’s text is not the same as knowing him notwithstanding, the image of David Foster Wallace as it arises from his writing is that of someone with a strong sense of morality. But this is not the type of morality that stems from written law but the kind of morality that comes from looking around and always trying to understand others.

As absurd as it sounds to compare a dead man to a fictional character, his type of morality reminds me of MASH (the TV show, less so the movie) and its Captain Hawkeye Pierce. Hawkeye continuously questions the institution and puts forward an intelligent, emotionally and otherwise, critique of the abuse of power he sees around him. Yet when it comes to the moment of truth, when someone genuinely needs his help, be it a wounded soldier or a Korean orphan, he goes above and beyond to use his own power for good. Well, Wallace was neither a surgeon nor a commander in the army. Unlike Hawkeye, Wallace was burdened with being an actual human being, which is much harder than conveniently existing only for half-hour segments on television screens. But his compassion is nevertheless similar. In writing about a Caribbean cruise, for instance, he spares no criticism of the plastic dreams being sold in brochures, but he has nothing but empathy for the waiters who are forced to smile kindly or be fired.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that David Foster Wallace – or at any rate, the David Foster Wallace that I have built in my head after reading him – is quite the role model. Not so much the suicide part. Definitely other parts. As he himself would say, there’s always another way to look at things. And after a short (so far) lifetime of readership and almost four years of academic readership, that’s still one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read.

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