I didn’t know David Foster Wallace all that well. We met a couple of times, and once, I interviewed him onstage at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. I asked him on a few occasions if he’d review for the paper, but he said he’d had a bad experience and had sworn off reviewing for good. We shared a literary agent.
In the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election, we spent an hour or so on the phone one afternoon discussing politics, which he followed with the rabid fascination of someone who, despite all better judgment, believed the process mattered, that somehow, somewhere, there was a candidate who might see us through.
I never got a chance to discuss the current presidential race with Wallace; no one did. That’s our loss, for Wallace, who reportedly hanged himself Friday night at age 46, was an astute observer, sharp and clear-eyed, idealistic and skeptical all at once.
His 2000 Rolling Stone profile of John McCain -- reissued in June as the slim, stand-alone volume “McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope” -- offers a vivid example of this perspective. Wallace sees the campaign mechanism for what it is while still recognizing something fundamentally different, real even, about the candidate, who eight years ago was in some sense the Barack Obama of his time. Here we have a hallmark of Wallace’s writing, his unwillingness to take anything at face value, the penetrating focus of his thought.
An auspicious debut
Wallace emerged out of nowhere with the publication of his first novel, “The Broom of the System,” in 1987. He was 25, a graduate of Amherst and the master of fine arts program at the University of Arizona, and along with a handful of other then-emerging writers (William T. Vollmann, Jonathan Franzen), he helped transform American fiction in a fundamental way.
The 1980s, after all, was the era of “Dirty Realism,” of small-bore, naturalistic stories in the style of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. For such writers, literature was essentially domestic, but Wallace blew that approach away. Exuberant, picaresque, cynical but also heartfelt, “The Broom of the System” hit the literary circulation system like a 450-page burst of amphetamine.
It wasn’t a perfect book; like much of Wallace’s early fiction, it wore its inspirations -- especially that of Thomas Pynchon -- on its sleeve.
But what “The Broom of the System” did was to offer up a set of possibilities, to remind us that the novel could be expansive, that it was possible to push the boundaries, to create a larger social landscape in fiction, that it wasn’t wrong to be ambitious, to use literature to get at the unknowable heart of the world.
This was a promise Wallace would bring to fruition with the 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” which at 1,079 pages, including 100 pages of footnotes, was a clear bid to create that mythical monster, the Great American Novel, albeit entirely on his own terms. That he may or may not have believed in such a monster only added to the achievement; this was a writer who clearly saw through the elusiveness, the futility, of his own striving and yet continued to strive all the same.
In the wake of “Infinite Jest,” the book’s gimmicks -- the footnotes and acronyms, the arch tone and irony -- drew the most attention, not least because they were quickly popularized by writers such as Dave Eggers and Steve Almond, who adopted them as an aesthetic stance.
But in fact, it was Wallace’s odd sense of double vision that most defined his sensibility. He was a humanist who could not help but see both sides of the story, who imagined himself into the gray middle areas of his writing.
This is the key to his McCain piece, or, for that matter, his best-known work of nonfiction, the novella-length “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published in Harper’s as “Shipping Out.”
Here, Wallace spent a week on a cruise ship, critiquing the infantilization of the journey, the way that, on board, every wish or demand was instantly fulfilled. Yet even as he pinpointed every idiotic detail, he found himself drawn in.
The power of the piece lies in its explication of that process, although that has less to do with Wallace lowering his defenses than amping up his empathy. However contrived or phony the experience, he felt the longing of his fellow passengers, their need to step outside their own complacency, the complacency of daily life.
The irony, of course, is that the cruise was all about complacency, but for Wallace, irony was not enough. His 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram” makes that idea explicit, taking on the irony-izing effect of television on American culture, while rejecting irony as a literary force.
That’s an idea to which he would return in his writing, piercing the absurdities of contemporary culture yet also seeking something deeper, the core connection to which literature aspires. This is the ambiguity, the complexity, that transfigures his best writing, although clearly, these were issues he could not resolve.
In 2005, Wallace gave a commencement address at Kenyon College in Ohio that has been widely circulated in classrooms and on the Internet. In that speech, he told the graduating seniors: "[I]t is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.” Up until this week, I would have said that those were words to live by, but in Wallace’s case, perhaps, the opposite was true.
Rather than a repudiation, this just makes his work seem all the more urgent, especially the promise that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
email@example.com. David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.