A Hideous Loss: David Foster Wallace (February 21, 1962–September 12, 2008)

This is a photo by Time photojournalist Steve Liss of writer David Foster Wallace in 1996.
This is a photo by Time photojournalist Steve Liss of writer David Foster Wallace in 1996.

Wallace wore a bandanna since early adulthood. It was not a fashion statement. He sweated a lot, he said. He wore it even on his interview with Charlie Rose on national TV at the time he was doing the “read and sign” book junket for A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a book of essays published in 1997:

Charlie Rose show

Wallace has been called both “the voice of his generation” and “unreadable”. But he has stayed at the cutting edge of the literary world, from the publication in 1996 of his near 1100 page novel Infinite Jest to his suicide on Sept. 12, 2008 — and beyond. Even in death, his reputation grows, not seeming to fall prey to that near inevitable decline in status that is attendant on many recently deceased artists, especially those who leave us “before their time.” Wallace was only 46.

Many readers have tried repeatedly to read Infinite Jest (often referred to as “the brick” or “the doorstop” because of its length and weight — even in paperback) and have failed to become engaged in a book that introduces new characters for at least the first 200 pages, has a wandering narrative and plot (if you can call it that), and seems to trip itself up in long sections about competitive tennis, Alcoholics Anonymous and obscure avant-garde films, the most enigmatic of which becomes the novel’s Hitchcockian MacGuffin . In June, one such lapsed reader, Matthew Baldwin, got together a few friends and decided to make this tome their “summer read”. Completely surprising to them, tens of thousands of readers nationwide have either signed on to read as well or have followed their lead with contributing comments to the website they set up:


The goal is to read 75 pages a week and finish by mid-Sept., the first anniversary of Wallace’s suicide. I am one of the nerds who decided to do that; in fact I became so caught up in the book that I finished the read a month ago.

Here’s a T-Shirt you can order online: “IJ” for Infinite Jest, 1079 pages of dense prose, 388 endnotes — of asides, second thoughts, or exculpatory explanations (sort of)— a wearable piece of “bragging rights” for the true nerd cognoscenti. I ordered two, XL, blue piping.

Wallace readers are fanatics. There is something so unique in his style and in the flow of his very smart thought, that either draws you in with magnetic force or repels you with equal intensity.

Wallace’s “take no prisoners” writing style was once the satirical object of the Onion’s writers, albeit their pens were dipped in very benign ink. It is a “break-up” letter imagined as written by our logo-maniacal author. The Onion did this spoof 5 years before Wallace’s death. It’s easy to imagine that he laughed louder than anyone.

the Onion article

Although I was familiar with Wallace’s non-fiction essays for Harpers, Premiere, Gourmet and Rolling Stone, my first foray into his fiction was when actor John Krasinski asked me to read a script he had written, an adaptation of some short stories from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a collection Wallace published in 2000. John’s script led me to the book itself, then into the labyrinthine film that he and I made piecemeal over the next year and a half, to its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, then into this summer’s read of Wallace’s masterwork Infinite Jest and now finally to reside in a deep sense of empathy with this much troubled man whom I never met.

This tendency of Wallace readers to adopt a sense of intimacy, even intense emotional connection to the author himself as well as to the work, poses a question that haunts me. Perhaps, it is partly that his sensibilities are so raw, his characters so flawed, even helpless and hopeless. Perhaps it is the link to his decades-long struggle with clinical depression with a suicide attempt in his youth and the actual suicide in his mid-forties, which draws readers so toward him. Perhaps it is the fierce intelligence and uncompromising literacy and vocabulary that oozes out of him, or perhaps this raging, wandering rush of second thoughts and asides that tumble onto his pages as foot and end notes in even the most seemingly commercial of his magazine assignments.

All of this is very much in play for me as an impassioned reader. But there is another quality in his writing that has been little noted by the critics. David Foster Wallace, despite his admitted logophilia, (keep a thick dictionary standing by when you read him) creates word pictures and actions more vivid and present than any writer going. This is present not just in the essays where the reader becomes a companion on his traversal of a Las Vegas video porn convention, a Caribbean cruise, the Illinois State Fair, or embedded in the 2000 McCain presidential campaign; this immediacy and sense of almost cinematic presence stalks the novels and short stories as well.

I have not been able to figure out how he does this, because everything that inheres in his style would seem antithetical to the linear line of film drama. But in the same way that a film close-up, especially one absent dialogue, compels us to deliberate on the mental state of the actor’s character, Wallace’s relentless probing of his character’s thoughts and actions, creates a near cinematic state of tension. On a visual level, his close scrutiny and documenting of real objects, bodies in movement, sounds, smells all serve to elevate his words into tangible experience.

The purest cinema is one of gesture, glance, reaction, a sense of riveting interiority deployed by exterior action. This is the cinema world of Antonioni, Bresson, Roy Andersson and much of Melville. Melville’s Le Samourai and Boorman’s Point Blank, both from 1967, obsessively track their anti-heroes through a non-verbal world. When the reader looks carefully at a Wallace work like Infinite Jest, it is the long, long sentences and paragraphs, devoid of the breaks and quotation marks of dialogue, which lay densely on the page. Even then, Wallace can read like a screenplay, albeit a screenplay no studio reader would pursue past page two.

It is a facile trope to argue that the writing that is most cinematic, is writing that is also the simplest, garroted by the use only of the present tense. This dictum, I feel, tries to conflate a screenplay (which is arguably a hybrid literary form) with true cinematic writing. I can hear the howls already about my denigrating the art of the screenplay. If a screenplay is truly an author’s medium, then why do so many half-assed wannabe writer/studio execs feed on it like so much carrion all the way through production, bringing on teams of “punch-up” scribes in the middle of the fray, even up until shooting the final scene—the whole mishmash often ending up in “arbitration” at the Writer’s Guild of America over screen credit?

We all love reading screenplays; they are a genre easy on the eyes and on the mind. In a way, the skill set demanded is similar to that of the magazine short story writer — a particular focus, usually on a clear-cut theme with a strong if not singular narrative line.  I respect the nuanced craft it demands, as well as the survival skills it takes to negotiate the studio’s executive suites. For years, I have served on the AMPAS Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships and have been privileged to see the idealism and hope of many emerging writers, and I have great compassion for the crappy way even veteran writers are treated by the industry-at-large.

As far as I have been able to determine, Wallace never essayed a screenplay. This is surprising in a way as there are so many cinematic references in his work and a real understanding of his corpus presumes a knowledge of film history. One of the most readable essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is his account of time spent on the shooting set of David Lynch’s film Lost Highway.

Also, one of the most fascinating and hotly debated sections of Infinite Jest is not in the text itself but is an endnote: the (in)famous note # 24. It is the filmography of James O. Incandenza, the deceased father of the young Hal and his two bothers Mario and Orin, the book’s central figures. This nine page endnote is both a buried key to back-story in the book as well as a hilarious send-up of Critical Studies’ usurpation of “Cinema” — one of the last of the arts left until recently unpillaged by deconstructionists and semioticians.

This endnote employs the linguistically precise but somehow elusive jargon of academia to catalog dozens of the most absurdist films imaginable. It is a bibliographer’s wet dream worth reading on its own if you, as I, are a filmmaker whose schooling predates the storming of filmmaking’s bastions by doctoral candidates in search of cinematic red meat.

There is a brief obituary of Wallace in this Time magazine link—but more importantly it hotlinks to four of Wallace’s most trenchant essays available online:

Time magazine article

If you scroll to the bottom of the DFW entry on Wikipedia you will find links to other pieces:

Wikipedia entry

Even more literate than the Charlie Rose interview cited at the head of this piece are the many conversations between Wallace and KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt on his radio program, Bookworm:

KCRW — Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm podcast

This link is to the full archive of Silverblatt’s encounters with Wallace. I call them “conversations” because the host is a deeply thoughtful and articulate man, himself a worthy partner to the uber-articulate Wallace. You may want to consider listening to the talk from March 2, 2006 centered on the book of essays titled Consider the Lobster. One piece Wallace talks about is “Host” about right wing talk radio. It is a window into the logic and tactics of this radio style, especially when men like Hannity, Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Beck now have more influence over the political opinions of their target audience than the putative leaders of the GOP.

I want to focus this piece on links to two deeply moving journalistic surveys into the all too human side of DFW and his lifelong struggle to live and write with a piercing light into a world that was for him growing darker and darker.

The first is from Rolling Stone last November:

Rolling Stone article

Several times when I have searched this link, the story came but with no text, not even an abstract.  It seems to be back up now. Give it a try.

The second and more intimate one is from The New Yorker this past March:

The New Yorker article

Both writers are working on a Wallace biography to be published next year.

One of the most widely online Wallace reads is an address he gave in 2005 to the graduating class of Kenyon College. It is atypical for him in its direct, even demotic language, as if the erudite author wanted more than anything else to reach out and grab a young, post-literate audience. There have been many attempts to kill off sites that host this speech. It was published recently by a press that seems hell-bent on wringing some shekels from the writer’s remains. But do try to find the intact speech here:

MoreIntelligentLife.com — commencement speech

The feature film of  Brief Interviews With Hideous Men opens in NYC at IFC Manhattan on Sept. 25 and two weeks later in LA at The Laemmle Sunset Five. It is likely to be the only adaptation to film of his work for some time.

My reading of Wallace has helped me see the world in which I live and work in a new light and with a fresh intensity. This is not an atypical experience. One of the guest writers on the I/S website posted this recently as we all near the end of the novel. In his case, Nick Maniatis (reading it for at least the fourth time) says is an ongoing experience.

“I can’t help but hope David Wallace realised what he achieved with this novel. This novel speaks to me. It makes me feel more connected to my family and friends. More connected to other fans and readers. More connected to my world. I better understand my faults and misgivings. I am more generous and open to differing points of view. I watch tennis with eyes I never knew I had. I no longer laugh at AA. I understand that letting go, saying no, and not being a slave to my desires is real freedom. Double binds only make you stronger. Connecting with others is connecting with yourself. I understand that one can, simultaneously, fall in love and choose to love.”

It has, also, in ways I am still struggling to understand, made me (I would like to imagine) a more perceptive filmmaker. I hope so very much that if you read Wallace, he will do the same for you.



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