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David Foster Wallace, RIP

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 15, 2008 10:25 AM

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The only thing that I can think of to say about the shattering news of David Foster Wallace's death is that he was a "strong" writer, in the sense in which Harold Bloom used the word. His critics may have been right that, as Michiko Kakutani writes today, some of his pieces and books could have used a more rigorous edit, or that his attempts to capture the outlandishness of American life themselves became outlandish at times, untethering themselves from the human (as James Wood argued).

But in the end the criticisms are beside the point, because he was the kind of writer that all writers knew they had to read -- that anyone interested in modern writing knew they had to read. His influence had to be absorbed or actively deflected. You had no choice but to engage him.

The first time I heard of him, 17 or so years ago, a friend was raving about an amazing piece Wallace -- pretty much unknown, not yet the cultishly adored "DFW" -- had written about his teenage years as a tennis player in the midwest, where the wind played tricks on the ball, tricks he'd learned to overcome and use to his advantage (unlike more athletic rivals). Then I read his long piece about life aboard a cruise ship, also for Harper's, later reproduced (at much greater length) in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," and I was hooked for life.

My first reaction to the news of his death was that, of anyone, Wallace should have known that depression was a biochemical problem, a disease, that could be treated and kept at bay -- he knew as much about neurochemistry as he did about Thomas Pynchon (or cruise ships, or lobsters, to allude to another well-known essay) -- but that initial reaction was absurdly naive.

UPDATE. Mathew Gilbert, of the Globe's "Viewer Discretion" blog, has some more thoughts here. (He met and interviewed Wallace.) At Paper Cuts, the Times Book Review's blog, Dwight Garner concludes (under the apt title "His Head Pounded Like a Heart"): "His best work handed American fiction its pampered ass."

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