Remembering David Foster Wallace at 50: To commemorate the late writer’s birthday, we dug through our archives to find his Atlantic pieces — and the best of those written about him. (Apologies for the length, we couldn’t help ourselves!)
Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?
In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
It is true that no one on either side of the studio’s thick window expresses or even alludes to any of these objections. But this is not because Mr. Z.’s support staff is stupid, or hateful, or even necessarily on board with sweeping jingoistic claims. It is because they understand the particular codes and imperatives of large-market talk radio. The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible. That is not to say that the host would not defend his “we’re better” — strenuously — or that he does not believe it’s true. It is to say that he has exactly one on-air job, and that is to be stimulating. An obvious point, but it’s one that’s often overlooked by people who complain about propaganda, misinformation, and irresponsibility in commercial talk radio. Whatever else they are, the above-type objections to “We’re better than the Arab world” are calls to accountability. They are the sort of criticisms one might make of, say, a journalist, someone whose job description includes being responsible about what he says in public. And KFI’s John Ziegler is not a journalist — he is an entertainer. Or maybe it’s better to say that he is part of a peculiar, modern, and very popular type of news industry, one that manages to enjoy the authority and influence of journalism without the stodgy constraints of fairness, objectivity, and responsibility that make trying to tell the truth such a drag for everyone involved. It is a frightening industry, though not for any of the simple reasons most critics give.
Wallace is scrabbling along the high-terrain paths earlier explored by Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Indeed, not only does he share with both a mordantly black view of modern and late-modern experience, but he also has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots, each of which is differently absorbing, if not for its characterizations or imaginative brio then for the sharp snap of its thought, the obsessiveness of its informational reference (hence the notes), or—and—the incandescence of the writing.
Whatever aesthetics we espouse, we are all closet traditionalists in our expectations—and these must be shelved. Wallace rebuts the prime-time formula. Think Beckett, think Pynchon, think Gaddis. Think.
Some personalities lend themselves well to biographies and profiles. These lives can be neatly packaged, edited, and bound. They can be organized into chapters, narratives, lists, and an index. And though these biographies might not make great literature, they can be thrilling to read (cf: Richard Burton). But some lives can’t be defined by the adventures therein; some possess an intellect so vast and frenetic that, consequently, it’s mostly inaccessible to the profiler and, in turn, the reader. See: Wallace, David Foster.
Wallace was the rare literary wunderkind to enjoy renown even outside the literary community. His gargantuan talent (the acclaimed Harper’s pieces, the dazzling Infinite Jest, the bestowment of the Genius Award), and to a lesser degree, his life story (Midwestern upbringing, junior tennis whiz, drug and alcohol use, electroconvulsive therapy) propelled him into literary superstardom. On two occasions the spotlight was especially acute: following the publication of his opus Infinite Jest in 1996, and when he took his own life in September 2008.
Old Town School of Folk is a little cultural mecca. Last weekend at the winter dance, I met someone who has been taking lessons there for years. She kindly explained that feeling like the most beginner of the beginners is completely normal. For Guitar One, the first half of the class is learning basics followed by a congregational jam session with all levels. On day one we leaned D Major and A7. Attempts to change fluidly from one chord to the next were awkward at best. After we were all seated for the second half, basic tablature for Calamity Song, lyrics inspired by Infinite Jest were circulated. Just over a month later I can play along clumsily with a recorded version.