David Foster Wallace hanged himself on September 12, 2008; a very good author removed himself from the scene at far too young an age. At the time, Shawn Macomber pronounced himself irritated at the "self-serving and shallow" words offered up in response by the literate mass media. He suggested instead that we "read something by Wallace rather than about him. It'll be a much more gratifying experience."
Well, it only took me a couple of years to get around to it. And—Shawn was correct, of course—reading this collection of essays, articles, and book reviews was gratifying, but also with a strong undercurrent of regret at what we lost.
The components are as diverse as you're likely to encounter between the covers of one book: a visit to a video-porn awards ceremony and the accompanying, uh, festivities; reviews of works by John Updike, Joseph Frank, and (!) Tracy Austin; a discussion of Kafka's sense of humor; a visit (for Gourmet magazine) to the Maine Lobster Festival; coverage (for Rolling Stone) of John McCain's campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000; a review of a usage dictionary that kind of turns into a 64-page version of Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"; a profile of John Ziegler, at the time a talk-radio titan in Southern California; DFW relates how September 11, 2001 appeared to him from his then-home in Bloomington, Indiana.
I doubt whether a single person might find all those topics inherently interesting. But they're all worth reading, thanks to DFW's keen sense of observation, his willingness to dig for telling details, tying it all together with prose that snaps and sparkles. Was there ever a less lazy writer?
I would imagine he drove his editors slightly insane, though. His footnotes… some of them even have their own footnotes. I don't often need reading glasses, but I dug out a pair here. The article on John Ziegler, "Host", goes beyond footnoting into more of a hyperlink-on-dead-trees format. I was going to try to describe it, but fortunately this guy has pictures of what the article looked like in (a) its original magazine publication, (b) in the book, and (c) on the magazine's website.
Although DFW's politics lean liberal, a number of little signs indicate that he might have outgrown that, had he chosen to live. His articles on McCain and Ziegler are pretty fair, and he's clearly impressed by McCain's Vietnam heroism.
Some passages stick out in the wake of DFW's demise. In the John Updike review, he notes that Updike, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth—who he deems the "Great Male Narcissists"—must be contemplating "the prospect of their own deaths." Oops: Mailer's dead, but Updike outlived DFW by a solid four months; Roth is still around. Ironic.
Similarly, DFW observes that Joseph Frank appears "not exactly hale" and Dostoyevsky scholars "are waiting bated to see whether Frank can hang on long enough" to finish off the last volume of his massive biography. Yeah, hang on he did, and (furthermore) Frank's a "Professor Emeritus on Active Duty" at Stanford. Meanwhile, we're waiting for the publisher to scrabble together the pieces of DFW's last novel, The Pale King.
Ouch. Damn. Damn. Damn.