Sunday, September 14, 2008

RIP David Foster Wallace

photo by Steve Rhodes

As probably many people already know, David Foster Wallace was found dead on Friday evening at his home in California. That's a link to the LA Times obituary up there. He was 46.

There's a strange wrench when you are faced with the death of someone that you didn't know, nor were ever likely to meet, but who nevertheless had a profound impact on your life. I first came across Foster Wallace's work after university, when I was working a fairly dead-end bookshop job. I had spent the majority of my time in college messing around, pretending to be an actor and living vicariously through whatever fictions allowed me to continue to imagine that future, but then life happened, as it so often does.

My girlfriend and I had a baby at the end of my time in college, and like many young parents before us, panicked about our futures. We were still crazy enough that we spun out our dreams for a year or two, but both of us thought that the bell had rung for a particular period of our lives and now we had to make money, fast. Being Art & Arts graduates meant that all the high-paying jobs weren't exactly banging down our doors and so we (or at least I) found our way to what Sartre might have called the hell of humanities graduates: crappy retail jobs.

Much as I hated it - when you feel like you've failed in life, there's nothing like then having to serve people who you know - working in a bookshop gave me a second chance at hoovering up words and obsessing over writers in a way that I never had in university. I read everything II could of authors that I knew already, however peripherally: Eggers, Stephenson, Rowling, Gaiman, Smith, Banks, Moore, Easton Ellis, Mitchell, Tartt and lots more.

Some authors I decided that I could never love: DeLillo, Pierre, Ellroy, Boyle.There were many authors that I developed crushes on: Murakami, Ishiguru, Safran Foer, Chabon, Roth, Ware, Burns, Clowes, Auster, Martin, Wolfe, Wolff. I read the way book-lovers do when they are in their late teens and early twenties - more or less freely, obsessing on new loves, harvesting up every book I could find, every online interview I could trace. I lived in their heads, as I imagined them, and daydreamed of the day I and they would chat as peers, because that's what you do when you find something you love. I think everyone's like that, whether it's movies, music, sport, politics or stamp collecting. You immerse yourself in your chosen world and identify with it. You adopt those characteristics, so that the world knows you are that person, of that tribe. You are a goth, a punk, you are straight-edge. You're a rugby head. You're a chav. You are tattoos and fixed-gear bikes. You are Grand Designs and a deck in the back garden. You are nu-rave, you love nu-metal. You are SF down to your Star Wars socks, you are horn-rimmed glasses, impeccably tailored clothes and the new McEwan. Usually, you are several of these things at once. But when you are a certain age, one of them takes pole position. I was a book geek. At that time, there was no higher voice, for a certain sort of reader, than David Foster Wallace.

His was an unusual sort of hero-worship. With Gaiman, I looked at his work and thought: "Here's a clever guy, but I understand how his stories work. I could do this." I was wrong, but I've always been arrogant. With Stephenson, there was so much detail, structure and complication that you couldn't begin to imagine getting there. As an English student, it was like a discussion of the LHC given in French: clever, but impenetrable. Other writers, like Roth, were like being mugged by a symphony orchestra, with this wall of knowledge that stood between the lowly reader and The Great Writer. I admired him, but I don't know that I loved him.

What was always special, in the subjective way that these things go, were the moments that I found a writer who was awesomely talented, yet sounded somehow like me, or how I might imagine myself on my best day. The sort of writer that could be honest and passionate about a subject and make that subject your passion too. David Foster Wallace, from about a sentence into Infinite Jest, was one of those writers. It was through reading his work, especially his non-fiction, that I eventually grew up and started to look outside my head every once in a while. It was certainly Foster Wallace who helped me imagine a future in writing things down, because even if my work would never reach his standard, I could at least make it mine and keep it true.

So. That was a very self-indulgent post. I suggest that you go and read this. It's a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon University in 2005. Then, because it's worth doing anyway, go to Amazon or your local bookshop and buy his books.

Normal, snarky and indeed, inane commentary will resume when I feel less depressed about all this.

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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