Every school year, around the 2nd or 3rd day of class, I hold up a ridiculously big, orange-spined book and inform the students that this big, fat tome might be my all-time favorite.
That book is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
I wave the 1100 page behemoth menacingly at my students, scaring some who fear it might fly out of my hand, and squish them like a bug. I tell the cowering students that I’ve read the damn thing three times. That sometimes I just open the thing to any random page and start reading, enjoying myself again immediately. That I particularly love the book for its complete failure to have any decent conclusion, even after 1100 pages.
The cowering students alternate between the fear of heavy book assault and confusion as to the sanity of the man wielding the giant blob of literature. It is one of my favorite little moments of the school year.
And now Mr. Wallace is dead, at 46, having hanged himself on my own 47th birthday.
We all fundamentally know that, despite our limitless self-absorption, events around us almost never have anything to do with us. For example, Hurricane Ike didn’t skirt slightly east of Houston just because some guy in Southwest Houston did a good deed for somebody on Thursday.
Yet it’s hard for us not to want to see some meaning in the nihilism that is reality. And right now, deep in a Saturday night, it’s hard to resist connecting the hyper-personal dots of having seen a documentary (“Gonzo”) about one of the writers I most admire, Hunter S. Thompson, right around the same exact time another one of my most admired writers was hanging himself.
And yeah, it also occurs to me that both of these literary “idols” ended up a suicide.
Oh well, having had a birthday the day after 9/11 the last few years just makes a birthday weekend like this seem perfectly normal. Hurricanes, train wrecks, wives walking into rooms with great writers hanging from the chandelier…nothing out of the soul-crushingly typical I guess.
We move on, almost all of us. Regardless of whether we try to draw some personal meaning out of this shit blizzard of depressing news.
Still, I’m never going to wave that big, fat orange-spined book quite so cheerfully over the cowering heads of my students in future years. The details of the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” and all the other 6.33 million audaciously creative thoughts flying from the pages of Mr. Wallace’s work will always mean something slightly different than the joy and amazement they brought previously.
And right this second, right this very now I detest the power of fantastic writing and literature to make some schmuck watch “Gonzo” and read the news of David Foster Wallace’s death and say to themselves: “What a waste of writing talent! What is the point of being a great writer if you just end up hanging from a chandelier, or blasting your head off with one of your 23 guns? What’s the point of being a “Literature” teacher if those most writers admired are the most unhappy? What exactly is the point of anything?”
Funerals are for the living. Suicides are for the psychotherapists. RIP Mr. Wallace. We’ll keep wallowing in the mediocrity as best we can in your absence.