David Foster Wallace would have turned fifty this past Tuesday. If his own reports and the reports of those who knew him can be trusted, it probably would have been a sad day for him. Most days, it seems, were sad for him, but this surely would have had its own particular difficulties: so much banal milestone talk, so much genuine fear at the trench warfare-style advances of age. His knees and ankles, having lost too much cartilage on the tennis courts of his youth, would have hurt. Perhaps he would attempt to explain these difficulties to others, and get lost in rhetorical circles of how best to phrase them such that they would be regarded as honest statements and not plays for sympathy. Perhaps he would think they actually did boil down to plays for sympathy, and perhaps he would feel badly about this.
It's possible that by now he would have finished on his own The Pale King, the text he had been working on at the time of his death. (Regardless, it is available in stores.) If not, February 1 would have marked sixteen years since the publication of his last novel, Infinite Jest, which is really a very long time. Infinite Jest, also, was quite a bit to live up to.
In reality, Wallace hung himself four years ago, in his house in Claremont, California. His wife found him. In the preceding weeks, he'd asked his parents to visit, and they came and kept him company and tried to care for him. After his death, they would publicly discuss his decades-long battle with depression, which had worsened drastically in his final year. And everyone he touched attempted some sort of understanding, as we are inclined to do. Jonathan Franzen questioned the rhetoric involved in the choice of hanging, as though this act, too, were a piece of writing. Maria Bustillos went digging through his personal library of heavily annotated self-help books.
For myself, I think he was terribly depressed, and it caused him tremendous, consistent pain and a deep sense of alienation. I think he had a long-term substance abuse problem, and that he experienced insidious and fierce self-doubt. In short, I think he killed himself for the same reasons that lots of people kill themselves, which reasons and deaths can seem as small as words, and are very, very sad.
I'm not a medical professional, and I never met him, so this diagnosis is basically baseless and largely worthless to anyone else, except maybe as some nebulous affirmation for someone who already has the same read on the situation that I do. But I believe this in part because his writing frequently seemed to me to be a series of dense, complex structures built around conveying simple ideas and feelings.
My image of Mr. Wallace, after all, is made entirely out of the voice in his writing. I'm pretty sure that Roland Barthes is right about Mr. Wallace the author construct (the "person" whose voice I hear when I read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) being quite different indeed from David Foster Wallace (the person who had two dogs, Werner and Bella). Which means that I didn't know the person at all.
But I know Mr. Wallace the author construct well, because he communicates with me. And, as a writer myself, wandering in the confusing mists of what it means to "communicate" with my readers when all of the "communicating" is done in the strict absence of people (anyone capable of writing a story or poem while also gchatting has my sincere admiration), I know that there is something of the actual person in the authorial presence.
When speaking with someone who loves us, or who is at least extremely charming, we often feel strangely and beautifully isolated — that we are, as far as the speaker is concerned, the only person present. The one thing worth focusing on. This kind of comprehensive attention is rare and powerful and extremely affirming. And pretty much all of us know what it is like to want this kind of attention, from the first time we shouted, "Mommy, look!"
Pause to remember what it felt like when you shouted those words (or pause to watch a five-year-old shout them) and suddenly Berkeley's idea that something must be observed in order to exist doesn't sound quite so crazy. (Although maybe it's still a little crazy.) To have attention is to break, for even a moment, the cruel suspicion of solipsism — to understand that you exist to another person, as well as yourself.
We know that we exist to the observer because the observer reacts to what we do. We tell a joke, the observer laughs. We lower our voice, the observer leans in. It is a delicious power. As the care and attention increases, so does the deliciousness. The adjustments to your behavior and temperament become smaller, subtler, more complex. It starts to feel less like an action-reaction exchange and more like two distinct beings joined, moving together.
The reading version of this exchange is obviously quite different — a book, being inanimate, cannot adjust itself to your reactions. An author, composing at both physical and temporal distance from the reader (and likely not composing for a single person) cannot adjust the text in real time, like a conversant can.
But excellent writing seems remarkably responsive, by means of manipulation. It can adjust for the reader's feelings, because it's (in part, at least) the reason the reader feels that way. This is, ideally, a benevolent manipulation — the reader, through engagement, grants permission to the text — but it still must work in tune with the reader's emotions. In analytical terms, this is comedic timing, emotional development through subtext, pacing, effective plot. From the reader's side, though, this is a skillful dance partner, moving along in parallel.
Managing this emotive dance — from afar, without necessarily knowing the reader — is why writing is so hard, and why even a wildly popular piece of fiction only connects with a small percentage of the overall population.
From the reader's side, though, this dance is all magic and all individual. The book is speaking just to me, directly. As far as this book is concerned, I am the only one present.
Attention paid in crafting good writing comes through to the reader — believe me, I taught Intro Composition. But this attention is about more than rule-following, and it manifests in more than just precise syntax and consistent punctuation. Successful writing transmits feelings, moods, and tones, in addition to information. This isn't really news, but it's a more astonishing act than its commonness might suggest.
Infinite Jest shows tremendous care. It was designed to make you laugh in certain ways, at certain times, and to make you wince in certain ways at others. It will test your focus and your patience — but it knows when you need a break. It knows when your eyes are going to glaze over, and it uses this, too.
But what I mean when I say all of this is that Infinite Jest is an extremely well-crafted interactive machine, such that many different readers find that, through its text, they can experience the sublime dance of thorough attention. The sense that their feelings matter — that they matter — to someone.
This is the source of the strange but persistent recurrence of readers claiming that particular writers understand them in ways that none of their actual acquaintances do. (Perhaps it is also the reason why people who love a book the most are sometimes the least able to explain its value and appeal.) The author puts forth her feelings, arranged just so, and the reader matches them, step for step.
This intimacy, though, is one-sided. The author's attention, through the text, reaches the reader richly, and full of life; the reader's attention stops within the pages and goes no further.
Having been so moved by Mr. Wallace, I cannot help but value the communication I had with him. It feels at times to be the most important thing in the world. But its strange character — its limitation — is plainly visible in everyone who ever wondered how he could doubt his own ability. Whatever pride or joy or professional satisfaction he felt, writing fiction seems to have offered him little in terms of connection. He could make anyone less lonely, except himself.