“[O]nce I’m done with the thing, I’m basically dead, and probably the text’s dead: it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but through the reader” — David Foster Wallace, quoted in Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace
In the quote above, DFW illustrates why, when writing at his best, he was able to transcend the cold irony and post-modern goofiness of forbears (and, to some extent, contemporaries) like DeLillo and Pynchon. Wallace understood language as a game, and understood that the game was cooperative. He knew that it wasn’t enough to be clever–readers need to care about that cleverness. If the author is dead, and the text is dead, then the language has to live on through voices, through perspectives, through a series of interior identifications: this is where DFW excelled and dazzled. The myriad voices that lard Infinite Jest testify the power of walking in another’s shoes and seeing through another pair of eyes–in caring for the other. This is the power of literature, and this is why Wallace was such a powerful writer. And this is why we’ll miss him so much.
Wallace’s work went past the post-modern (counter)tradition of meta-textuality and self-referentiality, and commented–sometimes with a painful awareness and acuity–on the emotional deadening produced by contemporary irony and consumerist culture. His characters weren’t just placeholders to be pushed around in the hopes of proving a point, but real, achieved voices who lived through the reader. DFW’s project was not to simply repeat the postmodern realization of the indecidability of textuality, but to work through that realization into a new realm of connection and meaning and identification with his readers despite a cold, ironic, and sometimes meaningless world. In both his groundbreaking fiction and his brilliant essays, DFW delivered what matters the most in any piece of writing–subjects and characters you care about (often despite yourself). Postmodernist thought declares there’s nothing outside the text, a supposition many contemporary authors explore and expound upon in chilly irony or silly wordplay. Even when he was negotiating problems of meaning, signification, and communication in the face of alienation, fragmentation, and despair, David Foster Wallace gave us fully-realized worlds populated with characters we could care about.
There are any number of reports out there right now that mischaracterize DFW as an author who hid behind wordplay and irony. Consider Guy Adams ridiculous lead in The Independent: “For a writer who elevated irony to an art form, and whose infinite jesting co-existed with an all-too-apparent dark side, it felt grimly appropriate that David Foster Wallace should have chosen suicide as the means by which to end his own life story.” Did it feel “grimly appropriate”? Why? What was “grimly appropriate,” about David Foster Wallace’s suicide, Guy? Adams reinforces both his ignorance of his subject as well as his lack of literary understanding with this tidbit: “For all his natural ability, and occasional brilliance, Wallace never lived-up to the fullness of his talent, or the haunting reach of his possibilities.” Adams’s dismissive-yet-inflated rhetoric is exactly the kind of verbal posturing that needs to be shouted down right now by those who’ve actually read Wallace and can testify that his brilliance was anything but “occasional.” And that, I guess, is my only real goal here. Adams is wrong. It’s not true that “Wallace never lived-up to the fullness of his talent”–that phrase doesn’t even mean anything. Who measured the fullness of Wallace’s talent? When did that measurement take place, and in what units was said-talent measured? The measure of DFW’s talent can only be assessed by actually reading his work, and that’s what you should do–especially if you’ve been putting it off. Our author may be dead, but he lives on in a language game played with his readers via the act of reading, and this is a game where everyone stands to win.