Following in the footsteps of most Interweb and print media outlets, I’ve decided that it’s only appropriate for us at On Purpose to post a quick in memoriam to the late David Foster Wallace. I personally cannot speak too much for his writing, having only ever read one of his short stories, the beautifully entertaining “Little Expressionless Animals.” It’s a behemoth of a “short” story. It centers on a young, lesbian woman who is in the middle of a breakaway streak on Jeopardy (à la Ken Jennings). David’s treatment of her sexuality, his sensitivity toward long-spun childhood traumas, and his on-point Alex Trebek cameo was just brilliant. I can’t think of too many writers who could accomplish the same thing with such bravado and originality.
And what writer hasn’t spent his/her fair share of time staring at Infinite Jest as it mocks from the rosy-wooded shelves of Barnes & Noble. That quaint puffy-clouded background. The looming title. Then one opens it up to find all 1104 pages of David staring back. It’s easy to understand why he has garnered so much posthumous “genius” recognition.
But what is the relationship between this enigmatic persona, this “David Foster Wallace,” this man who in the last years of his life was racked by depression, and his writing? Is it possible for a man with short stories such as “Death is Not the End” and “The Depressed Person” and “Suicide as a Sort of Present” to not be ill, in some way? How much of David’s personal life was infused within his writing? (As a writer myself, I imagine a lot.) Is his depression and subsequent suicide a by-product of his writing and the overwhelming expectations of his post-Infinite Jest fame? (Perhaps.) Is his writing something that stemmed from his depression, an outlet or a crutch? (Perhaps again.)
It’s impossible to ever know the workings of writers, let alone writers who are affected so strongly by depression. There’s a natural inclination to point to his short story titles, to point to his interviews, to point to anything we can find and say, “See? See? Look at how depressed he was. How could we not see it coming?”
Unfortunately, the humanities are not quite so transparent. It’s not a matter of connecting the dots from biography to text. Sometimes all that we have is simply text. From Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace:
It’s funny what you don’t recall. Our first home, in the suburb of Weston, which I barely remember–my eldest brother Orin says he can remember being in the home’s backyard with our mother in the early spring, helping the Moms till some sort of garden out of the cold yard. March or early April. The garden’s area was a rough rectangle laid out with Popsicle sticks and twine. Orin was removing rocks and hard clods from the Moms’s path as she worked the rented Rototiller, a wheelbarrow-shaped, gas-driven thing that roared and snorted and bucked and he remembers seemed to propel the Moms rather than vice versa, the Moms very tall and having to stoop painfully to hold on, her feet leaving drunken prints in the tilled earth. He remembers that in the middle of the tilling I came tear-assing out the door and into the backyard wearing some sort of fuzzy red Pooh-wear, crying, holding out something he said was really unpleasant-looking in my upturned palm. He says I was around five and crying and was vividly red in the cold spring air. I was saying something over and over; he couldn’t make it out until our mother saw me and shut down the tiller, ears ringing, and came over to what I was holding out. This turned out to have been a large patch of mold–Orin posits from some dark corner of the Weston home’s basement, which was warm from the furnace and flooded every spring. The patch itself he describes as horrific: darkly green, glossy, vaguely hirsute, speckled with parasitic fungal points of yellow, orange, red. Worse, they could see that the patch looked oddly incomplete, gnawed-on; and some of the nauseous stuff was smeared around my open mouth. `I ate this,’ was what I was saying. I held the patch out to the Moms, who had her contacts out for the dirty work, and at first, bending way down, saw only her crying child, hand out, proffering; and in that most maternal of reflexes she, who feared and loathed more than anything spoilage and filth, reached to take whatever her baby held out–as in how many used heavy Kleenex, spit-back candies, wads of chewed-out gum in how many theaters, airports, backseats, tournament lounges? O. stood there, he says, hefting a cold clod, playing with the Velcro on his puffy coat, watching as the Moms, bent way down to me, hand reaching, her lowering face with its presbyopic squint, suddenly stopped, froze, beginning to I.D. what it was I held out, countenancing evidence of oral contact with same. He remembers her face as past describing. Her outstretched hand, still Rototrembling, hung in the air before mine.
`I ate this,’ I said.