Smile Politely

Consider the Writer: David Foster Wallace 1962–2008

In a 2004 article, David Foster Wallace wrote, “Still, after all the intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot.”

The sentence comes toward the end of an essay called, “Consider the Lobster,” a reflection on the Maine Lobster Festival that, to my mind, represents quintessential Wallace: thoughtful and cerebral and satirical and meandering and overrun with footnotes and, in the end, gratifyingly complex.

But reading that sentence in the days after Wallace — who did much of his growing up in Champaign — hung himself in his Claremont, Calif., home, we’re left wondering how long he was clinging to the edge of his own pot, and how long he heard his own version of that clanking lid.

Perhaps for decades.

Known not only as a prolific writer, but also as a dedicated teacher and a man of great wit and good nature, Wallace, who was 46, also wrestled with his demons. In the late 1980s, just after Broom of the System (his debut novel) and Girl with Curious Hair (a short story collection) landed him a prominent spot in America’s literary landscape, Wallace checked himself into the hospital as a suicide risk.

Reflecting on that period a few years later, Wallace told Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro, “Things were getting better and better for me in terms of all the stuff I thought I wanted, and I was getting unhappier and unhappier.”

Unhappiness was always present in his work, as well. The ruminations on depression and suicide that sprawl throughout “Good Old Neon,” a 2001 short story originally published in the literary journal Conjunctions, provide a perfect example of this. In that story, Wallace’s main character is a troubled person who nonetheless manages to convey the appearance of someone who’s “happy and unreflective and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate an even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. male.” Tellingly, presentation and reality are often misaligned in Wallace’s work.

Wallace, whose father was a University of Illinois professor and mother was a Parkland College professor, spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Champaign-Urbana. He earned degrees from Amherst College and the University of Arizona before returning to Illinois, in 1993, to a position as a creative writing professor at Illinois State University in Bloomington. In 2002 he moved to southern California, where he taught creative writing at Pomona College, a prestigious liberal arts institution outside of Los Angeles. He held this position until his death on Sept. 12.

Wallace, who had come to the University of Illinois to read from his work in the past, was slated to visit campus as a guest writer in fall 2007, but he was forced to cancel due to illness. He is perhaps best known for his 1996 opus, Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace is survived by his wife, Karen Green, who found his body, as well as his parents and a sister.

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