Sunday 14 September 2008

David Foster Wallace 1962-2008

David Foster Wallace: Courtesy Little, Brown

Writer David Foster Wallace, my (near) namesake, was found dead in his home in California on Friday 12th September. It seems that he committed suicide. He was 46 years old.

I spent most of January this year reading his 1000+ page novel Infinite Jest. It is probably the most technically virtuoso modern novel I have read. Set in a near future Boston it intertwines the stories of a school for young tennis prodigies and a halfway house for recovering addicts. The book presents these strangely parallel worlds in psychotic, breathtaking and humorous detail.

I don't feel any sense of closure about the book. It's a bundle of live wires sparking all over the place. Across the thousand pages it is Wallace's beguiling prose style that kept me wrapped. It is this that will also ensure that I will return to his writings again and again. The prose style is so personal that I feel I spent pretty much every spare moment in January with Wallace as my companion.

I usually keep notes in the back pages of books I read, but the complexity and length of Infinite Jest made the labour near impossible. Nevertheless I kept a few notes on themes that interested me: addiction, gaming, illness, dreams and some of the wonderful linguistic constructions Wallace uses in the novel.

One of the great Wallace phrases used throughout the novel is 'The Howling Fantods' a comic coinage that characters use to gloss a genuine and absolute terror. Looking up this reference it is used by addict Kate Gombert to describe her gut feeling when hearing the banal, incomprehensible stories of other suicides (p692). I guess this is how a lot of David Foster Wallace readers are feeling now. Suicide: always irreducible to the rational.

I wanted to quote one of the dreams I just read from Infinite Jest. This is a dream of the novels main protagonist, the young tennis player Hal Incandenza:

In this dream, which every now and then still recurs, I am standing publicly at the baseline of a gargantuan tennis court. I'm in a competitive match, clearly: there are spectators, officials. The court is about the size of a football field, through, maybe, it seems. It's hard to tell. But mainly the court’s complex. The lines that bound and define play are on this court as complex and convolved as a sculpture of string. There are lines going every which way, and they run oblique or meet and form relationships and boxes and rivers and tributaries and systems inside systems: lines, corners, alleys, and angles deliquesce into a blur at the horizon of the distant net. I stand there tentatively. The whole thing is almost too involved to try and take in all at once. It’s simply huge. And it’s public. A silent crowd resolves itself at what may be the court’s periphery, dressed in summer's citrus colors, motionless and highly attentive. A battalion of linesmen stand blandly alert in their blazers and safari hats, hands folded over their slacks’ flies. High overhead near what might be a net-post, the umpire, blue-blazered, wired for amplification in his tall high-chair, whispers Play…

…We sort of play. But it's all hypothetical, somehow. Even the ‘we’ is theory: I never get quite to see the distant opponent, for all the apparatus of the game.

p67 Infinite Jest (1996)

A great blog for information on David Foster Wallace is also named 'The Howling Fantods'. This will be a good place for updates on the details of Wallace's sad passing away.

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