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Posthumous Wisdom
January/February 2013

Chronicler of pain: David Foster Wallace 

Like so many readers of my generation, I love David Foster Wallace. (The generation that came just before mine and just after his loves him too.) We love him for capturing, perhaps better than any other artist, certain kinds of pain peculiar to the specific historical moment in which we have been expected, slightly unfairly we sometimes feel, to grow up. But I don't myself often enjoy reading his fiction. Why not? All that pain. And the fact that he does nothing else nearly as well. 

I laid aside his big novel, Infinite Jest, about halfway through, during an extended vignette about the deformed and then maggot-ridden corpse of a junkie's stillborn baby. In fact grotesquely stricken children and babies infest, boringly, not just that novel but Wallace's short fiction as well. I've twice come across a young person's genitalia being scalded off, and I didn't like it the first time. But this is the lurid side of it; there's other stuff going on, like maimed adults for example, and a low-key anxiety, an ambience of discomfiture hanging over every scene. Wallace makes you laugh occasionally. He stuns you with his creativity. He never makes you cry. What he mostly does is make you grit your teeth.

His first piece of fiction was published in 1984, when Wallace was 22. "The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to The Bad Thing", a short story, succeeds only in two respects: as an excruciatingly vivid portrait of what it's like to be a) severely clinically depressed:  

Imagine feeling really sick to your stomach . . . Imagine that every cell in your body, every single cell in your body is as sick as that nauseated stomach . . . Now imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick like that, sick, intolerably sick. And every proton and neutron in every atom . . . 

and b) on anti-depressants:

[anti-depressants are] fine, really, but they're fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: It would be fine, but it wouldn't be good old Earth, obviously.

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