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  • “…There are all kinds of reasons for why we’re so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, is that the job we’re here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people, to keep that kind of terror at bay.” ~ David Foster Wallace

    I want to tell you about David Foster Wallace while my heart’s still freshly broken. I’ve just finished reading “Although Of Course You End up Becoming Yourself” by David Lispky. In 1996, Lipsky, then a reporter for Rolling Stone, spent five days with Wallace as he completed his book tour for his breakout novel “Infinite Jest.” After years of relative obscurity, Wallace found himself at age 34 a literary superstar. Clocking in at nearly 1100 pages, the book features the author’s many obsessions, including tennis, the search for integrity and the use of entertainment as a sort of national pacifier. It’s safe to say that “Infinite Jest” was more purchased than read. The short story master Raymond Carver spawned a legion of lesser imitators; no one has tried to copy Wallace, with his subversive wit, learned digressions and copious footnotes. He’s your reward for having a liberal arts degree.

    As the tour wound down, Wallace couldn’t wait to get back to his modest home in Bloomington, Illinois, where his two dogs and his beloved college students awaited him. Painfully shy, Wallace dreaded giving readings and hobnobbing at parties, even as he daydreamed of using his new-found celebrity to wangle a date with the popular singer Alanis Morrisette. He told Lipsky, “Never let your hunger for approval get in the way of having a good time.” If only his demons had allowed him to follow his own advice.

    David Foster Wallace suffered from clinical depression most of his adult life. He found relief with an antidepressant called Narvil, but hated the side effects. He sometimes simply stopped taking it or switched to new medicines, none of which helped. He finally agreed to go back to the Narvil, but by then its effectiveness had worn off. He underwent 12 rounds of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In September, 2008, while his wife was out walking the dogs, he committed suicide. He was 46. His literary output wasn’t immense: two short-story collections, two collections of essays, an experimental novel – “The Broom of the System” – written as a master’s thesis, the gargantuan “Infinite Jest” and an uncompleted, posthumous work, “The Pale King.” But it’s wonderful stuff, not the work of a brilliant show-off, but of an honest and generous young man trying to understand himself and the society into which he’d been born.

    Writing is not unlike dying. People can cheer or sob from the sidelines, but you ultimately have to finish the trip on your own. I grieve for a good, gifted man who never shook his loneliness, his terror or his wonder.

    (If you want to get acquainted with Wallace, I’d start off with the essay collections. If they resonate with you, don’t move on to the novels until you’re ready to give them the time they deserve. Your patience will be richly rewarded.)
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