Saturday, January 30, 2010

For the Soul of David Foster Wallace

The death of JD Salinger on Thursday and a comment from a reader on Friday about John Knowles have brought my own favorite fiction writer to mind. Sixteen months ago, David Foster Wallace (left) committed suicide by hanging himself. Compared with this final act, JD Salinger’s professional suicide, hiding out from the world in a hermitage, is small potatoes. But both lives, both deaths remind us how fragile, how transitory our highest impulses are, and how much we need God in our lives. Without God, it’s all just a big damn mess.

Let’s be clear about both JDS and DFW. In our enlightened post-modern culture, they were gods. At least I thought so—Salinger when I was Holden Caulfield’s age in the late 1960s, Wallace ten years ago when I read his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, for the first of three times, mostly while guffawing my guts out on a trip with Katie and the girls. I haven’t read it again since becoming a Catholic, and I’m not sure I would even like it now.

You don’t want to know what it’s about. Written in the mid-1990s about a dystopian near-future when years are named for products (The Year of Glad opens the book), Infinite Jest is set in a tennis academy and in the halfway house for substance abusers that happens to be next door. The main characters are tennis whiz Hal Incandenza, a possibly schizophrenic adolescent, not unlike Holden, who spends most of his time high on marijuana; and Don Gately, a recovering pill-popper who receives a terrible injury defending someone on the streets and dominates the last 100 pages of the novel, lying semicomatose in bed and hoping the nurses won’t administer painkillers, which will only re-addict him. Oh, and there’s a video so insidiously alluring that, once you sit to watch it, you become catatonic; the video is sought by a Quebecois terrorist cell that hopes to use it on the American population. You see, you didn’t want to know.

But here’s the thing, the very sad thing: Despite clinical depression (he went off his medication at the end, probably prompting the suicide), Wallace was basically a positive person, and IJ is shot through with silent prayers for humanity. Wallace told an interviewer that he wrote the novel to express a deep sadness he felt about our culture and its many forms of addiction. To my mind, that sadness clearly was the bedrock of a sincere hope for humanity (his and mine). I think he thought his writing could make a difference, but though he was perhaps the most inventive writer of his generation, he lost his way and, with it, his hope.

Without God? . . . Ultimately, without faith in ultimate redemption any hope is bootless. God is notably absent from both Catcher in the Rye and Infinite Jest. I did not know JD Salinger (who did?) but I will pray for David Wallace, because I knew and loved him well.