QuickTakes: David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

David Foster Wallace, American novelist and essayist associated with the literary movement hysterical realism, hanged himself last Friday evening.

Hysterical realism, a genre based on use of detail and at times absurdist prose, was publicly condemned by literary critic James Woods as work that could “know a thousand things but not.a single human being.”

It seems no praise can fall on Wallace without the speaker challenging, marginalizing, or explaining away this famed attack.

Woods’ criticism opposes a style Wallace embodied – best seen in his novel Infinite Jest – which reads like a verbal spreadsheet in the text and contains literal spreadsheets and diagrams in the index.

His criticism, though, should not be explained away; it fundamentally cannot be. It’s actually the greatest praise. Wallace did not tell the reader what life was like or what it meant. He showed the reader what it could be by explaining everything but it.

In his memory: quotations telling you what life is. Not what it meant.

Infinite Jest (1996)

“We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe.”

Girl With Curious Hair (1990)

“Please don’t tell anybody, but Mark Nechtr desires, some distant hard-earned day, to write something that stabs you in the heart.”

Oblivion: Stories (1994)

“Analysis… it didn’t really work, although it did make everyone sound more aware of their own problems and added some useful vocabulary.”

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