My thanks to Alissa Wilkinson for passing along the news…
David Foster Wallace, the novelist, essayist and humorist best known for his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” was found dead Friday night at his home in Claremont, according to the Claremont Police Department. He was 46.
Jackie Morales, a records clerk at the department, said Wallace’s wife called police at 9:30 p.m. Friday saying she had returned home to find that her husband had hanged himself.
Wallace, who had taught creative writing at Pomona College since 2002, was on leave this semester.
Times book editor David Ulin was in New York City for a National Book Critics Circle Board meeting Saturday.
“What was a party is now a wake,” Ulin said as the news of Wallace’s death circulated. “People were speechless and just blown away.
“He was one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years,” Ulin said.
“He is one of the main writers who brought ambition, a sense of play, a joy in storytelling and an exuberant experimentalism of form back to the novel in the late ’80s and early 1990s,” Ulin said. “And he really restored the notion of the novel as a kind of canvas on which a writer can do anything.”
In a 1996 profile in the New York Times Magazine, Frank Bruni wrote, “Wallace is to literature what Robin Williams or perhaps Jim Carrey is to live comedy: a creator so maniacally energetic and amused with himself that he often follows his riffs out into the stratosphere, where he orbits all alone.”
My friend Andy Whitman, a music critic for Paste and All-Music, posted this a couple of years ago at ArtsandFaith.com:
I’m a big, big fan of Mr. Wallace.
He delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College, not far from me, in 2005. It’s the most amazing commencement speech I’ve ever heard. Here’s a little snippet:
“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
He may not have been in a church, but I still want to give him an “Amen.”
Andy also provided the link to that full commencement address.
And by the way, Wallace wrote about being a churchgoer in an essay called “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s, which is in the collection called Consider the Lobster.
Another A&F Poster, M. Dale Prins, pointed that out, excerpting this paragraph, which is about his experience on the morning of September 11, 2001:
“The church I belong to is on the south side of Bloomington, [Illinois,] near where my house is. Most of the people I know well enough to ask if I can come over and watch their TV are members of my church. It’s not one of those churches where people throw Jesus’ name around a lot or talk about the End Times, but it’s fairly serious, and people in the congregation get to know each other well and to be pretty tight. As far as I know, all the congregants are natives of the area. Most are working-class or retired from same. There are some small-business owners. A fair number are veterans and/or have kids in the military or ‚Äî especially ‚Äî in the reserves, because for many of these families that’s what you do to pay for college.
“The house I end up sitting with shampoo in my hair watching most of the actual unfolding Horror at belongs to Mrs. Thompson… Mrs. Thompson is a long-time member and a leader in the congregation, and her living room tends to be kind of a gathering place.”
Just as he wrote so specifically about those unforgettable hours, so I’m sure that many writers, students, and readers will remember exactly where they were when the news came of Wallace’s death.
What a sad, terrible, and unnecessary end.