Sunday, September 14, 2008

Consider the Writer

It's another rainy weekend in Boston, but the gray sky and pervasive damp are only part of the reason for the grim pall--late last night, news broke of David Foster Wallace's untimely death at the age of 46. DFW is best-known as a writer of satire, absurdism, and the eccentricities of contemporary American life. He made a splash in the literary scene from his very first post-modernist novel, "The Broom of the System" (1987) and continued to build up steam, and a cult following, with story collections, journalistic articles, and books of essays, before publishing what is largely considered his masterpiece, the novel "Infinite Jest" in 1996.

As I can't speak to the influence or genius of these novels, I will defer to those who know. What I can say is that Wallace was the kind of writer who challenged the restraints of popular literature and consistently produced the kind of writing that made people question what they thought they knew; the kind of writer who took a Gourmet magazine assignment to cover the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival and turned it into a sprawling rumination on not only the lobster's place in the "pop food industry" and American tourism, but also how the way we eat is emblematic of the way we think about mortality, killing, and the difference between humans and all other living creatures. He told things like they were, in a voice that was gentle in its harsh honesty, as though he understood the reluctance of mainstream culture to accept truth.

Wallace's death shook me, not because I am a devoted fan (admittedly, I've only read a couple of his essays), but because his death is only the latest in a long and storied line of visionary writers who've seen life as--well, as unlivable. Woolf, Hemingway, Plath, Sexton, Thompson, Spalding Gray, Hart Crane--the list goes on. What is it about writing, and about art as a whole, that causes such desperate melancholy, abject loneliness, and absolute faithlessness? Of course, it's not a problem associated solely with writers, but it's no coincidence that some of the greatest writers of modern times have ended their lives while in the prime of their writing careers. What does this say about writing as an art form, and writers as artists? Is writing truly an exercise in solitude--a solitude so vast for some that it cannot be bridged by success, critical acclaim, or fame?

I don't know. I'm no creative genius, and sometimes I can barely cobble together a sentence that makes any sense. But I do know that the world seems a little more sad, a little less full, with every literary (or musical or visionary or theatrical) talent that we lose, just for knowing that we won't learn anything else from them.

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