Happy birthday, David Foster Wallace.
He would have been 48 today.
“In his moving eulogy to Wallace published in the 21 September 2008 edition of The New York Times Book Review, A. O. Scott eloquently describes Wallace’s distinctive literary voice as “the voice in your own head.” Scott is absolutely correct, of course, but in a very technical sense that bears exploring. As Infinite Jest reaches its shattering conclusion, Don Gately is found mute and supine on his back, in tremendous pain, and heroically refusing any form of pharmacological relief. Soon, Gately’s interior is visited by a spectral conversational “wraith” who listens to Gately’s thoughts, occasionally pushes up his glasses, and replies back in a voice that is partly his own and partly Gately’s. “The wraith,” Wallace writes, “could empathize totally.” What’s more, the “wraith could move at the speed of quanta and be anywhere anytime and hear in symphonic toto the thoughts of animate men, but it couldn’t ordinarily affect anybody or anything solid, and it could never speak right to anybody, a wraith had no out-loud voice of its own, and had to use somebody’s like internal brain-voice if it wanted to try to communicate something, which was why thoughts and insights that were coming from some wraith always just sound like your own thoughts, from inside your own head, if a wraith’s trying to interface with you.” That’s on page 831, if you missed it first time around. My point is that the wraith is, in many respects, the personification of Wallace’s literary voice. It is a concrete analogue for Wallace’s trace presence in his own texts. Not to be confused with Wallace the man. Emphatically not to be confused with Wallace the man.
I cannot begin to imagine the misery the real David Foster Wallace must have experienced when he took his life, but I know that puncture of pain I feel when I think of that misery is in many ways more acute because my own alienated self has been punctured, opened, and made more empathetic to the pain of others as a direct result of David Foster Wallace’s texts coming to life through me, as a reader. That was true before 12 September 2008, and it is no less true now. If you don’t believe me, put down this journal and go read something of his—a story, a cherished chunk of Infinite Jest, one of the essays. You’ll see what I mean. The Wallace wraith is alive and well in those books, ready to push his glasses up his nose and listen to you read your own thoughts even as he speaks to you in your own voice. That is the buried treasure that lies at the innermost interior of Wallace’s best work. It his selfless gift to us, his readers. The only thing that has changed is that the gift is now more precious than ever.”
- Marshall Boswell.