Philosophy Weekend: The Puzzle of David Foster Wallace

Being A Writer Existential Postmodernism Psychology

Two and a half years after the shocking suicide of celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace, a conversation is emerging -- in fits and starts -- about how Wallace's readers can possibly comprehend his life story, and how the book industry may be processing it. David Freedlander wrote an article for the New York Observer titled "Dead Author Breeds Big Business". Closer to the heart, Wallace's good friend Jonathan Franzen set off a Twitter firestorm by musing during an interview with Tim Walker of the Independent:

The author struggled for years to get to grips with [The Pale King, a newly published posthumous novel] and, says Franzen, who was a close friend, “If he’d finished it, I think he’d be alive today. Boredom is a tough subject to tackle in a novel and, arguably, Dave died of boredom.”

At least one blogger was infuriated by "Dave died of boredom":

It’s enormously disingenuous and insulting, not only to people who are still alive and dealing with severe depression, but also to Wallace - who is ill-served by such poorly-executed mythologizing nonsense - and, well, *Wallace’s goddamn wife*.

I would give Franzen a pass here, since I think he was waxing ironic, pointing us piquantly towards the incomprehensible koan that the suicide of every talented artist or public figure leaves behind. Boredom is as noble a form of anguish as any other (as Lee Rourke or Lars Svendsen would confirm). I'm not completely sure what Franzen is alluding to with this remark -- boredom with literary possibilities? boredom with success? boredom with the inside of his own brain? -- but it's an interesting point, and Franzen could not have meant it to be understood in a trivial or demeaning sense.

I learned how raw feelings still are about David Foster Wallace when I reviewed his philosophy book Fate, Time and Language on this blog last year and referred to his suicide as "inexplicable". One commenter pointed out that David Lipsky's book about David Foster Wallace explained his suicide in starkly pharmaceutical terms: he was taking medicine for severe depression, was knocked off kilter by a change in medication, and was doomed.

As I mentioned in my responses during that comment conversation, I found David Lipsky's explanation for the suicide extremely unsatisfying. Of all possible explanations, including Franzen's, Lipsky's remains the most tone-deaf, the most trivializing. To reduce a massively talented writer to a chemical automaton, surviving at the mercy of pharmaceutical correction! His life must have had more meaning than the right selection of pills could have provided. I think it's strange that Franzen's remark should cause an uproar when Lipsky's did not.

But it's easy to say the wrong thing about a suicide, and I ended up regretting (and apologizing for) some of my own blatherings in the conversation that followed my blog post. Maybe The Gift of Writing, a blog post by Steve Mitchelmore from 2008, remains the best thing I've read yet about David Foster Wallace's suicide (and Cesare Pavese's suicide, and Thomas Bernhard's suicide). Mitchelmore ponders the unponderable:

Whatever the clinical facts, his work displays, in its size, scope, ambition and worldly success, an energy and optimism unique to his nation's literary life, and unique to its demands. The incredulity of his fans at news of his death supports this impression. Infinite Jest embodies a certain hope; a hope that everything could be contained in a book, unified by narrative; that with enough talent and hard work, a novel might become the world, exceeding the limits of the self, a hegemonic power against the regions of the ungraspable. All this is apparently contradicted by the manner of his death.

So what of the darkness spoken of by his friends and family? "Suffering from near-crippling anxiety" Salon says, "Wallace found himself unable to write". Perhaps the literary tragedy, which remains a human tragedy, is that he could not produce a work that maintained itself in the actuality of suffering. It may be instead the margins of the novels and stories he left will grow wider and we will see it there. The movement towards his books in the library evokes a longing for such a space, a space in which something appears. His death would then indeed inflect his work.

I never even finished Infinite Jest. but I was always fascinated by David Foster Wallace's demeanor, his confidence, his style. I still can't comprehend his death at all. I've begun reading his first novel, The Broom of the System (I find this easier to enjoy than Infinite Jest). I remember his suicide about once per page; it's impossible to read Wallace's sardonic observations about life and not remember that this is a writer who ultimately seemed to prefer death to the continuing possibility of life.

But it's also impossible to imagine that Wallace would have wanted this patina of despair and sadness to cover his cherished life's work. David Foster Wallace's death remains a puzzle completely unsolved.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Elusive Self. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Grounding.
14 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Puzzle of David Foster Wallace"

by Ricky P. on

Look dude, the novel DFW was working on when he killed himself was literally about boredom. That's why Franzen said boredom killed him. Franzen's argument is that David Foster Wallace killed himself because he set himself to the impossible task of making boredom an interesting subject to readers. Good luck man.


by michaelamichael on

Thanks for this article.

I am currently reading Infinite Jest, am 150 pages in (more if you count the notes), so this came at a good time for me. I have been thinking about David Foster Wallace for the past few months, ever since I saw the troubling interview he gave to some European young lady, of which the above photograph is a still. The interview was my first introduction to him as a writer, as a person. In the interview he seems constantly unsure that the meanings of his words are coming through, constantly doubting that he is making himself understood, that is he is saying anything of value, that he is making any sense whatsoever. He seems like a man with troubles inside. It was hard to watch and it affected my mind for some days after. I resolved to read him at some point.

Then I saw a list for best books of the past twenty years (something like that), where Infinite Jest was placed at the top. So now I have it, Infinite Jest, and I am reading it. It is tough-going at times, a bit like Joyce´s Ullyses, but then there are moments that are not so tough, though still tough. If there is one thing I will do in the next few months it is finish this book. It is required reading as far as I am concerned. It really is brilliant. He reminds me at times of Vonnegut Jr (anarchistic imagination), at times of Faulkner (streams of consciousness), at times of Joyce (the scope of knowledge and vocabulary). The guy was a genius.

Why did he kill himself? Well, I don´t know the answer to that question (no-one does, not exactly, except him--and maybe even he did not know entirely), but I guess it would not be far wrong to say that he felt too much, that he noticed too much, that he felt and noticed everything, and that it in the end, due to whatever complicating factors one might note and add (depression, boredom, legal and illegal drugs), it became too much to handle, too difficult to continue thinking, breathing, existing.

Here is the interview, should anyone want to see and hear it:

I can't help thinking a clue to at least one part of the solution to the puzzle lies in Edmond's question to Stephen in the comment thread of the post you admire, Levi. And this is never confronted--not at Litkicks anyway--the moral weight that falls on "successful" writers. The tremendous guilt I imagine some of them (the few that aren't complete media creations themselves) must justifiably feel at being enriched for propping up the evil system that is corporate publishing, inasmuch as it serves as gloss, apologia, and propoganda arm for a government committed to murder, torture, every kind of injustice and exploitation, and endless warfare, as well as being quite literally the vehicle by which some of the worst perpetrators--Bush (George and Laura), Cheney, Rumsfield, Palin, the Obamas, etc.--receive multi-million dollar money-laundering payouts for enacting those policies at what one surmises must be the behest of the defense and energy industry corporate elites. Right? You don't get rich on the salary of a U.S. president ($400k), but for a ghost-written memoir ($6,7,8,9,10 M)? Yes, we can! Change we can believe in. And David Remnick's The New Yorker is waist-deep in the blood and shit--they take ad money from Monsanto, they supported Operation Iraqi Freedom, etc.

One imagines that someone as bright and sensitive and gifted as DFW must have known and, more importantly, felt the reprehensibility of this at his very core. But his livelihood, his reputation, his ability to continue to participate at the level he had enjoyed, walking that line, eating the lobster while feeling its pain, I mean maybe he couldn't walk it anymore. Maybe he was disgusted and horrified that he ever had. Maybe no book was and ever would or could be worth it. And on those terms, pursuing ligature became a more viable choice of vocation than literature. I mean, I can see his point; it's no way to live.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the responses.

Frances, I think these are excellent points. I don't know enough about David Foster Wallace's work or life to be able to validate what you suggest here, but I came to a similar conclusion years ago when I struggled to understand the suicide of Kurt Cobain (whose work, unlike Wallace's, I knew very well, and whose suicide really shocked me to the core).

Of course, a variety of terrible problems must have plagued Kurt, including a drug addiction he considered himself too weak to overcome ... but I also came to the conclusion that he must have seen his suicide as an idealistic gesture towards his (as he saw it) innocent and misguided fans. He would not be a sell-out to the machine of money and fame. He would never be a phony old rock star. It's also my personal belief -- supported by no evidence at all -- that Cobain's suicide was probably a close call, that he might never have pulled that trigger, that he might not have even expected himself to pull that trigger, and that if he had not, he would eventually have realized that his logic and rationale for suicide was completely wrong.

by Michael.Norris on

We will never know why Wallace killed himself. We can never know why anyone does this. However, his death inspired me to pick up and read his masterpiece, Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest is a hell of a book. These works only come along once in a while – Joyce’s Ulysses, Shakespeare – works of literature that redefine how we think about writing and what we think about the world.

It took me more than four months to read this book. I had to stop reading at certain points because the descriptions of depression were so vivid and so disturbing that I couldn’t keep reading. I had to take a break for a few days.

If there is any clue to why Wallace killed himself, it is found in this book, He presents characters that are depressed in such a way that you are inside that character’s brain, feeling the pain of their despair. And it is uncomfortable – horrifying in some cases. I kept thinking that if anyone felt that bad – with no relief in sight – it is no wonder that some people put a gun to their head and pull the trigger. Even more difficult it seems is to choose to live through the depression. I think it has something to do with hope. If you lose hope, the pain becomes unbearable.

I don’t think you can write about depression in this way without living it. Of course, Infinite Jest isn’t just about depression. But the glimpse that it gives into the world of a clinically depressed person is something that you will never forget if you read the book.

by mke on

Well, the book is on my list and I've searched several used book sales for it. It seems like a daunting read though and if Levi can't get through it what chance have I ? I first heard about the book when he had taken his own life. I don't think suicide fits rationally(at least in young and somewhat healthy individuals) which seems how the survivors try to figure it.

I'm not sure we're taking the problem by the correct angle. I'm sure the problem doesn't lies in what has been written. Not even "The Pale King", because it's been edited by Michael Pietsch and from his own admittance, it was a puzzle to put together a series of such short sketches. So the work is so filtered through a perspective so ever-present, there's no way of assessing really of what's going on. Infinite Jest was written on a surprisingly short period, where he was taking medication on a regular basis.

The Broom is a novel he could've written under this plow of despair, but it's written in such a more conventional approach (manner of speach, what I mean is that it's a lot more postmodern), that it's still hard to say. My humble explanation is that he was a man with an exceptional perception and a great analytical mind (that, we knew), but he also took things at heart. He had difficulty separating himself from his work, which made him so great, but so sad. I don't claim to have the truth about his suicide, but I don't think it lies in intellectual discourse.

by tolmsted on


Great post, as always. I tried to read Infinite Jest last Summer and didn't get far at all. And, it's probably fair to admit that I've never been much of a DFW fan. But - I still remember when Infinite Jest was published, the year I graduated art school, and the way it seemed to turn the literary world upside down.

While I wasn't a fan, I do have a healthy respect for Wallace's talent. So I wanted to comment on your statement:

'As I mentioned in my responses during that comment conversation, I found David Lipsky's explanation for the suicide extremely unsatisfying. Of all possible explanations, including Franzen's, Lipsky's remains the most tone-deaf, the most trivializing. To reduce a massively talented writer to a chemical automaton, surviving at the mercy of pharmaceutical correction! His life must have had more meaning than the right selection of pills could have provided.'

It's too easy to romanticize suicide - when someone we value is taken from us, we want there to be something meaningful about the loss. We want reasons, and we want the reasons to balance the level of the loss we feel. But depression is a medical condition, caused by chemicals in the brain. And balancing it with medication is tricky - and often the doctor has to determine the right dosage (to some extent) through trial and error. Yes, David Foster Wallace's life did have much more meaning than the right selection of pills - but the huge tragedy is that without the right selection of pills Wallace was probably unable to realize that.

by Ben on

Although it is beyond sad to me that David Wallace died, I find some comfort in the two masterworks he managed to complete. "Infinite Jest" and "A Supposedly Fun Thing..." are both works that make one feel less alone when read. From all I know of David i believe that depression and discontinuing Nardil affected his writing badly at the end, and writing was his life. While it is hard to imagine something as seemingly minor as changing medications hurting someone as seemingly strong as David so badly, I think that the mind is sometimes very delicate, and Nardil is a very very strong medication. To those who have not read him yet, I do not recommend reading "Broom of the System" first. It is a good book but he progressed far beyond it in his later work.

by michaelamichael on

All that he was is in the books. Simple as that really. And then he killed himself. The books are what we have left. Infinite Jest is stunning in places, just stunning, but very trying in places. I am now 190 pages in. Just today, twice, I felt like giving up on it. It is a difficult books to read, a constant stream of information, of things noted, turned around, studied from every angle.

by TKG on

No matter what the ostensible reason is for people to kill themselves, eg boredom, unrequited love, frustration over communication, hatred of ones spouse etc... The common denominator is always there: pain. Overwhelming unabating pain.

I think this can be physical pain and more often mental pain. As some earlier posts here mentioned, anxiety and anguish.

I don't think anxiety and anguish can even be strong enough to describe the mental anguish they must have gone through.

It is physical in that it is a mental illness in the most literal sense of the term. It is neurological. There may be an organic component. Read the Wikipedia section on Hemingway before he shot himself. In some ways it was quite similar to Wallace in that near the end both received shock therapy.

I think the mental pain becomes such that it can feel like their head and body is on fire. I think they need to escape horrible pain. However it may manifestly be explained, it is pain.

To quote Kurt Cobain "pain pain pain"

Michaelamichael - Keep reading. It may seem like climbing the tallest mountain in the world, but it's worth it.

by Randy on

As a bit of an elaboration on Lipsky's consideration of pharmaceutical factors in suicide -- if I remember correctly, his contention was not that a med change made DFW's meds stop working and so he fell prey to his own darkness. Rather, certain meds and combinations of meds have been shown to actually cause suicidal behavior in a manner that is both horrifying and out of control. I experienced this myself after starting a course of Prozac. Whether Mr. Wallace, I, or anyone else is or is not ultimately a chemical automaton, there are indeed combinations of chemicals that result in loss of control and it seems to me perfectly credible and extraordinarily tragic that this puzzle of a man fell victim to the vagaries of he pharmaceutical industry.

by Spleen on

A book called "Nation of Rebels" claims Kurt Cobain was victim of an idea, the idea of "counterculture". The authors elaborate on what they mean by counterculture and how the idea of it developed and the effects (negative) it has had.
Kurt Cobain probably sincerely thought he was too popular and the mainstream culture liked his music and his band was too big and that there is something terribly wrong with this. It is wrong to be that popular. Plus, he was sick in the head and messed up on drugs. So... he had issues.

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