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The unfinished life of David Foster Wallace

“I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff.” So wrote the late David Foster Wallace to his editor during the composition of the mammoth novel Infinite Jest. Part mission statement, part expression of his dissatisfaction with what he viewed as the staid and outmoded realistic novel that had come to dominate American fiction, Foster Wallace’s comment, and the writing that proceeded from it, helped breathe new life into a form that was in danger of becoming unrelievedly moribund.

Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12 of last year, leaving an unfinished novel behind. The New Yorker has published an excerpt from the final novel, along with a long appreciation of the author by D.T. Max:

Wallace’s desire to write morally passionate, passionately moral fiction, as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was too familiar and anesthetic, he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ˜familiarity’ is meditated and delusive, he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony “ the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?

Wallace himself needed no reminding of “how dark and stupid everything is”; he struggled with depression for much of his adult life, and was in the grip of a deep depression when he died. What is so remarkable about his fiction is that it is such a vibrant testament to life in all its passion and vitality. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he said in an interview. Hear, hear.