Is it possible to miss someone you’ve never actually met? I’m not talking about wishing you could go back and meet them, or naming them on your “if-you-could-have-dinner-with-three-people-living-or-dead” list. I mean genuinely miss them, being truly sad that they’re gone.
It was not until the spring of 2009, some six months after his tragic death, that I was first introduced to David Foster Wallace through his writings, but it seems our lives have become forever intertwined. For starters, my sister shares his February 21 birthday, and my eldest daughter and one of my nephews were both born on September 12, in 2003 and 2008, respectively. These dates that have held personal significance now have new, unshakeable meaning and deeper connections that will never be lost.
More important than these mere coincidences, having invested the last two years writing blog posts about his short stories and essays has ushered me into a world I never knew existed. My perception of life and the world around has been radically altered. I see my fellow man in an entirely new light. I have been introduced to an online community of people who share a passion for DFW’s writing and for language and art and life. My kind of people, as my wife puts it. In short, my life has been forever changed by a man I will never have the opportunity to meet.
David Foster Wallace is the most intelligent and challenging and creative writer I have ever encountered. Reading his essays and stories has given me a new understanding of what the term “language artist” can truly mean. He has crafted words into sentences and paragraphs in ways I never conceived possible: his unmatched ability to create authentic narrative voices with all the ticks and idiosyncrasies common to everyday speech; the way he plays with space and time to create a totally cohesive, yet completely non-linear plot; his immense vocabulary and ability to find just the right word for any situation; the layer upon layer of narrative and character that perfectly emulates the subtle complexities of real life.
Now I have certainly read my share of difficult books over the years – being a high school English teacher with a master’s degree and all – but none have challenged me the way that Wallace’s works have. His writing takes time and effort to absorb as I seek to explore the narrative and linguistic possibilities printed there on the page. Most of his short stories take at least two or three readings and several days of mulling over them to fully “get” them. When I first read “Little Expressionless Animals” from Girl with Curious Hair, the story just stuck with me for days as I turned it over and over, knowing there was something more to it, even though I wasn’t completely sure right away what that “something” was; it contained, buried somewhere below the surface, some beautiful truth to be unearthed and then cherished. And once it is found, it is to be held onto dearly.
And in the midst of all this pure literary genius, there is an unparalleled realness and raw authenticity that makes his writing a true gift. DFW had the rare and special gift of seeing people for who they really are. He got it. He understood the human condition and he understood the power of writing – and particularly fiction – in probing and exploring our humanity. In his fiction, Wallace was able to create characters that possessed unmatched realism. The way, for instance in Brief Interviews, that he could create so many distinctive narrative voices, unlike reading classics like the works of Shakespeare or Dickens where the characters all seem to be variations of the author’s voice. He himself once said that “fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”
This remarkable ability of Wallace the writer to capture humanity in all its vices and shortcomings, as well as its virtues and triumphs, came from a sincerity and genuineness and sympathy found in Wallace the man. In all that I have read about him from those who knew him best, the image of a caring and compassionate human being emerges. DFW cared deeply about his readers and sought to relate to them through his stories and essays on a very personal and intimate level. He had a great deal of respect for his readers, allowing them to draw their own conclusions from his stories rather than handing them prepackaged notions of “theme” or “characterization.” Through the words on the page, he forged deep connections with his readers that, even today, transcend time and space and circumstance.
And yet, looming over all of this is the unbearable fact that he is gone; that he could not find a cure for the “cancer of the soul,” as his sister called it, which led him to take his own life on that saddest of September days. While much of his fiction focuses on the depravity and hideousness that he saw in humanity, there are also glimmers of hope and beauty and Truth. He found the good that is often buried beneath the piles of crap that we have made out of our human existence. The beauty of an honest, loving relationship. The virtues of seeing beyond oneself and sharing in the sacredness of human fellowship. The unadulterated magnificence of the natural world. And yet, as seems to be the case of too many genius-artists, his life was ended far too soon by his own hands. I can’t even pretend to understand the hell of chronic depression that he endured; nor the loss suffered by those who knew him best when he left this world. A massive hole has been left in the literary and personal worlds of so many.
I wonder what I might say to him if I had ever been given the chance to meet him in person. What questions would I ask? What advice might I seek? How would I express my appreciation for the gift that his writing has become to me and so many others?
But that opportunity will never come, at least not on this side of the grave. So I will end with these words, those that I would say to Dave if ever given the chance:
Thanks, Dave, for opening my eyes to see what has been right in front of my face all along. Thanks for helping me find my written voice as I have studied and emulated yours. And I miss you, Dave, even though we never met. I wish you were still here with us.