One Art



David Foster Wallace
It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I'm scared about how sappy this'll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don't seem to have yet.

Nearly 17 years after making those remarks, David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008, at his home in Claremont, California. He was 46. For many years, Wallace had been taking medication to counter depression. While he hardly ever made a comment about his own mental illness, "The Depressed Person," a short story about a despondent woman, is considered a classic; it is included in Wallace's 1999 collection, "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men."

Wallace was born on February 21, 1962, in Ithaca, New York. At the time, his father was a doctoral student in philosophy at Cornell. His mother, a specialist in grammar, was an English teacher. Following Wallace's birth the family moved to Champaign, Illinois, where his father accepted a teaching job. Wallace studied philosophy and English at Amherst College, graduating in 1985. At Amherst, he wrote two senior theses. One of them became his first novel, "The Broom of the System" (1987), introducing a protagonist who agonizes that she might exist only as a fictional character. The other became his only work on philosophy, entitled "Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will." He received an M.A. degree from the University of Arizona in 1987, and began doctoral work in philosophy at Harvard, but left without finishing.

In 1990, Wallace was a rising literary star but seriously depressed, having attempted to take his own life and undergone substance rehab. In 1992, he set out for Syracuse. The poet Mary Karr, who taught nearby, recalls him filling notebooks in longhand. Wallace quickly became infatuated with Karr, but their association was unstable. Karr was seven years older than Wallace; she thought that he saw her as some sort of mother figure. Wallace got a tattoo inscribed with Karr's name and signed his correspondence to her "Sorrowful Werther," while calling her "Sainte Nitouche" -- the saint who cannot be touched. He proposed marriage, but they had a turbulent relationship and eventually split up.

Wallace is the author of two other novels. His magnum opus, "Infinite Jest" (1996), is a giant (1,000+ page) volume that portrays American society as a self-centered, pleasure-driven hub of entertainment. ("I wanted to do something sad, real American, about what it's like to live in America around the millennium.") "The Pale King" (2011), a posthumously published, unfinished book, is set in an Internal Revenue Service center. Among his other works are two collections of essays, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (1997) and "Consider the Lobster" (2005), and a short story collection, "Girl with Curious Hair" (1989).

A dazzling master of the English language, Wallace had a penchant for footnotes within footnotes and 200-word sentences, punctuated with utmost clarity. Regarded as a successor to such canonized writers as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and Don DeLillo (who was a friend), he was a leading member of the experimental stylists of American literature, a group also including William Vollmann, Mark Leyner and Nicholson Baker. His fictional worlds are Joyce-like, painted with striking literary techniques and displaying a thorough knowledge of diverse disciplines. Michiko Kakutani, the revered book critic of The New York Times, once said: "Wallace can do sad, funny, silly, heartbreaking, and absurd with equal ease; he can even do them all at once." Wallace was a contributor to influential magazines like Esquire, Harper's, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, Playboy and Rolling Stone. He received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Whiting Award, the Lannan Award for Fiction, the Paris Review Prize for humor and an O. Henry Award.

According to D. T. Max, a New Yorker staff writer, the following early childhood poem (written most likely for a primary school class) is remarkable, and not only for its charming spelling errors. Max notes that with this poem, the young and gifted Wallace discloses evidence of the so-called "theory of mind," that is, knowledge that other people (in this case, his mother) have feelings, too. In the entire oeuvre of Wallace, one can discern multitudinous traces of this early interest in psychological, emotional and moral issues.

My mother works so hard
And for bread she needs some lard.
She bakes the bread. And makes the bed.
And when she's threw
She feels she's dayd.

The opening quote is from a 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery. The poem appears courtesy of the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust; see for the original, made available by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin. The paragraph about the Wallace-Karr affair is based on the account in Max's new biography, "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story," recently excerpted by Newsweek (August 2012).

Starting this semester, One Art will appear on an irregular basis. While I hope to evade long periods of dormancy, I beg my readers' understanding for not being able to sustain a weekly column anymore. On a different note, One Art will make an effort to widen its net to include artists who cannot be classified as poets. I hope this will make the column more appealing.