David Foster Wallace, a postmodern writer and Atlantic contributor, hanged himself Friday.
Kurt Vonnegut, a novelist who practically begged to be put on suicide watch, thought that writing novels was a treatment for depression, if not an outright cure. Blues music, he suggested, was analogous: a way of palliating an intolerable condition by transmuting it into art. A clinical study at the University of Iowa supported the theory that depression runs in the families of writers, and a wide array of anecdotal evidence (I would cite the film Crumb) suggests that practicing an art can, if the artist is lucky, save him from the fate of his relatives.
Vonnegut somehow made it to life’s finish line without taking a shortcut, whereas Wallace, sadly, did not. That Wallace’s depression remained relatively hidden in his writing will make his most comic material all the gloomier in retrospect. The figure of James Incandenza, the suicidal father in Infinite Jest, might bear new scrutiny: in performances of Hamlet — a play that pervades Infinite Jest, starting with the title — Shakespeare played the role of Hamlet’s dead father, and I wonder whether the same affinity existed between Wallace and James Incandenza. Their respective chefs d’oeuvre certainly have a great deal in common, again starting with the title, and continuing, I’m afraid, through their gleefully jejune content.
I wonder whether we can decently consider Wallace’s death a sign that the postmodern novel fails as a psychiatric remedy, where the merely comic novel does not. (In Wallace’s case, traditional treatments — drugs, shock therapy, hospitalization — had already gotten nowhere.) In Vonnegut’s work I detect signs that the author was surveying the planet, and finding enough pity and bathos to sustain a life worth living. Wallace’s fiction, by contrast, instantiates the same meaningless trends that are his subject, and to unclear effect. The humor reaches such a crescendo of introspection and self-questioning that it ends up as its own best critic. That critic is a keen one indeed — so devastating that Wallace himself convinces me that his novels, in the end, are mostly exhibitions of style.
I count that as a failure, and I think Wallace did too. Is it coincidence that Wallace idolized William T. Vollmann, surely the most earnest writer of his generation? Wallace’s first novel, the strange and unwonderful Broom of the System, was a novelization of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus — a work that argued that most philosophy was meaningless. His later fiction seems to concur. It’s melancholy to reflect that this postmodern sensibility could render writers even more defenseless in their solitary and terrestrial hell than they already are.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com