Sunday, September 14, 2008

re: David Foster Wallace and Suicide

I read early this morning that writer David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, committed suicide a couple of days ago. His wife came home Friday night to find that he had hanged himself.

I didn't much like his fiction. Its irony and postmodernism seemed familiar, but his essays were sharp and funny, and he was from central Illinois and I spent much of my working life teaching lit and creative writing there, and I feel a kinship with young writers from there.

I'll miss the guy.

What amazes me about him is that he apparently had everything, talent to burn, time to write, a sweet teaching load, people reading and loving his books, and he kills himself.

Like I said, I don't get it, but my wife tells me I'm naive, that people who kill themselves have reasons that the folks left behind don't understand. It's not about what they have, but rather about what they feel they don't have, and you and me will never know what that loss feels like.

I'm sure she's right.

A couple of years ago, Marty Scott, a friend of mine, a terrific writer and a kind, compassionate, generous guy killed himself. I couldn't make sense of that death either, but one thing that helped me was a song by Lucinda Williams that I found right after my friend killed himself.

Here it is:

Sweet Old World

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone's ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm
Didn't you think you were worth anything

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world

Millions of us in love, promises made good
Your own flesh and blood
Looking for some truth, dancing with no shoes
The beat, the rhythm, the blues
The pounding of your heart's drum together with another one
Didn't you think anyone loved you

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world

(There's a version of this song on youtube sung by Emmylou Harris.)


Anonymous said...

Hi,John. I just found out about Wallace's suicide this evening at work. What a sad thing.

As soon as I saw your post, I knew you were going to mention Marty. Yes, there are things we will never know about people, especially why they give up and decide to die. Linda is a very wise woman.

Someone who suffers from depression told me that it doesn't relate to anything going on around you. Everything can be wonderful in your life and it still makes no difference. We don't know what Wallace's inner life was like, but there must have been something pulling him toward this decision. We know that Marty had life issues that made him decide to opt out, but that is because we knew him and something of his life. Wallace must have had some inner demons which he didn't show to the world. I remember John Kilgore telling me, when Marty died, that he had been told that suicidal and depressed people can exist on two tracks at the same time, one seeming to be fine and the other, darker, one running alongside it. And sometimes the person just crosses over to the other track.

Rupert said...

Wow . . . and I say that in the worst way - DFW meant a lot to me - thanks for this post . . . I recall being blown away by his short story, Good Old Neon, and then jumping for joy when it was included in the Best of . . . O'Henry awards that year 02 or 3, I think . . . .
and then I find this review of the story in an '04 Salon piece

snip:The narrator of "Good Old Neon" (another ad man) is smothering in self-awareness. "My whole life I've been a fraud," he announces, relating a history of triumphs, each one curdled by his consciousness that "all I've ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people." Admitting as much to a psychoanalyst only leads him to further spasms of self-loathing: "My confession of being a fraud and of having wasted time sparring with him over the previous weeks in order to manipulate him into seeing me as exceptional and insightful had itself been kind of manipulative."

This dilemma, in which every layer of self-knowledge is nested inside yet another layer that scrutinizes it mercilessly for inauthenticity, is a Wallace trademark. When, not surprisingly, these contortions drive the narrator of "Good Old Neon" to suicide, he is revealed to be a childhood acquaintance of "David Wallace," and the story itself an effort to imagine his inner life on the part of Wallace, who has recently "emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself." This, of course, suggests that all of "Good Old Neon" is merely Wallace's solipsistic effort to attribute his own miseries to a man who might have killed himself for entirely other reasons. >>snip

Christina said...

Hi John,

I will miss his essays and I enjoyed his quirkiness; an interesting human being. He once wrote a break up letter that was 20 pages long and included copious footnotes.
My initial reaction when a person takes his own life is disgust at the selfishness of the act. I have lost friends and favorite family members and have never understood how one can inflict such devastation on those who have to continue without them. Perhaps that sounds self-righteous. I don't mean to be.
I too am familiar with despair- after my younger brother died in my arms, I looked deep into inky darkness and spent my entire 20's cloistered in my parents' house searching for meaning. I think that carrying grief prevented me from inflicting it on my already suffering family.
Perhaps I have no inkling of how far down depression can drag a person. I think of the words of Paul Gruchow, another essayist I admired who wrote shortly before taking his own life, "There is the disabling invisibility of being out of place, either in society or in physical space,of not counting, of serving no apparent purpose, of seeming to be without choices. It is the invisibility of powerlessness."


Tim said...

I'm a bit of two minds on this John. One the one hand, I feel exactly as you do--professionally the guy had everything I'll ever want and creatively I've always envied his ability as a writer (and I even love his fiction). Part of me wants to say that, hey, if this guy doesn't want in on life then what's wrong with my own life, since he was at the best possible end of where most of my life's goals lay. Reading Foster Wallace was part of my coming of age as a writer and I looked at him as an inspiration and a formative influence on my own creative style. The part of me that reflects on all of this is sad and even angry at David Foster Wallace, the man, apart from being disappointed in David Foster Wallace, the figure.

That's a rather intimate feeling, isn't it, to be angry at a person for their suicide when I never even knew them personally. And yet I've had experiences with Foster Wallace, such as all the times I've talked about him with friends, some of whom had met him or even known him personally, and of course all the times I've read him. In fact it's true that I feel I knew him personally through his writing. And there's that part of me that, because I felt familiar with him through his writing, wasn't surprised at all to hear this news.

Like most of us do when we've read multiple books by one author and we start to believe we can sense a pathos in their body of work, I have several interpretations of his writings that now seem to stand out in admission of how he was a depressed person, and though these glimpses don't bear conviction publicly as some explanation, they do lead me to believe, and have for a long time that, yes, Foster Wallace had his problems, his insecurities, and being on a genius grant with a sweet workload and all the time in the world to write may in fact not have been the best thing for a guy with his mind.

There are certainly moments of David Foster Wallace, the man, that show through in the work of David Foster Wallace, the writer. His reflections on certain writings or his family and upbringing, his observations of familiar sights (especially to Illinoisians), and even things such as his thoughts while listening to a Chicago Bears game in the shower--these are the moments in his writing that have made Foster Wallace more than a figure to me. This is the evidence for why I feel I've lost an old friend rather than just someone who wrote great essays, occasionally brilliant fiction and really, really, really long novels.

millie wink said...

Thanks John, nice post, though "nice" is the wrong word here. I'm too sad to find right words.

There's a good remembrance of DFW as a colleague and friend here.

John Guzlowski said...

I got the following from Jean Braithwaite, a writer friend in Texas:

I was a Wallace fan and I'm really sad about his death. I suppose that there'll be more news later, more inquiry. I'd rather it turned out that it was an autoerotic thrill gone awry, or that he secretly had some terminal or at least soon-to-be-terribly-debilitating illness.

But more likely he just felt awful. What a terrible waste! He was the same age as me; I always had this (somewhat unwarranted) feeling of connection because of that and because of some of his stranger (for a creative writer) intellectual interests, like math and linguistics. Wish I'd gotten around to writing him a fan letter.

Maybe I'll write to his wife instead. Imagine what she feels like. But perhaps it wasn't as big a surprise to her as it is to me. His essayist persona sure sounded stable and balanced. But then I remember thinking that about Primo Levi too.

Writers suffer too damn much. I've been thinking about writing a contrarian essay called "Against Writing" or something like that. People get this notion--and I'm not saying this is what Wallace felt, because who knows--but it's a problem I've had in the past--writers think they have this transcendent duty that they must fulfill, something bigger and more important than their inidividual life that they have to achieve (and are falling short of).... The chasing of artistic immortality is delusional, no matter whether it's done in a selfish or altruistic spirit. Whether or not the writer actually dies, there's something wrong about sacrificing life for art. It's little different (minus the innocent bystanders) from thinking that you'll go straight to heaven if you martyr yourself blowing up infidels. Nothing is more important than health and wellbeing in the individual human life. Nothing! Not even art. Not even making the world better. What's "better" if it's not measured in human health and wellbeing?

You ever notice how many published books start off in the dedications and acknowledgments with an apology to the writer's family? Writing is a dangerous and unhealthy business, at least if treated as a great calling... Maybe I'll get around to starting the essay, or maybe I'll go to the gym instead and then fix dinner for my girlfriend.

John Guzlowski said...

I got a note from Bruce Guernsey. He and I were teaching at EIU when Marty Scott took his life. We were asked to submit a poem for a memorial to Marty, and Bruce asked me to post the poem here that he submitted from his book The Lost Brigade.

The poem is called Distance.


There is a house across the field.

From the other side where I started
It did not seem so far away.

I have been walking toward it a long time,
through mud, the turned ground
and now this snow beginning to fall.

The house has grown
only slightly larger
and I think I see someone outside.

Yes, I am sure of it —
people, two or three, beside the house,
moving about.

I am waving, suddenly waving
but out so far in this openness of field
will not be seen or heard.

Faster, walk faster,
before they go inside
whoever they are, before they close the door
across the field
where nothing is growing,
the gray, flat horizon.


The other poems for Marty are still online at

Anonymous said...

You'd think a great writer could have written a happier ending for himself. He could at least have come up with a more colorful way of dying, like that priest who strapped a chair to 10,000 party balloons and floated out over the ocean. He might have even left himself an out like: "If the balloons come down over land I'll live, if over water then I'm a goner." His imagination failed him in the matter of his own death.

So now he'll become an encyclopedia entry: "The comic writer who died tragically," and a staple of college curricula. Matt

Anonymous said...

Three words--Dream of Scipio.

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Anonymous, thanks for the reference to Dream of Scipio.

I read Cicero when I was a kid studying Latin at St. Patrick's High School in Chicago, and it's been a long time since I looked at him.

Here's a passage that seems most relevant to this discussion:

(the entire dream appears at

"That cannot be," my father replied, "for unless God, who rules all you see around you here, frees you from your confinement in the body, you cannot gain entrance to this paradise. You see, humans are brought into existence in order to inhabit the earth, which is at the center of this holy place, this paradise. They have been given souls made out of the undying fire which make up stars and constellations, consisting of spherical bodies animated by the divine mind, each moving with marvelous speed, each in its own orbit and cycle It is destined that you and other righteous men suffer your souls to be imprisoned with your bodies; you may not abandon life except when commanded by the Supreme God who bestowed it on you. Otherwise, you will have failed your duty, the duty which you, like every other human being, were meant to fulfill.

"Do upon earth as your grandfather did. Do as I have done, your father. Love justice and devotion. These are owed to both your parents and kinsmen; but more than anything else, they are owed to your country. Such is the life that leads to heaven, and to the company of those who, having finished their lives in the world, are now freed from their bodies and dwell in that region you gaze upon, the Milky Way."

Anonymous said...

John, Thanks for that link. I want to read it again. Matt

Christina said...

Today I came upon one of my favorite old essays by David Foster Wallace and have included a link.