Today, February 21, 2012, would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday. We could have started thinking of him as a gray beard in the American literary canon. Instead, he will be forever young (see my 2008 farewell to him here).
Wallace is kind of the Dostoevsky of the modern American era. While old Fyodor was consumed by the idea of suffering as the means to human redemption, Wallace was consumed by the poetry of loneliness that our consumer culture tries valiantly to defeat.
Both men came at their worlds with full-throttle intellects, but the voices they chose often tended to be strangely childish or buffoonish, and either heroically unselfconscious or tragically confused and far too self-conscious. Dostoevsky’s world was always one of transitional ideas and moral questioning. Wallace’s was one of transitional consumerism and the drunken hype of media think.
I think of the two in the same basket most because more than any other writers I know of, as a reader you want to take them in the other room during their stories and just say, “Dude, lighten up!” Even Wallace’s funniest moments are so filled with the echo of modern anomie (they’re based on it). And Dostoevsky’s thick and heavy conversations — twisted precursors to the existential writers of the first half of the 20th century — are all so muddled by the breaking down of religion going on at the time and the consequent question of how the individual builds morality up as a buffer for facing life’s inevitable pain.
I’ve written this after coming back from the baseball field with my youngest son, Conor. We were working on field grounders from deep in the hole at short. I probably hit him 150 balls. The key was staying down and trusting his eye-hand coordination. He did well. He looked great out there. I hit one very hard in the gap near second base. Conor lay out for the ball perfectly, flying horizontal to the ground, skidding on his chest, snagging the white pill in his glove like a pro. It was very impressive and seemed to me as good a reason as any to love life and know that magic can be real.
As a treat to yourself (if you like wild thinking guys who believe in the magic of stories) check out The David Foster Wallace Audio Project.
Happy Birthday, Dave.