ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now a remembrance of writer David Foster Wallace. He was found dead, an apparent suicide, on Friday night. Wallace's novel, "Infinite Jest," brought him fame and a wide audience. He was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1997. Writer David Lipsky has this appreciation.
Mr. DAVID LIPSKY (Writer): To read David Foster Wallace was to feel your eyelids pulled open. Some writers specialize in the away-from-home experience: They've safaried, eaten across Italy, covered a war. Wallace offered his alive self cutting through our sleepy aquarium, our standard TV, stores, political campaigns. Writers who can do this, like Salinger and Fitzgerald, forge an unbreakable bond with readers. You didn't slip into his books looking for story or information, but for a particular experience. The sensation, for a fixed number of pages, of being David Foster Wallace.
He invented a new style and a new comedy. The style, sharp, loaded with footnotes and asides, was the unedited camera. The comedy was of a brain so big, careful, and kind, it kept tripping over its own lumps. In stories and essays, Wallace was drawn to a conflict. How do you live well? And how do you do it without damaging other people, embarrassing yourself? Reporting on a lobster festival, he didn't review the food, the crowds, his attention went to the shellfish in the pot.
I spent a week interviewing him, after the 1,000-plus-page novel "Infinite Jest" made Wallace's name. He was faultlessly polite. He lived alone with two dogs. He told me the best books were a conversation about loneliness. He said, if a writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart they are. For someone whose trademark became brilliance, his sense of himself was modest, workmanlike. He talked about shyness, the greasy thrill of being famous. A little part of me likes it, he said, but that part doesn't get to steer. He talked about being lonely, the fear that his tussle with burly, psychic self-consciousness figures might get so bad he'd do damage to himself. He talked about a friend's unsuccessful try at suicide, how it had scared him off. He laughed, I just, I knew that if anybody was fated to screw up a suicide attempt, it was me.
When someone very gifted takes their own life, it's like the best student dropping out of high school. There's the tragedy, but it's set in a particular and personal fear. What are they seeing that we don't? The loss to his family is impossible to imagine. The loss to us is easy to imagine. No writer saw the era as clearly. Wallace's readers counted on him to go on, progressing distantly but alongside, filing new reports every couple of months, helping us remember how smart we were, inviting us into his crisper world. In his last book of fiction, "Oblivion," he wrote about suicide, about emerging from years of literally indescribable war against himself, and ending with the sentence "Not another word."
SIEGEL: David Lipsky is the author of "Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point." You can discuss David Foster Wallace's work with other NPR listeners at npr.org.