David Foster Wallace. Wikimedia Commons

The Last Discovery of a Wounded Heart

Essayist, literature teacher, and once a promising tennis player, he is among the greatest contemporary American authors. He had no fear of the naked truth about himself, as a short story written just before his tragic death reveals
Luca Doninelli

The difference between a mere writer and a great author lies not in the ease with which he writes, nor in imaginative capacity or the gravity of the subjects tackled, nor even in the pure gift, that of grace. 

The difference lies in the fact that, through his own style, a great author creates a new way of knowing reality. A style is above all this: a new door opened up to our knowledge. Then there are the followers, the epigones, the imitators, those for whom writing means following a trend…
In recent years, America has given the world a few great authors; among them is David Foster Wallace, born in 1962, who died tragically last September 12th.

The battle of A prime number… Little is known of his life apart from his literary activity. He was born in Ithaca, New York, and grew up in the Midwest. He received his Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, then taught writing at Illinois State University before moving to California, where he was a professor at Pomona College in Claremont. He dedicated the whole of his professional life to teaching literature. He was described as a wonderful teacher. It is known that, as a young man, he was a promising tennis player, but as he himself said, he wasn’t really talented.

We know that from adolescence, he carried the heavy burden of serious depression. Perhaps this is why little is known of him–such a terrible affliction puts a stop to many activities, it limits biographies to a minimum. There is, though, one element that helps us to know something of Wallace: the affection that others writers had for him. From their sketches, a man of suffering emerges, but above all a good man, a quality that is rarely acknowledged, perhaps because it is rare.

Amongst Wallace’s books, we recall his first novel, The Broom of the System; the two collections of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair and Oblivion; several essays; and the great novel, Infinite Jest (the title is a quote from Shakespeare).

Classified as post-modern (in the style of Pynchon and DeLillo), as avant-pop, Foster Wallace was in fact a prime number. He wrote works of fiction and non-fiction (a genre that he himself helped to develop), drawing the two ambits together to the point of identifying them, whether speaking of political or literary questions, or fantasy adventures imagining future worlds.
 He developed his technique by inserting into the literary texture much specific terminology (from television, or information technology and professional jargon), introducing notes and other factors destined to make the text an obstacle course. The complexity of experience requires a complex language. Yet, despite the evident novelty of his writing, it is not experimentalism that attracts him. In an excellent article on the divines of French criticism (Barthes, Foucault), he sustains that all the problems they tackled fail to get to the heart of the question, the fact that writing is “an act of communication between one human being and another”–or, as Jonathan Franzen says of him, “a way to escape from loneliness.”

The suffering of a sickness that forces one into solitude and the awareness that man is not made for this (in recent years, David married and suspended the psycho-drugs so as to live as normal a life as possible) was the dramatic background of his work, making of his prodigious technique an instrument for a profoundly human search. 

Most of his work is pervaded by a strong element of social criticism (Infinite Jest is a large-scale picture of American society), but his is not bitter criticism, and above all it is not a criticism made because of a role (almost all intellectuals have a problem with their role). 

The introduction of difficulties, interruptions in the rhythm of reading, obscure passages: this is also the description of a wounded interior landscape. In order to communicate, the writer cannot do otherwise than give himself, revealing the naked truth of himself.

A heart in darkness 
According to his friends, the very last part of Foster Wallace’s life was also the most tragic–and the part most filled with mystery. He wrote an article entitled, “[Roger] Federer as Religious Experience,” and I don’t think he was joking. 

His last story, Good People, presents a new Foster Wallace, simpler in his narrative style. A boy, a good Christian, has gotten a girl pregnant, a good Christian girl, and wants her to abort (though abortion is not a Christian thing to do), because he doesn’t love her.

The boy prays and prays, but begins to fear it is all useless: God’s will is something impossible. Faith doesn’t solve problems, and everything seems on the point of plunging into the usual modern desperate chasm, when, for the first time, this boy looks at the girl as Christ looks at her, in a way that, despite Christian militancy, he had never known before.

And all at once he understands that he has never known what it means to love someone, and has never before had the courage to “trust his own heart.”

David Foster Wallace wrote–he deserved to write–these words, the last of his work, while his darkest hour was approaching. But no hour is dark enough to delete those words.