The Pale Cast of Thought

Id_tyree_wallace_ap_0011_2 Josh Tyree on David Foster Wallace, also in The Smart Set:

The toxic yet vacuous phrase “self-indulgent” was often used by the detractors of David Foster Wallace (as if it isn’t self-indulgent to write anything at all). Another accusation, that Wallace was overly cerebral, misses the point completely. As a writer, the guy was as large-hearted as he was big-brained. Don Gately, the recovering narcotics addict in Infinite Jest, is one of the most compassionately drawn and convincingly real characters in contemporary fiction, close in intention, conception, and articulation to a latter-day Leopold Bloom.

I don’t think an essay more hilarious than “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” — Wallace’s account of a botched vacation on a cruise ship — has been written. It ranks with Twain and will endure as long as people want to laugh. His essays often brought forth a sense of exuberant joy, with their meanderings and addictive, often imitated footnotes and mock-scholarly sensibility. Yet Wallace’s fiction also portrays terrible mental darkness, especially what doctors call “major depression.” Wallace’s father told The New York Times that his son suffered from this disease for years, leading to two recent hospitalizations before his apparent suicide. A pair of brilliant and courageous Wallace short stories — “The Depressed Person” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and “Good Old Neon” in Oblivion — similarly focus on profound psychological agony. With excruciatingly painful detail and a humane laughter that is neither cruel nor belittling, both stories relate the involutions of a consciousness at war with itself, in which the maze-like wandering of thought spirals in futility, deepening the distress without offering any way out. Both stories relate facets of broken-down self-consciousness — severe depression in one case, a terrible feeling of hollowness and fraudulence in the other — that generate a bad feedback loop in which thinking does not help the character to think, or to heal. In Wallace’s fiction, self-reflection is often worse than useless.