It's possible that no contemporary writer had to meet higher expectations than David Foster Wallace (1963-2008). He was a genius. Ask anyone. Ask Michiko Katutani, who wrote, "An ardent magpie, Mr. Wallace tossed together the literary and the colloquial with hyperventilated glee, using an encyclopedia of styles and techniques to try to capture the cacophony of contemporary America."
Ordinarily, that sort of overheated description would just be silly. In Wallace's case, it was not. For example, in his essay collection Consider the Lobster (2005), Wallace was hitting on all of his many cylinders. On a flight to Phoenix, I was laughing so hard at this book's first piece (good taste restrains my sharing the topic), I almost felt compelled to explain to my fellow passenger the source of my mirth.
I didn't. (I'm not insane.) But it was that good.
Wallace's gimlet-eyed view ranged over a bewildering array of topics in that book, and aside from an enervating and lengthy examination of A Dictionary Of Modern Usage, he lived up to his "genius" billing. I did grimace when I saw that a piece devoted to one of Wallace's pet topics, (tennis, anyone?), but even that essay transcended its subject and was eminently worthwhile.
Dude wrote the beefiest footnotes around. Sidenotes, too. Check it:
I'd argue that Wallace's superpowers worked against him early in his career. As someone who survived his essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), I found phrases like "existeniovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding" logjammed his lucidity. Admittedly, part of the problem with this book is that Wallace's early-to-mid 1990's musings on television and pro tennis are now simply out-of-date.
When Wallace's obfuscatory style undermined his material, a funny line about how tennis pro Michael Chang has "as unhappy a face as I've ever seen outside a Graduate Writing Program" got outnumbered by bits like "I was disabled because I was unable to accommodate the absence of disabilities to accommodate."
But even at his least interesting, Wallace's word play and tangential trains of thought could be amusing and even delightful. I never met Wallace, but he made a connection with me, and I am saddened at news of his death. I suppose that's as good as it gets for any writer. Anyway, I've never read Wallace's fiction, so now's probably a good time to hunt down his (reputedly) finest novel: Infinite Jest.
ADDENDUM: Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote a short, lovely appreciation of DFW on 9/16/08.