David Foster Wallace Obituary
Author David Foster Wallace was found dead in his California home Friday night, an apparent suicide. The many obituaries and retrospectives that will be extruded from the bowels of the mainstream media over the next week or so will make much of Wallace’s pyrotechnic intellect and incendiary postmodern prose style. They will pay scant attention, however, to the thing that makes his death relevant to readers of the ADHS Blog: Wallace was one of the most insightful and innovative writers about addiction and recovery—particularly about Alcoholics Anonymous—that we have seen.
Writing about Wallace’s 1996 opus Infinite Jest typically begins by mentioning that the novel resists summation—probably a wise move, given that it is over a thousand pages long and contains 388 endnotes, some of which have their own footnotes. Authors then go on to talk about some of the book’s flashier and more hilarious elements: the intergenerational struggles of the Incandenza family of avant-garde filmmakers and sports phenoms; the plot by quadriplegic Quebecois separatists to terrorize the U.S. with a samizdat videotape so entertaining it literally paralyzes its viewers; the corporate sponsorship of anything and everything, such that different years are no longer denominated by numerals but by brands—the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken, etc. Most mention in passing that the novel also touches on addiction and recovery, but those elements are treated as part of its larger interest in the detritus of late 20th-century popular culture; they are rarely seen as central to its aesthetics or thematics.
In fact, depicting the nature of addiction—to alcohol, drugs, sex, consumer goods, fame, and so on—is one of the novel’s central concerns. The other is an investigation of how 12-Step recovery, of the specific “black belt” style long associated with certain Boston AA groups, can break the cycle of addiction and return the addict to full and functional humanity. At the novel’s moral and narrative center is Don Gately, a recovering narcotics addict and petty criminal, and much of its action unfolds at the residential facility Ennet House, where the novel’s various addicts cross paths, all hoping to achieve “some thin pie-slice of abstinent time, till they can start to get a whiff of what’s true and deep, almost magic, under the shallow surface” of meetings, chores, and the daily repetition of AA slogans. In the few interviews in which he was asked about Infinite Jest’s depiction of addiction and recovery, Wallace talked about the emotional power of AA meetings, and of the simultaneous sense of sadness and love that he felt there. For these reasons, as Brooks Daverman has argued in his prescient thesis on Infinite Jest, AA became for Wallace a “narrative solution” to postmodernism’s fetish of distance and irony, pushing his work beyond the formal boundaries of precursors like Thomas Pynchon or Robert Coover.
Wallace’s meditations on addiction and 12-Step culture cannot be easily shoehorned into the standard fiction and non-fiction genres through which most Americans grapple with those topics. Both his conceptualizations of addiction and recovery and his prose style were too subtle and thoughtful to lend themselves to hackneyed formulas of the downward spiral and that-much-more-inspirational-for-being-so-hard-fought climb back into “normalcy.” The loss of someone who thought with such originality and insight about being high and being sober—the nature of those states, how they work on the individual psyche, why we value them—is one that will echo for a long time.
By Trysh Travis for the ADHS Daily Register.