Up until last month, I was a fan in a bubble - even the friend who loaned me "Infinite Jest" and "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" could not have moved further away without becoming an astronaut. It took some extensive Googling to finally unearth the Kenyon Commencement Speech, a short story, and an interview with Charlie Rose that confirmed all the previously-presumed qualities that I admired in my newly-favourite author. On the web, little more information was forthcoming about DFW. He appeared to be as mythical as he was legendary. I resorted to hard copy, and built myself a nominal library that wouldn't embarrass me if I ever met another fan.
I still haven't finished "Infinite Jest". Frankly, it borders on impenetrable. Arcane multisyllabic words and footnotes aside, it has an infuriating habit of quitting its current stream of narrative and cutting ("meanwhile, in Canada") to an entirely different story. Chapter breaks and their corresponding act changes occurred just as I was gaining momentum, at which point I'd have to change down. By the accounts of those that have braved the 1,000-paged tome and won, persistence will pay off. At the time, which spanned a full twelve months, I was still just a third of the way through, and my friend wanted the book back to read on the plane. He likely read the bally thing in one 36-hour sitting.
"A Supposedly Fun Thing..", a collection of essays, was the book that changed everything. DFW is renowned for loving the language, so his prose is whimsical. He is similarly renowned for being very particular about perfect communication, so his prose is coherent. As a fiction writer, his peer-imposed "postmodern" epithet dictated that his work be ironic; this may very well be true, but irony seems absent from his essays. There is plenty of analysis, self-analysis and meta-analysis to indulge the postmodern existentialist, but I suspect that many of his observations are mistaken for irony when they are either candid commentary on the irony of that which he is observing - or, in fact, merely very funny (of course, not being a literary type, it is possible that the trait is far more nuanced than I realise). Reading a DFW essay is like having the most well-structured conversation imaginable with someone both knowledgeable and passionately wide-eyed about what they've learned. The conversation meanders seamlessly through related points of interest before returning equally smoothly to the subject under scrutiny. And regardless of the subject, regularly he uncovers a truth or turns a phrase that resonates with the reader, and triggers a chain reaction of personal linguistic, journalistic or philosophical revelations. It's very easy for his fans to believe he really "got" them. It is possible that I've misread him entirely, and his real skill was providing one point of view, and a mirror. Even if that were the case, what more could one ask in a journalist?
It was thanks to the fabricated proximity of the internet, namely my aforesaid faraway friend, that I learned David Foster Wallace had died. I cannot pretend any true grief to the extent of any person that had the pleasure of knowing him, but suffer the discussions of real vs media-fed global-village mourning another time. I'd been planning to write an article of this title for months, and I'm gutted it should become an obituary.
Distressed as I was, I was also horrified I'd found out three whole days after the incident. I've never really had any ethical reservations about the contemporary internet and its great depth and breadth of insight and turgid dreck, but occasionally I am forced to re-evaluate my relationship, most forcefully after a reflex reaction so clearly borne of dependence. Given the small size and isolation of my home country, news of DFW's death was never going to appear on any of the main news channels (the closest I got: two weeks after the incident someone mentioned him on student radio). Without searching daily for news of the more obscure of my favourite artists, it would be unrealistic to expect even the magical net to offer on a platter the instantaneous information I have apparently come to expect. However, within 24 hours of first hearing the news, the internet manifested its real-time indulgences to the true extent of its power. I was by no means the last to hear. And in contrast to the antehumous near-vacuum online, the whole virtual firmament was alit with obituaries, biographical information, photos, a large chunk of DFW essays and short stories, and mourning fans. It was as if DFW hadn't died, but had been absorbed by the matrix. As both fan and net-dweller, my loss was my gain.
I can imagine DFW eschewing the net for the wanton unwanted exposure it imposes on a subject, often at random (certainly, it seems as if his net-savvy fans had for years adhered to his acute desire to evade the spotlight until such a time as it wouldn't affect him, notwithstanding the very welcome thehowlingfantods.com). However, net-dwellers, and bloggers in particular would do well to embrace DFW. At the time I discovered him, this blog was already lying semi-dormant. Like many bloggers, I hit the wall when I got tired of reading back on so much self-indulgent trash; exacerbated by the magnificent volume of same and worse littered across the web. Moreover, I'd come to blame blogging itself for the shortcomings of its practitioners. Granted, blogging comes with a number of implicit sanctions: one-person conversations; stream-of-consciousness spewed out over the course of an hour without revision; a never-ending cycle of observation and reaction, which in such a large volume resembles a lack of imagination; even many good blogs, seeing the need to amplify the interest factor using humour, develop a somewhat homogenous flavour of sardonic wit that borders on, dare I venture, irony.
DFW's essays carry similar traits though - only, for want of a more poetic phrase, done right. Granted, he's a singular talent, but I also imagine a career without the internet's one-click publication. He never nurtured any expectation of immediacy, giving sufficient time to studying, clarifying, revising and perfecting. He didn't waste hours on end reading rss feeds - high-concentrate literary shortcuts - and thus neither inadvertently mimicked the crimes, nor avoided perfectly neutral devices because of their widespread abuse. His essays are a reminder that observation can be forthright, opinion can be well-researched, introspection can be poignant, stream of consciousness can be coherent, and you don't have to put your tongue in your cheek to be funny.
The lesson is that it's not the format that's the problem, and this realisation convinced me to blog without compunction. In part the problem is the medium, but after reading Great Writing, the seasoned blogger will not to be so easily seduced into publishing patently bad work. For this blogger, surfing atop a tsunami of half-complete and discarded work from the last few years, that seduction was relatively easy to overcome. The challenge is to persist, and invest the time it takes to transform mediocre work into good work. To this end, DFW's essays are perhaps counterintuitively inspiring. Given I'll never be as good a writer as he was, I can relax and focus on being as good a writer as I am. But also: now that he is no longer with us, it has become imperative that I write, for the sake of aspiring to the standard he set.