America’s universities sheltered David Foster Wallace—and almost ruined his writing
Like James Joyce, David Foster Wallace will be remembered—and, by some, fiercely loved—for a book which 99.999 per cent of the world’s population will never read to its end.
Wallace hung himself in his home in California on 12th September 2008, aged 46. So Infinite Jest (1996), his second novel, turns out to be his final one, and lines and paragraphs throughout its 1,079 pages now flash in neon: “Help me, I’m depressed.” The neon will fade. It will be a magnificently ambitious book again. But right now it reads like a suicide note.
Crucially, he was unplugged from electric, living America, by a life spent in the university system. His father was a professor of philosophy, his mother a professor of English. He majored in English and philosophy at Amherst, did an MFA in creative writing in Arizona, turned his English thesis into his first novel, studied philosophy at Harvard, got a job in the English department of Illinois State University, which he left to teach creative writing at Pomona College in California, where he died.
He was an immensely gifted and original writer, with a brilliant, hyper-analytical mind. The two things such people should avoid are marijuana and universities. He was aware of the dangers of the former (which was not just a threat to his prose—after his first novel he checked into rehab and asked to be put on suicide watch). But he couldn’t escape the warm, welcoming trap of the latter. Only universities will give a job for life and full health insurance to a novelist with heavy-metal hair and a history of depression. He was, as ever, aware of the risk to his fiction. In a brilliant, painful television interview with Charlie Rose in 1997, he said, “Oh boy, don’t even get me started on teaching… The more time and energy spent on teaching, which is extraordinarily hard to do well, the less time spent on your own work… I find myself saying this year the same thing I said last year, and it’s a little bit horrifying.” He looked like a trapped animal. He’d been teaching for four years. Eleven years later, still teaching creative writing, never having written another novel, he killed himself.