15 September 2008


Clark Terry apparently once said "Count Basie was college, but Duke Ellington was graduate school." I've felt the same way, since being introduced to the latter by a teacher and friend of mine a few years go, about Douglas Adams and David Foster Wallace.

In Wallace I found another author unafraid of the bold, if self-conscious, aside; he takes the sentiment in Adams's "if you don't want me to digress, then you may find that you are reading the wrong column" and compounds it to a state of near-manic (and hyper-honest) thread exploration and playful formalism. Fans of, in particular, Everything and More's "Small But Necessary Foreword" will know what I mean.

In Wallace I found another post-Snow polymath whose rangy prose didn't so much interpolate disparate disciplines as span them. These guys display first-class knowledge of a sickening variety of really challenging technical fields in addition to their obvious literary prowess. Ask Cory Doctorow or Richard Dawkins or James Gleick if you don't believe me--or just reread the middle third of The Salmon of Doubt or Infinite Jest's footnote 123, which are of approximately the same length.

In Wallace I found another thoughtful writing tutor and pointer-out-of-the-sublime. Wallace on Garner, Dostoevsky, and Federer and Adams on Rendell, Wodehouse, and Bach seemed at times to single-handedly (or would it be double-?) save me from the verbal and spiritual wasteland that is a college curriculum with only six humanities credits.

As I had with Adams, when I read Wallace I always thought: here's an author with whom I don't always agree but whose mind, though orders of magnitude more sharp, agile, playful, and generous than mine, at least seems to be organized in more or less than same way. Whose achievements, though light years beyond my reach, were somehow still embracing and empowering rather than intimidating and doubt-inducing.

The final parallel, of course, is that David Foster Wallace is, heartrendingly, also now gone. I somehow only found out a few hours ago. After my Douglas Adams mourning mostly ended, but as sadness that we'd never have new DNA books again remained, I'd occasionally console myself with the thought that at least the prolific Wallace seemed to have so much more to contribute. I have no doubt that he did. But this was a man who was chiefly concerned with forging unironic emotional connections with his readers, and, once you learned that, you didn't have to read very far to guess that he spent a lot of time in pain. To be honest, as someone who's grateful for both the joy and the sadness he shared with the world, I now take consolation mostly in the knowledge that he's free of that pain.