On this day ten years ago, David Foster Wallace went into his garage, tied a noose, slung it around his neck, and kicked the chair away. The literary world went apoplectic with grief, saddened by the suicide of this boy genius. How tragic it was that Wallace took his life at the sprightly age of 46, never again to regale us with incisive essays about eating lobster or massive tomes full of Gordian knot sentences and cotton candy-colored footnotes.
No one knows for certain why Wallace chose to sway from the rafters of his garage while his dogs drooled and stared like his other idiot fans. While his suicide note has never been made public, given that his favorite book was The Drama of the Gifted Child, it was probably more humorless pontificating combined with footnotes that nobody wants to read. More importantly, though, Wallace thoughtfully provided a copy of the manuscript of The Pale King, the novel he’d been working on at the time. He also conveniently chose to kill himself the day after the anniversary of September 11th, a connection his credulous fans would be sure to notice. “DFW’s Suicide is the 9/11 of American Literature” is a headline I’m sure someone used at the time, without the slightest scintilla of self-awareness.
The sordid reality is that death is a good career move, particularly for halfwits like Wallace who receive praise and adulation far beyond what they deserve. Many a mediocrity has been spared a decline into senility, sentimentality, and irrelevance by getting themselves waxed at a young age, immortalizing their genius in the mulched minds of the public. Kurt Cobain is the classic example of this, parlaying his overrated musical talent (he admitted to stealing the riff for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”) into permanent legend status with a well-placed shotgun shell. Marilyn Monroe, the Kim Kardashian of the Cold War, would never have become a favorite source of quotes for roasties the world over had she not ODed on barbiturates.
Similarly, the longer DFW continued to breathe, the greater the chance that people would realize he was a fraud. They’d realize that no one has actually enjoyed Infinite Jest, that unreadable Rubik’s Cube of pointless allusions and plagiarized subplots. They’d acknowledge that Wallace’s obsession with obscure name-dropping and footnotes were not avant-garde affectations, but the contrivances of a man who never learned the rules of good writing. And eventually, it’d dawn on them that Wallace’s lack of output in the years following Infinite Jest’s publication was not because he was some enigmatic brainiac, but because he was an empty man with nothing to say. He shot his wad in 1996 and there was nothing left but the occasional spermatozoon for Rolling Stone or The Atlantic to lap up.
But when DFW’s body was found swinging from the rafters, well, that solved everything. Now Wallace wouldn’t have to produce any more writing, and pesky questions about his anemic output would be shooed away. Now people would feel sorry for him, agonize over what could have caused this poor soul to take his own life. Crushed by his own talent, a victim of “depression” (that most painfully bourgeois of mental disorders), anyone who criticized DFW for whatever reason could now be safely dismissed as a hater. His place in the curriculums of English departments across the nation was cemented.
Or at least that’s what he thought.
In reality, David Foster Wallace’s suicide signaled the end of not only his legacy, but that of everyone who imitated him. His books have been steadily forgotten and the choppy, sludgy style he pioneered has been swept aside by a torrent of genuine talent. DFW’s popularity was a fiction created by the New York publishing industry, at a time when they still had genuine power. However, the democratization of culture fueled by the Internet has allowed writers that actually know what they’re doing to bypass the gatekeepers in Manhattan. Despite increasing Internet censorship, the toothpaste is out of the tube, with any writer able to gain publicity through smaller, independent presses, self-publishing, blogging, or literary magazines. The culture that created Wallace—a culture that values pomp, pretentiousness, and priggery—is on its last legs.
It is oddly appropriate that the subject of one of Wallace’s few post-Infinite Jest pieces, John McCain, died not long before the tenth anniversary of DFW’s suicide. Back in 2000, Wallace served as a roadie on McCain’s presidential campaign, paying his rent on the Straight Talk Express with the most sumptuous blowjobs this side of a Cambodian brothel. One imagines Wallace struggling to come up for air as he takes it all in: “Oh, you’re so wonderful. Oh, I can’t fit it all in my mouth. Oh, you’re the biggest I’ve ever had, dahling.”
John McCain was the David Foster Wallace of American politics: all style, no substance. Like Wallace, McCain’s career was built on a lie. Wallace was an “avant-garde” author who ripped off Hubert Selby, Franz Kafka, and a dozen other writers; McCain was a “war hero” who crashed eight planes and admitted to breaking under torture and naming names when he was chilling at the Hanoi Hilton. They were both academic failures, with Wallace dropping out of graduate school and McCain nearly flunking out of the Naval Academy. They were both creeps with the opposite sex: Wallace stalked multiple women over the course of his life and once tried to murder his girlfriend by shoving her out of a moving car, while McCain divorced his first wife after she was maimed in a car accident and later called his second wife a “cunt” in public. Like Wallace, whose writing masqueraded as original when it was as formulaic as an undergrad writing workshop entry, McCain was feted as a “maverick” despite all his political opinions being safely within the American mainstream.
And like Wallace’s suicide, McCain’s death received far more attention than it deserved due to not just who the man was, but what he represented. DFW’s bloated body represented the end of mainstream publishing’s authority over American letters; McCain’s withered corpse symbolized the end of neoliberalism’s sway over American politics. Unlike Wallace, who chose death as a strategic career move, McCain feared meeting his Maker in the way that all rotten men do. He conspicuously died the day after his family announced they were discontinuing his cancer treatment, showing that he was a bitter old ghoul who wanted to cling on to the end. I imagine his family had to talk him into ending the treatment because they were afraid it’d eat up their inheritances. His porcine daughter Meghan probably burst into his hospital room like the Kool-Aid Man, tears flying off her flabby cheeks, to deliver the bad news: “Daddy, Daddy, we need to stop the treatment! I won’t have any money left over for my stomach stapl—er, I mean, Mom won’t have any money left over for her retirement!”
I suppose I should actually analyze something Wallace wrote for this piece, but that feels like writing a eulogy for my dog by talking about the size of his turds. I’m not going back to Infinite Jest: I did my time in the prison that is the American university, thank you very much. But a shorter piece from the last years of Wallace’s life, “Host,” is a perfect encapsulation of his countless failures as a writer.
Published in The Atlantic in 2005, “Host” bills itself as a fly-on-the-wall look at the life of John Ziegler, a tenth-tier cuckservative radio host from L.A. It’s long, meandering, and full of factual inaccuracies: for example, Wallace claims that Ziegler’s then-colleague Phil Hendrie used “mic processing” to generate the fake voices he used on his show, when it was well-known that Hendrie merely switched between a regular mic for his real voice and a phone for his fake voices. It’s full of stylistic boners, from Wallace’s spastic references to Ziegler as “Mr. Z” to porridge-like sentences like this one:
Pendent in front of John Ziegler’s face, attached to the same type of hinged, flexible stand as certain student desk lamps, is a Shure-brand broadcast microphone that is sheathed in a gray foam filtration sock to soften popped p’s and hissed sibilants…
“Pendent?” You mean “hanging?” This kind of thesaurus abuse is endemic to DFW’s writing: constant reaching for obscure words and turns of phrase merely to make himself look smarter and the reader feel insecure. Nobody ever uses a word like “pendent” in casual conversation, and there’s nothing about a report on a talk radio host that would merit dropping it. It’s there for one reason and one reason only: to emphasize how big Wallace’s vocabulary is. “Oh gosh, that DFW is such a good writer. I mean, I had to look up a word he used in the dictionary!” The rest of the sentence is just as awkward, with Wallace insisting on showing off his dilettante’s understanding of broadcast technology, topped off with a mangled attempt at alliteration that makes him sound like Dr. Seuss on salvia.
But the biggest problem with “Host” is the footnotes. You thought footnotes were just a one-shot affectation in Infinite Jest? Think again. “Host” constantly interrupts the reader with a baffling array of footnotes on everything from Ziegler’s physical attractiveness to inside ball about the radio industry. There is absolutely zero reason for them to be there; the ones that contain useful info should have been worked into the main text, and the ones that weren’t should have been cut. If “Host” was submitted to an undergrad creative writing course, it would get an F for excessive wordiness. Wallace got away with submitting such a lazily organized article because his editors were either so enamored of him that they thought his footnote fetish was good or they were too terrified of offending the great DFW by quibbling about his prose (which also explains all the factual errors in the piece).
David Foster Wallace’s impact on American literature was as ephemeral as a rat’s fart. Buoyed by a supportive press running cover for his obvious inadequacies, the Internet-driven fragmentation of culture in the past ten years has buried Wallace as assuredly as the pallbearers did. Had it not been for his purely cynical suicide, people would have recognized it a lot sooner.
Matt Forney is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Terror House Magazine. He is an American author, journalist, and radio host based in Europe. Matt blogs at MattForney.com and is also on Anchor, BitChute, Stream.me, Twitch, and YouTube. He is the author of eight books, available from Matt Forney Books, Amazon, and other retailers. Matt’s work has been featured at Return of Kings, Reaxxion, Taki’s Magazine, Right On, Red Ice, Affirmative Right, and other sites. He has also served as an editor at Return of Kings and Reaxxion.