I went to the New York memorial service for David Foster Wallace last night. Several people read (from Wallace’s letters and work) and spoke -- his editors, his agent, his sister and fellow writers: Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Donald Antrim, Zadie Smith, Mark Costello and Don Delillo. It was the kind of experience that reminds you of the most essential and primitive value of a writer: his or her ability to articulate what you feel and think better than you can yourself at the time when you most need those thoughts and feelings to be spoken.
Mark Costello, Wallace’s oldest friend and author of the excellent novel Big If, described his college roommate brushing his teeth in Timberland boots and obsessively searching the campus for a lost hoodie given to him by his mother. He recalled the college-age Wallace as a “mind in splendid overdrive,” and offered a brilliant, diagrammatic description of what it’s like to try to connect to a friend who sometimes has trouble seeing you for who you are because he is caught up in an internal geometry of isolation and self-loathing. Zadie Smith read a fiercely thoughtful meditation on Wallace’s understanding of writing as a gift that comes in the form of asking that you give more of yourself as a reader. George Saunders did that miraculous thing (my favorite among all writerly abilities) of saying something infinitely complex in the simplest language, devoid of cliche: “He went around waking people up.” Donald Antrim told us that Wallace had made an important phone call to him when he was at a crisis point in the midst of a suicidal depression and then read an excerpt about leadership from Wallace’s essay on John McCain. The most powerful to me was Jonathan Franzen’s recollection of his friendship and colleague-ship with Wallace and of their conversations during Wallace’s last days. I won’t even try to quote that one, since the whole thing was of a piece, and left everyone present pierced through. Bonnie Nadell, Wallace’s agent and an old friend, said she would try to collect all of these writings in print, and here’s hoping she’s able to.
It was a wrenching night, since I had more or less recovered from the immediate sorrow of his loss, and hearing this brought it back fresh. I barely knew him, but I had always counted on having his work to write about. That was never easy, but as Zadie Smith’s speech suggested, it was the sort of challenge that brought out the best in others.
Afterwards, at the reception, several people mentioned to me that Wallace’s favorite book was The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. I knew that he’d assigned the book in some of his classes, but hadn’t realized it ranked so high in his estimation. At some point, I hope to find out more about that at a later date, and will post it here if I do.
Meanwhile, here is the memorial I wrote the day after David Foster Wallace’s death.