A story called “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace appeared in the 1992 edition of Best American Short Stories
. It’s told in the second person; the “you” is a boy on his 13th birthday; and the whole of the story takes place in the time it takes the boy to walk along a pool, climb up the high-dive ladder, and stand at the edge of the board. It's a story that made me want to be a writer. Underneath the crystalline imagery and the perfectly captured adolescence, a subtle sense of terror presents itself. Thirteen, on the symbolic precipice of adulthood, the boy, on the diving board, faces the abyss — to leap is to disappear.
Four years ago, about the time DFW’s short-story collection Oblivion came out, I revisited the 1992 anthology, and read DFW’s author statement at the back of the book. “I’m not all that crazy about this story,” he wrote. To him, it “seemed the product of a young writer who was straining to make a personal trauma sound way deeper and prettier and Big than anything true could ever really be.”
DFW, who hanged himself this past Friday in California, possessed a brain that was crowded with doubt — about his own ability, sure, and in the larger sense, the ability of any of us to adequately express anything.
But when it comes to expressing, DFW is unmatched in his ability to project images on the front of a reader’s brain; he makes the reader see and feel with such clarity, such precision. In his piece on tennis star Roger Federer, the game is so viscerally rendered, you hear the pop of the ball off the racket, feel the muscles between your own shoulders tense in anticipation of the next swing.
Best known for his magnum opus Infinite Jest, DFW was oft lauded for being funny. But his great strength was not provoking laughs; it was provoking horror.
And not horror born of disgust or repulsion at the gruesome or monstrous (though there’s some of that). More so, he evoked the low-grade panic, the twitchy boredom, the unbearable tedium of what he referred to in his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College as the “day-to-day trenches of adult experience.” In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” from Oblivion, a child has nightmares “about the reality of adult life,” the type of nightmare “whose terror is less about what you see than about the feeling you have in your lower chest about what you’re seeing.” An apt description of the way it feels to read DFW’s work.
The stuff’s cerebral, yes, hugely literate, the output of a soaring mind. And it takes firm hold of my guts, and puts a darkness there — born of isolation, the futility of trying to make yourself known to another, the persistent soul-flattening of living in a techno-consumer age, and the challenge, as he said in the Kenyon speech, of “how to keep from going through your . . . respectable adult life . . . a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”
In an interview with Charlie Rose, in 1997, DFW said in reference to David Lynch, “What the really great artists do is they’re entirely themselves. They’ve got their own vision, their own way of fracturing reality. And if it’s authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings.” David Foster Wallace was entirely himself. He possessed a mind that spun on a different plane, now and before, forever overhead.