It seems so goddamnably appropriate that the big and salacious rumor at the Genius Awards party* this past Saturday night was about David Foster Wallace (or, actually, to be more exact, conversation wasn’t about David Foster Wallace at all but his suicide, and that might be the most awful truth of all this: Wallace has, by his own hand, performed that by-now-familiar weird alchemy—think Hunter S. Thompson, think Ernest Hemingway, think Spalding Gray—to suddenly transform the mammoth, endlessly bounteous fields of his imagination into A Finite Collection of Books Written by a Suicide, and it is from now until forever impossible to read his writing without trying to turn it into some sort of a coded suicide note written years in advance) because among that gorgeous and dwindling herd of people who care about American Literature, 9 out of 10 of those people would assuredly last week have listed Wallace as one of the top three Living Geniuses in American Literature Right Now (and among those Geniuses, Wallace was the youngest one with a big body of work to direct people’s attention to, and was also the producer of some of the most accessible work of any of those authors on that rarefied list—Infinite Jest truly will stand forever, but so will his astonishing first novel, The Broom of the System, which, to prove that God doesn’t exist, was cruelly and unjustly out of print for almost a decade, and his short stories, from the exuberant and hopeful “Forever Overhead” tucked into the beginning of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men to the hideous beauty of the American political system laid bare in “Lyndon” and the breathless 20th-century tall tale of “Little Expressionless Animals”—which vague, questing customers in bookstores always refer to as “That Story by David Foster Wallace About the Jeopardy! Champion”—in Girl with Curious Hair, and also his essays, about freedom, about proper language, about the history of infinity, about cruise ships and one particularly important essay about John McCain that every American should be required by law to read before November 4). We were there at a party to celebrate Geniuses but we could all hear, over the susurration of the crowd (“Have you heard? Did you hear? Has your telephone given you the news yet? It’s true….”), the roar and the bellow of a sky made angry, rushing toward California, trying madly to fill the enormous vacuum left by the heartbreaking self-strangulation of one of the most beautiful and considerate genius brains that this frequently dunderheaded but basically decent and good-at-heart country ever had the good fortune to share our streets and stores and tennis courts with.
*If you’ll permit me a personal aside: I was talking to someone at the party about Wallace’s last book of short stories, and I said, straining my memory back to the reading of that book, “It was called Infinity, wasn’t it? Yes, the book was definitely titled Infinity. It was very good.” Well, the joke is on me: The book is titled Oblivion.