Picking up a copy of "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace who died in an apparent suicide on Friday the reader sees a face on the dust jacket cover too strange to be cool. Slanting his head to the side, as people do when they're writing longhand, Wallace wore a white turtleneck and a white do-rag that smashed his long, elegant bangs down over an unshaven face that was tender, serious, and slightly puffy.
The back of a baggy padded armchair was visible, out of focus, behind him. In retrospect, he looks bandaged by that bandanna, convalescent, and showily private, as if he was quite clear about his role. He would portray America as a lost patient, a victim on an unsuccessful course of self-medication.
To readers of my generation readers who were in high school in the mid-1990s "Infinite Jest" (1996) announced the existence of contemporary literature. It was a fat book, designed with bold typefaces and swirling clouds, and sat like a piece of boxed Microsoft software on bookstore shelves. Wallace was a cultish taste; his 1,000-page blockbuster was a patent work of genius that appealed to anyone who could be impressed by its dazzling complexities. I never finished it, and resorted to his story collection, "Girl with Curious Hair" (1989).
Its most memorable stories, "Lyndon," about LBJ, and "Little Expressionless Animals," about Alex Trebek, broke through walls, stepping with the audacity of a tyro into the halls of power. Wallace seemed to believe that there is something in the airwaves concrete enough to be captured and represented by the great old tradition of literature.
Off and on during his short career, Wallace's name was important in the critical echo chamber that debates whether fiction is more or less realistic as it becomes more artificial, whether self-consciousness is good, and whether the writers we call ironic are ultimately sincere or just obnoxious. He was famous for his use of footnotes, egregious to the point of being tongue-in-cheek.
Yet though Wallace's career feels more undigested than ever, now that he has died, it is not on these terms that critics will debate him. First, Wallace is simply too good a writer, too rich with detail and too skilled with rhythm, to be consumed in middling talk of postmodern schools. Second, in the last decade, he seemed to pull ahead of himself, becoming not a no-longer-young genius but a conscientious servant of the public. In his latter stories, collected in "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" (1999) and "Oblivion" (2004), Wallace went out to the used-car lot and the golf course, and confirmed the somber intent of early stories like "Lyndon." Wallace is not the type of great writer who goes to the creative depths of our souls, but he seemed to believe that the contemporary world required an overwhelming analytic style, and he used that style persuasively.
But it was his nonfiction that readers anticipated most. Exhaustive, ethical, and supremely responsible, Wallace's reporting still maintained the freshness of his prose: It was full of footnotes and never shied away from emotions, willing to appear narcissistic if need be. The title essay from his collection "Consider the Lobster" (2005) may feel dated in its laborious discussion of animal rights and in its raised-eyebrow excitement over the spectacle of a lobster fair in these ways, Wallace is a voice that will always be identified with the 1990s. But his nonpartisan essay on Senator McCain's 2000 campaign titled "Up, Simba" after a cameraman's catchphrase for standing up under a shoulder-mounted video camera would be required reading today even if Mr. McCain were not again running for president.
And his most beloved recent work, I suspect, is "Authority and Usage," Wallace's 60-page review of Bryan Garner's "Modern American Usage," a reference work. A wonderful piece of writing, engaged and passionate, the seemingly dry essay flows from Wallace's prime artistic fount: his genius for the Byzantine and his heartfelt certainty that the Byzantine, in this case all the lines and wrinkles of grammar, is profoundly manifest on the face of everyday life.
On Saturday night, when news of Wallace's death circulated, the people I was with were visibly saddened. No longer high schoolers, but graduate students, they had not had Wallace much on their minds. But we had long ago granted him a certain authority, in spite of himself, and I felt keenly that something important was now going to go unexplained.