I wrote a review of his book Infinite Jest, which is my favorite book, on my other, long-neglected blog. Excerpt from my review:
It's not a beautiful book; there are no lyric descriptions of love and beauty. It's about addiction and depression and the futility and inadequacy of intelligence and success. It takes place primarily in a tennis academy and a rehab clinic. It's also, in part, a retelling of Hamlet.
His writing was informed by his depression. Excerpt from an interview:
The sadness that the book is about, and that I was going through, was a real American type of sadness. I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way. Some of them were deeply into drugs, others were unbelievable workaholics. Some were going to singles bars every night. You could see it played out in 20 different ways, but it's the same thing.
Some of my friends got into AA. I didn't start out wanting to write a lot of AA stuff, but I knew I wanted to do drug addicts and I knew I wanted to have a halfway house. I went to a couple of meetings with these guys and thought that it was tremendously powerful. That part of the book is supposed to be living enough to be realistic, but it's also supposed to stand for a response to lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don't. The bottoming out with drugs and the AA response to that was the starkest thing that I could find to talk about that.
I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model isn't the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous.
(I wrote about how Alcoholics Anonymous is NOT EFFECTIVE compared to many other forms of treatment here.)
DFW attended church, but his writing has a real atheistic feel to it. It's honest and real and unflinching while at the same time imaginative and playful. My guess is that he wanted to believe, that he saw that as perhaps a way out of depression, but that he couldn't really do it. From later in that same interview:
[Interviewer:] The characters have to struggle with the fact that the AA system is teaching them fairly deep things through these seemingly simplistic clichés.
[DFW:] It's hard for the ones with some education, which, to be mercenary, is who this book is targeted at. I mean this is caviar for the general literary fiction reader. For me there was a real repulsion at the beginning. "One Day at a Time," right? I'm thinking 1977, Norman Lear, starring Bonnie Franklin. Show me the needlepointed sampler this is written on. But apparently part of addiction is that you need the substance so bad that when they take it away from you, you want to die. And it's so awful that the only way to deal with it is to build a wall at midnight and not look over it. Something as banal and reductive as "One Day at a Time" enabled these people to walk through hell, which from what I could see the first six months of detox is. That struck me.
I think, and again, I'm guessing here, that DFW saw religion in much the same way -- that there's something real and helpful there and all this intelligence and education and ironical detachment gets in the way of that. I hope he didn't neglect what would most likely have helped -- professional psychological treatment -- for religion.
Religion is somewhat correlated with happiness and longevity, but I suspect that if you're an educated, intelligent depressed non-believer, psychological treatment is more likely to help than attempting to convince yourself to believe.
DFW's essays were perhaps even better than his novels. My favorite is "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie and Human Completeness," collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. (His work sounds pretentious, but when you get to know it, you see that he's using literary playfulness as a tool. He's not just showing off.)
DFW was the editor of The Best American Essays 2007, and his introduction to that book is itself a brilliant essay. I was a little underwhelmed by Host, an essay about right-wing talk radio host John Ziegler, but it's worth a read. He also wrote an essay about John McCain in 2000 for Rolling Stone, which has now become a book. Here's an interview with the Wall Street Journal about the book.
Here is David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose. Skip to 23:15:
Fan site The Howling Fantods has everything you'd ever want to know about DFW.
(Public service announcement: If you are depressed or think you might be, please get yourself a good psychologist. It's not something you have to figure out on your own or trust your religious tradition to help you with. I see a psychologist myself. Feel free to email me.)
Update: According to the NY Times obit, Wallace was receiving medical care:
His father said Sunday that Mr. Wallace had been taking medication for depression for 20 years and that it had allowed his son to be productive. It was something the writer didn’t discuss, though in interviews he gave a hint of his haunting angst...
James Wallace said that last year his son had begun suffering side effects from the drugs and, at a doctor’s suggestion, had gone off the medication in June 2007. The depression returned, however, and no other treatment was successful. The elder Wallaces had seen their son in August, he said.
“He was being very heavily medicated,” he said. “He’d been in the hospital a couple of times over the summer and had undergone electro-convulsive therapy. Everything had been tried, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.”