David Foster Wallace

Only a couple years removed from a brief spell in a psych ward and a stint in a halfway house, David Foster Wallace moved to Syracuse in 1992 to work on his next novel. The concept had long been percolating in his head, continuing to develop during a time marked by personal struggles, depression, and substance abuse when living in Boston. While his time in Syracuse was creatively fruitful, it was tarnished by an obsessive relationship with fellow writer Mary Karr. But his work during this difficult patch yielded what would become Wallace’s final novel and most celebrated work: Infinite Jest, an encyclopedic novel (more than 1,000 pages, plus footnotes). In a piece marking the novel’s 20th anniversary for The New York Times, Tom Bissell makes a case for the novel’s enduring relevancy, noting Foster’s skill at language (“made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in footnotes of medical dictionaries”), his exploration of character, the book’s status as the novel of its generation and as the “first great Internet novel.” “Sharing videos, binge-watching Netflix, the resultant neuro-pudding at the end of an epic gaming marathon, the perverse seduction of recording and devouring our most ordinary human thoughts on Facebook and Instagram — Wallace somehow knew all this was coming, and (as the man himself might have put it) gave him the howling fantods,” writes Bissell.

Wallace went on to become a lauded essayist and a much-sought-after magazine writer (penning long narratives riddled with footnotes for magazines such as Harper’s on his experiences traveling on a luxury cruise ship and attending the Illinois State Fair and for Gourmet on his visit to Maine’s lobster festival). “He created ever more space between the halves of his career — the friendly, coruscating essayist and the difficult, hermetically inclined fiction writer — so that, eventually, there was little to connect them,” writes Bissell. “Another way of saying this is that the essays got even better and funnier — the funniest since Twain — while the fiction got even darker and more theoretically severe, even if so much of it was excellent.”

Almost a decade after his suicide, we remember Wallace as a genius, someone with a vocabulary so dense he found ways to express ideas that seem so distant yet so familiar and a person with an achingly deep sense of humanity, compassion, justice. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day,” Wallace said in a commencement speech at Kenyon College.

Wallace recently returned to the spotlight following his depiction in the film The End of the Tour. “We think a thousand things at a time, and David found a way to get all that across in a way that’s incredibly true and incredibly entertaining at the same time,” said David Lipsky, the journalist who followed Wallace during his last book tour, which inspired the movie. He was a master of exploring the modern human condition in all of its forms, but in his time in Syracuse, he was just a struggling author attempting to finish an elusive second novel, one that would establish him and create his legacy, which continues to grow and deepen. Here, a passage from Infinite Jest.

“That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack. That concentrating on anything is very hard work.”

— Sam Henken