¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 That the connection between novel and reader, and between writer and reader, that Wallace desired was so inescapably personal requires me to stop here and consider my own situation within this essay. Wallace — David — was a colleague and a friend, and I have a very difficult time writing about his work without that relationship figuring heavily in my thoughts. This was true throughout his time at Pomona College, but it’s become even more pressing in the aftermath of his death; the very personal loss that I felt has been highlighted for me in all of my engagements with his work since then, making clear the degree to which my relationship with his writing and my relationship with him were tangled up in one another.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 That sense of intimate connection derived from his work extends far beyond those friends and colleagues and students and so on who happened to know him personally, however; a cursory look at the numerous articles and blogposts written after his death reveals both the range and the depth of the impact that his writing had on contemporary readers. This public outpouring of grief in the wake of Wallace’s death is uncomfortably reminiscent of the spectacle surrounding Kurt Cobain’s death — on the one hand, a clear indication of the deep personal connections that his fans felt, through his work, to David himself; on the other, an unhealthy transformation of artist into celebrity fetish object, and of a personal tragedy into some kind of public performance. If there is a difference, it might lie in the sense that, whatever Cobain’s actual, personal feelings, his work repeatedly enacted the most intensive form of ironic distance, the complete refusal of any human connection other than a sense of mutual disdain.1 David’s writing, by contrast, deployed irony not as a gesture designed to protect the author from critique but rather as a means of allowing his readers a safe enough space within which they could explore their own feelings of loneliness, of inadequacy, of duplicity, of failure. The novels and short stories made this exploration possible precisely because of the empathy that fiction makes possible; as Wallace told Larry McCaffery, “if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with characters’ pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own” (127).
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 4 What made Wallace’s work so phenomenally powerful for so many readers, I would argue, has to do with its ability to connect three consistent impulses in contemporary fiction in a way that no other writer has managed quite so well. In Wallace’s work, we repeatedly see wed high-modern/postmodern experimental pyrotechnics not only with an incisive cultural critique but also with a deeply personal concern for quotidian human suffering. That is to say that Wallace’s fiction combines rich investments in form, in ideas, and in emotion. Any number of writers of the last fifty years can be read as bringing together two of these strains in contemporary fiction, but hardly anyone else has managed all three in a way that feels to the reader not simply sincere but unflinchingly honest. And it’s these three factors together, I would argue, that have something to do with the degree of connection that readers have felt with Wallace’s writing: not only is that writing serious enough to make the reader work non-trivially in its apprehension, and not only does the writing cause the reader to think seriously about the world in which she lives, but it also helps the reader, on some too often devalued level, to understand herself within that world.