There’s not much I can add to the sickening fact — except to say that if you never read his books, you might as well use this sad occasion to move yourself to get around to it. The essay collection A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again would be a better place to start than the huge Infinite Jest. Here’s what I wrote in the Boston Phoenix about ASFTINDA.
It was only in 9th or 10th grade that I started to understand there was such a thing as contemporary fiction, with the corollary that writing new things in new ways was an option for a living person like me. Two of my heroes, Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme, I learned about from my creative writing teacher. Wallace, the third, was my favorite, because I discovered him myself. Like Carver and Barthelme, he is impossible to imitate, even slightly, without sounding false. But every paragraph I write owes something to him.
One thing I learned from Wallace was that a story could have a joke on every page and be very, very serious.
Wallace’s very short “Incarnations of Burned Children” is readable online at Esquire, but is not for the weak. You might cry. (Even if you’re strong.) Even more relentless, and longer, which is part of its relentlessness, is “The Depressed Person,” which you can read online if you subscribe to Harper’s.
But his writing, in general, wasn’t brutal and relentless. It was funny, rather easy-going, observant and wise — even when it was about the impossible struggle to be a human being and not a glib self-presentation, or a drug addiction, or a complicated language game. He was our Trollope, not our Kafka. I thought he’d die in bed at eighty.