After the initial shock and disbelief at news of David Foster Wallace's suicide last weekend (insert your own Wallace five-part footnote on Kübler-Ross model here, in private homage), came the unexpected tears. Why so much grief? Because for every minute my pals and I have spent finding faults in Wallace's prose over the years, we spent private hours marveling at his status as the undisputed No. 1 player in the world.
When "Infinite Jest" appeared, it eclipsed everything. The preceding Conspicuously Young authors like Jay McInerney ("Bright Lights, Big City") and Bret Easton Ellis ("Less Than Zero") had burst into brilliant, Hollywood-friendly fame but now seemed like satellites of something unexpectedly massive. The previous generation's knowing geniuses, Pynchon and DeLillo, began to take on the patina of aged predecessors.
Wallace was the giant star around which everyone else of my generation (I'm 40) orbited. I don't think there's an American writer -- male, anyway -- between the ages of 20 and 50 who hasn't had a continuing "Letter to David Foster Wallace" in his head since "Jest" came out in 1996.
Very few got sent. We could tell just how much he felt compromised by our knowing what a burden his greatness carried. (From his 1996 piece on tennis player Michael Joyce: "Impressiveness is corrosive to the psyche."). His undercutting ironies and digressions were born less from a desire to show off than of his knowing how fragile was the balance between graciousness and falsity, sincerity and irony -- how fragile everything was in a world where it was easier and easier to know, but as hard as ever to belong or befriend or love.
Examine his digressions and footnotes -- the way facts and ideas reverberate like a subwoofer with a loose jack: that's the way your mind works when you're constantly plugged in to Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and Google. He was writing this way when the Web was still in its incipient state. He knew and cared to the point of pain about how hard it could be to live in a world where easy access to information was incommensurate with the availability of help.
To anyone paying attention, it was obvious that he was a guy in pain. Go back and read the AA scenes in "Infinite Jest." The "Depressed Person" in "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" may never get read again.
Of course, there was, too, a noticeable decline in output. Was he just busy teaching at Pomona? Zipped out with all the fuss about his "genius"? There was that kind of talk.
And then we remember "Good Old Neon" in "Oblivion." Wallace broke the fourth wall, haunting us, commanding us to just face the dark things, without performance, just letting the mindbogglingly impressive guy go ... "saying, almost aloud, 'Not another word.'"
Joel Turnipseed is the author of "Baghdad Express," a Gulf War memoir. He lives in Minneapolis.