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Fellow authors memorialize David Foster Wallace

It was the largest literary farewell since Norman Mailer's last spring, and a sober tribute to the sweet, troubled genius who took his own life at age 46. Fellow writers like Jonathan Franzen spoke about their friend David Foster Wallace and his work.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Most of the dozen speakers at David Foster Wallace's memorial service brought a bottle of water to the lectern, as if inside were some branded tonic that would ease reliving the loss of a beloved author and friend.

“My family and I are so proud beyond measure that he meant so much to so many,” Wallace's sister, Amy Wallace Havens, said tearfully Thursday, speaking before hundreds at New York University's Skirball Center. “He meant everything to us.”

It was the largest literary farewell since Norman Mailer's last spring, but this was no revel for a white-haired, irascible legend. It was a sober tribute to a sweet, troubled, middle-aged genius (known to wear a Mickey Mouse T-shirt) who took his own life at an age, 46, when his greatest work should only have started.

“Oh, boy, will we miss him,” said Gerry Howard, who edited Wallace's first novel, “The Broom of the System,” which came out in 1987.

Wallace, who suffered from depression for much of his life, hanged himself last month at his home in Claremont, Calif. He was known for such expansive, conflicted, ironic and deeply emotional works as the 1,000-page novel “Infinite Jest” and the essay collection “Consider the Lobster.”

His death stunned, and still stuns, the book world in a way that Kurt Cobain's death traumatized the music community in the 1990s.

Wallace's sister, his agent, his editors and such authors as Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen described him as childlike in the best and most vulnerable ways — inquisitive, playful, brilliant and endearingly, yet disturbingly, self-effacing and self-conscious.

He was “desperately trying not to seem, above all, desperate,” said author Mark Costello, who roomed with Wallace at Amherst College.

The world was fascinating, yet terrifying for Wallace, and writing was how he created order, Franzen explained. A sentence, which for Wallace could easily turn into a paragraph or longer, became as “true and safe and happy a home as he knew.”

“You seek to control things because you're afraid,“ said Franzen, who so loved and admired Wallace that he found no greater achievement than in making his friend laugh. “He was so full of love and so full of fear.”

DeLillo, whose “Libra,” “Mao II” and other dark takes on the modern psyche have been cited as influences on Wallace, praised the author for writing sentences that “shoot rays of energy in seven directions.” He called “Infinite Jest” a “3-stage rocket to the future” and said Wallace was a great writer, a “brave writer.” His death is a story of "youth and loss," his writing one of hope for "another world."

Some of Wallace's editors, including Colin Harrison at Harper's magazine and Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown and Company, spoke with awe of Wallace's energy, knowledge and integrity. Pietsch remembered Wallace's impeccably typed single-space letters, his limitless vocabulary (including invented words such as "sludgelets") and aversion to praise. Being called a “golden boy” only made the author feel “lonely and unknown,” Pietsch said.

Wallace was humble, but also insistent and opinionated. “Forget winning an argument or having the last word, ever,” his sister said. Costello remembered Wallace challenging a logic professor at Amherst and being proved correct, like Matt Damon besting the Harvard math teacher in “Good Will Hunting.”

Franzen spoke of Wallace's final months, when his depression had "metastasized" and phone conversations became lifelines. “Tell me a story,” Wallace would ask and Franzen recalled conjuring a “stubborn control freak and know-it-all” (“So are you!” Wallace interrupted at the time) and how he suffered terrible pain, but would come through and write better than ever.

“I like that story,” Wallace replied, but soon he wasn't listening, or even answering the phone. He had fallen into a well of “infinite sadness, beyond the reach of story,” Franzen said. What remained was a “beautiful, yearning innocence.

“And he was trying.”