The Week In Books: Tales of an era that stopped making sense

By Boyd Tonkin

Beware the blogosphere when it begins to work as an emotional echo-chamber with no limits or exits. In the days since David Foster Wallace took his own life in California, overheated cyber-critics have seized on the late author as a Kurt Cobain for the literati of "Generation X". Morbidly excited online voices have added Wallace to the pantheon of US literary suicides that runs from Hemingway and Plath to John Berryman and John Kennedy Toole.

Enough. Wallace suffered from long-term clinical depression. He also wrote inspired, if sometimes ill-disciplined, fiction and non-fiction that encompassed every subject from the ethics of boiling lobsters to the maverick credentials of John McCain (in 2000, not 2008). His work often grappled with the mind-knotting complexity of the systems of knowledge, belief and communication that not only shape our lives but – crucially – take up residence inside our heads. Let's resist the tentacles of that complexity, and keep the death and the art apart.

Indeed, you might say that the tragic mind-set he explored in his labyrinthine epic Infinite Jest has to do with a paranoid connectedness. We still crave coherence in an age that has stopped making any sense that we can see. Try to imagine the inside of Google, or simply consider how unimaginable it is, and you approach the scarily self-interrogating systems-thinking of a writer who – amazingly – wrote his magnum opus with the internet in its infancy.

Like Pynchon, like DeLillo, Wallace dramatised the need and urge to keep the proliferating networks of our culture in view and under control, at a time when they have passed beyond the compass of any human mind. Addiction, the oft-cited overarching "theme" of Infinite Jest, means nothing if not a quest for an always-elusive mastery of fate. And his memorialising fans now seem addicted to the same pursuit of an integrated, it-all-adds-up meaning.

For me, news of his death brought a suitably lateral memory to mind. In 2005, I attended a mind-stretching conference on Mykonos. Many leading mathematicians had gathered in the Aegean to chew over the best ways to transform the mysteries of their art into narratives for lay readers and viewers. Above all, that summer, they wanted to chew over David Foster Wallace – who in 2003 had published Everything and More, his history of the idea of infinity. These wizards of pattern and number split between fault-finding outrage (one computing pioneer counted "86 egregious errors") and grateful enthusiasm for his verve and virtuosity.

How apt, the join-the-dots obituarists might say, that Wallace should choose to investigate infinity – the concept whose paralysing paradoxes helped smash up classical maths as it went though its so-called "foundational crisis". But the infinite jest, and infinite jumble, of a wired-up world has taken root in our minds as much as his. In retrospect, suicide must not define Wallace's work. It speaks as much to us as it does of him.

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