In a way, these works present a new Wallace. Mostly controlled in the past by the man himself in collections and novels, now his work is appearing in new forms, and for a writer who paid at least as much (if not more) attention to form as he did to content, this seems as if it would be terrifying. The film, especially—which, though pretty perfectly capturing the man's ethos, was made against the wishes of the Wallace estate—would, I think, have scandalized him. He would have hated it, in fact, and he would have loved that we love it, and then hated himself for loving that. It would have tied him in knots.
What keeps coming through, though, no matter what configuration his work appears in, is Wallace's status as a writer haunted by religious questions, by the line between belief and unbelief and how it makes us live—by the struggle of living decently as a person surrounded by other people and maybe watched over by a Presence. It is this that still leaves me breathless now and then, along with the sentences and the laughter. There's nothing glib in Wallace.
The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that the difference between believers and unbelievers is not what they think as much as how they deal with three things humans experience: fullness, that feeling of euphoria and rightness you get when you're happiest; absence, the exact opposite; and the middle condition, the things-are-pretty-okay place in which many of us are fortunate enough to live our daily lives. Everyone wants to experience fullness, and most everyone structures their lives around that pursuit, Taylor argues. But to believers, the place to find fullness is God, or something godlike; for unbelievers, it's to be sought within ourselves.
Wallace hung himself while his wife was out for a walk. He did this after a life-time of struggling with depression, which might be best described as the unabated experience of absence. In his most popular work, "This Is Water," a commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College, he talks about the struggle of living in that middle condition, the everyday banality graduates were about to enter—the harried commute, the line at the grocery store, the grumpy cashier—and the "myriad petty, unsexy" choices one must make, every day, to live as if other people are real beings with feelings.
When you read the rest of his work, you realize that speech functions as Wallace's ideal of what he wishes life could be. It lays out his own yearning for fullness—for a world in which everyone is aware of and careful with others. Be mindful of those around you, he says—something that sounds a lot like the unbeliever's tactic for dealing with it all. "None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death," he says near the end of the speech.
Except it totally is, and he knows that, because he also says this: "Here's something else that's weird but true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." You can read his earlier declaration about religion at face value, or you can know that Wallace is always trying to connect with his audience, and detect a characteristic hyper-awareness of his listeners' prejudices in his stretch to imprint something on their brains. What we worship, the thing we stretch for beyond ourselves that gets us closer to fullness, is his obsession.
Infinite Jest, his magnum opus (at just shy of 1,100 pages), is a novel about addiction, something Wallace knew well: after he completed his MFA at the University of Arizona, he enrolled as a philosophy PhD student at Harvard, only to land in rehab months later and, from there, a halfway house and a twelve-step program. Addiction is a state of wildly vacillating fullness and absence, a high and a crash. To Wallace, it was the default mode of contemporary life: addiction to substances, to fame, to sex, to being liked, to mindless entertainment, to the sound of your own voice—most everything can be an addiction, something to fill the emptiness or at least punch up the boredom.
Wallace, cursed with an addict's personality compounded by clinical depression, never really did get past all that; having repeatedly come back from the brink, he viewed his sudden rockstar status after Infinite Jest warily, even so succumbing at times to its attendant pleasures (particularly when it came to women)—something The End of the Tour poignantly shows.