Dancing with the dark angel

By all accounts David Foster Wallace was successful and admired, a writer of soaring talent. But on the twelfth day of September in 2008, he hung himself in his home.

Infinite Jest

One of David Foster Wallace's most acclaimed books, photo from goodwines Flickr photostream

To be honest, I was not a fan of Wallace’s writing. I found it precious and overly abstruse. For me Infinite Jest was impenetrable; The Broom of the System went right over my head.

Looking back, I think I was simply not ready for the narrative jazz of postmodernist fiction. On the other hand, I was captivated by his travel essays, on the rare occasions his work reached me on a ranch in rural British Columbia.

Recently I stumbled across a site that makes me want to go back and try again to understand the brilliant, troubled mind of David Foster Wallace. I feel a certain kinship with someone who wrote extensive notes in the books he read. [See Writing in the Margins.]

The books with David Foster Wallace’s margin notes are in a special collection at the Harry Ranson Center in the University of Texas at Austin. They must have been written by authors whose words wormed into Wallace’s psyche and insisted on a response. The notes scribbled across the end papers of the books make me want to understand the mind of the writer. I’m going to try reading him again.

Wallace was only 46 when he took his life. The young man in my building was 32. Carolyn Heilbrun was 77. All danced with the dark angel.

Most who dance with the dark angel take a few turns and then spin away, finding the courage to pick up the life they flirt with leaving. But for some, such as these three, the wild music of death is far more seductive.

I’m reminded of a story Jay O’Callahan tells of a man lying in a dark room, contemplating suicide. His life was in ruins. No spark of hope lit his soul.

He was half listening to the radio when Jay’s story of “The Herring Shed” was broadcast. There’s a scene in the story where a man lies shattered on a battlefield. He knows he’s dying, and then he catches site of one perfect blueberry. Its shape, its colour, its vibrant presence call him back to life.

For the radio listener lying alone in a darkened room, his soul shattered, that story was the blueberry, calling him back to life.

Maybe some blueberry could have pulled David Foster Wallace, Carolyn Heibrun and the young man in my building away from the dark angel. Nothing did, and they danced off the edge.

We may never know when someone is dancing with the dark angel. We can only do our best, knowing that some kindness offered, some word spoken may be the blueberry of life.

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