David Foster Wallace
I never met DFW, and know little about his personal life--probably as he wished it--although he seems to have been widely regarded as a kind and generous person. I also never connected too closely with his short fiction and journalistic writing, although I read most of it eagerly. My relationship to DFW centered on `Infinite Jest' (1996), an immense book that captivated me when I discovered it in high school.
Briefly, IJ consists of about 1000 pages of chronologically free-form and narratively heterogeneous episodes from the lives of several characters, generally connected either to the Enfield Tennis Academy of metro Boston or to the nearby Ennet House, a drug rehabilitation center. It is supplemented with ~200 pages of footnotes--a generous helping of asides, extra scenes, and background info (it's set in the slight future, culminating around 2008, better known as the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment in the era of Subsidised Time).
IJ is at once:
-a lush entertainment, addictive in ways I can't fully explain;
-a barrage of observation, alternately expansive and minute, in which the struggle for readers and characters alike is not so much to find meaning as to hold on to it in the face of various compulsions and distractions, to exercise discernment in a world of spectacular banalities and banal truths;
-a compendium of contemporary striving and suffering, in turns putting up for scrutiny: pleasure and addiction, competitive pursuit, narcissism and dismorphic thinking, irony/withdrawal as survival strategies in a surreal political climate... and more, all in memorably original fashion;
-a genuinely moving book, never dominated by its theses or formal experiments, with deeply rendered characters who, despite their glaring and costly mistakes along the way, become friends you wish would hang around for another 1000 pages.
It's a huge loss to learn that David Foster Wallace won't publish a follow-up to IJ. It's a blow to learn that the person who produced such a sustained meditation on suffering (and our resources to overcome it) has taken his own life. It's a sadness to know that the spirit that breathed into those pages has passed.
What's left is his remarkable work, and his readership, which I hope will continue to grow. Pick up 'Infinite Jest' today!
Update: Arts & Letters Daily has collected a number of DFW retrospectives (see 'Essays and Opinion'). This site, by the way, is an excellent aggregator of new and noteworthy online writing.