Tom Bissell on This Is Water

Any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace’s work (and there are many: the patriarch of “Infinite Jest” is a suicide; Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” is narrated by a suicide) now has a blast radius that obscures everything around it. These are craters that cannot be filled. The glory of the work and the tragedy of the life are relations but not friends, informants but not intimates. Exult in one; weep for the other.

The terrible master eventually defeated David Foster Wallace, which makes it easy to forget that none of the cloudlessly sane and true things he had to say about life in 2005 are any less sane or true today, however tragic the truth now seems. “This Is Water” does nothing to lessen the pain of Wallace’s defeat. What it does is remind us of his strength and goodness and decency — the parts of him the terrible master could never defeat, and never will.

(NYT 4/24/09)