The paucity of reflection and context given in the obituaries of David Foster Wallace show just how surprising his death is. Those are usually written far in advance and added to as a person grows older, so that a large, long piece can be published shortly after the death.
I haven't read any of Wallace's novels. The closest I've gotten to them was shelving Infinite Jest at a Borders in Indianapolis and wishing he'd been somewhat pithier and cut its 1,000 pages down to less Biblical proportions, if only for the sake of my back. Infinite Shooting Pain, was more like it.
But I did read and do remember a long article (20,000 words) he wrote for Harper's in 2001. It was on the state of the language, as well as ostensibly a review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage and a handful of dictionaries. The article was published on card stock, I remember, so that it could be removed from the magazine and read on its own. (I'd link to Harper's own site for the essay, but, like all good Communists, they make you pay dearly for stuff that should be cheap.) (UPDATE: Someone who can lay claim to his own verbal skill has posted the orignal essay here [PDF].) He managed to bring the intricacies and problems and snares and pitfalls people fall into when they speak and when they write, the differences between Prescriptive and Descriptive dictionaries, Noam Chomsky's generative linguistics, and much more, down to an approachable, compulsively readable, level. Take the following excerpt, with its attendant writerly fireworks. The man had a way of making a point, is what I'm trying to say.
Take, for example, the Descriptivism claim that so-called correct English usages such as brought rather than brung and felt rather than feeled are arbitrary and restrictive and unfair and are supported only by custom and are (like irregular verbs in general) archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass. Let us concede for the moment that these objections are 100 percent reasonable. Then let's talk about pants. Trousers, slacks. I suggest to you that having the "correct" subthoracic clothing for U.S. males be pants instead of skirts is arbitrary (lots of other cultures let men wear skirts), restrictive and unfair (U.S. females get to wear pants), based solely on archaic custom (I think it's got something to do with certain traditions about gender and leg position, the same reasons girls' bikes don't have a crossbar), and in certain ways not only incommodious but illogical (skirts are more comfortable than pants; pants ride up; pants are hot; pants can squish the genitals and reduce fertility; over time pants chafe and erode irregular sections of men's leg hair and give older men hideous half-denuded legs, etc. etc.). Let us grant — as a thought experiment if nothing else — that these are all reasonable and compelling objections to pants as an androsartorial norm. Let us in fact in our minds and hearts say yes — shout yes — to the skirt, the kilt, the toga, the sarong, the jupe. Let us dream of or even in our spare time work toward an America where nobody lays any arbitrary sumptuary prescriptions on anyone else and we can all go around as comfortable and aerated and unchafed and unsquished and motile as we want.
And yet the fact remains that, in the broad cultural mainstream of millennial America, men do not wear skirts. If you, the reader, are a U.S. male, and even if you share my personal objections to pants and dream as I do of a cool and genitally unsquishy American Tomorrow, the odds are still 99.9 percent that in 100 percent of public situations you wear pants/slacks/shorts/trunks. More to the point, if you are a U.S. male and also have a U.S. male child, and if that child were to come to you one evening and announce his desire/intention to wear a skirt rather than pants to school the next day, I am 100-percent confident that you are going to discourage him from doing so. Strongly discourage him. You could be a Molotov-tossing anti-pants radical or a kilt manufacturer or Steven Pinker himself — you're going to stand over your kid and be prescriptive about an arbitrary, archaic, uncomfortable, and inconsequentially decorative piece of clothing. Why? Well, because in modern America any little boy who comes to school in a skirt (even, say, a modest all-season midi) is going to get stared at and shunned and beaten up and called a Total Geekoid by a whole lot of people whose approval and acceptance are important to him. In our culture, in other words, a boy who wears a skirt is Making a Statement that is going to have all kinds of gruesome social and emotional consequences.