Monday, December 14, 2009

That David Foster Wallace Post

Today is something of a literary anniversary for me. It was one year ago today I conquered David Foster Wallace's epic tome, Infinite Jest. The book took me more than two months to read (and blog about), and even with a companion guide book to help me navigate its twists and turns, it was still the most difficult book I've ever read. But, it was very, very rewarding and I count it as one of my favorite novels of all time. 

Even before being totally blown away by Infinite Jest, I'd already considered David Foster Wallace as my favorite writer. I picked up his book of essays Consider the Lobster on a whim about three years ago, and since then, I've been obsessed with him and have devoured just about everything he's ever written.  I love his essays. I love his short fiction. And I LOVE Infinite Jest. Probably my favorite DFW piece, though, is the commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 — recently published in book form as This is Water. Please, please do yourself a favor and spend 30 minutes or so reading it. Not a day passes when I'm not somehow reminded of DFW's simple message about empathy and respect. It's absolutely beautiful.

DFW's special gift was to allow his readers to think along with him and discover what he was trying to explain almost simultaneously with him. No topic was too far afield for him (tennis, porn, rap, infinity), as evidenced by the fact that his essays would often end up miles from the original assignment. The best example is his piece for Gourmet Magazine, which was supposed to be a simple slice-of-life report from the Maine Lobster Festival, but which DFW turns into a philosophical treatise on whether lobsters can feel pain, and if so, whether it's ethical to eat them.

When you read DFW, you discover that in the span of a single paragraph, he could make you think very, very hard, make you scramble for a dictionary, and make you laugh out loud. He had a knack for seamlessly mixing high and low-brow. Two of my all-time favorite DFW essay moments: 1) In the midst of a long, rather academic essay on descriptivism, he quotes a long passage contrary to his view, and then immediately dismisses it with "This is so stupid it practically drools."  2) In "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," about his experience on a cruise, he spends a long footnote (one of his signatures) discussing the service industry/customer relationship. He explains why he feels slighted when he doesn't get the obligatory smile, but then explains why it's not necessary, and then throws up his hands and ends with "What a f@cking mess."

His short fiction was as fun to read as it was bizarre, as he experimented and pushed the limits of what he thought fiction could be. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is an often hilarious, but often frustrating, genre-bending book. Oblivion is dark, and many have argued it represents a window into the last few years of his life. Girl With Curious Hair is just, um, curious. 

Like every other DFW fan, I was absolutely devastated when I learned of his suicide last year. As explained in this brilliant Rolling Stone profile published soon after his death, he'd been battling depression most of his life. Until the year before his death, he'd managed it with an antidepressant, but he'd gone off the medication in 2007 because the side effects were interfering with his work. When he tried to return to the medication, he discovered it no longer worked and he spiraled deeper into his depression, until it got the better of him once and for all. He hung himself on the patio of his California home the evening of Sept. 12, 2008. He was only 46 years old.

The good news is that DFW left a nearly finished manuscript of a novel titled The Pale King, which is scheduled to be published in April 2011. A short story titled "All That", most likely an excerpt from The Pale King, was published a few weeks ago in The New Yorker. Read it! 

Have you read DFW? What are some of your favorite DFW pieces, moments, ideas?

(RIP, DFW. I wish you way more than luck.)


  1. I've never read anything from him, in fact have never even HEARD of him until your post! I'm going to check him out right now!

  2. Good review. I had not heard of this author before.

  3. Don't hate me, but I've got a copy of Consider the Lobster I grabbed a couple of years ago on my shelf waiting patiently to be read. Thanks for reminding me that I need to get on that...

  4. @Bookshelf - Ah, I'm sort of jealous of you - you're in that area of anticipation before experience that wonderful book for the first time! :)

  5. i just finished reading the commencement address. wow. i'm feeling so sad about his suicide. it seems like those who see the water always suffer the most, and sometimes it's just unbearable. still, i'd rather know what i'm swimming in than not. i've had infinite jest swirling around my TBR list, but knowing the effort required to read it have put off actually committing to reading it. i've put consider the lobster on the list which seems a tad more manageable, and hopefully will get to read it soon. thanks for another brilliant post!

  6. @mummazappa - so glad you enjoyed This is Water. Powerful stuff, eh?! Yes, Consider The Lobster is 100x more manageable than Infinite Jest, but if you ever want a challenge, IJ's your book!

  7. I read THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM several years ago and enjoyed it. I should probably become better acquainted with his work. This year's BEST AMERICAN NONREQUIRED READING included an essay by Jonathan Franzen about DFW, basically an appreciation. You might enjoy it if you haven't seen it already.

  8. DFW is fantastic. I just read All That and I can't wait to read more of his work after graduation. I have yet to read Infinite Jest, and I think you've finally convinced me to do so... perhaps on my next reading oasis???
    (Sven Birkerts also wrote a touching and personal piece about DFW in the last issue of AGNI. He's my current mentor, check it out: )

  9. @Marie - Thanks for the heads up on that Franzen piece. I hadn't seen it yet. Franzen plays a big role in the RS profile piece too - the two were pretty tight, evidently.

    @Jen - Thanks for the Birkets piece - I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    "In Wallace’s case, especially, I was moved by his urgency, his vision of the existential stress of contemporary life, his recognition of the predatory corporate ethos against which the private self was so utterly vulnerable, in the face of which he was so disposable. Also by his fiercely dark comedy, the filter of his terrible ironies, his flashes of inspired absurdity, salient whether in the stories or the grand world-system that was Infinite Jest or in essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”"

    That is effing brilliant, and there's no way I could've even approached saying it better myself.

  10. Great review/article/post. For those who haven't read IJ, I strongly urge you to do so as soon as possible. While his essays are amazing and his stories, though uneven, contain plenty of moments of brilliance, Infinite Jest _is_ Wallace. I first read it when I was 19 and it was like making a new best friend; the way his mind worked was just in perfect concert with mine. I have read it two more times since and I pick it up at least once a month to browse its endless treasure trove of insight and sadness, humor and verbiage. It is, in my opinion, THE best American novel of the last 25 years at least and one of the best of the last century.

  11. @Raul - Thank you, very well said. You're absolute correct - IJ IS DFW, in more ways than we could ever know, probably.

  12. You took the words out of my mouth. I'm a huge DFW fan, and in the year and change since his suicide I've been reading the stuff of his that I hadn't read before, and rereading what I had. This week I'm tackling Infinite Jest again, with the help of Stephen Burns's reader's guide. It's very helpful.

    BTW, in the opening scene of IJ, the character nearest to a DFW stand-in is described as having no control over his facial expressions. Elsewhere (I can't remember where, darn it), DFW describes a person with an involuntary "scrunched-up grimace." When I watched a DFW interview on Charlie Rose (available on-line), David twice made that exact expression, a "scrunched-up grimace."