ArticleOur Psychic Living Room
Why It's Particularly Important to Read David Foster Wallace
Two years have now passed since the death of David Foster Wallace in the fall of 2008. His legacy as a writer has been the subject of nonstop debate since the day of his suicide. I’ll cut to the chase: I believe he was, in his own way, a literary genius. Let me explain why.
You may have opened Harper’s or Rolling Stone back around the turn of the century and read a really funny essay by a chatty, neurotic writer who had Rain Man–like abilities to recall and describe experiences as diverse as attending the Illinois State Fair, playing tennis during a tornado, and following John McCain’s presidential campaign. You may have found the essays hilarious, or quite brilliant. You may have gone so far as to say, as the critic Michiko Kakutani did in the New York Times, that they described modern life with “humor and fervor and verve,” and you may have wanted to read more of them. Regardless of how you felt, you probably dealt with the situation in a normal, adult way. That is, you looked up the essayist’s name online and maybe bought some of his collections, like Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I’ll go ahead and assume you didn’t form an obsessive attachment to the author and delve perilously deep into his essays and fiction and then have to purge all your David Foster Wallace emotional attachment errata onto a blank page and call it an “essay.” Because that’s what I did—and let me tell you, gentle reader: it hasn’t been fun.
But it has given me something to do with my time, and it’s also given me this sort of quixotic sense of purpose, this mission to Tell the People about David Foster Wallace—because the people, being a well-educated and discerning people, deserve to know. But this is an embarrassing mission, to be sure, because what if the people already know about David Foster Wallace? The majority of readers of this magazine will probably test out of David Foster Wallace 101, having already read some of his essays and maybe some of his fiction or, failing that, the numerous adoring profiles.
But what do these readers actually think about David Foster Wallace? Isn’t all the postmortem hype confusing and disorienting? Isn’t he the kind of dense novelist who gets touted by stoner twenty- and thirty-somethings? Is liking Wallace just a grad school affectation, like watching Danish art films? Is liking Wallace a fun and cool thing to do because he had a history of substance abuse and underwent electroconvulsive therapy? Or does liking Wallace have nothing to do with grad school or stories of Genius in Its Byronic Youth and everything to do with patience and an earnest desire to be a better human being? I think so. I think it’ll become quite obvious if you grit your teeth and hack away at all the melodramatic bullshit.
Among nonmembers of the literary in-crowd, there tends to be no controversy about Wallace’s greatness as an essayist—everyone agrees that he was hilarious and engaging and that his essays are a joy to read. The real war is being fought in the trenches of his fiction, where even the most well meaning people are putting down his books a hundred pages in and complaining of pretentiousness and overwriting. For a remarkably biased person such as myself, this seems like an interesting conflict to get in on. Let me be completely transparent here and say that I’m not an ecstatic reviewer from Salon magazine. I’m not currently in possession of a Ph.D. in English, nor do I live in a Tribeca loft and subsist on Red Bull and sushi. I’m just like you, except for (maybe) this one difference: I really, really love David Foster Wallace’s fiction. And I want to make a case not merely for his writing but for his fiction writing. I want to make a case for its earnestness and honesty, and then I want to make a similar case for the writer himself. So please bear with me.
The Hyper-Articulate Tin Man
David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is set in the year 2009 in the Organization of North American Nations, a political fusion of Canada, Mexico, and the United States, where giant corporations subsidize everything from cars to calendar years. The book chronicles the stories of students at the elite Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) in Boston, as well as a group of recovering drug addicts at the nearby Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. Hal Incandenza, one of the novel’s protagonists, is a lexical prodigy and tennis star at the ETA who goes to great lengths to conceal his marijuana addiction from all but his closest friends. The other putative protagonist is Don Gately, a former burglar and Demerol addict who’s gone straight and now works the graveyard counseling shifts at Ennet House, listening while the likes of coke-addicted Randy Lenz and marijuana-addicted Kate Gompert recount their nightmares. The book’s plot is massive and unwieldy and mainly concerns attempts of a Quebecois separatist group to obtain the original print of a film called Infinite Jest, which was written and directed by Hal’s father, the cinematic auteur James Orin Incandenza (aka Himself, aka the Mad Stork). A character in the film—and by extension the film itself—is apparently so beautiful that viewers have actually been known to die from pleasure. In the hands of the Quebecois separatists, such a film would be a powerful WMD. There’s much talk about the American addiction to pleasure and our tendency to take the path of least resistance, and so on.