Short essays by david foster wallace

Nevertheless, Wallace always thought of himself primarily as a novelist. From his college years at Amherst, when he wrote his first novel as part of a creative honors thesis, to his final days, Wallace was buried in a novel project, which he often referred to as "the Long Thing. David Foster Wallace and "The Long Thing" is a state-of-the art guide through Wallace's three major works, including the generation-defining Infinite Jest.

These essays provide fresh new readings of each of Wallace's novels as well as thematic essays that trace out patterns and connections across the three works. Most importantly, the collection includes six chapters on Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King , which will prove to be foundational for future scholars of this important text.

Burn, puts it here, we are still 'at the prototype phase of The Pale King criticism … it is only when we start to disentangle what Wallace originally planned from the published text … that we can begin the critical project of understanding The Pale King in earnest. It will lead the conversation about Wallace in exciting new directions. All readers of Wallace--indeed, all readers of contemporary fiction--will benefit from these new perspectives on one of the most important writers to have emerged in the last thirty years of American literature.

While some essays examine his repurposing of structural aspects of the novel inherited from earlier postmodernism, like encyclopedicness and heteroglossia, others investigate ways in which his long works discover new communicative potential in the novel as print medium, and as intimately intertwined with the network of visual and cultural media in which it lies. Along the way, these essays introduce fruitful new frameworks for reading Wallace's work, including models of consciousness and Jamesian civic responsibility, while offering some surprising new readings of familiar themes like irony and communication.

Insightful and deft textual analysis, especially of The Pale King , provides an additional delight. This collection will be a welcome addition to Wallace studies for all readers, scholars, and fans of Wallace's fiction. At a moment when the consensus about Wallace is congealing prematurely around a handful of canonical themes — Infinite Jest is about addiction, Pale King is about boredom, Wallace's fiction in general aspires to escape the gravitational pull of postmodern irony, and so on, you know the drill — these essays open up other perspectives and fresh alternatives.

Even when they revisit the canonical motifs of Wallace criticism, they succeed in casting a bracingly estranging light on tried-and-true themes. I was also, in this period, applying to college. Pomona College was already on my list, but when I decided to go there it was in large part because Wallace taught in its English Department. There was no rush, however. I had a chance to spend a year in China before Pomona, and Wallace had tenure; he would be there.

I worked on my own writing.

A Brief on Hideous Things About David Foster Wallace

I did not meaningfully improve my Mandarin. He killed himself two weeks later, and I never met him. This was, to me, about as serious an abandonment as the loss of parent. I reread his work compulsively, looking for a more-than-chemical explanation. I filled out transfer applications. I regret that I wore a bandanna around campus for a while. The vast majority of my bubbly freshman peers seemed not to know who Wallace was, and they were not terribly distracted from their first weeks of college by the fact that the greatest writer on the planet had just hanged himself on the patio of his house.

Everyone else I met who was truly grieving had known Wallace personally, and I felt absurd trying to commiserate with people who no doubt loved the work like I did but who had also lost the live, human Dave. As luck would have it, I was also going through a fairly brutal instance of romantic heartbreak at the same time.

It was an extremely alienating and lonely time. For the next few years, I continued to give Wallace the devotion of a widow who still sets the table for two.

In retrospect, I really made a religion out of it. In my fiction, the guiding principle was What Would Wallace Write. For a while, I evangelized to anyone who came close to asking. But soon I stopped recommending Wallace and ceased talking about him at any length. Our connection was sacred, I thought; I would only corrupt it by performing it publicly. And I loathed the smirk some skeptics gave when, by saying I liked Wallace while being white and male , I turned from a person into a type.

Wallace had told us, in the sermon-like Kenyon graduation speech that became This Is Water , that we had to decide what to worship. I decided to keep worshipping Wallace. I have spent the last few years affirmatively avoiding his shelf in my living room. When I do crack one of his books, some so used that their covers are duct taped on, I have to re-sheath it quickly. I am embarrassed by my earlier fervor. My official position is that one should never be embarrassed by an earnest, considered love of any literary artifact, so I am not sure why I would now feel this way about Wallace.

But I have a few ideas. One option — time has passed. Recall that unacknowledged but obvious truth of the critic: that perception, judgment, and reaction are contingent. And it never focused much on the quieter themes that purportedly occupy adult minds — love, children, marriage, class, friendship, work, race, faith, death — and that are not as directly emotionally accessible to your average white male upper-class year-old. Even in Oblivion , where the content is more mature, the characters and voices retain a kind of pubertal intensity. Wallace has almost none of the assured solemnity of, say, Marilynne Robinson or Julian Barnes.

Wallace, I submit, is distinctively appealing to a certain kind of young or young-minded person. Statistically, this person is also likely to be male and well off, but more essentially this person wants to be educated, to be obsessed, wants more than just a good yarn. And his best readers are eager to be impressed, which I assert also has an adolescent quality.

Think: Teenage boys huddled reverently around a YouTube clip of a guitarist whose gift is to play very, very fast; mom looks, shrugs, unenthused. But his smartness was so obvious because his voice was cunningly aggressive. In the same sentence, Wallace convinces us that he is both a relatable neophyte and totally in charge, intellectually speaking. Again, I think these formal experiments, these challenges of usual modes of reading, often pay off handsomely in the sense that they result in fun and especially satisfying experiences for committed readers.

But these devices also quite deliberately, I would suggest leave no room whatsoever for a misapprehension that the author is anything but extremely sophisticated. I think most Wallace readers will agree that this feeling of being both just like him and in awe of him is more or less constant in his writing. But is it possible, too, that the desire this effect fulfills — to be moved and entertained but also to be taught by writing and to admire its writer — systematically lives a bit louder in younger people?

Think again of those teens and the speedy guitarist. Think of the phenomenon of teen idols and compare to the less common occurrence of the middle-aged or elderly idol. Young people especially want someone to adulate. And to a certain kind of juvenile you could not ask for more than Wallace offered. Then comes Wallace, who is just like you in every key particular except brighter, funnier, kinder, wiser.

Even better, he writes with merciless clarity, a minimum of obfuscating abstraction or symbolism. Like a mathematician. He shows his work, and you can follow it, so long as you have a dictionary handy.


It feels sufficiently sui generis to get that certain kind of young person really excited; who else writes like that in fiction? But older people may have less of a need for it. In general, they are less enthusiastic about everything. They have learned to kill their idols. I suspect he would agree.

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He accomplished a lot of that, but he did not stop showing off. Of course he would have been attuned to that. He just could not help himself, apparently, in wanting to be seen as smart. Why else, really, would he have signed up to write that book about the history of infinity, especially when, according to those who might actually know, it turned out to have been above his pay-grade, math-wise?

There was no helping how smart he actually was, but he might have avoided making such a spectacle of it. No way I could see any of that when I started reading him. This sense of Wallace as a good person permeates his work, and I suspect again that this effect is more powerful and more persuasive to younger people than to older people.

Academics explain David Foster Wallace to me | The Outline

Young people are probably hungrier for or at least more receptive to the moral inquiries he embarks on. I am not saying that his moral explorations are any sort of fault on their own merits. To write with a conscience and to search for virtue is surely among the nobler purposes of literature.

Adults might behave better if they kept themselves as ethically attentive as he did.

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And he always had a soft touch — it was often a vulnerable exercise, the opposite of the aggression with which his intelligence displayed itself. I think his moral core is what people connect with so deeply, hence the feeling among readers like me that he is some kind of guide. But that brings us to another possible reason for my lapse from the church of Wallace.

As detailed in D. By his own account, he committed statutory rape on a book tour. He could in private writing and actual behavior be exactly as dismissive of women as John Updike. Needless to say, it can be hard to swallow the moral tenets and explorations of someone whose real-life conduct veered into the self-evidently appalling and, at times, literally criminal. In The Atlantic and The Outline , Megan Garber and Daniel Kolitz , respectively, have excellent recent diagnoses of how Wallace fans try to accommodate these sorts of ugly facts alongside enthusiasm for his literary accomplishments.

Better yet, read Mary Karr. I do not think this makes him marginal or bodes poorly for his legacy — far from it.

In the other direction lies obsolescence. How, you wonder, will the next generation hear about Wallace if all of his older fans lose their fervor? Well, not all of them will lose their fervor, and many of the ones who keep it will be professors.

Literature professors and graduate students, even more than your typical adult reader, like and are interested in Wallace. More I think than any other writer of his vintage, he has spawned a little scholarly industry. Even as he has fallen in and out of vogue with the New York literary set, the professors have played a longer game. Onward go the conventions, papers, and seminars; a new reading of his work might help get you tenure. He would have known the professors could be a true and enduring audience. But what Joyce skipped in his quip about the professors — and here is the real brilliance of writing for them — is that professors have students, and students have peers.

And to be taught increases the likelihood that someone outside the classroom will decide to spend their valuable book dollars and time reading you, instead of reading someone whose work has not been validated by the academy. We end up at least wanting to read The Catcher in the Rye or Ulysses , even if no teacher ever assigned it to us. This effect has been widely observed. Plus, as I am also not the first to point out, the Wallace virus has been a pandemic among the group of writers who defined the style of most of what we read — the internet.

Irreverent, self-referential, both slangy and egg-heady. Club , Gizmodo. Set aside the very recent MeToo discussion, which as noted supra is deserved and should actually influence how we read his work.