David Foster Wallace 2 Comments

David Foster Wallace

Let’s first of all start with the first time I really took notice of David Foster Wallace. A few weeks after his death in 2008, a girl in the same  class as me gave a presentation on his story ‘Forever Overhead’. She was pretty much crying for the duration of it. I only had a general knowledge of Wallace. I knew that he was a bit of a cult figure, and for some reason that made me wary of him. I’d never read any of his work, including the story that was being discussed, and had only the vaguest understanding of his recent death. Basically I assumed that this girl was just extremely nervous or self-conscious about giving the presentation.

The image of her in agony as she spoke about the story stayed with me though, and was made worse by the fact that no-one else I spoke to seemed to have noticed anything out of the ordinary during her presentation. Eventually it clicked though, that it was about him dying, his having died, the awful circumstance of signing up to give a presentation on a beloved author and then him dying a few weeks before you gave it. There was more to it than that, of course, but let me get to that later.

This girl maybe a year later told me that she was not as ‘serious’ about writing as me, that she wasn’t quite as into it as some of the other people in that class, but that she was altogether pretty happy with the various subjects she was studying. I guess I thought something like ‘that’s probably true, she probably isn’t as dedicated to writing as me’ and had a smug little moment to myself.

It took me a long time to figure out that she was way more serious about the whole thing than I was. Books had affected me strongly, sure, and authors too. I was upset when Vonnegut died, and I continue to despair at Pratchett’s illness. But the anguish that she felt at David Foster Wallace dying? I hadn’t even come close. My idea of being serious about literature was way detached from that sort of thing, was maybe more about showing off and a kind of literary careerism than I’d like to admit to myself even now. And so I finally read Infinite Jest, and a lot of the above is out of hindsight, because now I am in that same position where thinking about his death makes the bottom of my eyeballs ache. Where if he died now I can imagine it physically distressing me, making me somehow ecstatic with sadness.

There’s something inherently solipsistic about describing profound reading experiences. We all have them, and it’s pretty much impossible to communicate their impact to anyone else, and so maybe it would be best to keep them to ourselves. But of course there’s a huge urge to share them anyway. To say: ‘This was powerful. Maybe it will be the same for you.’ This despite the admiration and frequent re-readings of Wallace’s speech warning against being totally self-absored. I mean, if you don’t read anything else of his you should at least make time to read that. But still I can’t help myself from telling you all about it, prioritising how much I loved the novel.

The key thing about Wallace being his sincerity and his empathy. That’s what gets you. That’s why the girl crying at his death. There’s something to his writing that makes you feel unalone, as he would put it. A shared sensibility of experience, that could probably be easily written off as angst, but is made unbelievably powerful by that sincerity and empathy. It feels like he cares about you, brings you into his world of tremendous humanity and intelligence.

I don’t want to preempt anyone’s reading of Infinite Jest, and in 1,100 pages there’s a lot to get out of it yourself, but his explorations of achievement, addiction, mediatisation and dislocation are fantastic. God damn it, let me just say it without cringing: it’s about postmodern experience. It feels so difficult to make this stuff sound good, to do it justice, and maybe Wallace also confronting that difficulty is another reason I enjoyed the novel so much. Again, I want to say ‘trust me, this is amazing’ when obviously it’s not guaranteed that it will be for you. This is the lengthiest, most imprecise book recommendation I’ve ever made.

It took me just over a month to read the novel, the implications of which I’ve talked about elsewhere. I also read it together with David Lipsky’s book length interview with Wallace, although of course you end up becoming yourself: a road trip with David Foster Wallace. I can’t recommend that highly enough either. Reading those two together probably made each of them shine even more.

In although, Wallace mentions that maybe Infinite Jest is a novel for young men, that it seems to resonate with them the most for some reason. I don’t know if that’s exclusively true – that description certainly applies to me, and it does feel like there is something specific about me that explains why it got to me so much. But it could just as easily be that it resonates with every reader on that personal level. He also mentions the way people feel like they have some personal connection with him, which is obviously an illusion, but again something I would attest to. It’s not just the novel itself that affects you, it’s the fact that someone has written it. I realise that this is a massive ‘fuck you’ to Barthes, but that feels absolutely paramount. It’s key to how the novel succeeds in making you feel unalone. It’s why the girl giving the presentation was so affected by his death, and why I began with that anecdote.

All those stories, poems and novels that affect some ironic coolness – which are often great, and often not – preclude themselves from empathy. And I will be the first to admit to falling into that in my own writing. In all those affectations, all that self-consciousness, there’s a hint of emotional dishonesty (cowardice?) that disavows the author’s existence. The author as a real person, at least. Makes him or her so distant that often the emotion you feel is second-degree – valid and powerful, but at the same time just a bit removed from its human source and therefore its impact. And I don’t think I really recognised that before. Moving past that and making genuine connections with readers requires talent, but it also requires a bravery and sincerity that few writers achieve. I cannot overstate how happy I am that Wallace did.

  • Sam

    I remember picking this book up in the summer between year 12 and uni after having read a few of the other big “postmodern” American authors and I only got about 200 pages in before I put it down, probably to go line up outside some obnoxious night-club.

    At the time I remembering feeling that in the swathes of what could be described as “non-essential” information, I felt like a lot of the same point was being laboured. I’m interested to pick it up again, as I’ve now got a fairly strong addiction to big long novels, and also because I think in the intervening period I’ve garnered a greater appreciation for Foster Wallace’s aesthetic.

    I remembering reading an excerpt of the correspondence betwen Foster Wallace and his editor, regarding the early drafts of Infinite Jest. It was actually quite funny, Foster Wallace was berating the chunks his editor made him cut out. I just remember thinking, how the hell did he decide what has to stay and what has to go?

  • http://adventures-in-tv-land.blogspot.com/ Alex

    “…you feel you are perhaps the only person in the world who really gets them. Just about everyone else admires them, but no one really connects with them in the way you do…Its like falling in love. When an especially peachy turn of phrase…penetrates the brain you want to tap the shoulder of the nearest stranger and share it. The stranger might laugh and seem to enjoy the writing, but you hug to yourself the thought that they didn’t quite understand its force the way you do…”
    Stephen Fry in the foreword to The Salmon of Doubt.

    This quote was the thing that sprung into my mind when I read this post. Because its that deep personal connection that causes the dull eyeball ache.

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