The Turbulent Genius of David Foster Wallace

Essayist David Foster Wallace at The Strand bookstore in Manhattan, New York, on Wednesday, January 11, 2006. Wallace read from and signed his book, "Consider the Lobster". Suzy Allman/The New York Times/Redux

Read what follows with a stern caveat emptor in mind, for it has been written by an unabashed David Foster Wallace fanboy, one of those forlorn, bespectacled young men covertly handed a copy of Infinite Jest in his formative years, and who subsequently recited passages from the novel the way early Christians, hiding in dim catacombs, must have read with secret, feverish ecstasy from the epistles of Paul. You know the kind: mop-haired hipsters dragging themselves through The Broom of the System, Wallace's first novel, getting their angry fix from the essays of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. I was one of them. I am one of them still.

For a while in the mid-aughts, I drifted from the Wallace tribe. He'd published a short story collection, Oblivion, and a book about set theory (nonfiction, obvs) called Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. I was waiting for the next novel, though, a successor to Infinite Jest that would somehow trump Infinite Jest. What was taking him so damn long?

But then, on September 14, 2008, I got an email with the subject heading "so sad." It was from the college friend who'd first pressed Infinite Jest into my hands, back in the days when I thought American fiction began with Ernest Hemingway and ended with Raymond Carver, back when I actually imagined (oh, youth!) that postmodernism was no more than the cerebral onanism of Donald Barthelme and his metafictional myrmidons: Look, Ma, I broke down the fourth wall!

The old college chum waxed poetic in the aforementioned email about having first read Infinite Jest: "Like coming home to a stiff drink or other drug of your choice after a long hard day or week, it was something I'd look forward to regularly. I'd never read something that so continually blew me away, in a variety of ways, despite being as challenging as it was." Then, turning suddenly to anger, he chastised those who mistook Wallace's textual experimentations for the sort of postmodern trickery he'd so thoroughly and explicitly renounced: "Fuck James Wood [The New Yorker's resident critic] for ignoring this man's intense effort to communicate human emotion and instead pigeonholing him as a po-mo, ironic, long-winded whatever."

I understood neither the fury nor sentimentalism of this Sunday morning e-missive. But then I opened the paper and grasped at once what was "so sad." The headline read, "David Foster Wallace, Influential Writer, Dies at 46." He had been suffering from depression for years, and in 2007 had jettisoned his medication. The ground opened up, and the bottomless darkness swallowed him whole. On the evening of September 12, Karen Green, his wife, went for a walk. "After [she] left, Wallace went into the garage and turned on the lights," writes D.T. Max in Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. "He wrote her a two page note. Then he crossed through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and hanged himself."

In that brightly lit garage, his wife would eventually find the fragments of a novel long in the making, which Wallace's editor at Little, Brown, Michael Pietsch, cobbled together into The Pale King. The novel—Wallace's finest, IMHO, and if you've read this far, I am guessing you care at least a teensy bit about what my HO might be—was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, but the committee did not award a fiction prize that year, spinelessly forgoing the opportunity to bestow a well-deserved posthumous honor to a writer who'd never been feted, for whatever reason, on the literary prize circuit. Then again, the Pulitzer board had rescinded the 1974 prize for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow because some Puritan couldn't countenance the vision of Tyrone Slothrop's tumescent member. And when one considers the middling talents who have won the Pulitzer and that Pynchon was Wallace's foremost literary influence, maybe the snub was a more significant commendation.

Since the arrival of The Pale King, Wallace's estate and Pietsch have published several books: This Is Water, the philosophical and quietly rousing commencement address Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005; Signifying Rappers, the superannuated but amusing pop-culture treatise he wrote about hip-hop with his college friend Mark Costello; Both Flesh and Not, a collection of lesser-known essays; Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, a discussion of the philosopher Richard Taylor written when Wallace was in college, where he studied literature and philosophy.

Now comes The David Foster Wallace Reader, a big and handsome tome with selections from both his fiction and nonfiction, as well as a smattering of teaching materials that include discussions with his mother about the finer points of English grammar (e.g., the pesky lie/lay dichotomy). Its selections were chosen by 24 editorial advisers, but the project unquestionably belongs to Pietsch. Now the chief of the Hachette publishing behemoth, he seems to approach the posthumous publication of Wallace's work with the zeal of a missionary looking over a sea of heathens. Wallace's death was an abomination he could not prevent, but he will not allow the man's work to pass into oblivion.

But do we need The David Foster Wallace Reader? According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, probably not. Though the book seems like a Christmas gift in the making, it contains almost no new work. But I think I get what Pietsch is doing here, and I am all for it. You need evidence of miracles for sainthood; you need something only marginally more mundane to sustain a bid for lasting literary greatness, for entrance into that pantheon protected from the vicissitudes of literary taste. This is part of that effort, a reminder of how good Wallace could be, whether he was writing about Kafka or the Illinois State Fair, whether he was making stuff up or trying to see things as they actually are.

I don't mean that his writing is flawless. In fact, the flaws are all too obvious: a charming loquacity that could lapse into annoying logorrhea, an inability to fashion anything resembling plot, and, most damning, the inability to resolve the question of irony, namely whether it was a useful strategy or a dangerous disguise. Some were simply "allergic" to his style, which in both the fiction and nonfiction scrambled technical jargon with mall-escalator colloquialisms. The novelist Richard Ford once told me that he tried reading Infinite Jest but saw no point in continuing after a while: "OK, that's enough," he remembered thinking as he closed the book.

But those who love Wallace overlook those faults. His voice seems geared to the overeducated American college graduate plodding toward adulthood, tired of sarcasm but resorting to it too often, suspicious of belief but desperate for faith, awash in meanings but lacking Meaning. He is the slightly older, vastly smarter friend who'd break it all down over a joint; I don't think his ever-present bandanna and stubble, which lent him the aura of a New Age guru, were accidental vestments.

Wallace's Infinite Jest is considered by many to be the authors masterpiece, with its many intertwined stories and running commentary on commercialism, the book drew in young readers in droves. Hachette Book Group

Wallace did not subscribe to Hemingway's "iceberg theory" of fiction, wherein the unsaid was the greater part of artistry. If Wallace had written "Hills Like White Elephants," it would have been an incredibly frank, convoluted and informed (not to mention unbelievably verbose and sometimes even weirdly jaunty) debate about abortion, not a sparse short story about the same. Indeed, Wallace's work can sometimes take on the voice of a plainspoken prophet, as in these passages from Infinite Jest, with every declarative statement beginning with the pronoun that:

That cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with.

That "acceptance" is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.

That different people have radically different ideas of basic personal hygiene.

That it is permissible to want.

That everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else. That this isn't necessarily perverse.

That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.

It's a long way from cockroaches to angels. You might say that Wallace was one of the few writers equipped to travel the distance.

The David Foster Wallace Reader collects his works and makes a case for his place in modern literature. Hachette Book Group

Wallace grew up in a small Illinois town that he called in one essay ("Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley") "a tiny collection of corn silos and war-era Levittown homes whose native residents did little but sell crop insurance and nitrogen fertilizer and herbicide and collect property taxes from the young academics at nearby Champaign-Urbana's university." His father, Jim, was one of those academics, teaching philosophy at the University of Illinois. His mother, Sally, taught English at Parkland College. If one of the Wallace children made a grammatical error at dinner, she would lapse into a paroxysm of coughing until the error was caught and corrected. Max writes in his biography of Wallace that "he would later tell interviewers of his memory of his parents lying in bed, holding hands, reading Ulysses to each other." In other words, a family as average as the Joneses.

Jim Wallace had gone to Amherst College; Wallace fils went there, too. Though signs of mental distress had shown themselves earlier, in the form of childhood anxiety, they now blossomed like black flowers. He had to take time off from school in 1982, then again in 1983. During the second of these depressive episodes, he read Gravity's Rainbow and wrote a short story called "The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing." Trilafon is an antipsychotic medication. You have surely divined, already, the nature of "the Bad Thing."

"Trillaphon" was published in the Amherst Review, and more recently in Tin House, but appears here for the first time for popular consumption in book form. It inaugurates The David Foster Wallace Reader with these ominous words: "I've been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I'm pretty qualified to tell what they're like. They're fine, really, but they're fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn't be good old Earth, obviously." This is juvenilia, sure, but it is revealing. "Everything in you is sick and grotesque," Wallace writes in "Trillaphon" of the depression that never relinquished its hold on him. This slight story may be the most personally revealing thing he ever wrote.

After graduating from Amherst, Wallace decided to get a graduate degree in creative writing. He was admitted to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, but chose the program at the University of Arizona instead, where, according to Max, he "wouldn't have to come out writing like John Cheever"—a horrifying thought, much as I adore the Ovid of Ossining. He acquired an agent who managed to sell his first novel, The Broom of the System, to Viking's Gerry Howard.

Trying to choose a representative selection from one of Wallace's three novels (average length: 717 pages) is like trying to choose a single boulder to capture the feeling of climbing Mount Everest. There are only about 40 pages of Broom here, which Howard notes in his afterword is "a novel of ideas, most of them deriving from the gnomic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein," a collegiate favorite of Wallace's. The whimsical names of the characters (Biff Diggerence, Vance Vigorous, Candy Mandible) hint at Pynchon's influence. Published in 1986, the novel clashed with the superficial Brat Pack style that had recently come to reign over American fiction. Wallace made Bret Easton Ellis, whose Less Than Zero had come out the year before, seem like a coke-addled interloper in literature's grand cathedral, kind of amusing but totally ephemeral. "Clearly Mr. Wallace possesses a wealth of talents," Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, though she worried that the 24-year-old novelist was too enamored of his own intelligence. The same charge would hound Wallace for the rest of his life.

In 1989, Wallace published the short story collection Girl With Curious Hair, two stories from which are in the Reader ("Little Expressionless Animals" and "My Appearance"). The experimental stories inflated his reputation as a Serious Young Talent (as the capitalization-prone Wallace might have put it), but they left me impressed yet unmoved. Though their preoccupation with sincerity in an age of screens—because aren't screens just masks?—is central to Wallace's oeuvre, this concern finds fuller expression in his novels than in his stories—and there are several included in the Reader from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004). He was a better marathoner than sprinter. In an essay called "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed" (yup, it's in the Reader), Wallace noted that "the technical achievement of great short stories is often called compression." Kafka could compress meaning into a single gut-punch of a paragraph; Wallace needed the arc of hundreds of pages to make his point.

Infinite Jest, published in 1996, was his great screaming across the sky. More than 200 pages of it are excerpted in the Reader, but that makes up only about a fifth of the novel. A lap at the pool doesn't quite approximate traversing the English Channel; nevertheless, Pietsch and his advisers have obviously labored to give a sense of the novel, which A.O. Scott once surmised is "the longest novel about tennis ever published," at 1,100 gleefully end-noted pages. Nobody has contested that claim, though plenty have debated whether Infinite Jest is a great novel or a great disaster.

The title comes from Hamlet's "poor Yorick" speech at the commencement of the play's fifth act. Wallace seems to share the prince of Denmark's dismay at the "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable...uses of this world," a sentiment that may have its roots both in his Midwestern modesty and membership in that despairing clan known as Generation X. In his astute analysis of Wallace's fiction, New Republic critic Adam Kirsch notes that the novelist admired Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana frontman who killed himself two years before Infinite Jest was published. Much like Wallace, Cobain seemed utterly disgusted by and totally steeped in American popular culture.

Wallace continued to publish short stories and essays as Infinite Jest went viral in the old-fashioned way, wending its way through college campuses and East Village apartment shares. Young men gathered in apartments and, stoned, read their favorite passages (so I've heard, anyway). No other po-mo writer—neither John Barth nor William H. Gass; certainly not Richard Powers or Jayne Anne Phillips; not even William T. Vollmann, who deserved it then and still deserves it now—enjoyed such word-of-mouth high-culture popularity or, to use a phrase, cult status.

The follow-up novel only came in 2011, after Wallace was dead, leaving Pietsch to piece together the fragments. The result is fantastic, a mess both less complete and more fulfilling than Infinite Jest. The novel is about tax collectors: One hypnotic passage, not excerpted in the Reader, simply has them turning pages in an office. Thankfully, the Reader does include the opening of the novel, which displays Wallace's virtuosity with the English language, soaring above the intellectual asides and po-mo convolutions. Here's how the novel's first paragraph ends:

Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

No irony, no prolixity. I want to read that sentence, and the several that precede it, to all those smug detractors who confidently claim that Wallace was a weakling of a craftsman. He was sometimes a reluctant one, but The Pale King, far more than any of his other fiction, shows that he could summon Calliope when he needed to.

In a speech called "In Praise of Boredom," the Soviet-born poet Joseph Brodsky informed the graduating seniors of Dartmouth that a "substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom." In The Pale King, Wallace is concerned with that substantial part, with minds full of desiccated things. It is a novel for, and about, the modern postindustrial American worker, alone in his cubicle, alone in the world:

Try as he might he could not this last week help envisioning the inward lives of the older men to either side of him, doing this day after day. Getting up on Monday and chewing their toast and putting their hats and coats on knowing what they were going out the door to come back to for eight hours. This was boredom beyond any boredom he'd ever felt. This made the routing desk at UPS look like a day at Six Flags.

Reading this, I see why the Pulitzer committee shied away from awarding Wallace a prize. The Pale King is often philosophically and psychologically speculative, shorter than Infinite Jest but more ambitious, trying to cut through the dense tumor of modern malaise. Just looking at the Pulitzer citations, one pretty clearly gets a sense of what they are looking for: "beautifully written,"; "exquisitely crafted"; "polished prose." A rinky-dink single down the first base line is just about all that a small mind can grasp. Wallace, conversely, was the Reggie Jackson of modern American fiction, sometimes striking out, but always looking to slap the ball out of Yankee Stadium.

Wallace (1962-2008) sits on a stoop in Manhattan's East Village, circa 2002. Janette Beckman/Redferns/Getty

In 2001, Pomona College named Wallace, who was not yet 40, its first Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing. The middle section of the Reader is devoted to his teaching materials, including not-terribly-revelatory correspondences with his mother and selections from his syllabi. Nothing here is even remotely as instructive as, say, Nabokov's lectures on literature delivered at Wellesley and Cornell, or the six "nonlectures" E.E. Cummings gave at Harvard in 1952 and 1953.

Nevertheless, these pages satisfy a long-standing curiosity about what it was like to have Wallace as a teacher. The answer: probably pretty cool. "In essence," he wrote in a 2003 syllabus, "we can talk about whatever you want to—provided that we do it cogently and well." Students in that class read Paula Fox, Renata Adler and Walker Percy. Yet they were cautioned that "of the 306 final grades I've given since 1987, the average (mean) is currently 7.375," or about a C+ on Wallace's 13-point grading scale.

The teaching materials serve as a sort of palate cleanser, followed as they are by Wallace's nonfiction. Both Flesh and Not collected little-known works like Wallace's review of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress and his take on the "Conspicuously Young" literary stars of the 1980s, whom he accused of "a certain numbing sameness." Because the Reader strives to be a more authoritative take than Flesh, it predictably but nevertheless disappointingly includes essays familiar to Wallace fans and readily available in other collections. (My personal favorite, a Hellfire missile fired from the pages of the New York Observer at the work of John Updike and his fellow "phallocrats," didn't make the cut, probably because it reveals how incisively cruel Wallace could be, even if the cruelty was thoroughly earned.)

Most good novelists have styles of their own (some bad ones do, too). But can you name a single essayist with a distinctive voice? Pynchon may be a maniac novelist, but the few essays he's written are relatively subdued and notable mostly for how un-Pynchonian they are. Joan Didion is both relevant and eloquent, but not really original in how she writes. Christopher Hitchens was magnificent, but working in a well-established critical tradition whose boundaries he respected.

The essays of David Foster Wallace could only have been written by David Foster Wallace. Reality offered just enough of a brake on his imagination; having a word count probably helped, too. He isn't the same writer as in the novels—he is a more intriguing one, intimate in one sentence, cerebral in the next, dropping teenage slang and obscure mathematical jargon in the same dependent clause, always following the Saul Bellow edict of being a "first-class noticer." He is just as intellectually restless as in the novels, but thanks to nothing more than the strictures of the medium, a little more lucid and, dare I say, a little more fun.

One of the essays included in the Reader is "Authority and American Usage," nominally a review of Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Which it is, precisely in the way that Moby-Dick is about whales. Wallace starts by describing his upbringing as a SNOOT, which may mean, according to Wallace, "Syntax Nudniks of Our Times" or "Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance," the latter preferable in the Wallace household to the former:

I submit that we SNOOTS are just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd. There are, granted, plenty of nerd-species in today's America, and some of these are elitist within their own nerdy purview (e.g., the skinny, carbuncular, semi-autistic Computer Nerd moves instantly up the totem pole of status when your screen freezes and now you need his help, and the bland condescension with which he performs the two occult keystrokes that unfreeze your screen is both elitist and situationally valid). But the SNOOT's purview is interhuman life can't escape language: language is everything and everywhere, it's what lets us have anything to do with one another; it's what separates us from the animals; Genesis 11:7-10 and so on.

An essayist today, assigned the Garner review, would probably pound out a dreary think piece about why bad grammar is good for American democracy. Or maybe she would cite a legion of statistics ("one study found that…") to bolster the opposite case. Maybe he would write a deeply personal, utterly banal piece about having a grammarian mother, his conclusions thoroughly pedestrian and unoriginal ("So whenever I see the predicate nominative, I always remember..."). I can't think of anyone but Wallace who could bring so much insight and personal reflection and curiosity and, best of all, joy to the question of whether split infinitives matter.

Above all, the essays are sincere, in a way that fiction can never be, since the mere act of passing off make-believe as truth is fundamentally dishonest. Often, in the essays, Wallace breaks out in disarmingly straightforward musing, an awed Midwestern boy trying to make sense of things. Here he is in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," a chronicle of his adventures aboard a cruise ship:

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir [Wallace's nickname for the cruise ship, which is named the Zenith]—especially at night, when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word's overused and banalified now, despair, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously.… [It's] wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I'm small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It's wanting to jump overboard.

An early draft of Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace Literary Trust

One of Wallace's good friends was the novelist Jonathan Franzen, in whom he confided about going off the antidepressant Nardil in the spring of 2007. "I've been blowing stuff off and then having it slip my mind. This is the harshest phase of the 'washout process' so far; it's a bit like I imagine a course of chemo would be," he wrote in an email to Franzen about the experience.

Three years later, Franzen took to the pages of The New Yorker to write about his departed friend. The piece is not quite what one might have expected, with Franzen clearly annoyed by some of the encomia that had been written after Wallace's passing. "The curious thing about David's fiction…is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it," Franzen wrote, noting elsewhere in the essay—whose nominal subject is actually Robinson Crusoe—"the near-perfect absence, in his fiction, of ordinary love."

That may be so, though it presupposes that people read fiction to learn how Montague-Capulet romances resolve. Some do, maybe. But nobody could possibly read Wallace for that, especially since he was so much more than just a novelist. By mixing his fiction and nonfiction, and throwing some teaching materials into the mix, the Reader implicitly—and convincingly—suggests that all of Wallace's work was part of a single quest that, though diffuse it was, strove to understand the entirety of the American project, which included ironic novelists, and people who used "ain't" because that was the English they had learned, and stoned tennis prodigies, and IRS drones dreaming of freedom, and television icons, and people who watch television, and people who read books, because they think that, beyond providing entertainment, a book might tell the truth.

The tragedy of Wallace dying at 46 was that he surely had so much more to say, even if he'd said so much already. How would he have revised and edited The Pale King? What strange and revelatory essays would he have written about Facebook, Miley Cyrus, Novak Djokovic?

We will sadly never know.