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Andy Whitman

David Foster Wallace

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I've searched high and low for a thread on novelist/short story writer David Foster Wallace, figuring that there surely had to be one, but there doesn't appear to be one. So now there is.

Are there any Wallace fans out there? He's probably my favorite contemporary writer, a dazzling stylist who works the postmodern metafiction territory of Pynchon and Barthelme, but who tempers his cynicism and "look ma, no boundaries" zaniness with a surprisingly compassionate vision. His best known work is probably his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which is utterly uncategorizable, but which the Wikipedia article bravely attempts to summarize as follows:

The book's plot centers on a lost film cartridge, titled Infinite Jest by its creator James Incandenza, and referred to in the novel as "the Entertainment" or "the samizdat". The film is so "entertaining" to its unwitting viewers that they become lifeless, losing all interest in anything other than endless viewings of the film. In the novel's future world, North America is one unified state composed of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, known as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year, eliminating traditional numerical designations; e.g., "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," "The Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland." Much of what used to be the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada has become a massive hazardous waste dumping site known as "The Great Concavity"/"The Great Convexity."

And that doesn't begin to tell the story. It is, for example, the best and most realistic study of addiction I've ever read.

I've been reading Wallace's 2004 collection of short stories called Oblivion. There's a story there called "The Soul is Not a Smithy" that is set in Columbus, Ohio in 1960. I've lived in Columbus, Ohio most of my life, including as a first-grader in 1960. The story takes place in an elementary school classroom and on the streets of Columbus. Foster, who to my knowledge has never lived in Columbus, not only accurately captures the zeitgeist of specific Columbus neighborhoods at the fag end of the Eisenhower era, but perfectly recreates a 1960 classroom, including the way the desks were bolted to the floor, and the pattern of the tiles on the ceiling. In true metafiction fashion, there's nothing straightforward about any of this. The story also contains a chilling description of a substitute teacher's mental breakdown in front of his students, and a young boy's gentle, lyrical reminiscence of his father's soul-sucking life, stuck in the headquarters building of a downtown Columbus insurance company, doing menial work for day after day, year after year, until he was a hollow shell. I don't know. Maybe it's because I know Columbus, and I know the neighborhoods Foster describes. Maybe it's because I'm currently stuck on the 16th floor of a downtown Columbus insurance company building, using my Creative Writing degree to write about database capacity planning and forecasting. But it hit me in the gut. It's an astonishing piece of writing. But then again, he regularly astonishes me.

As an added bonus, he's also written the only commencement speech worth reading, which he delivered to the assembled graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. As a general rule, don't waste your time reading commencement speeches. But read this one.

Sometimes I play the "if you could meet anyone alive right now, who would it be?" game. My answer varies, but I know who it would be today.

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I don't know if I'm imagining things, but I could've sworn I read (somewhere on A&F, no less) that Wallace was a church-goer.

I've not read him, but I bought Infinite Jest a month or so ago and hope to get to it soon. It looks great. (Flipping through it, his writing style reminds me of Snow Crash-era Neil Stephenson, or vice versa.)

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Definitely one of my favorite postmods, somewhere near the level of John Barth. Wallace had a great collection of essays released a few years back called Consider the Lobster, which included a reflection on sports autobiographies that's witty, sad and insightful all at the same time.

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I know it's been a while, but I'm reading Oblivion right now and while reading the descriptions of Columbus in "The Soul is Not a Smithy," I actually thought of you, Andy. Glad to hear that DFW was a faithful chronicler of his settings, though I have no idea how he did it without being there. It's such an arresting collection of stories, and I'm only up to "Smithy" at this point. I'm starting to wonder whether I have it in me to read Infinite Jest this summer...

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Daniel Silliman ponders why DFW's religious views don't generate more interest among his biographers:

Maybe Wallace's thoughts on religion were banal. I doubt it, though. Unfortunately, Max [author of an upcoming DFW biography] seems to assume that's the case with out investigating any deeper or even being interested. The rest of his answer is just speculation -- and, really, even if his Illinois church attendance was best explained by those things, there's still plenty there to explore. None of those answers specifically would be boring, though Max seems to take them that way.

It's like a terminal disinterest in religion. David Lipsky's extended interview with Wallace was the same way. Wallace talked about religion and God several times, but Lipsky let every statement pass, never following up, always pursuing other questions.

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The New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max has written a Foster biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. Here he mentions some sources he drew on in writing the biography. And here's an excerpt from the book.

EDIT: Apologies to NBooth for not noticing his link above, which refers to this biography.

Edited by Christian

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Bret Easton Ellis decides that it's time to start lambasting DFW again.

So why is Ellis firing back now? Just last week Wallace’s thoughts on Ellis were put back into print again, in D.T. Max’s much-anticipated new biography of the lateauthor. The book details how Wallace struggled with Ellis’s influence on his own work, refusing to acknowledge it. Wallace, in Max’s words, hoped to transcend “Ellis-type fiction,” and in his work critics ultimately found “a corrective to the literary brat pack of Bret Easton Ellis [et al.].” Much later, the biography quotes a passage from Wallace’s notebook, in which he compares Ellis’s work unfavorably with Dostoevsky’s “will to construct OWN meaning.” “Dostoevski,” Wallace wrote, “has BALLS.”

It’s no wonder then that Ellis, as he’s reading the bio, might be feeling a bit defensive.

Of course, as the article points out, DFW shot first. And I suppose it's understandable for writers like Ellis and (earlier this year) Franzen to display some anxiety over the way Wallace has been/is becoming canonized. And--though I've read nothing by Ellis--based on what I've seen of him elsewhere, it seems like he's acting entirely in character, for better or worse.

Biblioklept has more background. Meanwhile, Open Culture quotes a selection from one of Ellis' novels and offers this summary:

Tedious? Check. Overrated? Check. Pretentious? Check.

Well, no one will say that Bret Easton Ellis isn’t an authority in this area.

Meanwhile, Gerald Howard--who edited both authors--puts in his two cents:

So there it was: two hot (sorry) young writers of about the same age, wildly different in style and temperament, inhabiting the same crowded literary space and clearly getting on each other’s nerves. I know that David envied the savvy with which Bret Ellis and his peer group handled the challenges of a literary career – and castigated himself for that envy. Both fought hard and successful battles against alcoholism and substance abuse. (I watched both men at different times pound back multiple drinks in startlingly short order and each time thought, Uh-oh.) Both went on to publish culture-shaking novels.

Oh, and FWIW Infinite Jest appears to be $4.99 on Kindle right now.

Edited by NBooth

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Kyle Minor reviews the audiobook recording of the new biography (it discusses the way the book ends, fwiw; usually, one wouldn't think such a thing a spoiler, but the way Max handles the suicide is apparently surprising, so be aware: the article and the quoted portion below both discuss the ending of the biography):

Such a life easily slides in the direction of myth. Malcolm Hillgartner’s audiobook performance of D.T. Max’s “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” — the first of what will surely be many David Foster Wallace biographies — is a welcome corrective. Hillgartner is one of the more accomplished audiobook narrators at work today, and his range is extraordinary, accommodating works as aesthetically diverse as Philip K. Dick’s “Selected Stories,” the Dean Koontz thriller “Your Heart Belongs to Me,” Donald Trump’s “Time to Get Tough,” and Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever. His delivery is stately and unshowy, and it is a good match for the genre of biography, which is by its nature full of gossip and other prurient pleasures.

[snip]

The listener doesn’t know it yet, but when Hillgartner delivers his one matter-of-fact sentence about the suicide, he is only one paragraph from the end of the audiobook. In effect, Max has made the most formally daring choice imaginable, under the circumstances: At story’s end, he allows the narrative to abruptly fall off a cliff. So when Hillgartner says, “This is not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen,” and then stops talking, the listener feels a palpable and almost wounding shock in the dead air that briefly follows. It is certainly not a shock similar in degree to what those who knew and loved Wallace must have felt, but it must be akin to that shock — sobering and awful. It calls to mind the last sentence of “Good Old Neon,” the Wallace story most aligned, in spirit, with Max’s biography: “Not another word.”

EDIT: On a [much] lighter note, here's the David Foster Wallace Endnote Generator.

Edited by NBooth

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William Beutler, an artist, has made a map of all 600 locations mentioned in Infinite Jest. Here he is talking to biblioklept about it:

The geography focus owes to a few different things. One is simply that I wasn’t the first to arrive at the idea of creating an infographic based on Infinite Jest, so I had to take that into consideration. Sam Potts, who is the designer of John Hodgman’s books, had released an elaborate graphic drawing connections between the various characters in the novel. I’d been considering that when his came out, but he did that pretty definitively, so I went with one oft he other. And hey, I just like maps. I started my career in political journalism, where districts are always being redrawn, and maps are always being shaded this much red or this much blue, so it was a natural focus in that regard. And there’s always been something I’ve liked about adding a layer of information to geographic features. I don’t know that I could have credibly called myself a geography enthusiast before this—but I have friends who definitely are, and even some who work with GIS professionally. They helped me figure out what I was doing.

EDIT: Here's the Potts diagram referred to above.

I started Infinite Jest last week. I'm almost frightened to say that, though, since the novel itself is so big. I'm reading on the kindle (so--psyching myself up by not seeing the mammoth of the book in front of me, and also experimenting to see how well DFW's footnote-heavy style translates to the ebook format). I'm reading an hour or so a night and seeing if I can't slowly work my way through it over the next couple of months. So far (at 12% in) so good. I'm finding it less obscure than Oblivion, though being less obscure than Oblivion isn't exactly hard.

EDIT EDIT: Since I'm posting diagrams, here's another.

Edited by NBooth

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Gideon Lewis-Kraus reviews Both Flesh and Not:

BOTH FLESH AND NOT is David Foster Wallace at his best and his worst, but the thing about Wallace’s best was that it usually contained his worst: He was his most consequentially gracious when his tenderness and generosity were only barely outpacing his capacity to be a total dickhead. It’s appropriate, then, that this final nonfiction collection should include the last great essays he wrote alongside at least a few pieces he declined to include in not only one collection but two, first in 1997’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and again in 2005’s Consider the Lobster. These were, as it turns out, the sorts of pieces that made it rather difficult to like him. Wallace wanted to be liked but hated himself for it; that he wrote only to be liked was perhaps his greatest worry.

A bit later:

Wallace copped to an Aristotelian teleology of art, viz that beauty is only ever a by-product of the successful achievement of one’s stated aim, one’s “true end.” This was another reason why his nonfiction so often succeeds where his fiction doesn’t: A nonfiction inquiry has an obvious true end—go and report back what a cruise is like—that fiction rarely has.

[snip]

It was in part this vision of tennis as partnership that led Wallace to the redemptive idea that the “end,” in the Aristotelian sense, of his writing, the thing that made writing incidentally fun and beautiful and entertaining and likable, was the effort to communicate. And it wasn’t just a general effort to communicate, but his specific effort to communicate his own fear that he could never successfully communicate. The appalling grotesquerie of the Illinois State Fair—fodder for a Bosch tableau—becomes an occasion for him to celebrate other people’s sense of belonging. In his piece about September 11, his immediate cynicism alienates him from the simple horror and sorrow of his friends in Bloomington-Normal, where he was living in 2001. Work like this makes us experience the tension he felt all the time: how to be alone, how also to be together.

Edited by NBooth

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Jenn Shapland on cataloging The Pale King:

Again and again I confront the fact that I am up against a mystery, a labyrinth of pages, and that it’s the puzzle itself we’re trying to preserve. Not solve. Just maintain. Let live on. My job is to organize it all just enough to preserve the wonder of its discovery. The most important thing is not to lose any information; no data can escape in the transaction. It’s the cataloger’s mantra.

This is a tender operation. This is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a cocoon of my own sweltering nostalgia. Some things I find cut me. Some of the notes I read and I can feel my face aging. Do you know what that feels like? This archive is a chronicle of a final work. It is a chronicle of depression. It is the best thing I’ve ever read. These are not the normal cataloger’s problems.

FWIW, I'm almost 40% through Infinite Jest (which, since about 20% is footnotes, puts me at nearly halfway through) and I'm finding it immersive and not-at-all draggy, even in those long sections describing the details of war-games or puppet-shows. Perhaps I'm too easy-going, but I'm not finding any fat here, no filler.

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I checked out the new DFW biography from the library a couple days ago. I'm only about sixty pages in but it's already a riveting and tragic read. It's fascinating to see how his mind and tastes developed through high school, college, and grad school. His problem with mental illness seemed to have initially made itself known during his senior year of high school. He excelled in college, but his depression gave him several setbacks. Right now I'm reading about his time in grad school in which he seemed to thrive in every way, however, knowing how all of it would ultimately end just adds a layer of tragedy to every minor victory along the way.

FWIW, I'm almost 40% through Infinite Jest (which, since about 20% is footnotes, puts me at nearly halfway through) and I'm finding it immersive and not-at-all draggy, even in those long sections describing the details of war-games or puppet-shows. Perhaps I'm too easy-going, but I'm not finding any fat here, no filler.

I read it earlier this year and I often wondered why certain things were included while I was reading it, but after finishing it I really didn't know what could've been cut. It seems like an untangle-able knot.

Edited by Gavin Breeden

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I checked out the new DFW biography from the library a couple days ago. I'm only about sixty pages in but it's already a riveting and tragic read. It's fascinating to see how his mind and tastes developed through high school, college, and grad school. His problem with mental illness seemed to have initially made itself known during his senior year of high school. He excelled in college, but his depression gave him several setbacks. Right now I'm reading about his time in grad school in which he seemed to thrive in every way, however, knowing how all of it would ultimately end just adds a layer of tragedy to every minor victory along the way.

I've got a copy in my pile waiting to be read. Really anxious to get started on it.

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D.T. Max on Wallace's unfinished story "Wickedness":

Until I saw “Wickedness,” I did not know that Wallace had ever left a stand-alone story unfinished. He tended to recycle what he wrote, and so stories became sections of novels and sections of novels were calved off into stories. But “Wickedness” (also “Wickeder”) appears to connect to no other Wallace project. Maybe it was the start of a new novel, maybe it was meant to be a short story, maybe it was an exercise in voice or a response to the noir novels he enjoyed. In its pages, he returns to the great theme of “Infinite Jest”: the lethal power of media. Only this time, he posits that the locus of our self-annihilation has moved online.

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D.T. Max discusses Every Love Story is a Ghost Story as well as Wallace's meeting with Scalia:

I'm almost halfway through the Max bio now.

Edited by NBooth

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A couple more links:

Brain Pickings excerpts one of the essays from Both Flesh and Not:

In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun.

Meanwhile, The Howling Fantods points out that Wallace's collaboration with Mark Costello, Signifying Rappers, is returning to print and is available for pre-order.

Edited by NBooth

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So did anyone else working through the Max bio finish it? I just did, and it was certainly moving. Max is pretty straightforward about DFW's personal failings--of which there were not a few--but he writes in a way that manages to keep DFW, even at his worst (most childish, most irresponsible--even most creepy, at times, in his various interactions with women), somehow sympathetic. I wish the book were more of an intellectual biography--which is to say, I wish it were longer and gave more detailed readings of Wallace's non-Infinite Jest stuff--but perhaps it's too early to ask something that comprehensive.

Edited by NBooth

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So did anyone else working through the Max bio finish it? I just did, and it was certainly moving. Max is pretty straightforward about DFW's personal failings--of which there were not a few--but he writes in a way that manages to keep DFW, even at his worst (most childish, most irresponsible--even most creepy, at times, in his various interactions with women), somehow sympathetic. I wish the book were more of an intellectual biography--which is to say, I wish it were longer and gave more detailed readings of Wallace's non-Infinite Jest stuff--but perhaps it's too early to ask something that comprehensive.

I finished it and really enjoyed it. I agree with everything you said. As is often the case with artists who die young (especially by their own hand), there's a tendency to hold them in super-high regard so I was worried the book would vere into hagiography, but it certainly does not. DFW's own flaws and demons are presented with such honesty and vividness that at times I felt sorry for his friends and family and how taxing it must have been for them to love DFW. I also wish there'd be a bit more to his intellectual life, though there was enough that I scribbled down a lot of books and author to check out later. Having just read Infinite Jest earlier this year I appreciated how much of the book dealt with the publication and reaction to it, but I also thought more attention could've been given to some of his other work. But the book was a good length and one can't include everything.

The most interesting thing in the book for me was how Max more or less closed the book on the "Was DFW a Christian?" discussion. Lots of us (in this thread even, I think) have often wondered at the little things DFW mentioned about faith and worship and church along the way, particularly in his essay "The View from Mrs. Thompson's." Max reveals that DFW merely changed "drug/alcohol recovery program" to "church" in that essay. It's clear that DFW was fascinated by all types of religion but really had a tough time with "faith."

After I finished the bio I jotted down a few other thoughts about it on my occasional blog.

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The most interesting thing in the book for me was how Max more or less closed the book on the "Was DFW a Christian?" discussion. Lots of us (in this thread even, I think) have often wondered at the little things DFW mentioned about faith and worship and church along the way, particularly in his essay "The View from Mrs. Thompson's." Max reveals that DFW merely changed "drug/alcohol recovery program" to "church" in that essay. It's clear that DFW was fascinated by all types of religion but really had a tough time with "faith."

Good point. I recall thinking the same thing while reading.

In other news, here's The Cipher on How Not to Remember David Foster Wallace:

Chronologically, his popularity has paralleled that of the Internet’s and his work speaks to a generation dependent on the web. Even though his corpus requires serious concentration, it anticipates our attention-deficit age and the allure of hyperlinks. It’s easy to imagine Infinite Jest digitized, its footnotes transmuted into Wikipedia entries. But the high-speed, pixelated exchange of enthusiasm for Wallace, both during and after his life, has relegated Wallace, the person and the writer, to the back row. After Wallace committed suicide, the Internet blew up with mourning. The Internet is likely responsible for introducing Wallace to many of his core readers and yet it’s also likely responsible for a—to use a word he liked—“wastoid” fan-base [....]

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