To Make Us Feel Less Alone: On ‘The David Foster Wallace Reader’

By posted at 6:00 am on January 15, 2015 30


Little, Brown’s The David Foster Wallace Reader is, for my money, a total Gift, an appropriate word considering that Wallace believed that all True Art takes the form of a Gift (see Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for more on that). For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. Judged purely from the outside, the lengthy parade (especially since his death) of critics and writers extolling Wallace’s genius plus the sheer girth of his books could easily sway casual readers away. It’s a shame, and if this Reader accomplishes anything, it would be wonderful if some new Wallace fans emerged from its publication. For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. And this is what I’d like to do now: use this beautiful new volume as a means of dissecting DFW’s entire oeuvre and trying to make some claims about his work as a whole. To wit:


covercovercoverThe David Foster Wallace Reader features excerpts from all three of his novels –– The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King –– as well as a sampling of his short stories – taken from the collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion –– and his essays––taken from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and Both Flesh and Not –– and finally some examples of teaching materials Wallace used over his many years as a college professor at Emerson, Illinois State, and Pomona College. Viewed together, it’s impossible for me not to draw certain conclusions about the way Wallace wrote and the tools his used to meet his ends, and for me to lay all this out requires that we investigate his work through the lens of his nonfiction, at the center of which I believe we’ll find a key to Wallace’s technique and his philosophical goals, w/r/t literature and its purpose in the universe.

The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, David Lynch, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction. Moreover, Wallace’s complex mind and neurotic tendencies found their most successful (i.e. accessible and popular) outlet in nonfiction, and that although history may remember his novels and stories as his most important contributions to literature, his nonfiction is more successful in doing what he aimed to do with literature and more representative of who he was as a person and a writer.


I love Wallace’s novels and short stories. For my money, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece, one that changed my perception of what fiction can do. “Good Old Neon” and “Forever Overhead” are two of the best short stories I’ve ever read. And The Pale King, I’ll argue a little later, contained a mixture of Wallace’s nonfiction style within it, an exciting yet sad revelation considering that it’s the last of his fiction. I just wanted to make clear that I am not here to say that his fiction was difficult and therefore unredeemable. Rather, my contention here is that Wallace was not unlike an inventor who creates a new tool to assist in the creation of his latest device but whose tool sells better than his invention.

coverBasically, by the time of the publication of Signifying Rappers in 1989 (a book not excerpted in TDFWR), Wallace had already established certain tropes he would reuse and refine over the rest of his critical/journalistic career. Beyond mere stylistic elements, the main tropes are the way he employs an Ethical Appeal and how he becomes self-referential (a word he uses to describe rap as a whole) in the process; the other is his transparency w/r/t his approach, i.e., his seemingly involuntary tendency to tell you what he’s about to do, essay-wise. Clearly these are postmodern techniques, but when you read this prose, it doesn’t come across that way. Because without fiction’s distancing Narrator, Wallace’s voice seems simply honest and guileless and direct. He isn’t trying to trick you into buying his authority; he isn’t lying about his credentials; he isn’t lying at all. He earnestly wants you to Trust Him, and he does so by explaining exactly what he’s about to do. He just wants to be a regular guy, and if he has to destroy many conventions of nonfiction in order to do so, then so be it.


The main point here is that there is nothing implicit in a David Foster Wallace essay. Or, if anything is implicit, it’s related to Wallace’s approach, not his theses. In essay after essay, Wallace’s directness remains. Just take a look at this passage, from early on in “Authority and American Usage”:

The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press’s recent release of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today’s US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront: “Should you buy this book?” And because Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple of years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative “…rather than that book?” to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind.

coverThe “question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront” is, of course, stated here upfront. Wallace established the parameters of his essay directly, explaining not just what he’s going to do but also how he’s going to do it. In fiction, this kind of technique would certainly be considered postmodern. Think for a moment of the opening sentences of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.” Calvino (or, to be accurate, the Narrator) instructs the reader on how to read the book and what to expect from it. An opening like this in a novel jars a reader. We’re reminded of the writer when we’re not “supposed” to be, a reason many critics are dismissive of much postmodern fiction. But apply this same technique to an essay, and you get what amounts to a super successful Ethical Appeal, a tactic I want to argue is less postmodern and more sincere.

coverLet’s get back to “Authority and American Usage.” In dissecting “how ADMAU is different from other specialty-products of its kind,” Wallace focuses his attention on Garner’s rhetoric. Since most usage guides are basically “preaching to the choir,” they rarely include Ethical Appeals, which for Wallace “amounts to…a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,'” which “requires the rhetor to convince us of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s hopes and fears.” What is Wallace doing in the block passage if not establishing those same qualities for himself? It’s the regular-guy stance, something Wallace was deliberate about evincing. In David Lipsky’s book-length interview with Wallace Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says, “In those essays…there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am…I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much like everybody else.”

Yet Wallace was completely unlike everybody else. He was much, much smarter –– not just what he knew but how he thought –– but his prose glistens with “regular guyness:” his word choice and sentence structure, as well as his approach, which is to state everything upfront and proceed with intellectual caution. In the case of “Authority and American Usage,” he does exactly what he’s praising Garner for doing. He creates “a certain persona” that allows the reader to trust him: he asks “unmentionable” questions other reviewers would skirt; he establishes his knowledge of the genre (as in, e.g., his long footnote about being a “SNOOT”); and he tackles his subjects under the guise of being honest and direct, even about his biases.

One must admit, though, that there’s a bit of rhetorical sneakiness going on here. Wallace is brilliant in this way. He knows that he’s too smart for most readers and that this intelligence will probably alienate them from his points. But instead of dumbing down his language (who, after all, would consider Wallace’s prose to be “regular” in any sense?) or simplifying the subject, he acknowledges the inherent abstruseness or strangeness of the topic at hand. In his most famous essay, the hilarious “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he opens by questioning the entire premise of the piece and stating outright this dubiousness w/r/t the magazine he’s writing for:

A certain swanky East-Coast magazine approved of the results of sending me to a plain old simple State Fair last year to do a directionless essayish thing. So now I get offered this tropical plum assignment w/ the exact same paucity of direction or angle. But this time there’s this new feeling of pressure: total expenses for the State Fair were $27.00 excluding games of chance. This time Harper’s has shelled out over $3000 U.S. before seeing pithy sensuous description one. They keep saying––on the phone, Ship-to-Shore, very patiently––not to fret about it. They are sort of disingenuous, I believe, these magazine people. They say all they want is a sort of really big experiential postcard –– go, plow the Caribbean in style, come back, say what you’ve seen.

By setting himself up as unequipped for the task, Wallace makes each of his numerous observations all the more earnest and agenda-less. He seems like someone a bit over his head trying to do the job he was assigned. But of course we know how the scales were really tipped, as how fair is it, e.g., for someone of Wallace’s intellectual acumen to scrutinize the ad-copy of a cruise ship’s onboard publicity? Moreover, Harper’s had to know that Wallace wouldn’t exactly enjoy himself on such an excursion, since by reading anything he ever wrote one could discern at the very least what I’ll call intense neuroses just utterly emanating from his pages. Put the author of “The Depressed Person” on a 7-day cruise filled with skeetshooting and buffets and conga lines and what he calls Managed Fun? Seems like a perfect combination, right? But somehow none of these obvious motivations for the piece come across in the finished essay. Instead, Wallace’s schmucky, regular-guy rhetoric works like gangbusters and we come to Trust Him wholeheartedly throughout, despite the fact that many of his neurotic tendencies are wholly his and not “like everybody else,” as when he becomes dreadfully afraid that the head Captain is conspiring to eliminate him via the crazy suction of the toilets. He’s neurotic as hell, yet we always grant him Authority.

In his fiction, Wallace-as-Narrator is also neurotic as hell, and so are his characters. See Hal Incandenza’s ritual of sneaking off by himself through elaborate tunnels to smoke weed; or the narrator of “Good Old Neon,” who circularly explains how fraudulent he is, even when he’s admitting that he’s fraudulent; or the numerous men in the various iterations of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” Not all of his characters are neurotic, but most of the protagonists are. Many of his character’s neuroses can be summarized by the flash fiction piece that opens BIWHM, entitled “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life:”

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

The main point of his little riff is that our desire to “be liked” often gets in the way of real human intimacy. None of the three characters have an honest interaction. All they did was “preserve good relations,” which might make a moment less anxiety-inducing but ultimately makes life pretty sad indeed.

coverBut the neuroses on display in his stories and novels are decidedly not metafictional. There are exceptions, of course: the terminal novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” of Girl with Curious Hair takes place in an MFA writing program and parts of it “are written on the margins of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse,” a seminal work of metafiction; and “Good Old Neon” (the acronym of which would be, if we used the atomic name of neon, “G.O.Ne”) and Infinite Jest employ some autobiographical details but nothing we would go so far as to call meta. Mostly, his fiction is heady, involved, experimental, satirical, and strange –– but not meta. At least not in the same sense his nonfiction is. In fact, Wallace found metafictional techniques to be limited. In an interview with Larry McCaffery (quoted in Zadie Smith’s essay on BIWHM), he says:

Metafiction…helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion’s dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted…by the eighties, it’d become a god-awful trap.

That is, until The Pale King. (The brouhaha over the posthumous publication of this unfinished novel indicates to me what Wallace’s legacy will be. A final collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, was also published after his death, but it was met with much less fanfare.) Much of The Pale King consists of typical Wallace antics: mind-bogglingly longwinded descriptions of people’s thoughts (read neuroses); conspiratorial upper-level managers discussing their tactics; long conversations that occur with little narrative description to go alongside them; interviews with the questions redacted to Qs; elaborate investigations into boredom; characters with ambiguous motives; a suggestion of plot rather than a relation, &c. Plus it contains some representative examples of the (oft-unremarked-upon) beauty of Wallace’s prose, as in the opening (which is too long to quote here but I sincerely suggest you go check it out; it’s featured in TDFWR and it’s extraordinary). The astonishing power of this opening contains foreshadows for what’s to come, but nothing that would indicate how truly radical (for Wallace) the novel would become. In one of the excerpts from TPK featured in TDFWR, we turn to an Author’s Foreword, which begins thusly:

Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:

All of this is true. This book is really true.

Here, Wallace writes metafiction in the truest sense of the phrase: he literally steps into his own novel. Metafiction can take many forms, and many sophisticated examples don’t actually require the novelist to become a character. Awareness of the novel as a text and referenced as such is all that’s required of metafiction, but Wallace chooses to go the literal route. Of course, he can’t do so without some meta-qualifications. He insists that this is “not some abstract narrative persona,” distinguishing his meta-device from past iterations. He gets meta about his meta. What this amounts to is another kind of Ethical Appeal: he’s assuring you that he, too, is aware of the metafictional convention but that he not up to those kinds of tricks.

The opening of TPK is dense, descriptive and filled with arcane vocabulary. Its sentences are long and its purpose opaque. Whereas the Wallace-as-Narrator’s prose moves very directly from the moment it starts. The syntax is simpler, its intention clearer. This is Wallace’s nonfiction voice, which he rarely used in his fiction. Wallace believed, according to D.T. Max in his biography of Wallace, that “the novel was the big form, the one that mattered.” More than that, Wallace was an unabashed moralist with a deep interest in human relationships (or lack thereof) in contemporary living. It’s as if he didn’t attribute as much creative importance to journalistic endeavors, despite his mastery of the form. Maybe Wallace would second William H. Gass’s note about his (Gass’s) nonfiction representing a “novelist insufficiently off duty.” At the very least, he kept his voices relatively separate.

Allow me, for a brief pause, to back up that last claim, as I suspect many would disagree with the assertion. Here’s a passage taken from Infinite Jest, in which Orin Incandenza decides to make the “extremely unlikely defection from college tennis to college football:”

The real football reason, in all its inevitable real-reason banality, was that, over the course of weeks of dawns of watching the autosprinklers and the Pep Squad (which really did practice at dawn) practices, Orin had developed a horrible schoolboy-grade crush, complete with dilated pupils and weak knees, for a certain big-haired sophomore baton-twirler he watched twirl and strut from a distance through the diffracted spectrum of the plumed sprinklers, all the way across the field’s dewy turf, a twirler who’d attended a few of the All-Athletic-Team mixers Orin and his strabismic B.U. doubles partner had gone to, and who danced the same way she twirled and invoked mass Pep, which is to say in a way that seemed to turn everything solid in Orin’s body watery and distant and oddly refracted.

Though this is quintessential Wallace, doesn’t it sound a bit more like the opening passage of TPK than it does the meta section? A major development of Orin’s life is explained here in a single sentence. Wallace in fiction-mode loved these kinds of periodic probing of a character’s idiosyncrasies –– IJ is loaded with them. But the Wallace-as-Narrator in TPK uses a different (although undeniably similar) voice:

In any event, the point is that I journeyed to Peoria on whatever particular day in May from my family’s home in Philo, to which my brief return had been shall we say untriumphant, and where certain members of my family had more or less been looking at their watches impatiently the whole brief time I was home. Without mentioning or identifying anyone in particular, let’s just say that the prevailing attitude in my family tended to be “What have you done for me lately?” or, maybe better, “What have you achieved/earned/attained lately that my in some way (imaginary or not) reflect well on us and let us bask in some kind of reflected (real or not) accomplishment?” It was a bit like a for-profit company, my family, in that you were pretty much only as good as your last sales quarter. Although, you know, whatever.

(I apologize, by the way, for all the long-winded quotations, but Wallace isn’t super-conducive to brevity.) So, there is still the same “regular-guyness” with his usage of colloquialisms like “the point is,” “more or less,” “pretty much,” etc, and his final blasé conclusion: “Although, you know, whatever.” But in a deeper way, this clearly is more aligned with the above-quoted passage from “Authority and American Usage” or “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” And that’s what made TPK so special and promising and, consequently, so tragic.


All of which is to say that The David Foster Wallace Reader does a fantastic job of surveying Wallace’s work, and gave this enormous fan a chance to put my complicated thoughts on DFW on paper, to stop them (the thoughts) from swimming in my head like unhappy fish in a bowl and pick them out and set them free.

To conclude: I agree with critic Michael Schmidt’s assessment of Wallace’s essays but not his novels, which Schmidt believes are “uneven.” For Schmidt, Wallace “makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction,” and his essays “entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres.” And also:

He reinvents the form from within, using its own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with “impartial” journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire.

coverWhat is this but another way of saying he that he wrote meta-nonfiction? Here’s how Wallace himself put it in Quack This Way, a book-length interview he did with Bryan A. Garner (whose usage manual was the subject of Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” essay excerpted above): “Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential.” Wallace dove inside the tropes of the essay and stretched them until they seemed new, like a restored Victorian home updated with every contemporary amenity yet remaining classic and beautiful and timeless. His greatest asset in the essays, though, wasn’t his experimentation, his rethinking of the form, but what he described to David Lipsky as his “regular-guyness.” Though he used this voice in his fiction, it is employed with much higher success in his nonfiction. But this wouldn’t have meant a damn thing if the voice didn’t lead to something extraordinary. The voice is the invitation; the actual stuff going on in the essays –– that’s the magic.

Schmidt characterizes Wallace as “a postmodernist with premodern values,” and I think this is key to his writing. Wallace was a polymath, a genius, a postmodern wizard, but at heart he was almost naïvely optimistic, almost sentimental (something particularly clear in his famous Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, also not included in TDFWR). Wallace accomplished something many critics of postmodernism never believed was possible: he used the “tricks” and “gimmicks” of postmodern technique in the interest of human connection. He did this in his novels, too, but less successfully, maybe in part due to his tendency to “impersonate what he describes, even when the subject is debased, vulgar, boring,” as James Wood put it. But his essays were genuine attempts to work through the topic at hand, to explain his thinking process to the reader as thoroughly and truthfully as possible, with limited filters. He earned our Trust through rigorous ethos and followed through with staggering intelligence and wit. As The Pale King shows, he could have used these techniques in fiction to considerable effect, but we’ll never know where he would have gone intellectually or creatively. We only have what he left behind. And we also know that he did, at least, achieve what were to him the greatest aims of literature: to connect, to challenge, and to make us feel less alone.

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30 Responses to “To Make Us Feel Less Alone: On ‘The David Foster Wallace Reader’”

  1. A
    at 12:02 pm on January 15, 2015

    I love Wallace, but If I read the phrase “to make us feel less alone” one more time I’m going to hate-bang my hard drive. You know who wasn’t made to feel less alone by reading fiction? David Foster Wallace. Apparently he felt very very alone, and he read everything. So everyone might want to stop for a second and think the next time they toss around what has quickly become one of the all-time sappiest cliches.

  2. steve
    at 1:33 pm on January 15, 2015

    just because fiction failed to save a man with severe clinical depression, doesn’t mean fiction can’t fight loneliness, for him or for others.

  3. Hank
    at 4:11 pm on January 15, 2015

    David Foster Wallace once decried the mass of MFAed “crank turners” who read Raymond Carver stories and began writing 5-word max sentences. He hated the way an original artist was cheapened in by his devotees. Similarly, it’s hard to stand the devoted rank and file who ape his techniques. I cringe every time cutesy/aspiring “smart” writers acronym-ize their proper nouns, capitalize words they’ve injected with SPECIAL meaning, throw in unnecessary latinate signage (viz., e.g., ETC.), “disarmingly” state their intentions in bold, and otherwise ape his technique. The thrill of reading him is the completely original voice that established new, and reinvented old, techniques. Fans would better serve his memory by finding their own voices. This review included.

  4. A
    at 5:07 pm on January 15, 2015

    What Hank said. Wallace was an end point, not a beginning (if anyone’s work deserves the moniker “The Literature of Exhaustion” it’s Wallace’s). Not than anyone will heed that advice. I cringe when I think of all the Wallace knock-offs that will be produced in the next few decades, and can’t believe the delgue hasn’t already begun. When he died people were rightly sad because they thought it meant the end of any more work by Wallace, but how wrong they were; there will be plenty of work forthcoming from Wallace, it’ll just be coming from the minds of writers who are not Wallace, and who don’t understand that his mind – his literary mind – was a once in a century literary mind, almost a perfect storm of influences and practices.

  5. A
    at 5:17 pm on January 15, 2015

    Steve: to imbue fiction – or any other art – with the ability to fight off something as bone deep and complex as loneliness is to set yourself up for a very steep fall and to practice bad faith. Nothing can save you from loneliness or despair; that is the human condition. All we can do is accept it, and in that way defy it, at least a little. That someone as brilliant as Wallace didn’t understand this was maybe part of his problem. He had too much hope.

  6. A
    at 5:18 pm on January 15, 2015

    I don’t know what ‘delgue’ is, but it kind of sounds better for what it describes than deluge. Or not really.

  7. steve
    at 5:37 pm on January 15, 2015

    A: oh, i don’t think fiction or any other art can solve loneliness in any permanent way, but i think it is a place where we can achieve true communion w one another. i think we all know that feeling of encountering an emotion in a character that we’d been feeling ourselves but weren’t able to articulate–doesn’t that make us feel less alone (yes, i’m getting sick of that phrase too), just for a bit? i’m sure a book has made you feel that way?

  8. A
    at 6:24 pm on January 15, 2015

    Steve: books entertain, infuriate, educate and inspire me to read other books. Have they ever combatted my loneliness? No, not that I even know what that means or how a book would do that. My existential dread, the thing I share with every other human being who has ever lived or will live, has not been assuaged by a novel or any other book. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death is one example of a book which helped explain to me why I feel the way I feel, but it did not make my feelings recede; it only intensified them. Like I said before, what Wallace said has now become a kind of pat gospel for people to use and it turns him into a kind of secular saint, and I don’t like it. He did not have the answers for everything, and especially not the problem of loneliness. His books, if anything, are beautiful examples of loneliness, not salves for the condition. And I can’t tell you how many times since his death I have heard other writers whip out the “fiction makes you feel less alone” to make it seem as if their book is above and beyond all things a prescription to soothe your aching soul. I think it’s gross and self-serving. I love James Ellroy. He’s one of my guilty pleasures (why I feel he should be classified as a guilty pleasure I have no idea). I devour his books like a can of Planter’s Nuts for Men. Does he make me feel less lonely? Fuck no. But his writes like a demon and spins a good yarn and makes the time pass rather quickly. What more can you ask? Should I ask that he also help me fight my mortal dread? Ugh.

  9. Dunbar Humbly
    at 7:23 pm on January 15, 2015

    Agree with A there. I’m not a huge Wallace fan, he has his moments but he seems on the whole pretty forgettable, at least for me, I don’t begrudge the pleasure he seems to give other people. What I hate is the weird talk that seems to have evolved out of his death, all the loneliness, the “this is water” talk, the sincerity-vs.-irony, empathy talk surrounding him. It feels pretty cheap to me, especially considering his death, which seems basically like a prime example of the ultimate triumph of loneliness.

  10. steve
    at 7:41 pm on January 15, 2015

    A: think we’ll have to agree to disagree on whether fiction can do, you know, that thing lots of wallace/franzen fans love to say it can do, but i agree w most of what you say. you’re right, wallace is cursed by having lots of annoying people consider him a god, and pretty soon, those same annoying people will probably start publishing books. the same thing has happened to lorrie moore. lots of folks love her wit and her wordplay, so they try to write like that. i know a lot of readers who have been turned off by the imitators, and because of that, have no inclination to check out the originator, which is a shame, i think. i suspect the same will happen to wallace fairly soon.

  11. A
    at 7:44 pm on January 15, 2015

    Steve: glad we could have an adult conversation about this topic without any ad hominem attacks. That’s nice. Good day to you, sir.

  12. priskill
    at 7:44 pm on January 15, 2015

    Does anyone else find DFW to be great but kind of needing a good editor? True, I have only read the essays, and they were wonderful, but so laden with footnotes and digressions and disclaimers and counter-assertions and amusing riffs that this reader began to show signs of Post-Modern Meta-Fatique.

    PMMF is a scourge of the late and 20th and early 21st centuries, and is believed to be caused by injudicious consumption of overly self-referential prose, often written by young men who are “much, much smarter” than everyone else and likely to describe themselves as “regular guys, really.” Symptoms include early onset rapid blinking and involuntary sighing as the reader turns to yet another 3/4 page of footnotes in tiny print . As the disease progress, victims complain of trembling in the extremities and pain in the digits, related to the so-called “Infinite Anecdote Effect” (IAE) of keeping one’s place in text with a finger whilst using the other hand to chase a footnote so long it runs onto the next page(s), an all too common feature of these post-modern meta-hazards).

    In the later stages, neck muscles can become stiff and even frozen through overuse, thereby preventing the reader from performing the necessary” toggling” or nodding required to keep apace of all the ibid’s and anecdotes littering the nether regions of the page. Victims in the most advanced stages are understandably morose and angry, and given to dark mutterings about the sacrifices made for DFW, PMM-Fiction, and various ominous and mysterious acronyms.

    While there is no known cure, patients are advised to curtail all reading, including tweets, emails, and graffiti, in favor of binge-watching most offerings on Net flicks, except, of course, anything with subtitles.

    This has been a PSA from someone who really enjoyed this essay — PK and IJ will be on my night table soon — and the thoughtful comments, but couldn’t resist a cheap shot. Thank you for a thought-provoking read!

  13. Benn
    at 8:00 pm on January 15, 2015

    Self-referentiality is a scourge. Yes, we know you’re there, we just don’t care, or what to be reminded. And if you’re doing your job well, there’s no need. A story well told is one that doesn’t need to be highlighted as a story. It just is.

  14. X
    at 8:26 pm on January 15, 2015

    Seconding, thirding, fourthing Hank. This essay makes some solid points but I would be way more happy to have this conversation when we don’t all feel obliged to speak in Wallace impressions.

  15. timble
    at 9:39 pm on January 15, 2015

    Basically this review is the kind of thing I expect to see on Goodreads about a Mark Z. Danielewski book where the author photo is a guy in a fedora. I love DFW but this is just embarrassing.

  16. steve
    at 9:09 am on January 16, 2015

    A: likewise!

  17. steve
    at 9:15 am on January 16, 2015

    i hate wallace style-biters too, but in mr. clark’s defense, he imitates here because he’s writing about wallace, not just because. it would be a lot worse if he were writing about something completely unrelated to wallace and he dropped a “w/r/t” or an “and but so.” i get it, it would be a better conversation without the wallace impressions, but maybe let’s not lump mr. clark in with the crank-turners Hank mentioned.

  18. A L
    at 2:46 pm on January 16, 2015

    Steve, A:

    Do you guys think that DFW wasn’t actually trying to “cure” loneliness via fiction, but rather, through his writing and consumption of literature, he was trying to accept and cope with his loneliness. He doesn’t ever proclaim that true empathy is possible, in fact he specifies that it is IMpossible. He does mention that art is one of those few moments in life in which we are able to escape ourselves, not a cure but a reprieve from loneliness. And in those ways, it can remind us that we are “less alone”. I choose to believe that his depression and supreme intellect is why his writing is so profound for many people. Unfortunately he was never able to accept it, was never able to find respite from the loneliness we all know to be true, as you said, A.

  19. Benn
    at 3:45 pm on January 16, 2015


    I gotta say that my irritation is more with other writers cribbing his words for their own purposes. That is really all I’m irritated with. I loved Wallace’s work and was actually very sad when he passed, sadder than I’ve ever been about the death of someone I didn’t know personally. I don’t question his motives at all and I understand what he was trying to say, even though, as I said before, I have never felt that any type of art has relieved my loneliness, but then again, that’s never been what I’ve been looking for, so who knows.

  20. steve
    at 11:52 pm on January 16, 2015

    pretty much hit the nail on the head there, A L.

  21. Esoteric Bob Parsons
    at 12:03 pm on January 19, 2015


    “Does anyone else find DFW to be great but kind of needing a good editor?”

    Hahahahhaahaha. “Does anyone find the 1000 lb shut-in trapped in his apartment next door nice but in need of a nutritionist?”

    Seriously though, I find DFW more or less totally unreadable for this reason (and others). His vaunted intellect was and continues to be overrated by his devotees, and by himself (his discursions on science and math are pretty wtf and embarrassing), and the experience of reading him is similar to being in a dorm room with a precocious, talkative freshman who just got stoned for the first time.

    Even when he gets his hooks in an interesting idea (which he does, from time to time), he winds up beating it to death, belaboring it with so much self-regarding cuteness that you stop caring. I agree with the general assertion that his essays are better than his fiction, especially since his fiction is pretty godawful, but even supposed masterpieces of the essay form like ASFTINDA are overrated and much less intellectually nimble than you would expect from a guy praised to high heaven for his brilliance–cruise ships are middle American kitsch and an inauthentic experience, who knew?

  22. Esoteric Bob Parsons
    at 3:20 pm on January 19, 2015

    Not to belabor this point, but I was just reminded of something James Wood said, to the effect that DFW can’t ever resist the perverse impulse to make his narratives boring, an opinion shored up by the perverse decision to write a book about boredom in the Pale King. Wood, imo, got DFW the first time around–his aboutface in the wake of DFW’s death has always seemed a bit mealymouthed to me.

  23. priskill
    at 5:04 pm on January 19, 2015

    Wow, Esoteric Bob –!! I haven’t read enough of DFW to yay or nay you but I sure do get your point about “self-regarding cuteness” and plain old prolixity, even when it actually works. Now i have to read James Wood, both pre-and post-mortem. Thank you for this great response! Still want to try the fiction, but I confess your comments have weakened my resolve. Cheers!

  24. Esoteric Bob Parsons
    at 9:55 am on January 20, 2015


    You should definitely try it and see what you think. It’s obviously not for me, but just as obviously, a lot of people love him. I sometimes wonder if it’s not partially a question of when you read him–I can imagine a smart young person thinking he’s great for a lot of the same reasons I find him tiresome. Endlessly recursive interrogations of authenticity might be something that feels more clever, and certainly more necessary, at 18 than at 40.

    I do appreciate DFW at least in the sense that he’s inarguably an original voice that, as people have noted upthread, produced a multitude of imitators. In this sense, he’s in my personal canon of Supposedly Great Writers I’ll Never Read Again (get it), along with Cormac McCarthy and a few others–probably justly lauded writers who I find more or less unreadable.

  25. priskill
    at 3:20 pm on January 20, 2015


    I like the “Personal canon of Supposedly Great Writers I’ll never read again ” (Hah!) McCarthy was on my list for years until I forced myself to read The Road — could not put it down, beautiful and horrifying and grim. I have glanced at Infinite Jest but it never took. Will fortify myself and buckle down! My list includes D.H. Lawrence and, sadly, Proust. You want to like a writer who appreciates cookies.

    “Endlessly recursive interrogations of authenticity” — Nailed it! I may just be too old . . .

  26. timble
    at 11:31 pm on January 20, 2015

    @Esoteric Bob

    I love Infinite Jest but there are parts of The Pale King that I love more. This from an older reader. I find a cheerful weariness and kindness in Wallace that I’m not sure other people necessarily see, and hell, maybe it isn’t even there. He’s a polarizing writer for certain. What you certainly can’t say about him is that he isn’t any good; he is very good, but it’s like music… if it doesn’t make you want to dance, you aren’t gonna dance. Meanwhile a lot of people are moving their feet. What I do know about Wallace is that he wouldn’t care. It’s nice to have one great writer with real humility, wouldn’t you agree? P.S. I’m pretty drunk at the moment!

    The problem with IJ is that it really doesn’t start moving until about 300 pages in. I know this is the worst kind of advice, but, uh, stick with it? I nearly didn’t, but I’m glad I did. At the very least it is a truly fascinating demonstration of heterodox novel construction–that’s my main debt to Wallace, he put his own crack into the mold.

  27. priskill
    at 6:34 pm on January 21, 2015

    @Timble — No, I think that is good advice — I give up too easily, especially with something new and challenging. And I agree — he has a kindness (at least in the essays) and kind of humility — it does shine through. Interesting that you love PK — your comment makes me want to start there . . . thanks for the insights.. You and EsoBob actually make me want to read him. Now i’ve promised in print, there’s no turning back. Cheers!

  28. themba mabona
    at 3:25 am on January 25, 2015

    This is a thoroughly lovely essay and the points on authorial intentions/methods, it is easy enough to agree with. However, I find it interesting how seldom Wallace is understood in terms of his „strabismic howling fantods“. Which is to say: one of his significant hallmarks is his use of vocabulary, which is frequently enough just glossed over as „arcane“ or „encyclopedic“.
    The way he employs it though is usually A) apposite as hell B) very fun indeed [there‘s usually a comical undertone] C) character-relevant. Moreover many of the terms like the said fantods are also flat-out colloquial, bringing the reader in touch with tophole US English vernacular vocab he or she might simply not have been cognizant of for one reason or an other.
    Starkly put, DW gives you the „howling fantods“, whereas DeLillo supplies „crimps“ and „vertices“. Finally, the essay is a stark reminder of just how infective Wallace‘s voice is so that Woods might‘ve been one of the few critics able to resist the temptation of floundering mimicry.
    ….ahh, and another unremarked upon point is that, in his guileless pursuit of ethical surplus value in fiction he, pretty much I would suggest, ended up being a crypto-buddhist, as in, he espoused very similar values [minus all the religious accoutrements]; this is beautifully expressed when the guy in Good Old Neon [i think, or The Depressed Person?] thinks he can fool everyone, except the Zen teacher!! And thinks the Zen guy has him figured out and could probably help him. There is a great moment of almost Bellowian heartbreak in there.

  29. themba mabona
    at 3:29 am on January 25, 2015

    Wow, coding folks, if you could provide an option of bigger fonts or line-spacing many a mind would be boggled ;)

    at 10:27 am on March 24, 2015

    […] David Foster Wallace […]

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