A brief note on David Foster Wallace

I didn’t read DFW until after after his suicide in 2008. I remember reading the gush of very emotional reactions on the Metafilter post when news got out, and his well circulated Kenyon commencement speech, which I still go back to read now and again. There is a kind of dubiousness with reading an author in the wake of his suicide; I waited a few months anyway, and got a copy of  ‘Oblivion’ out of the library and after I finished that I bought Infinite Jest, a massive bluesky-covered thing.

It was pretty much the only book I read that summer. I consumed a large part of it while in a cabin for a few days on Mayne Island, and another big chunk when I was sick with the flu (part of me didn’t want my fever to end until the book did).  And then scattered through many summer nights.  I think my girlfriend could see its effect on me; I’d be reading it next to her, trying to hold back laughter – half an hour later, I’d have my head in my hands, muttering ‘Oh, Christ.’ Or I’d be staring out into space at work, mid-broomsweep, just thinking about a scene from it. All good books do this to some extent, but Infinite Jest was a huge awakening to the possibilities of  language and meaning, in a way I had not experienced before. I felt beaten up and illuminated. I tried to experiment with using some of Wallace’s “moves” in my own poem-writing and realized how hard it is; they aren’t simply stylistic tricks, the winding sentences are well built machines, designed to get you to the heart of experience.  In any case, he’s made as much an impact on my writing as any of my favorite poets.

People always talk about the footnotes with DFW, and while they are pretty post-modernly exciting/maddening/excessive etc., it reminds me of the way people talk about the hallucinations when on psychedelics; the stuff that’s going on more quietly, and personally, deep under the surface, is just harder to talk about it.  I’m not going to indulge right now, though. I’ll just say that no other writing I’ve read has got so close to what it means to be human in this world, how troubling, how absurd, and how crucial it is to make some kind of sense of it. And how much I’m looking forward to The Pale King, his last unfinished book, that is on the way in the mail. I’m sad that its the last thing we’re going to get from someone that I, and many other readers, already consider a close friend who left way too early.

I might post a review or some kind of reaction to the book after I finish it.  We’ll see.  I haven’t really been very informative in this post, for people new to him, so I’d recommend checking out The Howling Fantods, a good resource for all kinds of DFW-related news and links and whatnot.

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3 thoughts on “A brief note on David Foster Wallace

  1. A lovely post, Raoul. He’s one of my most favourite writers too. I’ve recently been rereading Infinite Jest and it’s blowing me away just like it did when I frist read it, twelve years ago.
    I have very mixed feelings about The Pale King though. On one hand I’m really intrigued, on the other, I don’t know that I want to read something he didn’t complete. He’s so exacting in his work, and I really don’t want to feel the absence of his decisions in the final rounds of editing that I fear will be there. My anxiety about this is growing and growing as the publication date approaches and I find myself thinking about it more and more. Have you thought about it? Did it play on your mind? Or do you just want to read more? I’ve been wanting to talk to someone about this, and would love to hear your thoughts, if you’d like to share. Either way, I really enjoyed reading about your love for the great man.

    • Thanks for writing, Jane. I might be in a little bit of denial about how unfinished it was before the editors pieced it together…but I’m keeping it in mind, and will try to read it as such. On the macro level, I should say that in reading Infinite Jest, I didn’t quite understand why things were ordered in that particular way. Most often I felt it worked, but I think the ‘sections’ could have been ordered differently and the book still would have held its strength. To a certain extent.

      But on the micro level, its a little harder….I guess there will probably be parts in there that he didn’t want in at all, or that needed more work. And that’s just like reading someone’s drafts. Which, in the case of DFW, would still be very rewarding, I think. For us.
      I don’t know what to think about what he would have wanted (or what he wants, peering down from the afterlife) – that’s an unanswerable thing. I’m hoping the people working on putting the book did it with love and attention and mindfulness. That’s the best I can hope for. The few reviews I’ve read seem encouraging, but I’ve decided not to read anymore.

      Let me know if you decide to pick it up, anyway. It would be nice to talk about it with you. Thanks again.
      yrs,

      r

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Raoul. Imminently sensible. I wonder to what extent I am looking for reasons not to pick it up. I would be very surprised if I didn’t read it at some point, but I think it will be quite a while before I do. I find myself unable to look at it in bookshops and have also decided to stop reading reviews because they seem so infected with everything that’s swirling around the book, and that’s not how I want to read it. And for me, at this point, it’s unavoidable to read it in that way.
    But I would be glad to read your thoughts, should you reach a point of wanting to share.
    And best wishes for your awards ceremony! So exciting. My thoughts are with you
    j

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