In Search of David Foster Wallace

Joe Woodward

In Consider the Lobster DFW ponders U.S. lexicography and American usage and a Dostoevsky scholar’s four-volume masterpiece. In his earlier collection he rustled over the state of U.S. fiction. Though A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again has a similar balance of reporting and scholarly-like argument, it is much more autobiographical than the new collection. In essays like “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” DFW unpacks his Midwestern background and love of tennis for readers, and in “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” he discusses his MFA-aged revelations on art and literature as inspired by his favorite filmmaker. Stylistically, both collections of essays are filled with blue-bookish, yet offbeat, pieces. QAA: How many televisions do you own? Who’s your favorite Brady? What did you mean when you wrote “metafiction’s real end has always been Armageddon”?

DFW, though hard to reach, while discursive and funny, is not as interested in reinventing literature as his critics give him credit for. He is, I believe, interested in welcoming us into his mind and heart.

Arguably, DFW is more acrobatic with form and language in his short fiction than he is in his essays. His wildly popular early collections, Girl With Curious Hair and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, were followed up, in 2004, with Oblivion. It is here, in the short story, that some would argue DFW’s extraordinary talents peak.

The collection’s title story is an odd tale of marital strife that centers on a central mystery—is the husband in the story snoring at night and awakening his wife, or is she, in fact, imagining the whole thing? Through a series of funny scenes and a number of trips to the Meredith R. Darling Sleep Clinic, the couple (and the reader) gets to the crux of the troubling scenario. “She’s claiming to know better than myself whether I’m even awake. It’s less unfair than seemingly almost totally insane.” Deliciously, both husband and wife turn out to be all wrong.

The first story in Oblivion, “Mister Squishy,” takes place in an Orwellian universe where brand icons rule the landscape, where marketing focus groups are either the cause of the strained social fabric of the metropolis, or are its outgrowth. The story opens with a group of subjects testing a “high-concept chocolate intensive Mister Squishy brand snack cake” called Felonies. The snack cakes are aptly named to “both connote and to parody the modern health-conscious consumer’s sense of vice/indulgence/transgression/sin vis-à-vis the consumption of a high-calorie corporate snack.” Finally, and somewhat abruptly, the story ends for the reader as it does for one of the characters, “his mind a great flat blank white screen.” Readers, sometimes like the characters in the story, don’t get the neat, bundled conclusions they seek. QAA: Why don’t you just tell your readers what you really mean once in a while, as you often do in your essays? Have you ever thought about beginning a story with “Once upon a time,” and ending it with “So the moral of this story is…”?

The most surprising story in Oblivion is the shortest, “Incarnations of Burned Children.” In remarkable and poetical prose, DFW unleashes a long, single-paragraph description of a scalded child, “the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and his shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide….” Here, the reader is swept along on a river of emotion to a haunting, terrible finish, “and the child had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead….” In an uncharacteristically moving passage, DFW writes, “If you’ve never wept, and want to, have a child.”

Oblivion’s accomplishments certainly echo DFW’s earlier success with the short story form, and clearly show the sophistication and inventiveness noted by those who praise his two novels, The Broom of the System and Infinite Jest. In 1997, Michiko Kakutani wrote, “Although Wallace has burned off the annoying Pynchonesque echoes of his…debut novel, The Broom of the System, and discovered an exuberant voice of his own, Infinite Jest does owe a decisive debt to that earlier book. Like Broom, it uses stories within stories to point up the tension between life and art. And like Broom, it concerns a character’s (well, many characters’) search for identity and meaning.” Mark Caro, in the Chicago Tribune, called Infinite Jest “a grandly conceived, dizzyingly executed, darkly comic vision of America’s not-so-distant future.” QAA: Mixed praise is the porridge of the critic, don’t you think? Do you read your own reviews? Do you read the newspaper?

Infinite Jest is certainly the most referred-to work in the DFW canon, though, my research tells me, it is, arguably, the least-read. While the thousand-plus-page novel has been heralded by some as a sign of genius (indeed, a year after it was published, DFW received a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation), it has been lambasted by others as self-interested, self-conscious—egocentric. It is, nonetheless, the hub of the DFW literary universe. Marshall Boswell, literary scholar and established DFW critic, wrote this about Infinite Jest in his book-length Understanding David Foster Wallace (University of South Carolina Press, 2003):

[It is] set in a slightly cockeyed near future; also like its predecessor, the book yokes together a vast, heterogeneous collection of themes and concerns. Wallace continues to link issues of language, signification, solipsism, and objectification, as he did in The Broom of the System, while at the same time expanding Girl with Curious Hair’s preoccupation with pop-culture, irony, to self-reflexivity. To these abiding concerns he adds a number of new preoccupations, such as drug addiction, terrorism, politics, and tennis. The result is a book that functions as both the culmination of his earlier work and a remarkable expansion of his reach and ambition.

Infinite Jest culminates, too, in the most difficult of reads. While some agree the novel demonstrates DFW’s formidable gifts, the book also throws a spotlight on his self-admitted weaknesses as a writer. DFW, in an interview with Larry McCaffery for the Center for Book Culture—a nonprofit organization based at Illinois State University, where DFW used to teach, which, at least partly, explains why he granted the interview—revealed he has “a grossly sentimental affection for gags, for stuff that’s nothing but funny, and which I sometimes stick in for no other reason than funniness. Another’s that I have a problem with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn’t call attention to itself.”

This is also true in DFW’s creative nonfiction. Some readers like their head-scratching funnies, embrace Herculean challenges, reject the easy and passive. Others do not. Certainly, there are examples everywhere in DFW’s writing of his ability to concisely pierce a topic, an emotion, a grand idea. His story “Oblivion,” while complicated and recursive and funny, is strangely touching—and in a way it opens a window into the human condition like none other. That’s not bad, is it? And “Incarnations of Burned Children” is poetry. QAA: If you really want, as you often state in your essays, to “put it as simple as possible,” why don’t you do that in your fiction?

Salman Rushdie recently commented in the Paris Review on his growing ambition to tell a story simply and clearly: “I’ve gotten more interested in clarity as a virtue, less interested in the virtues of difficulty.… I don’t like books that play to the gallery, but I’ve become more concerned with telling a story as clearly and engagingly as I can.… A story doesn’t have to be simple, it doesn’t have to be one-dimensional but, especially if it’s multidimensional, you need to find the clearest, most engaging way of telling it.”

Perhaps, one day DFW will abandon the “virtues of difficulty” as well. But I doubt it. DFW, though hard to reach, while discursive and funny, is not as interested in reinventing literature as his critics give him credit for. He is, I believe, interested in welcoming us into his mind and heart. It is difficult to guess, but I don’t see DFW giving up the footnotes any time soon. There are certainly as many people hoping he will as there are people who hope he will not.

Perhaps, one day soon I’ll get to ask him—or his publicist or agent, rather—about his plans. In the meantime, I’ll just read DFW and try to make my own way up that road before it washes out again.

Joe Woodward is the author of Small Matters: A Year in Writing.