A Beginner’s Guide to David Foster Wallace

Today marks five years since we lost David Foster Wallace, he of the Great or least Most Impressively Voluminous American Novel of the late 20th century and of innumerable footnotes. It’s a good day to remember his extraordinary contribution to the literary canon, and as a fan I relish the opportunity to remember what his work has meant to me and to share it with others. Everyone should read DFW, of this I am convinced. But this prospect may seem intimidating, or even worse, inessential. I am here today to convince you otherwise.

His fiction is tough sledding. I won’t deny it. I’m only a little more than halfway through Infinite Jest, and I’ve been working on it for over a year. This is not the place to start. If you were to ask, and I interpret your reading of this blog an implicit query, I would recommend you begin with his essays. While his fiction works out complex ideas and characters that create and make sense of a world that speaks into our own, his nonfiction allows him to, as they say, turn the mirror more directly back on us. No cultural event or artifact exists without saying something about those who create and consume it.

Let me be clear: I am not recommending these essays. I am urging you to read them. Insisting, even.

Happy reading!

Roger Federer as Religious Experience

Originally published in the New York Times, August 2006

You do not have to be a tennis fan, or even a sports fan, to bask in the splendor of this essay. In fact, it turned my brother, who could generally care less about sports, into an avid tennis fan and recreational athlete. Seriously. DFW’s best work (so, much of his work) transcends its subject and points to what it really means. He completely eschews the typical profile fodder, relegating all biographical information to one short paragraph admitting there is really nothing new to say there and what is to be said can be found on Wikipedia, and instead focuses on what it feels like to watch someone as great as Roger Federer play tennis. His mastery of both form and style are on full display here–the way he juxtaposes the attempt to describe a Federer Moment and what, exactly, it offers the viewer against the brief appearances of life’s difficult realities–during the course of the narrative, Federer comes into brief contact with two children suffering from cancer–is positively poetic. I won’t even try to unpack it any further here, but just please promise me you’ll read it all the way to the end. I promise you it’s worth it, and you will not leave it untouched.

“This present article is more about a spectator’s experience of Federer, and its context. The specific thesis here is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a “bloody near-religious experience.” It may be tempting, at first, to hear a phrase like this as just one more of the overheated tropes that people resort to to describe the feeling of Federer Moments. But the driver’s phrase turns out to be true — literally, for an instant ecstatically — though it takes some time and serious watching to see this truth emerge.”

Consider the Lobster

Originally published in Gourmet, August 2004

Assigned to cover the Maine Lobster Festival for the late foodie magazine, DFW turned in thousands of words contemplating the morality of boiling lobsters alive. Do animals feel pain? How can we measure and describe the experience of pain, which is so highly individual? To what extent should this matter to a carnivorous society?

“Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?”

Shipping Out (later retitled A  Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

Originally published in Harper’s, January 1996

In which DFW goes on a 7-night Luxury Cruise (7NC) and writes about his experience. It would be so easy for any writer to take this assignment and turn it into a screed on the gross overindulgences of American culture. This is not that essay, though it’s certainly one of the undercurrents. He explores what luxury means and what it attempts to salve and the various ways we even our best attempts at luxury cannot offer a real escape from our human condition. And of course because he is DFW he manages to locate those moments in which real, actual humanity is asserted and connection found. This is also the essay that makes most liberal use of footnotes: they are absolutely essential, and the essay would be vastly different without them. I laughed out loud more reading this (and I laugh loudly and liberally every single time I read it) than anything I have ever read.

“I’m standing here on Deck 12 looking at the Dreamward, which I bet has cold water that’d turn your knuckles blue, and, like Frank Conroy, part of me realizes that I haven’t washed a dish or tapped my foot in line behind somebody with multiple coupons at a checkout line in a week; and yet instead of feeling refreshed and renewed I’m anticipating how totally stressful and demanding and unpleasurable a return to landlocked adult life is going to be now that even just the premature removal of a towel by a sepulchral crewman seems like an assault on my basic rights, and the sluggishness of the Aft elevator is an outrage. And as I’m getting ready to go down to lunch I’m mentally drafting a really mordant footnote on my single biggest pet peeve about the Nadir: they don’t even have Mr. Pibb; they foist Dr. Pepper upon you with a maddeningly unapologetic shrug when any fool knows that Dr. Pepper is no substitute for Mr. Pibb, and it’s an absolute goddamned travesty, or–at best–extremely dissatisfying, indeed.”

This is Water

Commencement address given at Kenyon College, May 2005

If you know anything at all of DFW it’s probably this, as it gets rolled out every May and repurposed into inspirational columns and even videos meant to offer a moment of inspiration and reflection. It takes that idea from “Shipping Out”–the frustration we feel when something, anything fails to adhere to our exact needs and wants at any given moment–and turns it inside out, presenting it not as a moment to be moved through but a moment to choose to see and dignify the other human experiences that are happening all around you. This is the implicit thesis of all his work: question reality as you understand it now. Pay attention not just to what you feel but to what others feel and how you play a role in that.

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

Why Didn’t Video Phones Take Off? (excerpt from Infinite Jest)

Okay, so technically this is not nonfiction. But it’s come up in conversation so many times that I had to share it when I found out it was posted online (albeit in the form of a message board response). This passage of his most famous novel demonstrates his deeply intuitive understanding of human nature–before the advent of Skype, or FaceTime, or any of the technologies that made this possible, he created a fictional world in which people celebrated the advent of video phone technology only to grow increasingly concerned with their virtual appearance and began creating other technologies to enhance said digital appearance until they completely removed themselves from the technology and realized they had created an incredibly complex way of returning to their original technology.

“In other words a return to aural-only telephony became, at the closed curve’s end, a kind of status-symbol of anti-vanity, such that only callers utterly lacking in self-awareness continued to use videophony and Tableaux, to say nothing of masks, and these tacky facsimile-using people became ironic cultural symbols of tacky vain slavery to corporate PR and high-tech novelty, became the Subsidized Era’s tacky equivalents of people with leisure suits, black velvet paintings, sweater-vests for their poodles, electric zirconium jewelry, NoCoat Lin-guaScrapers, and c. Most communications consumers put their Tableaux-dioramas at the back of a knick-knack shelf and covered their cameras with standard black lens-caps and now used their phone consoles’ little mask-hooks to hang these new little plasticene address-and-phone diaries specially made with a little receptacle at the top of the binding for convenient hanging from former mask-hooks. Even then, of course, the bulk of U.S. consumers remained verifiably reluctant to leave home and teleputer and to interface personally, though this phenomenon’s endurance can’t be attributed to the videophony-fad per se, and anyway the new panagoraphobia served to open huge new entrepreneurial teleputerized markets for home-shopping and -de­livery, and didn’t cause much industry concern.”

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7 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to David Foster Wallace

  1. Pingback: ELSEWHERE: A Beginner’s Guide to David Foster Wallace

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  3. Someone who can’t finsh a book, any book, in a year doesn’t have the credibility to recommend that anyone else read anything. Spare the world from your narcissistic drivel and go cry in a closet somewhere.

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  5. Infinite Jest is definitely not an easy read. I will have to wait and see if the effort is worth it. So far I have managed 150 Pages in 3 weeks. I hope you have finished by now.

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