RELENTLESS TRANSCRIBER OF THE COSMIC and the QUOTIDIAN
Considering David Foster Wallace
This month the Lannan Foundation celebrates the work of David Foster Wallace. Borrowing its name from the late novelist’s book about numbers and the nature of infinity, the program is titled Everything
and More. It’s a short, elegant phrase that perfectly encapsulates Wallace’s talents and range.
“He had an interest in everything and more, and I think that his life was spent trying to find out exactly what he could do,” Michael Silverblatt, the moderator of the Lannan event, said in a recent interview. “He was quite a polymath, but more than that he was a generous and, I would say, tender person.” Tragically, Wallace lived for just 46 years, but for his devoted readers, he left behind an endlessly stimulating stockpile of writing.
On Wednesday, March 16, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, Silverblatt, a friend of Wallace’s and the host of the popular public-radio show Bookworm, is joined at the Lannan by novelists Rick Moody and Joanna Scott and journalist David Lipsky, the author of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.
Wallace, of course, is best known for his second
novel, Infinite Jest, a wild, hilarious, and prescient epic published in 1996. It is nearly 1,100 heavily-footnoted pages, and from the moment it was published, no one doubted the artistic merit of Wallace’s “difficult gifts,” as fellow novelist Zadie Smith once put it.
But to try to pin Wallace down, to figure him out, on the basis of one novel, even one this vast, is both silly and impossible. Take Infinite Jest. It’s a book about advertising, drugs, tennis, the modern press, weather, social mores, family life, and dozens of other topics. Though he mastered these subjects, Wallace did so less as an expert than he did as a sort of deeply engaged student.
As it happened, his chief academic pursuits were more abstruse. “I was a philosophy major in college,” Wallace told Charlie Rose in a 1997 interview, “but my areas of interest were mathematical logic and semantics.” These subjects were covered at length in the honors thesis Wallace wrote while enrolled as a philosophy student at Amherst College. The recent publication, in a handsome paperback, of this thesis — titled “Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will” — stands as a pretty fair testament to the fact that many readers are obsessed with every word Wallace put to paper. (Sample sentence from this extremely difficult piece of writing: “Tense-operators serve to remove tense from the interpretation of the main proposition to be evaluated and ‘pack the tense into the prefix.’ ”)
More evidence of the long shadow Wallace casts over contemporary literature arrived in February, when the BBC aired a radio documentary about his life and writing. It’s a wonderful effort, well worth seeking out online, with appreciations from literary giants and intimate reflections from his agent, editor, and sister.
“There’s something magical for me about literature and fiction,” Wallace says in the documentary, “and I think it can do things not only that pop culture can’t do, but that are urgent now. One is that by creating a character in a piece of fiction you can allow a reader to leap over the wall of self, and to imagine himself being not just somewhere else but someone else, in a way that ... no other form can do.” Wallace wrote two story collections after Infinite Jest — Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and
Oblivion — and his third novel, The Pale King, will be published in April. He was working on the book, a tale that centers on federal government jobs and boredom, when he committed suicide in September 2008.
Wallace’s articles and essays he wrote for magazines including Harper’s, Premiere, The Atlantic, and Gourmet are every bit as accomplished as his fiction. With verve, erudition, and great care, he wrote richly reported pieces about subjects as different as the ethics of seafood preparation and the pornographic film industry’s answer to the Oscars. Many of these pieces were collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never
Do Again and Consider the Lobster, and an argument can be made that these two books are among the most insightful, wide-ranging, and readable nonfiction titles of the last 15 years.
For example, here’s Wallace just getting warmed up in an essay about dictionaries, grammar, and “the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography”: “Did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the ‘corruption’ and ‘permissiveness’ of certain liberal dictionaries?”
Wallace’s skills of analysis were never more apparent than in “Up, Simba,” his modern classic of presidential campaign-trail reportage, which he wrote while traveling with John McCain in 2000. The piece, which appeared in Rolling Stone and was later expanded and sold as an e-book, deals artfully with the gap between the candidate’s appeal to left-of-center voters (like Wallace, for one) and his conservative bona fides.
The McCain piece is also a refreshingly earnest call for civic engagement. “Salesman or leader or neither or both, the final paradox …” Wallace concludes, “is that whether [McCain is] truly ‘for real’ now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours. Try to stay awake.”
Says Silverblatt, “David was a hopeful fatalist, and as such, he was what we all are.” Wallace, he added, had “a colossal intelligence that didn’t fool itself into thinking that the path was to write Finnegan’s Wake after he’d written his Ulysses. He really, really wanted to figure out how to make a book that would both be what he called ‘ a hard book’ — he loved to say this: ‘a hard book’ — but also be accessible to readers.”