David Foster Wallace: Where an Obsession Begins

I tell people to check out David Foster Wallace but always qualify it with “but be careful where you start,” which isn’t very specific, so I’m listing his books in a recommended reverse order.

9. Infinite Jest

I posted a review of I.J. I’ll link below but just for fun I dug through and found a line that I often think of and giggle. The dad of two of the characters moves a bed and is complaining about how dirty the floor is and says, “Under what presidential administration was this room last deep-cleaned, I’m standing here prompted to fucking muse out loud.” There was probably a lot of context that made that stand out as so funny. Here’s the review: https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/

8. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

D.F.W. studied math, as in super high level math theory, and wrote about infinity. I read every word of this book and understood hardly any of it. But the opening was interesting. He talked about how a word, like “chair,” can be repeated until it stops denoting, which is that weird feeling you can give yourself by picking a word you’ve known since you were three and wonder why it’s called that. Why do we call chairs chairs?

7. Brief Interview with Hideous Men

This was the first book of his I read, and I actually listened to it. The second story was “Forever Overhead,” which remains my favorite short story. If this collection hadn’t included that story, I might have stopped here. I don’t recall liking very many of the others, though I intend to try them again at some point.

6.The Broom of the System

I enjoyed this book. It doesn’t seem like his other stuff, though. He hadn’t hit, yet, on the unique style that makes him him. It’s definitely worth reading, I just wouldn’t say you’re getting the best sense of him from it. The best parts were these supposedly terrible short stories students had written and the teacher of this class describes the stories to his girlfriend and the stories are actually bizarre but kind of awesome, as summarized by the character.

5. Girl with Curious Hair

This is a story collection. Little Expressionless Animals was fantastic. Here and There I also really liked. Some were, like Infinite Jest, great in parts but tedious at times, overall. The last story, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, felt like a precursor to the approach he would take to Infinite Jest. That’s probably the only thing he wrote that is close to like I.J.

4. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

This is a collection of six essays on a variety of subjects, a report on a tennis player trying to make the pro tour, a piece on the movie Lost Highway being made by David Lynch, where he discusses Lynch’s earlier movie, in depth, Blue Velvet.

The probably most relatable essay is his report on taking a cruise, which is the essay the collection is titled after. This includes the line, “Temperatures were uterine.” He describes the cruise as being sad and inducing despair: “It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”

As I mention in my review of Infinite Jest, his writing is dotted with insights, either through characters or through his author persona, that feel like they must have been drawn from his mental illness, a combination of anxiety and depression, that led to his suicide in 2008, but I’ve never read anyone that’s made me laugh out loud more while reading.

3. Consider the Lobster

Another essay collection. The title comes from an essay he wrote about lobster, which poses ethical questions about how we treat the animals we eat with such thoughtful consideration to both sides, and he did eat meat, I would recommend anyone who’s thought about this issue, which is most of us, give it a read. And what’s even cooler is he wrote it while covering a lobster fest for a food magazine. It’s available online. A few others stood out, in these politically polarized times as thoughtful and careful looks at both sides, one on the politics of usage dictionaries, which was surprisingly entertaining, another covering John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and another piece on a right-wing radio talk show host.

2. Oblivion

The reason I always tell people to be careful where they start is because David Foster Wallace is so dense in his writing style, if you hit on something not to your interest you’re likely to be overwhelmed. The stories in Oblivion, more so than the ones in Girl with Curious Hair and much more so than the ones in Brief Interviews, were all enjoyable. Mr. Squishy was a story about the marketing strategy for a snack food, which presents the idea that the market will push healthy foods but then turn and then use the exhausting pressure they are responsible for to push unhealthy foods as a break from the pressure.

Antitrend Shadows they’re called. “…the rather brilliantly managed stress that everyone was made to feel about staying fit and looking good and living long and squeezing the absolute maximum productivity and health and self-actuation out of every last vanishing second…”

(skipping some stuff. This leads to the turn for the snack foods push even though they’re unhealthy)

“(the snack foods) said or sought to say to a consumer bludgeoned by herd-pressures to achieve, forbear, trim the fat, cut down, discipline, prioritize, be sensible, self-parent, that hey, you deserve it, reward yourself, brands that in essence said what’s the use of living longer and healthier if there aren’t those few precious moments in every day when you took a few moments of hard-earned pleasure just for you?”

(then skipping some more really good stuff, there is a description of) “ads that featured people in workout clothes running into each other in dim closets where they’d gone to eat (these snacks) in secret, with all the ingenious and piquant taglines that played against the moment the characters’ mutual embarrassment turned to laughter and a convolved espirit de corps.”

Then there is Good Old Neon, which is narrated by a character who has committed suicide because he felt like a fraud, which is obviously tempting to take as very autobiographical, which maybe is unfair, but either way is a fantastic story of a human being under extreme duress from dealing with issues we can all relate to, to some degree, that everything he presents to the outside world hides who he really is deep inside, of course also aware how cliché and banal he is for fixating on this when everyone does. A hero on the internet read the entire story and posted it on youtube if anyone would rather listen.

1. The Pale King

Initially I swore I would never read this. It’s an unfinished novel, at about 500 pages, and while no one could guess how long it might have been, it sounds like from the notes left behind it would have been a second Infinite Jest type of length. Most of the chapters introduce characters who will work together at an IRS facility. Chapter two is a guy on a plane studying for the CPA exam and getting constantly distracted by everything around him. Boredom as a form of anxiety is one of the big things he was exploring. He was taking classes on taxes as research. Another chapter was a character who broke out into sweats if he started to think about sweating, or if he started to think about thinking about sweating, which left him in a pretty much constant pickle. D.F.W. broke out into panic sweats in high school, according to his parents, so again there was likely an autobiographical element to that character. He’s also in the book, in an author foreword that starts on page 68, where he claims the book is actually nonfiction. He apparently was hired at an IRS company but his name David Wallace was common enough that he got mistaken for a different one. To keep that from happening again he started using his middle name and somewhere he writes, I have to paraphrase because I couldn’t find it, “once you pick a nom de plume you’re kind of stuck with it, no matter how pretentious it sounds.”

There were also odd chapters, like one about a kid who devotes his life to doing stretching exercises with the goal of being able to kiss himself on every part of his body. (He’s going to worry about the back of his head later.) And another one about a guy who decides to record a month of TV on twelve channels and then watch it over a year. And as they’re discussing endlessly the logistics of accomplishing this, there is one character who keeps breaking in and asking, “Why, though?”

If you can take it for what it is, the last writings of honestly one of the greatest writers to have ever lived, which sounds ridiculous but is accurate, and not focus on what it isn’t, The Pale King is just a super fun read. I bought it for my sister as her introduction to David Foster Wallace. She hasn’t read it, yet.

It should go without saying but I’ll say it, this is all just one reader’s opinion on his books. And it’s worth noting that this reverse order is closer to the order I actually read them in. I went from Brief Interviews to Infinite Jest and worked my way down this list reading Pale King second to last and Oblivion last. Which could also mean I largely learned to read him as I read him. It will be interesting to reread Brief Interviews and see if I enjoy it more the second time.


Infinite Jest: Brilliant and Hilarious, Tedious and Self-Indulgent. Five Stars

Finishing reading books stops feeling like an accomplishment sometime in your early twenties but there are exceptions. Infinite Jest is a project book. According to the foreword, David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest in three years. I clipped that by about four months. I read an opening chunk on Christmas morning 2013, as I.J. was a requested gift from my mom.(1) I chugged through the last three hundred pages while on a long train trip.

Great books teach you how to read them. Early on I.J. taught me it wasn’t going anywhere, so I didn’t rush. I read other books and picked at it. What I found is that everything about it was dense, too dense at times, but when he was onto an idea that connected, you loved that he got everything out of it, so you can’t read a book like that and wish the claustrophobic portions not to your interest were edited out.(2) It isn’t so much that I.J. is good, then it wouldn’t be tedious, it’s that bits of it are so good, you know you’ll read it again even though portions of it are tedious. It’s called Infinite Jest because it takes so long to read that by the time you finish, you’re ready for a reread because you want to experience again the great parts, and on and on.(3) My favorite parts include the guy who describes the chill dusk,(4) the long bit about how being on the phone is this weird yet firm conviction that even while your attention is shared with ten other things while talking you’re convinced the person on the other side of the line is doing nothing but paying full attention to what you’re saying, and the five pages of Thats.(5) An interesting mark of the kind of book it is is that while portions of the main text feel tedious, some comic gold is to be found in the end notes. There are about 100 pages of end notes and for the most part the longer end notes were especially good. Fiction with end notes? I know, I know.(6)

Most memorable are the profound insights sprinkled in of characters suffering from depression and suicidal thinking, all the more potent given the author’s suicide.(7) Hard not to speculate that he might have drawn from his own experiences when he describes through a character the two forms depression takes: one where joy in life is utterly elusive, sufferers who rarely commit suicide, and the other group who are driven by acute emotional pain to end their lives, who do act on their suicidal thoughts. The analogy in the book is that people don’t jump from buildings to die, they jump from buildings to escape from the fire the building they’re in is engulfed in and then die.

I’m way late onto the D.F.W. bus. I caught wind of him, years ago, but got the impression that he wrote to impress, a common criticism of him, which isn’t exactly unwarranted. I finally decided to check him out after reading an essay by Jonathan Franzen discussing his friend’s death. I got Brief Interviews with Hideous Men out of the library on audio, read by the author. The first story seemed to confirm the bias I had of him. As I recall it was a long heavily descriptive story about a guy in a lawn chair and nothing else happened. The second was a heavily descriptive story, “Forever Overhead,” about a boy jumping off the high dive at a pool on his birthday and nothing else happened and that story instantly became and remains my favorite short story. I felt, after reading that story, that D.F.W. is a writer who covers territory with a certain obsessive compulsive style but he demonstrated, to me, with “Forever Overhead” that he’s capable of perfectly ordering words with absolute sincerity.(8) Once I knew that, I was able to feel like portions of his books weren’t tedious and self-indulgent but just that those portions didn’t speak to me and if I held out and kept reading other portions would in a profound way. I approached I.J. with that in mind and was able to appreciate it and even love it.

End Notes

(1) I.J. would have been an expensive library book.

(2) Of course you can; what I’m really suggesting is that you don’t.

(3) I’ve waited two and a half years to make that joke.

(4) He doesn’t actually use the phrase “chill dusk.”

(5) The Thats are exotic facts you’ll acquire if you spend time at Ennett House, a Substance-recovery halfway facility that features in the book, one of my favorites was “That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.”

(6) Who reads end notes?

(7) David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. He had recently stopped taking medication he’d been on for most of his life to control his severe depression. According to author friend Jonathan Franzen for a variety of reasons, one a worry the meds were stifling his creativity but another one was worry over the long term effects of the level of medication he was on, which was advisement straight from his doctor.

(8) Anyone who reads this blog regularly might recall an older entry about “Forever Overhead,” which can be found here: https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/12th-birthday-gift-for-my-nephew/ Within that blog is a link to the youtube video of D.F.W. reading the story, which I recommend as a wonderful way to spend around fifteen minutes.