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.

The Stigma of Suicide (A Pale King Metaphor)

We have a lot of compassion for people feeling suicidal but often too little for those who have taken their own lives. With good intentions, we use phrases like “giving up” or “throwing your life away.” The goal is to remind the living that their lives have value, but the result is a pressure on those struggling to persevere as they suffer emotional turmoil. They feel guilty for not appreciating life, the way others do but really the way emotionally healthy people enjoy life, which exacerbates their anguish.

David Foster Wallace voluntarily left this world, also leaving a novel-in-progress. They found close to six-hundred pages of completed, publishable chapters and notebooks of ideas and free write chapters all bundled under the title The Pale King. I think of the passion and dedication and perseverance required to do all that work and I don’t think of someone for whom “giving up” or “throwing his life away” fit. This was someone who recognized the value of his life but was driven by inner turmoil to the escape suicide seemed to offer during a moment of crushing despair. The Pale King isn’t proof of his value but works as a metaphor. The Pale King isn’t evidence his life had value, each of our lives has that. We don’t need accomplishments—not books or children or jobs we enjoy, not even relationships with other people—to have lives we value; we just need to each find our unique way to make our mysterious presence resonate.

From what I’ve read, David Foster Wallace didn’t discuss his mental health much, publicly, but according to an interview his parents gave, after his death, he suffered from panic sweats in high school. The Pale King includes a character who agonizes over starting to sweat and how starting to think about starting to sweat will make him sweat but trying not to think about starting to sweat is too much like thinking about starting to sweat and so he starts to sweat—we’re talking visibly dripping sweating sitting in a lecture kind of sweating. Often his characters experience occasional bouts of mental anguish, which doesn’t make those characters him but it seems likely he was drawing on his own experience. In Infinite Jest there was a line that people don’t jump out of buildings to die, they jump out of buildings because the building they are in is on fire and then they die.

The existence of The Pale King, what we have, makes me think of the many times David Foster Wallace must have rescued himself from his severe anxiety and depression and from the brink of suicide rather than the final time he didn’t. We’re indoctrinated to the idea that life is a gift, which translates to an obligation when our troubles feel insurmountable and unending. Life isn’t a gift or an obligation. Life is an opportunity for discovering our reason for choosing to be here. This is the beauty of a human life, is that we know we’ll die but we don’t let that marginalize our time here. We celebrate it. This is easier for some than others. The message to those feeling despair and tempted by suicide shouldn’t be “Don’t do it,” the message should be “Delay. Seek help.” This is why suicide guards on bridges are proven effective because delaying suicide increases the likelihood that the person will seek help. (That bridges often don’t have them despite how cheap they are to install reflects the stigma of suicide. The Golden Gate Bridge, a suicide destination for some twenty people annually, still doesn’t have one.–See link below for an older blog about The Bridge, if interested–People don’t understand the point of them because they can’t believe someone wouldn’t simply find another way, but suicide is an impulsive act. Even when suicide follows a period of despair, within that period suicide was resisted, delayed, and then committed impulsively. Sometimes a delay of twenty minutes can result in a change of perspective that might prevent suicide.)

I understand the temptation of the flip side. He was in the middle of a great book. How could he not finish it? Even on the selfish level of me wanting to read it, I can feel angry. On the less selfish level of America needing his voice now more than ever, I can feel angry. I can imagine his friends and family, who loved him, experiencing grief and think, Why? But I just don’t go there. Not because I think having empathy for him is the right response, this isn’t the equivalent of “being politically correct,” but because I do have empathy for him. I’ve glimpsed what maybe he was feeling because his immense talent as a writer showed me characters experiencing anguish utterly unknown to me as an emotionally healthy person. So anger just isn’t my response. It would be wasted anger, anyway, except worse than wasted because it would feel directed to people living who are experiencing those levels of anguish and would be internalized as a threat: Don’t do it because we’ll think less of you afterwards, which would add to their struggle.

These are just my opinions and I’m not an expert. Thinking about suicide isn’t a sign of a problem. Typically people will think fleetingly about suicide, this is actually life affirming. We’re reminding ourselves we’re choosing to be here. Contemplating suicide could be a sign of a problem. Seek help, now, and acquire coping skills so that if an impulsive moment comes delaying will be easier. Avoid keeping a gun in the home. Call this number, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

I’ve touched on this subject in both my review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and in my review of The Bridge. I’ll link both below.

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/the-bridge-thoughts-on-suicide/

Links below from wordpress. Thank you for reading.

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