With the recent publication of Wallace's posthumous notes toward a novel, The Pale King, plus his college philosophical thesis and other ephemera, we look back at the signal works in the career of an era-defining novelist. With this symposium, we try to assess Wallace's status in American letters in over the past 20 years, as well as looking forward to where he'll stand in years to come.
Infinite Jest is clearly and without any doubt David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. More than that: it is the book—fiction, nonfiction, or otherwise—that will be looked back to when future generations want to understand millennial America. Like all books that reach this stature, it has gotten here through a mixture of skill and luck. Quite certainly Wallace captured the contradictions that were most fundamental to the America that he came of age in.
A complex editor at a certain swanky standard-bearing New York magazine had this to exclaim when she heard I was writing some sort of long-view esteem piece on the enigma known familiarly as Dave, in the mid-tiers as DFW, and to those in the nosebleed sections as David Foster Wallace.
Herewith, in its entirety, I will reproduce for you her comment:
“Dave? I mean does anyone still read him who’s not under 40?”
David Foster Wallace’s writing has often and rightfully been lauded for its absolutely precise prose, its devices, and its footnotes and forms and aggressions. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the first collection of stories to follow the massive and career-defining Infinite Jest, he uses all just these skills to tackle selfishness the way Infinite Jest tackled addiction. Wallace is, in all of his work, at least tangentially commenting on contemporary Americans’ incessant egomania, but BIWHM, in true Wallace fashion, investigates this theme from seemingly every fathomable angle. Wallace was never a subtle writer, preferring motive to leitmotif, and action to metaphor, and Brief Interviews is no exception. It is exhaustive.
In a YouTube interview, a lawyer and author of several books about English usage asks David Foster Wallace what he thinks of genteelisms—those multisyllablic, latinate, important-sounding words like “prior to” and “subsequent to” that substitute for shorter, often Anglo-Saxon, down-to-earth-sounding ones like “before.” Revealingly, the guy who majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College, whose father was a philosophy professor, doesn’t answer at first. Instead, he reflexively makes a sour face. Only then does he suggest “genteelism” is an “overly charitable way to characterize” such “puff words,” and concludes: “This is the downside of starting to pay attention. You start noticing all the people who say ‘at this time’ instead of ‘now.’
Part of me believes that it is his nonfiction that will be predominantly read in the years ahead. Oh, everyone will talk a big game about Infinite Jest, but the primary means though which readers will actually encounter Wallace’s actual language will be through his nonfiction. In part, this is just because IJ is still a gigantic undertaking to read, but also it’s because his nonfiction is just so much more welcoming than much of his fiction, especially his post-IJ work, which is constricted and self-conscious and often constipated, where the noticing seems to embalm and overwhelm the stories.
The Pale King follows a recent spate of Wallace-related publications, but if it has a purpose beyond the writer’s continued Tupacification, it must be to help us appreciate the impulses that drove him to write in the first place—and perhaps in doing so, we’ll let him off the cross.
I was informed of David Foster Wallace’s death by text message. If I’m tempted to say that this detail would have horrified or amused or depressed Wallace, it’s only because it’s gratifying to think that the things that horrify or amuse or depress me are the same things that would have horrified or amused or depressed him. The truth is I have no idea what he would have thought about the news of his death being disseminated on millions of tiny screens on devices people carry around in their pockets.
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