Commentary: The David Foster Wallace Reader

David Foster Wallace with man's best friend

  A Slightly Strange and Wonderfully Honest Voice We Will Never Hear Again

David Foster Wallace must have been one strange and wonderful cat. I don't know for sure since I did not know him or even follow his career and personal life till only recently, but my impression of him through his writing and interviews tell me I'm right. He was a writer who shared much of his personal life experience in essays yet he was an introvert (or perhaps rather, not an extrovert) at heart, literally sweating at times over how he would come across during speeches and interviews. As a professor of English at a number of colleges, he was a real taskmaster, a grammar/usage Nazi of sorts, a peculiarity perhaps passed on through his mom's genes (Sally Foster Wallace is also a professor of English and has written reference books on usage. His father is a the Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at the University of Illinois. Those are some high quality genes, academically speaking).

Wallace was an admitted Depressive, had been since a young age. His first published piece The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation to The Bad Thing (Amherst Review, 1984), relates the autobiographical tale of a youth on antidepressants (Tofranil which the narrator fittingly renames Trillaphon because the name sounds more like the sonic vibe it induces) which he likens to living on another planet. Sadly those very antidepressants, their inevitable ineffectiveness after twenty years of use, led to Wallace's demise (suicide by hanging in 2008).

I've been listening to the anthology entitled The David Foster Wallace Reader on my iPod and have been illuminated by his high beam brilliance. I regret to say I've avoided his influence until now, for some reason putting off reading Infinite Jest (his best known fiction work) and as a result just not realizing that there was so much more material to consume. The anthology is not perfect in that it could never be, since devotees of Wallace will always recall an especially favorite essay, chapter, short story, or speech that has not been included in this volume. For interested novices, however, the DFW reader is essential. But, hold on, before you fanatics start heckling this semi-bold statement, consider the fact that one can always re-read, for example, Infinite Jest in its entirety.

I would also posit that the DFW reader exposes the novice to a wide variety of Wallace's material that one might miss otherwise, even if one was aware of most of his major stuff. For instance it includes the author's own teaching materials from various English courses he taught while at, I'm assuming, Pomona College in California. This affords a unique insight into Wallace's philosophy of discipline regarding all types of writing, usage, grammar, etc..., and though to some readers this level of ephemera may seem tedious, I believe it is if not essential, at least edifying if one presumes to really understand this guy.

Wallace is as comfortable writing about how ubiquitous television viewing influences modern fiction as he is espousing the delights of Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, just as adept at fictionalizing Alec Trebek and the machinations of a Jeopardy grand champion as he is chronicling a week-long Caribbean cruise on a ship he dubs the Nadir. He rallies from an essay diagnosing his own tennis prowess (and loss thereof) as a top-ranked player on the Midwestern junior circuit to the deconstruction of Roger Federer's gracefully 'beautiful' play at Wimbledon. DFW's best work is infused with rampant passion. We learn of his personal doctrine of social discourse, which he argues should come across as more sincere and salutary. Later in his career he eschewed the kind of irony and cynicism which seemed to purvey post millennial fiction.

When I was nine years old, my parents thought it might be fun to treat their boy to the pastoral spectacle that was the Danbury Fair; about an hour away from our New Jersey digs up in Connecticut. I have a vague memory of the Midway and all the rich and sugary food, the midget car races and the some-sort-of-plastic or papier-mâché giant-sized statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue Ox (Babe). What I recall very clearly though, is having what I considered the singular pleasure, and at the same time the ignominy of watching my father drive a caboose harnessed to a large bird in an event known as the Ostrich Races.

In his irascibly funny essay about the Illinois State Fair, Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All, Wallace brings the memories of county fair quirkiness all back home. By featuring his own brand of schismatic Midwesterner-turned-big-city-journalist sensibility, he self deprecates his way through cooking contests, vertiginous carnival rides, all sorts of stabled livestock displays. But Wallace digs much deeper into this annual bucolic splendor, revealing what he believes the underlying purpose for such portly pageantry and garish pomp. It turns out, rural types, isolated as they may be over the course of the year, yearn for that human connection, that fellowship, at least for one week out of fifty-two. By the same token, city dwellers have had their fill of other people invading personal space diurnally, so much so, they tend to get the urge to escape from it all for seven days or so per annum. Having lived in the land of David Foster Wallace for a few weeks, however, I can only hanker to remain there forever.