Why David Foster Wallace inspires such devotion in his fans.

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April 21 2011 12:06 PM

David Foster Wallace

Why he inspires such devotion in his fans.

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By this point, in other words, one of Wallace's central subjects had become the crisis of contemporary pluralism: how to think intelligently and truthfully about the world when that world is full of intelligent and truthful people who adhere to irreconcilable schools of thought. This is a basic problem of the postmodern landscape, but Wallace carried it past the far hills. He tried (in Infinite Jest, for instance,writing on depression from various vantages and vocabularies) to find humane common ground beneath the warring systems, to pinpoint what remains after intellectual frameworks fall away. Meanwhile, he started calling out this tendency in other art. Writing on the filmmaker David Lynch, Wallace praised the way Blue Velvet "captured something crucial about the way the U.S. present acted on our nerve endings, something crucial that couldn't be analyzed or reduced to a system of codes or aesthetic principles or workshop techniques." That irreducibility began to shape the contours of his prose.

The results were startling. In the short story "Octet" from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999), Wallace poses a series of serious life situations cast as "pop quiz" logic puzzles: Some characters get introduced as "X" and "Y" even as the scenarios described grow increasingly specific and painful. By the end of the story, the variables have fallen away, as has the pop-quiz premise; instead, the author discusses the experience of trying to write the story, lamenting the failure to pull off a persuasive, human piece of fiction in the planned framework—a shtick that would be boilerplate metafiction were it not for a stab of sudden self-revelation. The author writes, he finally confesses, to be liked. What he fears most is being naked. This vulnerability gives much of Wallace's late work its particular spark. The intensely self-aware narrator who opens a recent story, "Good Old Neon" in Oblivion (2004), at one point takes up an old highbrow chestnut, the limits and contingency of language, and uses it to talk about sub-intellectual inner life. "What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant," he wrote. The limits of writing here point toward the literally unthinkable complexity of human experience.

To humanize the postmodern crisis in this way was Wallace's great achievement, and a culturally resonant one. Between 1970 and 2004, enrollment in both college and graduate school doubled in this country. That period also saw increasing specialization among academic pursuits. DFW's rise to maturity as an artist, in other words, coincided with the emergence of record numbers of highly educated middle-class Americans, many of them entering the adult world equipped with determining interpretive habits and rarefied habits of thought.

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What his mature work offered such readers was an opportunity to break past this pale of smarts and knowledge—and many found the prospect attractive. Nick Maniatis, a teacher in Canberra, Australia, who founded and continues to run the leading DFW fan site, The Howling Fantods, told me that the fans he encounters today largely embrace Wallace for the same reasons that he became an acolyte 15 years ago, when he first bought a copy of Infinite Jest on a whim (the book was on sale) and had his worldview transformed. "It helped me to engage with people who had completely different opinions to me," he explained; the novel began to change him from a dogmatic and stiff-minded university student to a reader with the tools to navigate a pluralistic world.

These lessons in humane ethics, more than Wallace's prose style or satire, lie behind the recent groundswell of DFW fandom, too. Both of the nonfiction works pushed into print following Wallace's death—his undergraduate thesis in modal philosophy (refuting Richard Taylor's 1962 argument that free will is an illusion) and his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon (reprinted, one sentence to a page, as This Is Water)—purport to be valuable as not literary works but as statements of humane leadership: Here is the collegiate Wallace, breaking past a crushing intellectual system to champion what's beautiful and unexpected about human experience. Here is the world-wizened DFW, telling you that all the analytic tools and interpretive self-awareness you acquired in college is just a starting point—that the real work of an educated person lies in moving among ways of thinking, and with compassion. "The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it," Wallace said at Kenyon. Yet "[t]he really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people."

Wallace would have been unable to make such kumbaya pronouncements and be taken dead seriously by thousands of hypereducated, status-conscious readers if he hadn't won his credentials as a star of intellectual achievement—and reminded readers of this fact with every footnote, Cf., graph, and self-aware parry in his style. As it is, he blazed a trail that no other formal thinker of his generation led as brightly. Wallace was the 21st-century intellectual who taught readers to feel, the writer who explained how it was possible to live receptively and humanely without betraying a heavy, highly critical education. A striving culture welcomed his instruction. Even if you weren't a dyed-in-the-wool Wallace fan, it was hard not to be haunted by his suicide. More than most people, DFW seemed to see how modern life, in all of its irreconcilable parts, fit together. It is frightening to realize the world he couldn't bear to live in any longer is the one that's now become our own.

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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