David Foster Wallace
Why he inspires such devotion in his fans.
Most writers are forgotten by the time they're laid to rest; some lucky ones, in time, claw their way back from down below and don the lonely robes of literary sainthood. David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself with a belt nearly three years ago, has spent life after death drawing parade crowds on a fast path to beatification. Since Wallace's suicide at 46, his public star has climbed so high that recent publication of his book-in-progress, The Pale King, threatens to eclipse even Nabokov's unfinished novel. DFW fans have performed literary acts of faith en masse, in public, and in ever-growing congregations. Two years back, a Web book club called Infinite Summer took on Wallace's 1,000-plus-page second novel. His newest book, which has no clear ending, has been abridged and read out loud onstage. Wallace archives abound; he has published more volumes since dying than during any two-and-a-half-year stretch of his life. DFW never lacked an eager audience, but he cautioned against playing to the expectations of a literary following. In death, he's been transformed into the kind of writer that, in life, he would have found deeply suspicious.
It is not at once clear how Wallace's work has reached this level of esteem. In a chronically fickle marketplace for serious fiction, his long, slippery, painfully frank books stand out mostly for their crags and challenges: A reader encountering the mature DFW for the first time will find a swell of nonlinear narrative, a patina of academic argument (a favorite gambit: "I submit …"), and a thatch of lengthy and digressive footnotes. The man himself—underdressed, overinformed, speaking with the halting care of someone used to leaning on the backspace key—stood out as a flamboyant nebbish even in a nebbish-packed profession. Lots about Wallace's style and subjects portend critical success, but almost nothing projects popularity. Why has he earned the sort of following that usually flows to genre writers and canonized masters?
The answer has less to with the part of Wallace that is best-known—the cerebral trappings and stylistic high jinks—than with a feature of his work that is more subtly distinctive. Increasingly over the course of his career, Wallace chased a humane sensibility on the page, a project that had less to do with arcane intellectual stylings than with his effort to break past them, to write about a social logic that didn't depend on form or training. Reading the mature DFW means witnessing formal thought being juggled, shattered, and finally reconnected to basic ideas about how to live. In this, he channeled a peculiar hunger in his generation. His ascent coincided with a burst in higher education, leading more young adults than ever to enter the world rehearsed in systematic thought but unsure how to live humanely in a secular and pluralistic age. Wallace, in the books he published and the work he left behind, helped bridge that gap.
This wasn't his original mold as an artist. Wallace started as a young writer he'd later come to loathe: cocky, imitative, and mired in formalized thought. Although he'd never had a writing-or-bust sense of vocation—it wasn't until he took time off from Amherst and started reading heavily in '60s avant-gardists that he had an urge to try the craft—he took precociously to fiction. The Broom of the System, Wallace's first novel, was written as half of his senior thesis requirement. It runs 155,000 words. Through the young author's efforts, the book eventually found its way to an agent, and then an editor, who offered some proposals for revision. Wallace, as he later put it, brushed them off with a "seventeen-page letter about literary theory." He was 24.
And he had high ambitions. The Broom of the System's plot, mostly set in the then-future, is indebted to that older generation of postmodern writers, trafficking in absurd names (Wang-Dang Lang, etc.), satirized corporate undertakings (baby-food manufacturing), and a highly conceptual flavor of surrealism. (The novel's protagonist comes to wonder whether her life is a creation solely of language, which is another way of saying she has lots of stoner-esque questions about what is, you know, really real.) But the book is also, undeniably, a rookie effort. Like a lot of fiction written by people in their 20s, Broom has a high-omniscience, gag-making, let-me-tell-you-how-it-is swagger that hides what's basically a lack of voice control. It reeks of sophomoric taste, and not just because lots of Wallace's prose dwells on undressed young women. The book came into being as a giant megaphone for Wittgensteinian language theory, and its clumsiest sections blare novel-of-ideas dialogue and classroom-grade enthusiasm. Itis a novel wedded to its "system" of thought in a sense larger than Wallace may have meant.
What it isn't is an emotionally urgent book. The years between which Wallace, always a brilliant student, got an MFA and dropped out of a Ph.D. program in philosophy were fraught ones in his personal life, but the crisis barely showed: From the late '80s into the early '90s, he wrote somewhat snide and dismissive short-form book reviews; worked up a showy, culture-saturated prose style; and composed stories like "Order and Flux in Northampton"—a hilarious exercise in cultural caricature that's nonetheless so structurally contrived, so lacking in real empathy, that instead of writing about human love, Wallace speaks of an abstract idea of love anthropomorphized as a "homunculus." Perhaps the young DFW was trying to keep his fiction at a safe distance from his life. This work finds him trapped in his head in every sense of the phrase, trying to impose meaning on the world and the lives it contains by categorizing, labeling, parsing.
This was when he began to work seriously on Infinite Jest. The book, he later said, was meant to be "extraordinarily sad." Its intimate portrait of addiction and treatment opened a vulnerable window onto Wallace's history. Beyond this frankness, itlaid down the groundwork for another kind of crack-up. Wallace famously began using endnotes in writing his giant novel in order to reflect "fractured" experience; yet the fractures are as much in intellectual continuity as in time and space. Each point of rupture or elaboration in the book draws out a different way of thinking of a scene or problem. (Wallace described the novel's peculiarities as a "structural representation of the way the world operated on my nerve endings, which was as a bunch of discrete, random bits.") If the novel's structural goal is reducible—and that's an open question—it is as an illustration of the struggle to shape a story arc across noncontiguous planes of experience and many, sometimes incommensurable, systems of thought.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.