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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

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.

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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.

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.

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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