Los Angeles, CA
You either really love, or really hate David Foster Wallace. He's been dismissed as too verbose, or overly pretentious for using superfluous foototes1, or a pompous elitist for shoving down your throat just how much smarter he is, or trying too hard to demonstrate he's hip and cool by mixing proletariat vernacular with big, bourgeois words that you need to look up in the dictionary.
I'll put David Foster Wallace up against the Holy Trinity of my favorite literary heavyweights -- Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Pynchon. He holds his own because of his versatility to write exceptional journalism, essays, short stories, novellas, and novels. Thomas Pynchon is probably the closest writer that comes close to being in the same head space as Wallace... or I should say, Wallace is the closest anyone has gotten to Pynchon.
When I lived in Seattle in the late 90s, one of my friends who was a painter2 absolutely adored David Foster Wallace and Spalding Gray. Being a New Yorker, I was aware of Gray and his infamous monologues, but I never heard of Wallace. He told me Wallace had a new book coming out (Infinite Jest) but I needed to start with his first novel The Broom of the System. He loaned me a copy but warned me it was heavy. Interesting choice of words. The copy of The Broom of the System he gave me was hardcover and it was certainly heavy in weight and heavy-handed in Wittgensteinian philosophy. The Broom of the System became the perfect rainy weather book because I couldn't put it down and it gave me something to look forward to reading on my porch while mist surrounded my house and the rain trickled down and I got lost in DFW's world.
Not too many writers can pull off a sensational novel at age 22, but The Broom of the System was an auspicious start to DFW's writing career. He penned Broom while working on a philosophy degree at Amherst and wrote the novel as his thesis. DFW's friends insisted he ditch the philosophy thing and focus on writing full-time because he had an uncanny knack for words and opening up the tap to his inner dialogue and letting all those thoughts quickly flow all over the place. He thought he was on a path toward becoming a full-time professor and part-time philosopher who published every few years, but the raw talent demonstrated in his thesis/novel turned heads in the literary world, which was craving the next new big thing. After reading excerpts of Broom, DFW attracted a literary agent... and the rest is history.
In the early 1980s, the literary machine had a hard-on for minimalism3 or K-Mart Realism which was the complete opposite of David Foster Wallace's lush style. DFW and Broom had come out of nowhere and altered the new direction of the contemporary American novel. For better or worse. If you had to classify DFW, he's a post-modernist. I think DFW wanted to be called a post-post-modernist (e.g. post-Don DeLillo). I always viewed DFW, Dave Eggers, and the Jonathans (Franzen and Lethem) as post-modern anti-minimalists4. They rebelled from literary fetish du jour -- minimalism -- and shied away from the succinct manner Richard Ford and Raymond Carver described the banality and tedium of suburban malaise.
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In early 1996, Wallace's highly-anticipated and hyped second novel, Infinite Jest, finally hit the shelves after it took him almost a decade to write. The monster-manuscript clocked in at almost 1,100 pages. Seriously. That's like 6x or 7x the size of Jack Tripper Stole My Dog.
Readers tackling Infinite Jest are mountaineers trying to climb Mt. Everest. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to ascend the peak of the highest mountain top in the literary world. A complex behemoth like Infinite Jest, which had more characters than the Bible, is what you've been training for your entire life as a reader, so you accept the daunting task of tackling Infinite Jest knowing that you might never reach the summit, and if you don't die on the way up, there's an even huger risk of dying on the way down.
I tried to read Infinite Jest more times than I can count. The first time I started it, I never got pass the 420-page mark. I failed to finished it in one continuous attempt, but finally completed it in the days leading up to the millennium (spread out over eight or nine months with several breaks in between). The novel was so big (like bigger than the Holy Bible) that I refused to carry it around because it was so bulky. I read it in bookstores (mostly in airports or at Barnes and Noble) or borrowed a copy from friends.
I tried to re-read Infinite Jest a couple of years ago after I came across a companion website for the book. Man, too bad an Infinite Jest wiki page and resources guide did not exist the first time I took a crack at Jest. Anyway, a couple of years ago I was traveling a ton for work and came to the realization that I didn't have the necessary time to dedicate a series deconstruction of Infinite Jest. I lost interest in trying to climb that mountain, because I had a pile of other books I wanted to read at the time and faced a conundrum (read 3-4 books, or attempt to re-read Jest). I didn't want to abandon DFW, so I was happy to find his collections of long short stories/novellas like The Girl With Curious Hair or Oblivion and collections of non-fiction essays like Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.
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David Foster Wallace was 46 when he committed suicide in 2008 by hanging himself, presumably because he had set the bar so high with his previous novels that he was miserable and despondent trying to outdo himself. He battled depression for over two decades and finally gave up the struggle. He never finished the manuscript which was supposed to be his highly-anticipated third novel. The work in progress ballooned and swelled to a bloated manuscript (much like Infinite Jest's first draft that was over 33% bigger than the publication draft).
The Pale King, DFW's third novel was published posthumously. His wife and his agent found a typed (but unfinished) manuscript in his office. It was massive, but undone. It was accompanied by hand-written notebooks filled with notes other passages. Presumably, he ran into a dead end and was stuck.
DFW became too depressed to write. Too depressed to finish his third novel. His worst fears and lofty expectations helped strangle him. The one thing that he loved the most -- writing -- caused him the most pain. He took a leave of absence from teaching and hoped to get his shit together by finding the right cocktail of anti-depressants. It didn't work. He couldn't write. He couldn't make decisions. He froze up. The task of trying to finish the book killed him.
I know the anxious, panicky feeling of looking at a mountain of pages on your desk and it feels like you can never untangle that huge ball of mess. You set out on a path to follow your heart and end up blazing a few trails along the way, but you get so far out there that you get so far lost and realize you can never find your way back home and that your original mission has been hijacked and re-calibrated to keep both sides of the art vs. commerce argument satisfied.
Instead of trying to write his way out of his own personal hell, DFW took the alternative route.
DFW-heads wondered what could have been if he never killed himself. Maybe he would have still been on the turtle-like pace and only published a novel every decade? Which if the case, his fans would have happily waited every ten years for 1,000 pages.
Novels aside, I enjoyed DFW's nonfiction immensely and miss his perverted Maoist sense of humor and his enlightened wit and "awww shucks" manner in which he embraced pop culture and our consumer-driven society, yet tackled it as a true philosopher. One critic described reading essays by DFW were like snorting really good cocaine. You felt euphoric and warm and fuzzy everywhere, but you wanted more and more and more and more. That's a great fucking analogy. DFW is un-cut pure Colombian cocaine.
Maybe if DFW did cocaine, he would have finished his book sooner and not sunken into a horrid depressive state? Or perhaps Adderall? It's good enough for air force pilots, so maybe Adderall would have helped DFW write and edit at a much faster speed and he'd crank out manuscripts every 18 months like Stephen King jacked up on blow5?
DFW didn't like drugs except the happy pills prescribed by his shrinks. He was not addicted to money and had a love-hate relationship with fame. He didn't need the money that badly to give him a financial incentive to finish The Pale King (like what happened to Dostoevsky, when he was drowning in gambling debts and cranked out The Gambler in installments to get the shylocks off his back). DFW had a good job teaching creative writing at Pamona and had a flourishing freelance career writing essays for random high-brow magazines like Harpers, New Yorker, and the Paris Review. The more time passes, the more I'm gonna miss that excitement of stumbling upon a random copy of the New Yorker and discovering that DFW had written a short story or essay, and then flipping the pages quickly to find out where it starts and then flipping again to see where it ends and how much DFW I was going to get.
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One of my all-time favorite pieces6 of non-fiction writing is DFW's infamous cruise ship piece A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. It appeared in Harper's with the title Shipping Out. A magazine sent him on a lavish cruise and hilarity ensued. DFW was grossed out by the over-consumption and pampering, he lost a chess match against a nine-year old, got irked that the ship had Dr. Pepper instead of Mr. Pibb, and used the word "bovine" or a derivative of "bovine" numerous times to describe his fellow self-indulgent Americans. I'm not a cruise guy and if you read DFW's article then you might understand how we share a similar attitude and opinion about cruise ships and the downfall of American society. FYI... You can entire essay in PDF format via Harper's archives.
I re-read the cruise ship article at least once a year. True story. It was a vital part of my "spring training regimen" every May (from 2005-2011) in which I read three things that reminded me of what good writing is supposed to look and sound like. For seven summers in a row, I lived in Las Vegas and covered the World Series of Poker, but to mentally prepare myself, I re-read DFW's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Al Alvarez's The Biggest Game in Town. There's something else I read, but I'd rather keep that third influential book7 to myself. I don't want to reveal all my tricks. But yeah, DFW helped prepare me for desert warfare in Vegas. He was one of my big secrets how I got ahead.
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The other day I finished reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. In 1996, Rolling Stone magazine sent Lipsky to profile DFW right around the time he was doing a press tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky spent five days on the road with DFW and recorded every conversation. For some reason, the piece was never published in Rolling Stone... much to the delight of DFW who was nervous about coming off like a pretentious jerkoff. Even though the story was killed, Lipsky kept all his notes and recordings. When DFW killed himself in 2008, Lipsky dusted off the road trip tapes and listened to them. He decided he had enough material to write a book about those fives intimate days he spent with DFW. Most of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was transcribed conversations the two shared in DFW's house, or while driving from Normal, IL to Chicago, or hanging out in hotels in Minnesota, or sitting in airports waiting for delayed flights.
Lipsky's book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself gave a rare tour inside the twisted mind of DFW, close-ups of his insecurities, and expanded dialogue about his problems with over-analyzing everything. Lipsky included couple of juicy nuggets about his writing process and how he used words and characters to work out his own problems and make sense of the past and figure out how the world worked in the present, while constantly anxious about the future. My favorite parts were little bits about DFW explaining the complex yet seductive relationship between readers and writers.
Here's some of my favorite revelations from Lipsky's roadtrip with DFW...
- DFW was addicted to candy and nicotine. He smoked American Spirits and also dipped constantly, using old cans of Diet Pepsi to spit in.
- DFW was addicted to TV and really bad TV, so much so he tried not to own a TV. But he often went over to friends' houses/apartments to lose himself in bad movies (he liked movies in which "stuff blew up") and sitcoms. When he was on the road promoting his book, his favorite thing to do was stay in his hotel room to watch TV for hours on end. Like a full-blown junkie, once he started... he couldn't stop.
- After his brief stint in AA, DFW stopped drinking but he hung out at halfway houses and talked to addicts because some newly sober people are very friendly and want to open up about the truths of addiction.
- DFW wore a bandana to combat an unusual sweating problem, which intensified when he grew nervous. The bandana helped soak up the perspiration and often wore it at home when he wrote so he wouldn't get the pages wet. Almost of the pictures of DFW on the web were taken at public appearances and he's wearing a bandana because he go super nervous before interviews, readings, and book signings.
- The original Infinite Jest manuscript was 1,700 pages. He tried to pull a fast one on his agent and publisher by printing it up single-spaced in a smaller font. That didn't work and his agent/publisher got pissed off and made him re-print the manuscript double spaced and in the proper font size. It took DFW three days to finish the print job.
- It took five months for DFW to write the first draft of The Broom of the System and it was 700 + pages long.
- A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again contained 170 footnotes. Some of the footnotes could have become separate essays and fiction pieces, particularly his lengthy footnote about the seven other people he was forced to dine with every night for a week straight on the cruise ship.8
- DFW was obsessed with Alanis Morrissette. He had a poster of her on one of his walls.
- DFW ate a lot of acid in high school, but he persistently denied rumors that he was addicted to heroin. Some of his (most jealous) peers were convinced DFW's writing prowess and inspiration came from shooting dope. Turns out he smoked black tar heroin once (it was on a joint) and he actually enjoyed the experience, but he was not a junkie9, much to the dismay of his peers.
This concludes a lengthy post about DFW. He's an acquired taste and not for everyone. Some of his peers were among his biggest haters. Bret Easton Ellis loathed DFW and thought he was the most overrated writer who ever lived. It's taken me at least a decade before I fully appreciated DFW's talents and contributions, but I still haven't figured everything out yet. DFW is probably my most favorite writer who I don't push onto other people because he's intense and his material challenges the reader. That's something I look for in books... a challenge... and I'm always turning to DFW to fulfill that role.
I pass through phases every few months when I'm constantly reading something from DFW's archives. Last week, I purchased a used copy of The Broom of the System for only $4. Awesome deal consider it's over 450 pages long or less than a penny a page. I started re-reading Broom (I forgot it starts with the the main character refusing to smoke a joint) and I'm excited to jump back into it 15 years after my initial introduction to DFW because when I originally read it, I had hair down to my ass and I was your typical lost 20-somthing, angst-ridden Gen Xer living in Seattle as an aspiring screenwriter. Today, I have such a different mindset and frame of reference after a decade of roaming through the existentialist meat grinder of the Vegas scene and somehow ending up a poker reporter and novelist along the way.
Infinite Jest is a huge and intimidating book -- both physically and mentally -- but it's gotten a second life due to Kindle and other e-readers. A few friends wanted to give DFW a second chance and picked up an e-copy of Infinite Jest because having it on Kindle would encourage them to finally finish it, plus they won't have to lug it around on the toilet, or subway, or have it take up space in their carry-on bags, of get confiscated by the TSA for being a potential weapon for a terrorist. If you're reading Jest for the first time, there's a few websites that offer assistance on how to read Infinite Jest.
I haven't read all of the The Pale King, but I acquired the first couple of chapters through a free preview on Kindle. There's also an except of The Pale King titled Backbone that appeared in the New Yorker.
If you enjoy tennis, here's DFW's piece in Esquire (c. 1996) titled... String Theory.
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1. I learned how to code footnotes specifically for this post about DFW.
2. My buddy Todd played trumpet and created paintings using tar. He was an awesome resource for book/film suggestions and turned me onto Jose Luis Borges and Hal Hartley films.
3. The most notable Minimalists (a.k.a. K-Mart Realists) were Richard Ford, Anne Beattie, Raymond Carver, Frederick Barthelme, and Joy Williams. You can also add Chuck Palahniuk to that genre, but he came around a decade later. Author Tao Lin recently wrote a few essays on K-Mart Realism.
4. Post-modern anti-minimalists = PO-MO ANTI-MINS
5. In his help-book On Writing, Stephen King admitted that he had long stretches when he was so far gone and fucked up on cocaine that he had to stuff cotton balls and tissues in his nose to stop the bleeding so he wouldn't get blood on his typewriter. King also admitted he didn't recall writing many classic books because he was under a heavy fog of cocaine, pills, and booze.
6. "All-time favorite" is a bold fucking statement.... but true.
7. I assure you the elusive third book is NOT Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything from Hunter Thompson.
8. The footnote about the DFW's dinner table could have been its own book. DFW devoted a couple of pages to the actual footnote describing how he liked six of his fellow tablemates but hated the youngest -- a spoiled-rotten, rich high school girl named "Mona" -- who spent the entire time in the disco/clubs or donking off money at the slot machines inside the ship's casino.
9. Wallace supposedly never drank again after he got out of rehab, however, I suspected he smoked weed on and off over the years. How else would you be able to cover McCain's 2000 Presidential campaign without going apeshit crazy?