The Turbulent Genius of David Foster Wallace
By Alexander Nazaryan
January 8, 2015
Wallace grew up in a small Illinois town that he called in one essay (“Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”) “a tiny collection of corn silos and war-era Levittown homes whose native residents did little but sell crop insurance and nitrogen fertilizer and herbicide and collect property taxes from the young academics at nearby Champaign-Urbana’s university.” His father, Jim, was one of those academics, teaching philosophy at the University of Illinois. His mother, Sally, taught English at Parkland College. If one of the Wallace children made a grammatical error at dinner, she would lapse into a paroxysm of coughing until the error was caught and corrected. Max writes in his biography of Wallace that “he would later tell interviewers of his memory of his parents lying in bed, holding hands, reading Ulysses to each other.” In other words, a family as average as the Joneses.
Jim Wallace had gone to Amherst College; Wallace fils went there, too. Though signs of mental distress had shown themselves earlier, in the form of childhood anxiety, they now blossomed like black flowers. He had to take time off from school in 1982, then again in 1983. During the second of these depressive episodes, he read Gravity’s Rainbow and wrote a short story called “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing.” Trilafon is an antipsychotic medication. You have surely divined, already, the nature of “the Bad Thing.”
“Trillaphon” was published in the Amherst Review, and more recently in Tin House, but appears here for the first time for popular consumption in book form. It inaugurates The David Foster Wallace Reader with these ominous words: “I’ve been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I’m pretty qualified to tell what they’re like. They’re fine, really, but they’re fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn’t be good old Earth, obviously.” This is juvenilia, sure, but it is revealing. “Everything in you is sick and grotesque,” Wallace writes in “Trillaphon” of the depression that never relinquished its hold on him. This slight story may be the most personally revealing thing he ever wrote.
After graduating from Amherst, Wallace decided to get a graduate degree in creative writing. He was admitted to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but chose the program at the University of Arizona instead, where, according to Max, he “wouldn’t have to come out writing like John Cheever”—a horrifying thought, much as I adore the Ovid of Ossining. He acquired an agent who managed to sell his first novel, The Broom of the System, to Viking’s Gerry Howard.
Trying to choose a representative selection from one of Wallace’s three novels (average length: 717 pages) is like trying to choose a single boulder to capture the feeling of climbing Mount Everest. There are only about 40 pages of Broom here, which Howard notes in his afterword is “a novel of ideas, most of them deriving from the gnomic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein,” a collegiate favorite of Wallace’s. The whimsical names of the characters (Biff Diggerence, Vance Vigorous, Candy Mandible) hint at Pynchon’s influence. Published in 1986, the novel clashed with the superficial Brat Pack style that had recently come to reign over American fiction. Wallace made Bret Easton Ellis, whose Less Than Zero had come out the year before, seem like a coke-addled interloper in literature’s grand cathedral, kind of amusing but totally ephemeral. “Clearly Mr. Wallace possesses a wealth of talents,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, though she worried that the 24-year-old novelist was too enamored of his own intelligence. The same charge would hound Wallace for the rest of his life.
In 1989, Wallace published the short story collection Girl With Curious Hair,two stories from which are in the Reader (“Little Expressionless Animals” and “My Appearance”). The experimental stories inflated his reputation as a Serious Young Talent (as the capitalization-prone Wallace might have put it), but they left me impressed yet unmoved. Though their preoccupation with sincerity in an age of screens—because aren’t screens just masks?—is central to Wallace’s oeuvre, this concern finds fuller expression in his novels than in his stories—and there are several included in the Reader from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004). He was a better marathoner than sprinter. In an essay called “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” (yup, it’s in the Reader), Wallace noted that “the technical achievement of great short stories is often called compression.” Kafka could compress meaning into a single gut-punch of a paragraph; Wallace needed the arc of hundreds of pages to make his point.
Infinite Jest, published in 1996, was his great screaming across the sky. More than 200 pages of it are excerpted in the Reader, but that makes up only about a fifth of the novel. A lap at the pool doesn’t quite approximate traversing the English Channel; nevertheless, Pietsch and his advisers have obviously labored to give a sense of the novel, which A.O. Scott once surmised is “the longest novel about tennis ever published,” at 1,100 gleefully end-noted pages. Nobody has contested that claim, though plenty have debated whether Infinite Jest is a great novel or a great disaster.
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