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A Summer of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace has been an indirect influence on my writing for as long as I have been writing a blog. He was and still is a major influence on some of my favourite writers, primarily Bill Simmons and Jason Kottke, with how they phrased things and their generous usage of footnotes. 1 The unfortunate thing for me has been a lack of reading the original source.

The options to read his work are not limited to a few books. David Foster Wallace was a prolific writer, covering all aspects of life with his pieces in magazines such as Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and The Atlantic Monthly, writing about subjects as varied as cruise ships, the US Open, and a lobster festival in Maine. Several of these essays I have read before. In the case of the US Open piece, I have read it almost annually since I discovered it several years ago.

Even with all the essay reading I have done, his novels have eluded me. They are not small tomes, not exactly easy reads either. The highlight of his career was a massive novel, Infinite Jest, which weighs in at over 1000 pages. “This book changes people after being read,” is the refrain I keep hearing when someone mentions the novel. His last novel, The Pale King, was published after David Foster Wallace’s suicide in 2008. It was an unfinished manuscript that was pieced together through the various drafts and notes left behind. His last published words from what I understand.

Both of these books now rest on my desk to be read over the remainder of the summer. Why now and not previous summers? Mainly because there is a movie coming out soon that follows David Foster Wallace on a book tour after Infinite Jest is published. The End of the Tour trailer looks quite interesting, but I don’t want my first in-depth experience with him to be through a movie. I want to get a better understanding of his writing and the man behind the words before watching a movie about his life, much like I have done with Steve Jobs, having read some of his biographies. (Becoming Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs)

The best way to do so is, of course, to read his works. I purchased the two novels listed above to absorb over the coming months. Cracking open Infinite Jest to start with, I find the words of Dave Eggers in the Foreword to be quite promising and whet my appetite for what I am about to discover:

When you exit these pages after that month of reading, you are a better person. It’s insane, but also hard to deny. Your brain is stronger because it’s been given a monthlong workout, and more importantly, your heart is sturdier, for there has scarcely been written a more moving account of desperation, depression, addiction, generational stasis and yearning, or the obsession with human expectations, with artistic and athletic and intellectual possibility. The themes here are big, and the emotions (guarded as they are) are very real, and the cumulative effect of the book is, you could say, seismic. It would be very unlikely that you would find a reader who, after finishing the book, would shrug and say, “Eh.”

Holding this book in my hands feels great. It is heavy, dense with words, and I can’t wait to dive deep into one of my generation’s greatest writers. And, so begins my summer of David Foster Wallace, turning the page to begin, Infinite Jest, and read:

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

I am in here.

A selection of my favourite pieces of David Foster Wallace:

End of the Tour – the trailer for the movie following David Foster Wallace during his book tour to promote Infinite Jest. Movie comes out at the end of July.

Infinite Jest:

A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the pursuit of happiness in America. Set in an addicts’ halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are.

Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human – and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.

The Pale King:

The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.

The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace’s death, but it is a deeply compelling and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook. It grapples directly with ultimate questions–questions of life’s meaning and of the value of work and society–through characters imagined with the interior force and generosity that were Wallace’s unique gifts. Along the way it suggests a new idea of heroism and commands infinite respect for one of the most daring writers of our time.

  1. Obligatory footnote.

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