DFW, judging from photos of him that appeared on the dust jackets of his books, never looked like a writer. He looked like a washed up tennis pro (which he sort of was) or the roadie for a mediocre rock band. Looks can be deceiving. In a literary career spanning almost two decades he left us with three collections of short stories, two impressive books of essays, a non-fiction book explaining the mathematics of infinity, and two novels. His masterpiece was the post-modern novel, Infinite Jest, published in 1996. Jest was a hefty, 1,079 page book that included 388 endnotes on nearly 100 pages. It ends with a cliffhanger and, when Wallace was questioned about this lack of resolution, he offered the arrogant response that if you followed the narrative arc of the book for an additional 50 pages, the conclusion could be determined.
I first read DFW in January, 2006. Within seven months I had read all 8 of his books. Most of my friends who are avid and adventurous readers can’t stand his writing; some are palpably repulsed by him. It is true that reading David Foster Wallace could feel like rushing at the post-modern literary fraternity. David Foster Wallace used extensive abbreviations and acronyms, often when it wasn’t altogether clear for what they stood. He footnoted obsessively and sometimes footnoted the footnotes of his footnotes. He loved the O.E.D. and, in his 3,570 pages of published writings, I estimate that he used 5,000 words whose meaning I did not know. (I am not a person with a small vocabulary.)
Besides Infinite Jest, his two books of collected essays are the highlights of his writing career. In three separate travel essays he writes hilariously about the Illinois State Fair, the Maine Lobster Festival, and cruise ships. His bravado is unmatched in an essay on “Authority and American Usage” in which he reviews and demonstrates the socio-political agendas (elitism v. populism) behind two grammar manuals. He also clearly delights in pointing out all the grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies in these grammar manuals.
His essays consider why the autobiographies of athletes are often insipid. They offer intimate character studies of John McCain, conservative talk-show host John Ziegler, and a professional tennis player. They show the reaction of a mid-western family following 9/11. They consider the lobster. His autobiographical essay entitled, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” is one of the finest short essays I’ve ever read. (You can read it on-line here.) However, it is a longer essay contained in the same collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, that I consider his highest achievement in writing. Aboard a cruise ship, David Foster Wallace contemplates mortality. I often return to one quotation from that essay, a quote about youth and mortality.
“I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting now to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable — if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.”Oh, how I wish that David Foster Wallace had chosen differently. The last, final, ultimate choice in his life has broken my heart.