Today is the fourth anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s passing, and it seems appropriate that this space should offer an observance of some kind. Because I neither met nor corresponded with him, what I have to offer is something a bit more personal, about my experience of encountering his work as a young man.
Like many readers, I was first introduced to David Foster Wallace in college. I don’t recall exactly what it was that I first read, though it was probably either a short story in Girl With Curious Hair or the first essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
I remember being assigned “Everything is Green” in a creative writing class, and joining a college magazine where DFW was perhaps second only to Hunter S. Thompson as inspiration in that cohort. While Hunter’s impossibly drug-fueled antics and lionization of an era before mine held some interest, I was drawn even more to Wallace’s impossibly accomplished prose, what I recognized immediately as—to borrow a phrase from a dimmer star in the same orbit—staggering genius.
This would have been my sophomore year, a time of inchoate goals and uncertain direction—I would eventually graduate with a degree in English that I was sure I only mostly deserved—where I was looking for something without really knowing what. I made a few important discoveries in this period, one of which began when I finally decided to pick up Infinite Jest in summer 1999, and had become fully realized when finished it a few months later, as a matter of fact on Thanksgiving Day.
I spent many hours sitting and reading on the front porch at 1456 E. 19th in Eugene that summer, my first away from home. My experience was probably not significantly different from that of many who read it or, at least, those who finished it. Two bookmarks, marathon reading sessions—it certainly didn’t hurt that I was under-employed and between school terms—alternately delighted and flummoxed. It was no easy task, particularly with no Internet ready to fill in the gaps of my understanding, and at times required a sustained effort I’d never really given anything. I’d like to think that Infinite Jest has made me a better person, but there’s no question it made me a better reader.
The first section to really grab me was the tragicomic introduction to Don Gately, describing his bungled burgling of a home in a “wildly upscale part of Brookline” with sentences and paragraphs so long and yet so precise that it was nothing short of breathtaking. Probably the most likely thing is that I was holding my breath, trying to maintain concentration and straining keep to up with DFW’s astonishing, exhausting thought process.
As a young adult and young reader, I respected very little at all, but two things I respected for sure were ambition and genius. Other favorite writers and artists of this period included: Tom Stoppard, Stanley Kubrick, Thomas Pynchon. What these others have in common is the primacy of intellect before emotion. In this novel and other works from his middle period onward, David Foster Wallace reworked this equation, showing how intellect and emotion could coexist in equal parts, that one need not sacrifice one for the other. I’m still an admirer of all of the names above, but their output seemed a bit stunted in comparison.
Re-reading Infinite Jest again in my late twenties, at a time where, once again, I was trying to figure out my own trajectory, I found it this time not just entertaining and accomplished—it had already opened my eyes once—but an instructive meditation on making wise choices about how and what to be.
D.T. Max’s worthwhile (if occasionally underwhelming) biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, makes clear in a way I hadn’t fully appreciated before how personal the rebalancing of thoughts and feelings was for DFW himself. His career began as a highly gifted imitator of Pynchon and DeLillo, and because of his own struggles had to overcome his own overactive brain and find a center within that his earlier self would not have understood, or at least respected.
While there are certainly universal themes here, they appeal particularly to a recognizable stereotype of a Wallace fan—I’m describing myself here—young, white, educated, middle-class, clever but not as much as one thinks, etc. Additionally, a good number who are drawn to DFW—though I can’t put myself in this group—themselves have struggled with clinical depression or mental illness or twelve-step recovery programs. There is much in Wallace’s own story that is recognizable to his readers, and identification is a key reason why so many are so passionate.
These demographics are all over-represented on the Internet—and are ones I hoped to reach with The Infinite Atlas Project. As I often like to say, the Internet loves David Foster Wallace. There are too many of us who think we see a bit of ourselves in him.