The David Foster Wallace Reader
Our book today is a truly beautiful thing from 2014, The David Foster Wallace Reader, a collaboration between Little, Brown and Wallace’s literary trust that aims to create a “Greatest Hits collection of novel excerpts, short fiction, an essays that we hope will delight readers who know Wallace’s work already and show those new to him the amazing breadth of subjects, characters, ideas, interiors, landscapes, emotions, and human interaction in his writing.” The book is nearly a thousand pages and includes excerpts from The Broom of the System, The Girl with the Curious Hair, Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, The Pale King, plus bits and pieces of “Teaching Materials” from Wallace’s time in the classroom, including ironic items like this one from his “Guidelines for Writing Helpful Letters of Response to Colleagues’ Stories”: “#11 – Is the writing natural and interesting? Does the story’s narrator sound human, or is the writing puffed up and overly formal, such that the prose seems too ‘written’?”
There isn’t a page of this enormous book, not a single paragraph, that sounds human. All of it so incredibly, so glaringly ‘written’ that it all seems like a parody of the very thing Wallace was implicitly cautioning his students against.
It’s an impossible irony to avoid when reading through this big collection. David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, and for the whole weekend I spent with this generous sampler of his work, I grew more and more irritated over the many and manifest ways the publishing world failed this writer while he was alive. There’s no doubting the intelligence and linguist ability Wallace displayed from the start of his writing career, but on virtually every page of The David Foster Wallace Reader, I was gritting my teeth, angrily wishing that somewhere along the course of that career some editor had done what all editors are supposed to do.
Even by the time he was writing his first two novels, Wallace had already started doing what he did best: accumulate bad habits. He’d formed them when most people do, in high school and as a college undergrad, in the ranks of the stoner motormouths, the smart-aleck procrastinators. He learned in those years that he was much smarter than most of his teaches and almost all of his friends, and he learned that words could be weapons. And those realizations uncorked a torrent of words, notebooks full of words, an avalanche of words. By the time Wallace was beginning his full-scale work on the book that would become Infinite Jest, he’d learned to wield that avalanche, to direct it at anybody he chose. If an editor sent him a working-up of some manuscript chapter, that editor would get back an avalanche – no simple agreement, no acquiescence, not on a single point, but rather dozens of paragraphs of defense for each point in question, or dozens of pages of defense. These pages were all pitched to a long-learned tone of aggrieved genius trying, grapplingly, to make itself understood, and that tone was a conscious lie, the bad-habit lie of needing to win every late-night dorm room bull-session. And at no point did an editor say: “Please limit your responses to two sentences; I don’t have time to read 225 pages of discussion on every edit your receive.” At no point did an editor say: “Please don’t email me at home; my Inbox has 32 messages from you just tonight.” At no point did an editor say, “Your run-on sentences of ‘explanation’ notwithstanding, you don’t seem to have agreed to any of this last round of our edits.” At no point did an editor say, “Look, enough with the graphomania schtick; cut 400 pages from this manuscript or this house will void your contract and sue you to reclaim its advance.”
David Foster Wallace might have become a genuinely great writer, if he’d ever been edited. Instead, one by one, his editors simply abrogated their responsibility and gave up. Maybe even the worst of them started believing that aggrieved-genius crap. So we get a minuscule bit of Infinite Jest, about AA recovery programs in Boston:
Nobody’s supposed to judge you or snub you for slipping. Everybody’s here to help. Everybody knows that the returning slippee has punished himself enough just being Out There, and that it takes incredible desperation and humility to eat your pride and wobble back In and put the Substance down again after you’ve fucked up the first time and the Substance is calling to you all over again. There’s the sort of sincere compassion about fucking up that empathy makes possible, although some of the AAs will nod smugly when they find out the slippee didn’t take some of the basic suggestions. Even newcomers who can’t even start to quit yet and show up with suspicious flask-sized bulges in their coat pockets and list progressively to starboard as the meeting progresses are urged to keep coming, Hang In, stay as long as they’re not too disruptive. Inebriates are discouraged from driving themselves home after the Lord’s Prayer, but nobody’s going to wrestle your keys away. Boston AA stresses the utter autonomy of the individual member. Please say and do whatever you wish. Of course there are about a dozen basic suggestions, and of course people who cockily decide they don’t wish to abide by the basic suggestions are constantly going back Out There and then wobbling back in with their faces around their knees and confessing from the podium that they didn’t take the suggestions and have paid full price for their willful arrogance and have learned the hard way and but now they’re back, by God, and this time they’re going to follow the suggestions to the bloody letter just see if they don’t.
And if an editor had pointed out that the stylistic gimmick of capitalizing ‘In’ when referring to rejoining the program seems to fall apart later in the passage – that “In” is stand-alone capitalized in the third sentence but not in the ninth, and that the usage should be consistent either way – that editor would have received in reply pages and pages and pages of verbiage (with signature twee footnotes) defending the artistic reason for the inconsistency. And the pages would have been a conscious lie. Wallace would have seen in an instant that he’d just forgotten the uppercase the latter “in,” but then his bad habit of word-avalanche would kick in – where the point is simply to crush the other person into changing your C+ to an A- or agreeing to let you turn in a notebook of saved grocery store receipts as the final project in a personal-writing course, or whatever. In none of those cases did Wallace actually believe what he was writing; he was just addicted to the bad habit of seeing how much he could get away with by cranking up the old why-is-it-so-hard-for-me-to-explain-myself-to-the-world routine. The result was a veritable ocean of stuff that sounds ‘written.’
It wouldn’t be accurate enough to say that Wallace is revered posthumously. He’s worshipped, literally. He has Stations, Devotionals, Apostles, Shrines, Gospels, and, now, a Bible. His writing – especially Infinite Jest – answers a need, and because we’re talking about bad habits, it’s a bad need, the unhealthy need of millennials to think three things: first, that talent doesn’t require craft – just pour everything out, and if somebody – somebody old – tells you to rein it in, even a little, it’s because they just don’t understand (Wallace’s own #1 belief: Nobody’s Understanding Exceeds My Own – bad enough in a man of forty, but revolting in his 20-year-old acolytes); second, that genius doesn’t need to be comprehensible – I’ve watched dozens of people force-march their way through Infinite Jest, hating the experience but not even admitting to themselves that they hate it, getting neither enjoyment nor instruction out of its endless, obnoxious, bratty logorrhea but knowing the whole while that they simply aren’t allowed even to hint that it might be the book’s fault, because they’re already aware that the book is sacred, beyond reproach (I’ve heard forty-something college teachers – frustrated writers, all – pat his books and tell their students “This is stuff we need. Read it. Study it”); and third, that David Foster Wallace was a towering, divine figure – the doo-rag, the sad eyes, the studied “cool older brother” vibe – the Patron Saint of the Smart Lazy.
The David Foster Wallace Reader includes a sample of Wallace’s last work, The Pale King, which opens like this:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M heat: shattercane, lamb’s quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
You can see the powerful imagination at work, definitely (“the arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch”). But it’s a powerful imagination lavished on childish, pointless things – like the humorless, crampingly focused people who make the falling-domino displays that fill the floor of Madison Square Garden. Two hours of slightly tedious watching later, the domino Taj Mahal has successfully fallen, and David Foster Wallace is a large part of the cultural shift that now sternly insists we call such displays genius, that we not dismiss them – or anything – as trivial. You’ve written a “novel” that consists of a 130 pages, each with a single word typed in its center? We’re forbidden to laugh, because you could be the next David Foster Wallace. We read a passage like that one from The Pale King and we see immediately all its flaws. The so-obvious-we-practically-watched-him-do-it Google search for “weird plant names.” The simple list of such names hauled in to simulate profundity. The lazy repetition of insect “business” (with the 345-page ‘memo’ ready and waiting, should you so much as dare to mention it). The cheap, tacked-on final line. And it’s hard to tell which is more frustrating: the fact that his followers lap up such stuff in the sure and certain belief that it’s genius (misunderstood genius, just as I’m misunderstanding it right now, they’ll say), or the fact that none of those followers would ever willingly read the opening to The Return of the Native, let alone acknowledge that its the same opening, only done well.
“Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,” wrote a poet who knew a thing or two about craft, “Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.” There’s a forest floor of leaves in this lovely, artfully-produced David Foster Wallace Reader, and acres of covered forest soil aching for sunlight. Wallace devotees all cut into their food budgets in order to add it to their libraries, in worshipful sadness, and their Amazon and Goodreads reviews all echo a flat deus lo volt “Just. Read. It.” And I’ll add it to my library too, and I’ll periodically read around in it. But with a different kind of sadness.