“Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” — David Foster Wallace

It’s his birthday today.

David Foster Wallace is hard to talk about. It’s painful. I say this as someone who did not know him, or have him in my life even in a peripheral way. I know someone who worked with him, who was his editor, who actually shows up – under a pseudonym – in one of DFW’s essays. The anguish this person feels at what happened is beyond words. So to talk about my pain as a reader/fan compared to the people who knew him makes me feel a little weird. But as a reader it’s hard not to get the feeling that something irreplaceable has been lost. He spawned many imitators. His writing was extremely commanding. He made huge demands on the reader. You must submit to his footnotes. They aren’t an interruption. They are the whole shebang. Stop trying to “get back” to the “main throughline”. There is no such thing.

I did not read Infinite Jest when it came out. I bought it but there it sat on my bookshelves, all 1200 pages of it, unread for years. Who the hell has the time for that? I didn’t even know what it was about, beyond something having to do with twelve-step recovery. Soooo THAT sounds like a barrel of laughs. I read his essays when I’d come across them, and then bought the collections.

But finally I read Infinite Jest. And, as so often happens, I discovered for myself what all the fuss was about. Poor Jonathan Franzen. Being Jonathan Franzen must be like Bing Crosby’s possibly apocryphal comment: “Frank Sinatra has a voice that comes along once in a generation, but why oh why did it have to come in mine?”

I want to point you to a really important piece by Christian Lorentzen, where he discusses DFW’s commencement speech that “went viral”, with all its pat little sayings of inspiration, and how this has made him a little bit more palatable to the mainstream. The commencement speech, though, is almost a false flag. It’s ANTI what DFW was normally about. Lorentzen’s piece is about who owns an artist’s legacy after they’re gone? The Rewriting of David Foster Wallace.

I consider DFW’s piece on David Lynch’s Lost Highway to be one of the best pieces of film criticism in the whole genre. It opened up possibilities for others: OH! We don’t have to do it like everybody else does it! We can write like THIS? Of course, we CAN’T “write like this” but his example still inspires.

Writing about books isn’t so much my thing anymore, but I had so much fun writing about Infinite Jest, and how Infinite Jest illuminated something for me about Marlon Brando – and I have spent decades pondering Marlon Brando – but Infinite Jest gave me an A-ha moment. A sort of, “My GOD, yes, that’s IT EXACTLY.”

So I wrote about Infinite Jest and Marlon Brando for Film Comment.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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4 Responses to “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” — David Foster Wallace

  1. JC says:

    Wallace has always been one of my favourites, it’s nice to see him get some love from my favourite blogger :)

    I miss the guy and I miss having his view on things. I always wonder what he’d think of more modern internet culture, or the popular lit these days, Young Adult fiction, anything really. And the annoying thing is I know he’d have a view on it so original I could never guess at it. He was a real original. If you haven’t read The Pale King I recommend it. I’d say it’s his best work, even tho it’s sadly unfinished (although the scattershot story means it doesn’t matter too much to how complete the book feels).

    Also, I know this is shameless self-promotion, but I occasionally write things on Medium, to practice at becoming a better writer, and a while ago I wrote something on DFW, here’s a link if you or any of your readers are interested: https://medium.com/@charlieplatts/david-foster-wallace-and-the-search-for-new-male-identities-48b56ffd15c9

    • sheila says:

      JC – that essay was excellent and gave me so much to think about! Thank you so much for sharing the link.

      I remember reading his dispatches from the campaign trail – and it was as political as he had ever gotten – at least explicitly – and it made me wish he did more of it. I thought he was good on McCain – although no doubt many would disagree. But I appreciated his observations – made in his unique baroque style – which is so weird because he was also semi-detached and in an in-between state – How can one be baroque AND detached? I have no idea, but he could do it. and that detachment from … partisanship, let’s say … or at least kneejerk liberalism – I admit I find very attractive. I like it, I like that style, and that outlook. Joan Didion had the same quality. Her essay on the Reagans when he was governor of California is just … nobody else would have written that essay in that way. She drives some people crazy – because they want her to be more like other writers – more blatant, more of a partisan – but that wasn’t her thing. She was OF her generation but also OUT of it. Same with DFW.

      As a fellow Gen Xer, DFW is very very familiar to me – it’s like I can clock a Gen Xer from 10 miles away. We had it a certain way – we’re this small generation numbers-wise – and nobody paid any attention to us except to mock us for being slackers – and people still don’t pay attention to us, and that’s the way we like it, lol.

      I’m educated but not “hyper-educated” and my academic education basically ended after high school, because I was studying acting. So I have gaps in my education – gaps I am still addressing – and DFW’s essays have helped me do that. I was happy to hear you mention Clive James! His Cultural Amnesia and Cultural Cohesion have been huge for me – I’ve always been a big reader, and I read widely and love history – but there are so many things James wrote about in those books I had never investigated. I read Montesquieu because of Clive James and I am so glad I did! anyway … this is just to say that DFW’s frame of reference was so broad that I really appreciated it, as a self-directed reader, who didn’t go into academia in any way, shape or form. He’s a good guide.

      I’m with you – I so wonder what his take would be on so many things. I really like your thoughts on identity and “being a man” – which was clearly on his mind a lot – it comes up so often.

      I haven’t read Pale King, although I do own it – so maybe I’ll read that this year.

      One final note – and I used this in my review of The Swerve – one of the most harrowing depictions of mental illness I have ever seen – I LOVED the movie, and nobody else appears to have seen it – but anyway – in my review I mentioned that in Infinite Jest – it’s during one of the Katherine sections (I think that was her name?) – and she’s trying to describe depression – and she used the word “Lurid.”

      I can’t explain how perfect this is. People have been trying to write about what depression feels like for thousands of years. At some point, words fail. But just like DFW did with Marlon Brando – he found a way to descirbe it in a way where I actually thought – YES. that is what it’s LIKE.

      And so … through his own agony … and his own obsession with his own agony … (because one of the byproducts of living in mental agony is that you are obsessed with your own mental state – how could you not be?) … he worked it over and over and over, circling around the topic, attempting over 10, 20 pages to describe it … until finally he lands on “lurid”. and he lets you SEE all that process – he literally walks you through it. But in the end, he boils it down to “lurid” and … he literally has handed me a word that helps me contextualize my own life. This is huge because the worst part of being sick like this is that words fail.

      He cared enough to really attempt to get it right.

      anyway, this is long enough.

      Thanks so much for your comment and thanks for providing the link to your essay. It was really good!

      • JC says:

        Thank you for reading and for the nice comments!

        And it’s funny you should mention Clive James, because I only found out about him and Cultural Amnesia from this blog. My list of books to read practically doubled as I read it.

        Yeah DFW had the ability to name feelings or thoughts that I’d experienced but never put words to. I’ll be reading him and think, ‘Yes, that is what it’s like.’ It happens all through his books. I don’t know any other writer who is able to go through the entire language and zero in on the right word or phrase like that. He was an original.

        Anyway, thanks for the reply. I’ll be checking out The Swerve now for sure.

        • sheila says:

          JC – // because I only found out about him and Cultural Amnesia from this blog. My list of books to read practically doubled as I read it. //

          So cool! Happy to hear it! I had the same experience. Cultural Cohesion came first, if I recall correctly, but I read that one after Cultural Amnesia. I love how the book is structured too – I love that he chooses a quote from each person he writes about, and uses that quote as a launch pad into unexpected places. So very much my kind of thing.

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