Your basic Dwarf+Giant Overview is a comprehensive survey of an author or series. It is not an in-depth analysis, nor is it a summary. Think of it as a buying or reading guide, telling you what’s out there, what’s essential, what to avoid and so forth.
It’s taken a while to compile this particular Overview, and I had to seek out some help. (Yes I, Eric Larkin, your D+G editor, the man who brought you book scenting and a book review with a dog, needed help with David Foster Wallace. Go figure.) The Last Bookstore’s own Ingrid Shin and Dale Zapata, both of whom know DFW much better than I do, have been kind enough to contribute, as noted below.
We all got screwed when David Foster Wallace died.
His first few books are not the greatest, but maybe only because of his intellectual ambition. He was so damn intelligent, so talented, and had a solid work ethic; it was only a matter of time before he was able to achieve something amazing. He was like an aircraft carrier leaving dock: it’s gonna take a while to get going, but good luck stopping it when it does. He wrote at least one masterpiece and carved out some permanent non-fiction shelf space for himself in his short career. It hurts to think what he would have given us had he stuck around.
Alas, due to some foul-ups with his treatment for depression, he took his own life at age 48, in September of 2008.
Reading David Foster Wallace will make you smarter. You won’t get everything on the first go-around – I sure as hell haven’t – but wrestling with it is rewarding. He was a true intellectual renaissance man, as you’ll see in the list below, and yet a voracious consumer of pop culture. His work is precise and complex, earnest and funny and sad. And you’ll need a dictionary.
Here’s a pretty great interview with Charlie Rose.
Here’s a longer but much deeper interview from later in his career for German television.
Infinite Jest – This is the Big Dawg. This famously intimidating 1000 page novel has a ton of on-line helps, but the only tips you really need are these two: read the footnotes (they’re part of the story) and read steadily, meaning don’t put it down for three weeks in between sessions. Yes, it is epic, with tons of characters, locations, styles and so forth, but it’s not difficult on the level of Finnegan’s Wake. You just have to be okay with occasionally being a little lost, which is kinda like everyday life, so BFD. The two primary storylines (which, of course, are interconnected, and connected to other subplots) are that of a young man at a tennis academy (and his fam and friends) and a recovering drug addict at a recovery house (and his set). There is another important thread involving wheelchair assassins from Quebec. Set a decade or two in the future, with a slightly different political arrangement of North America and involving what was slightly advanced technology when DFW wrote it, it’s technically sci-fi or spec-fic. But it’s not the kind with aliens or spaceships. Besides family, drugs, tennis & international politics/espionage a significant theme is entertainment – it’s uses and abuses. It ranges from can-hardly-stand-to-read-it gritty (drug detox, incest) to hilariously absurd (feral hamster infestations). Don’t be afraid; start at page 1. It gets easier after the first 300 pages. There is so much goodness in here. Maybe read the Dave Eggers foreword.
– The Decemberists recreate a scene from the novel wherein the students at the tennis academy play their near-sacred game Eschaton. Think a combo of Risk and Missile Command on a tennis court.
– An Infinite Jest list from Mental Floss, to whet your appetite.
This Is Water… – Literati will associate DFW with massive tomes and big words, but this little book is probably DFW’s most famous and successful work for two simple reasons: 1. it’s not a massive tome with big words, and 2. it has a universally relatable message. Simple enough, but this is a critical issue with DFW and his books. DFW books are challenging, and because of the time and neural effort it takes to get through them, most people need to be convinced and coaxed into reading (forget even finishing) his novels. Isn’t this why you’re reading this after all?
Well, complexity and difficulty is not the case with This Is Water. You might not casually hand a copy of Infinite Jest to a stranger without receiving strange, vexed looks, but you could hand a copy of This is Water and be thanked for it. It’s a transcription of a commencement speech that the author gave and in which he sought to persuade his audience that being less-self centered and more empathetic towards others (though sometimes very, very hard) comprises a large part of the humbling, human project of living a good and decent life. This is an important message that is present throughout all of DFW’s most difficult literary work, and is finally made plain in this simple, easy to read (!!!) text. – Dale
Consider the Lobster – A collection of essays, this is one of the top three books you should read by this author. The essays display DFW’s exhaustive intelligence, and the author proves to be a bit of a menace to people/lines of thinking he doesn’t like. John Updike, for example, takes a pretty harsh critical beating. The strongest essay in this collection is Authority and American Usage which is DFW’s review of a dictionary (what else?) in which he describes the difficulty in establishing some sort of standard for American language and usage in a culture that is fraught with historical, racial and political divisions. – Dale
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – The thing you’ll hear most often about DFW as a writer is that he is a better nonfiction than fiction writer. In my opinion, that’s true. All of his gifts as a writer tend to be more suited to making points than painting pictures. Case in point, this book, which is another collection of essays, the most funny being the eponymous essay which finds the author spiraling towards an existential crisis while onboard a Carnival cruise. The strongest and most compelling essay contained here is E Unibus Pluram which is DFW’s take on the place of the novel in the era of television and is an essay that seems to continue to speak to our present day and age. – Dale
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men – BIWHM is an homage to what DFW called the tradition of Great Male Narcissists* of post-war American fiction (*cf. his 1997 article on John Updike in The Observer). The collection reads like a series of self-absorbed monologues by men at once confessing and announcing the behaviors that make them sexually and romantically repulsive, at once expressing self-loathing and indignance for being “the bad guy.” If that sounds thematically played out–in literature and real life, I’m pretty tired of it, too. But I couldn’t help reading on: there’s a passage describing the echoes of piss and shit in a cavernous bathroom made of marble that itself echoes the exquisitely profane syntax of Barth; a retelling of a classic myth that pronounces its nod and wink to Pynchon’s own paranoiac reworking of the Odyssey; an immigrated man who describes the development of his masturbation fantasy as inspired by the show, Bewitched, with the yummy sophistication of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, who then explains the how the auto-erotic fantasy came to fail him once its lack of plausibility and ethical integrity became impossible to ignore; and so on.
BIWHM is also utter patricide. If the “Great Male Narcissists” left off in myriad virtuoso solipsisms, DFW exhausts the matter of just how alluring and fucked up and inescapable such a heritage, such an inheritance, can be, and comically distends the spiral of solipsism to stretch out into this fuzzy space, a certain type of “porousness,” where one has to decide anew how one is going to relate to others.
This is my tip and challenge to those who are attracted to the book, or to DFW works in general: read it once as you, whoever you be in the web of history and privilege, and read it again against your grain. BIWHM is a truth game, and the power cards are not in the visible and professed. – Ingrid
Oblivion – Short stories and a novella. Lots of anxious, stream-of-conscious stuff that often finds the individual mind/soul at odds with something that is ambivalent at best to the mind/soul’s existence (i.e. advertising agencies, substitute teachers, loved ones, even the body that contains said mind/soul). An exhausting reading experience that isn’t totally enjoyable, but if you want to mine for a deep cut gem, Good Old Neon is one of DFW’s finest pieces of writing. – Dale
Both Flesh and Not – A posthumous collection of essays by the late author. The title essay is DFW’s reportage from the 2005 U.S. Open and is worth the price of admission by itself. Originally published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” for the New York Times, “Both Flesh and Not” captures the essence of the sport and describes the spectacular mystique of Roger Federer, who was at the time tennis’ greatest athlete and perhaps one of the (if not “The”) greatest tennis player of all time. Many of DFW’s common literary and philosophical preoccupations — spectacle, entertainment, art, beauty, physics, Greatness with a capital-G, and peak human experiences– are explored here with clarity, precision and what sometimes reads like sincere awe.
I was introduced to David Markson’s stunning novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress through this collection, which is a book D.F.W. recommends in a contemplative and moving book review. The rest of the Both Flesh and Not includes other essays of various merit and quality, including one on James Cameron’s Terminator 2, snippets and other ephemera related to the author (i.e. word entries culled from the author’s dictionary, classroom syllabi, etc.) and short interviews with the author/subject (one in which DFW cites Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as one of the most criminally underrated books of all time…VERY TRUE!). – Dale
Girl With Curious Hair – Short stories. Not my favorite. Some of these address his familiar topics, such as irony and postmodernism – just not as well as he’ll do in later work. There are stupidly mundane settings (a parking garage, a gameshow, and Irvine, California, for example) populated with odd character-clusters (LBJ and his gay personal aide, punks with their young Republican friend). There is an impressive variety of voices, POVs and varying story length (in fact this one includes the novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”). A guy’s eyeball pops obothut of its socket (repeatedly), and there’s some light torture-fellatio. It’s a real party. You’ll feel like you’ve met a few major real life people (LBJ, David Letterman, for instance), which has stayed with me more than anything, strangely. I doubt this is the best place to start with DFW, but, like Broom of the System, it’s more for diehards who will enjoy seeing the germinations of things that will come to a fuller bloom later.
Signifying Rappers – I’ve always wondered why DFW’s works don’t really touch the issue of race outside of calling uncomfortable attention to the writer’s own position as a white man, particularly when so much of his writing is about paying attention (to other people). This very early work was co-written with Mark Costello to defend and explicate hip-hop as a scene of postmodern cultural genius and to point out (to a privileged, academically intellectual audience) the realities that inflect this very social art form. Both when it was first published and when it was posthumously re-published, most reviewers (mostly white men) found the book a bit embarrassing, wrote it off as juvenalia, too self-conscious of being white, inescapably fraught ethnography. DFW himself did not like this book, maybe because those things were true and he thought that by being honest and transparent, the work would hold its integrity. Writings on hip-hop (and hip-hop) have also changed much since this was written, so the insights will not feel fresh to today’s fans. However, the book is worth reading as one of the earliest critical writings on hip-hop and as a study of the Wallace’s ethical imagination. -Ingrid
Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity – Yes, this book is about math, the concept of infinity, to be precise. I can hardly believe I read this; it was not easy. There is an assumption that you had college math, or at least some calculus. It still has that DFW humor and probably would have slid into my brain more smoothly if I’d slowed down a bit. This is one where I would recommend skipping the footnotes (at least on the first pass), if you find yourself, like me, clinging desperately to the tail of “the point” as it gallops along. If you are interested in math, or if you just like diving into your personal deep end, then this is an excellent choice because Wallace is just really good at words even when writing about partial differential equations and shit like that. There are many amazing things about numbers that most of us never think about. Nice intro from Neal Stephenson.
Here’s an interview Wallace did with Caleb Crain about the time Everything and More was published.
Another entry along the lines of “he wrote what?!” is Fate, Time and Language: An Essay on Free Will. This is the honors thesis in philosophy he wrote while working on Broom of the System. In the early 60s, a philosopher named Richard Taylor wrote an infamous paper that seemed to prove the fundamental tenant of Fatalism, ie – they we have no free will, but do exactly and only what we are fated to do. His paper was attacked from all directions, but no one was able to punch any real holes in his argument. In rides our 24 year old, undergrad hero, David Foster Wallace. Like Everything and More, if you have the background, it’s great, but even if you don’t, there’s still a lot of value. Specifically, James Ryerson’s intro and Jay Garfield’s short epilogue are nifty portraits of Wallace as a student and a thinker; he was this close to doing philosophy instead of fiction. And sure enough, Wallace’s actual essay (the book includes Taylor’s original work and many of the failed responses) is smooth reading – at least until he gets really technical, and even then, a little background and/or a more careful reading than I gave it would probably do the trick. And that cover photo: he’s sitting there like a schlub, with his bandana – he’s one of us – just 10 times smarter.
Pale King – A novel about the unbearable weight of boredom. Most of it takes place in the IRS, some of it in vehicular traffic, and some of it is about a writer named David Wallace. Unfortunately, my latest assessment of this novel is that taken as a whole, it is not very good, but fans of the author will find things to love about this novel, and readers new to him will be impressed by sections of the writing.
There’s a section of the novel where a Jesuit priest lectures a class of business students on the heroic virtues of living a mundane, uncool life. It was a revelatory passage for me because it was the first time that I recognized that what I liked about DFW’s writing wasn’t really the pyrotechnics, but rather a kind of writing that was moral, unfashionably didactic and easy to digest in the way that a good sermon probably would be. I’ll leave it to the critics and academics to decide whether or not that makes for Good Art, but for me it’s good enough. – Dale
The Broom of the System is Wallace’s first novel. He wrote it – at age 24 – as his honors thesis in creative writing, while simultaneously writing an honors philosophy thesis (see Fate, Time, and Language). He finished both projects early enough that he could spend the rest of the school year helping other students with their work. [geeez] You can see flashes of Infinite Jest with weirdery like the Great Ohio Desert (built by the state because Ohioans were “getting soft”) and a vulgar pillow-talk-spewing cockatiel that becomes a celebrity on a religious TV show. I can’t call myself an expert, but it feels like DFW figuring out how to approach his areas of interest thru fiction. It’s dense, philosophical and funny as hell. Broom is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, and I might have enjoyed it a little more if I knew fuck-all about Wittgenstein. Still, if the story of a young lady w/ a fractured family and neurotic boyfriend fighting invisible corporate conspiracy in unraveling the mystery of her great-grandma’s disappearance could ever be fun, this would be it.
If you’re new to Wallace, I’d say the best stuff are the essays and Infinite Jest. Maybe most of his short stories are just explorations of his ideas anyway; may as well go straight to the source. That said, though it may sound like we’re down on a few of these works, none of it is a waste of time. Like I said at the beginning, reading David Foster Wallace is rewarding, and the only bad thing about this material is that there’s not more of it.