Category Archives: david foster wallace

Observation vs Research in David Foster Wallace’s Writing

I like what Andrew has to say about Infinite Jest's "research":

Specialized knowledges pervade the book—tennis, recreational drug use, optics, burglary, even punting (surely the most narrowly specialized position in football). But one of the more (in)famous elements of "research" in the novel is the filmography Wallace includes in endnote 24. In the age of IMDb, we might be apt to forget that the filmography is (or was) actually a highly specialized and intensely laborious feat of archival research, but the almost eight-and-a-half pages of James O. Incandenza's collected works should surely remind us that a filmography is actually the product of research, and not Googling.

Yet there was, of course, no research necessary for composing this "artifact"—having no basis in reality, everything in it is a pure product of imagination. Yet Wallace never seems comfortable simply acknowledging that the imagination that produced it is his own. In just about as many ways as possible, Wallace continually disrupts the filmography with secondary or tertiary commentary to let us know that he's looking at it from the outside too: I kept waiting for that click where the self-distancing irony would drop away and, as with Borges or Pynchon or Bolaño or even (especially) Auster, you get a real note of dread or mystery where the author seems to have been finally convinced of the reality of his artifice. Even in the last entry, which is about The Entertainment itself, there are three skeptical footnotes embedded.

If you read all of Andrew's post, you'll see that this insight comes in the context of a consideration of the postmodern novel of information. Essentially, Andrew is saying Wallace wrote a novel of information in which the research was replaced by something more akin to observation, since Wallace was "researching" things that didn't exist. Of course, the book also includes research (no scare quotes) into lots of things that did and do exist. I suppose this would make his work postmodern in ways I hadn't even imagined before I read Andrew's post.

Andrew goes on to elaborate on his point that Wallace never quite gets over his skepticism as to the world he has created

And this type of thing occurs many times in the text: consider the phrase, "Goethe's well-known 'Bröckengespenst' phenomenon38" (88). If it's so well-known, why the hell does it need to be footnoted? This feels like Wallace simply can't decide how to be authoritative: does he want to be assholically authoritative ("well-known"), learnedly authoritative (using the German term in the first place), or helpfully authoritative (sticking in a footnote)? If the confusion is simply an attempt to undermine the idea of authority in the first place, then it needs to be decisive confusion: subversion can't be done lackadaisically, and self-subversion even less so.

I don't think this indecisiveness is the quite as purposeful as Andrew seems to believe. Rather, it seems to me to be a result of Wallace's self-consciousness, which I would say is one of the larger liabilities of his fiction (at least in Infinite Jest; at other points (for instance "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) Wallace uses his self-consciousness to great comedic effect).

I also once saw Wallace claim in an interview that he wanted the book to have a conversational tone, as if someone was speaking to the reader, so that might also explain the "lackadaisical" element Andrew mentions here, as well as the superabundance of squishy words (e.g. sometimes, about, etc) that he discusses later in his post.

Infinite Summer

There's a website dedicated to reading Infinite Jest this summer. Lots of interesting material (e.g. How to Read Infinite Jest)

I, of course, am a huge, huge partisan of this book, so I hereby exhort you all to grab a copy of IJ and read it this summer.

I read Infinite Jest back in 2004, and it remains one of the most memorable reading experiences in the past 5 years. (There is actually a large amount of Jest-related material available on this blog, both from my own reading and that of other people who have read it and discussed it here.) It's one of those books that I hesitate going back to–because a second reading could hardly be as good as the memory of the first–even though in many ways I do want to read it again, to see what new thoughts I have about the book and to see how it has stood up to changes in the world of literature in the five years since I last read it.

There's another impediment to my return to Infinite Jest, which is simply the rest of Wallace's writing. I've certainly read a large amount of his non-Jest writing, but it seems somehow wrong to re-read Jest when so much of the writing from this author who is both hugely important and one of my personal favorites remains unread.

That is all to say, perhaps this summer you'll see some Oblivion– or Broom of the System-related posts up around here to help give you a little context for your reading of Wallace's masterpiece.

Bissell on DFW

This-is-water Occasionally, the NYTBR will justify its continued existence by making an author/reviewer pairing that's so completely right that you wonder how they manage to blow it so badly most of the time. Thus we have Tom Bissell with a short essay on David Foster Wallace's commencement-speech-turned-book This Is Water:

The novelist Richard Ford spoke at my college graduation; 13 years later, I can recall precisely nothing of what he said. Which does not mean it was bad. The commencement address — not quite an essay, more intimate than a speech — is a highly particular literary form. It is also a uniquely disposable one. Imagine you have written the greatest commencement address in history. What do you do with it, once it has been delivered? The answer: nothing. I wrote a rather nice one a few years ago for the graduating class of my hometown community college. Would anyone like to read it? I suspected as much. When the graduation caps are thrown into the air, the commencement address’s only obvious utility is jettisoned along with them.

Wallace’s address managed to avoid this fate not because it was great (though it was). He never published it and probably never would have. The address was saved, rather, thanks to the enterprising soul who transcribed it from video and posted it on the Internet, where, somehow, it came to the attention of my family friend — who would not have known David Foster Wallace if he fell on her. Thanks to the enthusiasm of people like her, and the magic of the cut-and-paste function, the address became a small sensation and must now rank high among the most widely read things Wallace ever wrote.

Of course, these two paragraphs point to the obvious question: then why did it need to be published as a book? I suppose the answer to that has something to do with the book's date of publication; that is, about a month before colleges and universities start graduating students this year. I suppose it makes a better impulse-gift for your graduating nephew than whatever else you're likely to find at the last minute.

Related Posts

Publishing The Pale King

The LA Times has an article about how Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch is tackling the job of putting Wallace's hundreds of thousands of manuscript words of "The Pale King" into order for publication:

In early January, Pietsch came to Claremont to go through a number of
those "big plastic things from Target," as well as dozens of bags and
notebooks and disks (the old-fashioned floppy kind). What he found were
drafts and notes and fragments of Wallace's last, unfinished novel,
"The Pale King." . . .

Today, the pages of "The Pale King" sit in bins and boxes around
Pietsch's desk at home, but he bristles at the suggestion that he won't
get through them in time to publish the novel, as he has promised —
and as Little, Brown has announced — in the spring of 2010.

It doesn't seem to faze him that among the various drafts are sometimes "10 different versions of one chapter or one scene."

I'm sorry, I want a final novel from David Foster Wallace as much as anyone, but the novel described in this article is unfinished. This isn't Kafka-style unfinished, where you know more or less where the thing's headed and you're just lacking the ending. This is unfinished as in incomplete.

David Foster Wallace’s Unfinished Novel

The March 9 issue of The New Yorker has a long article on David Foster Wallace which discusses the novel he was working on at the time of his suicide. In the article, D.T. Max reports that the unfinished manuscript, apparently titled "The Pale King," will be published:

From 1997 on, Wallace worked on a
rd novel, which he never finished—the
“Long Thing,” as he referred to it with
Michael Pietsch. His drafts, which his
wife found in their garage after his death,
amount to several hundred thousand
words, and tell of a group of employees at
an Internal Revenue Service center in Illinois, and how they deal with the te-
diousness of their work. The partial
manuscript—which Little, Brown plans
to publish next year—expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration.

Max argues that this novel represented a thematic and stylistic break from Wallace's earlier style. He notes that, "in the new novel, a character comments,
'Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain, because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide
enough stimulation to distract people
from some other, deeper type of pain that
is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend
nearly all our time and distract ourselves from.'" Max also says that Wallace was trying to deconstruct the concept of boredom and discover how it could be liberating, somewhat how he earlier deconstructed addiction in Infinite Jest. The article quotes liberally from "Pale King."

Max's argument sounds likely, since as an writer Wallace never was content to rest on his laurels, and his public statements prior to his death would seem to corroborate this interest in moving beyond what he did in Infinite Jest. All the more reason why his untimely death was such a loss.

This New Yorker article is a great piece for anyone interested in Wallace, both as a writer and as a person suffering from depression.

Brief Interviews Film Review

Jon Krasinski’s film adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has finally premiered at Sundance. Much of the coverage is embarrassingly thin, but there were at least a couple of reviews worth checking out. Overall, the tone is positive.

Directed by John Krasinski (The Office’s Jim Halpert), the story follows Quinn as she sits with the men who are willing to talk about their relationship issues. One man admits to blurting out, “Victory to the Forces of Democratic Freedom” whenever he has an orgasm and discusses how this has had a negative effect on every sexual relationship he’s ever had, understandably so. Or there’s an amputee who talks about how he uses his missing arm to get women to sleep with him.

While Quinn is hard at work trying to understand the male perspective, it seems she’s surrounded by men who treat women like objects. . . .

There’s also an audio interview with Krasinski talking about the film.

I don’t imagine this film has the greatest shot at getting even minor distribution, but it would be nice to watch it at some point. Perhaps at the least they’ll burn a few DVDs for the NetFlixers among us.

Wallace on Fatalism

While Little Brown goes to press on a gussied-up version of a public domain David Foster Wallace speech, James Ryerson writes in The New York Times Magazine about a little-known thesis of Wallace’s on the philosophy of free will:

Given his considerable intellectual gifts and large cult following, it
may come as a surprise to learn that Wallace’s one formal, systematic
contribution to the world of ideas was never published and remains
almost completely unknown. This is his undergraduate honors thesis in
philosophy — “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical
Modality” — which he submitted for a degree at Amherst College in 1985.
Its obscurity is easy enough to understand. A highly specialized,
76-page work of semantics and metaphysics, it is not for the
philosophically faint of heart. Brace yourself for a sample sentence:
“Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but
intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs <t, w> (<time, world situation>), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm,
where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical
possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility.”
There are reasons that he’s better known for an essay about a boat.

Admittedly, not the stuff of a bestseller, but Ryerson does make an interesting case for its worth. He explains that one Richard Taylor presented an apparently airtight case for determinism. Wallace, in his thesis, used his capacities as a dedicated observer of language and specialist in written language (capacities that he would subsequently draw on as a novelist) to refute Taylor’s claim:

Wallace proposed that there was a flaw in Taylor’s argument, a hidden
defect. In essence, Taylor was treating two types of propositions as if
they were the same, when in fact they needed to be distinguished and
treated differently. Consider the sentences “It was the case that I
couldn’t fire my handgun” and “It cannot be the case that I did fire my
handgun.” At first they may sound similar, but Wallace argued that they
involve quite different notions of impossibility. “It was the case that
I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past
situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say)
my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun”
refers to a present situation in which
discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool
to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint
on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current
absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An
extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a
subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our
language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have
done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.”

New Wallace Book (Sort Of)

Despite the fact that it’s widely available online, the commencement speech David Foster Wallace presented at Kenyon College in 2005 will be published as a 150-page book by Little, Brown this spring:

While some rumors persist that there’s an unfinished novel David
Foster Wallace was working on before he died in September, at least one
work from the author is definitely on the horizon. Wallace’s publisher,
Little, Brown, is going to release This Is Water in April 2009, which is the address the author delivered at Kenyon College’s commencement in 2005.

The speech, which LB assistant director of publicity Marlena Bittner
called Wallace’s "only philosophical public address," was paraphrased
and quoted in various Web sites and blogs after the author died. The
edition of the speech from LB will be slightly under 150 pages
and feature illustrations throughout; the imprint is going to press
for an announced 40,000 copies.

I imagine those will be some hefty margins, as well as a generous number of illustrations. Either that, or LB will go the route Penguin did the JM Coetzee’s Nobel address, which was presented as a minature hardcover (although they could only stretch that to 32 pages).

Lengthy Wallace Profile in Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone has an excerpt online from what looks to be a lengthy piece on David Foster Wallace publishing in the October 30 issue.

In 1984, Costello [Wallace’s roommate] left for Yale Law School; Wallace was alone
senior year. He double-majored — English and philosophy,
which meant two big writing projects. In philosophy, he took on
modal logic. "It looked really hard, and I was really scared about
it," he said. "So I thought I’d do this kind of jaunty,
hundred-page novel." He wrote it in five months, and it clocked in
at 700 pages. He called it The Broom of the System.

More Wallace Links

TNR has links to a bunch more Wallace content available free on the Web. As with the Harper’s material, many of these pieces were  been seriously condensed for publication. If you like what you read, track down the book it’s collected in and read the whole thing there.

Unfortunately, it appears that the essay "E Unibus Pluram" is not available anywhere online for free. I regard that as possibly the best of the bunch, and it’d be great if curious people could expose themselves to it for free. (The piece is about 80 pages long, so you’ll probably want to at least print it out, or better yet, buy a copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing . . .)

I have no idea what the copyright situation is, but I do know that the piece originally apeared in the RCF, and it’d be splendid if Dalkey could find some way to get that up there for us.

Wallace’s essay on David Lynch is also excellent.

And if you want to read about Wallace, The Howling Fantods is your first stop. (Right now I’m getting a bandwidth exceeded message, which I didn’t get last week when Wallace-Googling was presumably higher, so I’m guessing that a site with major traffic linked there and broke it. It’ll be back someday, just keep trying.) There’s also, of course, the Wallace content that has appeared on this blog.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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