david foster wallace2

Postmodern Writer Is Found Dead at Home
Headline, New York Times, Sept 14, 2008

Interviewer: ‘What does postmodern mean in literature?’
Foster Wallace, smiling: ‘After modernism.’
‘… I think that postmodernism has to a large extent run its course.’ This, in 1997.

He doesn’t loom large in the Australian landscape as he does in the US. No matter, his effect is probably unavoidable, in the way T S Eliot and Joyce, or, say, Orwell, affected those after – you’ve read Foster Wallace if you’ve read Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith or  Jeffrey Eugenides (in the way one might say that if you’ve read Don Delillo, you’ve read Foster Wallace).

I’ll admit to an unresolved and partial crush on David Foster Wallace. The late, qualifiedly but undeniably great writer ended his life a year ago – pursued by the “howling fantods” of his personal demons, his 20-years-or-more long depression. The howling, or the silence, finally cornered him, backed him into a far corner of his mind. Despite the world’s regard – “the most influential and innovative writer of his generation” LA Times, NYT, et al – and finally, a stable, happy relationship, he would find himself at 46 and a half years old on that Californian evening entering his garage workspace, tidying the manuscript stack of his unfinished novel, writing a farewell note to his companion of six years, Karen Green, and then going back “through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and … hanged himself” – a terrible choice among no good choices, leaving an indelible image for the one to find him: his wife, and – in a world-shifting, unfathomable moment – widow.

Foster Wallace wrote the precisely self-reflexive ‘The View From Mrs. Thompson’s’, a report on watching the 9/11 event at the house of a nearby elder, and the realisation of his difference of national understanding from that of this neighbours. One wonders a little if this most incorrigible of noticers, either out of piety or humility, and/or unconsciously and perversely, as a last act of self-preservation, waited for September 12 to top himself.


The scent of an author: “a kind of perfume of sensibility”

David Foster Wallace on Dostoevsky:

“That distinctive singular stamp of himself is one of the main reasons readers come to love an author. The way you can just tell, often within a couple of paragraphs, that something is by Dickens, or Chekhov, or Woolf, or Salinger, or Coetzee, or Ozick. The quality’s almost impossible to describe or account for straight out — it mostly presents as a vibe, a kind of perfume of sensibility — and critics’ attempts to reduce it to questions of “style” are almost universally lame.”

And so it was that in 1998 I picked up his distinctively-titled collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and fell acrush onto the body of his work. The now legendary centrepiece about being on a cruise ship established his voice in my head, among so many other heads. (“I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels.”)

But my affections didn’t go all the way. I bought his first novel second hand, The Broom of the System – and barely got past the cover. I bought a new, hardback edition of his short stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and was unable to maintain my gaze on the creamy, acid-free page, wishing the interviews were rather with vampires. Backtracking I found a second hand copy of the 1.4kg Infinite Jest, his supposed magnum opus. It may well be shorter than the Harry Potter books, at 1079 pages v 4175 pages (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix makes 896 all by itself) but inside of forty pages it had thrown me to the ground with my smacking the mat in furious surrender. I’d like to own up to the reason Raymond Carver cited for his engagement with short stories and poetry rather than long forms like novels: a “short attention span.” Only, that span didn’t work even with Foster Wallace’s short fiction.

I discovered that, for me, the “vibe” or “perfume” – his writerly pheromone, to bring in something of an eew factor – resided only in his non-fiction, in the lavish facticity delivered as an incremental self-portrait of a hyper-curious and -intelligent man inordinately given to noticing and describing the world around him – describing, deconstructing and theorising in rococo efflorescence, with footnote upon footnote. The voice of this obsessive-compulsive, arcane erudition was the freshest of demotic American. His stylistic showiness was restrained in the non-fiction by the world, in the way that the fiction was not disciplined in his mind. (He said that he wore a bandana because if he didn’t he was afraid his head might explode.) It was a one-book crush – until I picked up his last collection of non-fiction this year – in the same way that my great delight in Annie Proulx rests almost entirely with The Shipping News.

His 50-page essay, ‘Authority and American Usage’ – an extraordinary dissertation on American class as refracted through language, after Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’, via a book review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage – not only has pages of footnotes, but sub-footnotes to boot. ‘Consider the Lobster’ (also) from the collection of that name, really is about lobsters – the author goes to a lobster festival and brings back seemingly all of it, slathered with three A4 pages (out of a total of ten) of footnote sauce, highly perfumed with essence of DFW.

The very first paragraph of ‘Consider the Lobster’ has the first of 20 footnotes. An unmistakable taste of Foster Wallace:

The enormous, pungent, and extremely well marketed Maine Lobster Festival is held every late July in the state’s midcoast region, meaning the western side of Penobscot Bay, the nerve stem of Maine’s lobster industry. What’s called the midcoast runs from Owl’s Head and Thomaston in the south to Belfast in the north. (Actually, it might extend all the way up to Bucksport, but we were never able to get farther north than Belfast on Route 1, whose summer traffic is, as you can imagine, unimaginable.) The region’s two main communities are Camden, with its very old money and yachty harbor and five-star restaurants and phenomenal B&Bs, and Rockland, a serious old fishing town that hosts the Festival every summer in historic Harbor Park, right along the water. 1

Footnote 1: There’s a comprehensive native apothegm: “Camden by the sea, Rockland by the smell.”

Footnote 20 is: ‘Meaning a lot less important, apparently, since the moral comparison here is not the value of one human’s life vs. the value of one animal’s life, but rather the value of one animal’s life vs. the value of one human’s taste for a particular kind of protein. Even the most diehard carniphile will acknowledge that it’s possible to live and eat well without consuming animals.’

And why all the footnotes? In an interview with Charlie Rose, Foster Wallace says: ‘There is a way that reality is fractured right now, at least the reality I live in … the difficulty about writing about that reality is that text is very linear, is very unified and, I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that doesn’t totally disorient it…’


David Foster Wallace’s last words, twelve years ago

And so, I’ve bypassed David Foster Wallace’s fiction for his non-fiction – it’s the same thing with Susan Sontag’s work. I will never read Everything and More, Foster Wallace’s book-length essay about infinity, involving maths and set theory (his college interests were “mathematical logic and semantics” – he was a true geek). Or his book on rap, or John McCain. But I look forward, one day, to the little book, a booklet really, This Is Water, a commencement address he gave in 2005 – subtitled, characteristically, and a little preciously but appealingly, Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

Right at the end of the 1997 interview between Charlie Rose and a younger (! a sadly small difference) David Foster Wallace  – sporting his trademark bandana, with a tie but no jacket – are these poignant shards:

Rose: ‘But … there were drugs, you were suicidal, it was the whole nine yards, yes?’

Foster Wallace: ‘Here’s why I’m embarrassed talking about it, not because I’m personally ashamed about it, but because everyone talks about it – it sounds like some kind of Hollywood thing to do – oh, he’s out of rehab …

‘The problem was I started out, I think, wanting to be a writer and wanting to get some attention, and I got it really quick and realized it didn’t make me happy at all, in which case, ‘hmm, why am I writing?’ You know, ‘what’s the purpose of this?’ And I don’t think it’s substantively different from the sort of thing: you know, somebody who wants to be a really successful cost accountant and be a partner of his accounting firm and achieves that at 50 and goes into something like a depression. “The brass ring I’ve been chasing does not make everything okay.” So that’s why I’m embarrassed to talk about it. It’s just not particularly interesting. It’s, what it is, is very, very average …

‘The people who most interest me now are the people who are old, and who have sort of been through a mid-life crisis. They tend to get weird, because the normal incentives for getting out of bed don’t tend to apply anymore. I have not found any satisfactory nuance but I’m also not getting ready to, you know, jump off the building, or anything.’

Rose: ‘Well, that’s good news.’


David Foster Wallace online: uncomfortable lengths for web-reading but here they are:

Consider the Lobster, from Gourmet, 2004.

Authority and American Usage (Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage), from Harper’s, 2001.

And the invaluable interview with Charlie Rose (32 mins), 1997. You can watch the rather shy (frequently averted gaze), very self-concious and highly alert David Foster Wallace as a feted young writer.

Also, for those who have read it, or will never read it, a very illuminating and enjoyably sceptical but sympathetic discussion by the Slate book club (audio podcast or live streaming) about Infinite Jest, and the success and failure of Foster Wallace’s writing.


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