Wednesday, September 02, 2015

David Foster Wallace for Dummies

David Foster Wallace is my favorite author. The fact that I even have a favorite author is amazing considering I didn't start reading full-length books 
(that weren't school or work assignments) until 2010, which not coincidentally, is the year I bought my first iPad. 

I found Wallace through tennis. I am a fan and player. I believe it was Twitter that led me to his early tennis pieces - "String Theory" and "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes." I remember thinking that this is not normal sports writing. This DFW guy is from another galaxy, universe, or maybe even dimension! I was immediately hooked. And of course, I thought I shared quite a bit in common with this genius - tennis, tobacco, tv, technology, David Lynch, R.E.M., and a Midwestern upbringing. It was as if he was writing just for me. 

In my enthusiasm to discuss Wallace's work, I quickly discovered that not very many people (outside of academia) knew about him. Even with the 2015 release of the major motion picture "The End of the Tour" (starring A-list actors, no less) most civilians are not familiar with David Foster Wallace.

A few years ago, I asked a group of college-educated friends if they knew who "David Foster Wallace" was and I received the following responses:
  • Serial Killer 
  • Singer 
  • Inventor of the Frisbee 
Nobody at the table knew who he was and I was shocked but happy. It is similar to the irony cycle of liking a band that no one knows about. You want to tell everybody about this new band because they are the next coming of Nirvana. But the more people who know about the band, the more successful they will become. And before you know it, the band becomes rich, famous, no-longer-cool sellouts. 

Despite risking his coolness, I became a DFW evangelist after that memorable serial killer incident. I promote Wallace's work whenever I have a chance, particularly among the tennis and technology types that dominate my social/professional circles.

As part of my evangelism, I have created this blog post. Every person I meet who thinks David Foster Wallace created the Frisbee or kills people prolifically will be pestered by me to read it. Included here are some my favorite DFW essays along with a few great quotes. There is also a lengthy list of DFW facts. This will be an ongoing process so keep checking back. If you end up loving DFW's unique style of writing, then literary nirvana awaits you in the form of his 1,079 page Infinite Jest as well as the books listed below:

The Broom of the System (1987)
Infinite Jest (1996) 
The Pale King (2011) 

Short Story Collections
Girl with Curious Hair (1989)
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999)
Oblivion: Stories (2004) 

Non-Fiction Collections
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997)
Consider the Lobster (2005)
Both Flesh and Not (2012) 
String Theory (2016) | On Tennis: Five Essays (e-book version of String Theory)

David Foster Wallace Facts - Tennis, Technology, TV, and Tobacco 

  • Born in 1962 and grew up in Urbana, IL. DFW's Midwest upbringing was a major theme in his writing.
  • Was a ranked junior tennis player. Tennis is a huge theme throughout Wallace’s work. Tennis factored prominently in Infinite Jest. The famous NYT's piece "Federer as Religious Experience" was written by Wallace in 2006, has become a viral classic, and appears to be as relevant in 2017 as it was over 10 years ago! 
  • All 5 of DFW's tennis essays have been compiled into an e-book collection called On Tennis which is available at Amazon. A hardback version of these essays was released in 2016 titled "String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis" and was chosen by Bill Gates as the best book of the year.
  • Chewed tobacco and smoked. There are many references to tobacco in DFW's writing. It was but one of many addictions.
  • Watched a ton of TV. Again, like tobacco and tennis, DFW's addictions were often the topics of his best work.
  • Although he considered himself a technophobe, he did use a computer. He also possessed a crystal-ball like understanding of where technology was headed despite the disadvantage of his early 90's vantage point. There are passages in Infinite Jest (written before PC's and the Internet were pervasive) that predict things like Selfie Beautifiers and Netflix.
  • On September 12, 2017 on the 9th anniversary of DFW's death, Apple announces the iPhone X. The phone's hyper-advanced facial mapping technology brings Wallace's vision (described in 1996's Infinite Jest) of being able to realistically and completely alter your true appearance to the masses.  
  • His 1996 Harper's essay “Shipping Out” was a pre-Internet viral sensation. People photocopied and faxed it all over the country.
  • Graduated from Amherst College in 1985. Received an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in 1986. He also attended Harvard for a short time.
  • Published Infinite Jest in 1996 which brought him big-time fame and recognition. Dealing with that fame and recognition became another DFW theme.
  • Wore a bandana because he sweated profusely. He was very self-conscious about sweating. And in true DFW fashion, he was also self-conscious about the bandana being seen as a trademark or part of a cultivated image.
  • Was a good singer and a talented impersonator.
  • Taught at the college level throughout most of his career - Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College. Check out DFW's syllabus for his 2008 Creative Nonfiction class at Pomona College.
  • In addition to be being a professor, he also held some low level jobs including security guard at Lotus Software and "glorified towel boy" at the Mount Auburn Club. So remember to never judge a person by their job! They just might be the next DFW. 
  • Committed suicide on September 12, 2008 after suffering from severe depression for most of his adult life. He tried to change medications and it didn't work. (See Nardil.)
  • After his death, DFW went viral again with "This is Water" which is widely regarded as one of the best commencement speeches ever given. (Full 23 minute version)    
  • The music video for "Calamity Song" by the Decemberists is an ode to Infinite Jest's Eschaton, a game that brings together thermonuclear war and tennis. The line "In the Year of the Chewable Ambien Tab" is a reference to Subsidized Time in which the naming rights for each year are bought by corporations. As we currently watch the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl played at University of Phoenix Stadium, I think DFW might have another amazing prediction turn true some day.
  • The 2015 film The End of the Tour starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg is based on the 5 day road trip/interview that occurred between David Foster Wallace and author David Lipsky. (Buy on Amazon)  
  • Once you've become a hardcore DFW fan, be sure to bookmark The Howling Fantods. Nick Maniatis has created the Infinite Jest of online DFW resources. It is encyclopedic in its depth and is updated regularly.  
  • Twitter is a great place to learn about DFW and meet other fans and scholars. I have created a DFW Twitter group to get you jumpstarted - 
  • The Great Concavity is a new podcast by Matt Bucher and Dave Laird dedicated to all things DFW. Subscribe to it or visit to listen.
  • The David Foster Wallace Archive opened in 2010 at The Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin. It's the ultimate pilgrimage for the obsessed DFW fan. Hopefully I'll get to visit some day.
  • The David Foster Wallace Conference is held annually at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois and features some of the best DFW scholars in the world. Like the DFW Archive, I also plan on attending this event one day. Check out the 2016 conference schedule

Favorite DFW Essays Available Online 

Please note that the DFW pieces that you find online are usually the trimmed down versions that originally appeared in a variety of magazines. The titles of the pieces may also be different. If you want the 100% definitive DFW version, you'll need to purchase one of his many compilations - A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, Both Flesh and Not, and String Theory. 

"Federer as Religious Experience" (aka "Both Flesh and Not")
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
"Shipping Out" (aka "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again")
The promise is not that you can experience great pleasure but that you will. They'll make certain of it. They'll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun. Your troublesome capacities for choice, error, regret, dissatisfaction, and despair will be removed from the equation. You will be able-finally, for once-to relax, the ads promise, because you will have no choice. Your pleasure will, for 7 nights and 6.5 days, be wisely and efficiently managed.

"Consider the Lobster"
So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the US: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?
"The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation to The Bad Thing"

I'm not incredibly glib, but I'll tell what I think the Bad Thing is like. To me it's like being completely, totally, utterly sick. I will try to explain what I mean. Imagine feeling really sick to your stomach. Almost everyone has felt really sick to his or her stomach, so everyone knows what it's like: it's less than fun. OK. OK. But that feeling is localized: it's more or less just your stomach. Imagine your whole body being sick like that: your feet. the big muscles in your legs, your collar·bone, your head, your hair, everything, all just as sick as a fluey stomach. Then, If you can imagine that, please imagine it even more spread out and total. Imagine that every cell in your body, every single cell in your body is as sick as that nauseated stomach. Not just your own cells, even, but the e. coli and lactobacilli in you, too, the mitochondria, basal bodies, all sick and boiling and hot like maggots in your neck, your brain, all over, everywhere. in everything. All just sick as hell. Now imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick like that. sick, intolerably sick. And every proton and neutron in every atom...swollen and throbbing, off·color, sick, with just no chance of throwing up to relieve the feeling. Every electron is sick, here, twirling off balance and all erratic in these funhouse orbitals that are just thick and swirling with mottled yellow and purple poison gases. everything off balance and woozy. Quarks and neutrinos out of their minds and bouncing sick all over the place bouncing like crazy. Just imagine that, a sickness spread utterly through every bit of you, even the bits of the bits. So that your very...very essence is characterized by nothing other than the feature of sickness; you and the sickness are, as they say, "one." 

"The String Theory" (aka "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness")
the players moving with compact nonchalance I've since come to recognize in pros when they're working out: The suggestion is of a very powerful engine in low gear. Jakob Hlasek is six foot two and built like a halfback, his blond hair in a short square Eastern European cut, with icy eyes and cheekbones out to here: He looks like either a Nazi male model or a lifeguard in hell and seems in general just way too scary ever to try to talk to. 
It is currently right near the end of the program's second segment on the evening of May 11, 2004, shortly after Nicholas Berg's taped beheading by an al-Qaeda splinter in Iraq. Dressed, as is his custom, for golf, and wearing a white-billed cap w/ corporate logo, Mr. Ziegler is seated by himself in the on-air studio, surrounded by monitors and sheaves of Internet downloads. He is trim, clean-shaven, and handsome in the somewhat bland way that top golfers and local TV newsmen tend to be. His eyes, which off-air are usually flat and unhappy, are alight now with passionate conviction. 
"9/11: The View From the Midwest" (aka "The View from Mrs. Thompson's")
... And they watch massive, staggering amounts of TV. I'm not just talking about the kids. Something that's obvious but still crucial to keep in mind re: Bloomington and the Horror is that reality – any really felt sense of a larger world – is televisual. New York's skyline, for instance, is as recognizable here as anyplace else, but what it's recognizable from is TV. TV's also more social here than on the East Coast, where in my experience people are almost constantly leaving home to go meet other people face-to-face in public places. There don't tend to be parties or mixers per se here; what you do in Bloomington is all get together at somebody's house and watch something.
"Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes" (aka "Derivative Sport inTornado Alley")
Unless you're just a mutant, a virtuoso of raw force, you'll find that competitive tennis, like money-pool, requires geometric thinking, the ability to calculate not merely your own angles but the angles of response to your angles. Tennis is to artillery and airstrikes what football is to infantry and attrition. Because the expansion of response possibilities is quadratic, you are required to think n shots ahead, where n is a hyperbolic function limited by (roughly) your opponent's talent and the number of shots in the rally so far. I was good at this.


Ravi said...

great article i am going to read couple of books of David Foster Wallace. Thanks for sharing.

Courtney Watson said...

Awesome post, Dolf! I share DFW's syllabus with my lit students every semester when we read "Shipping Out."