‘So there’s this guy – middle-aged, married, father-of-three – who one day decides to end it all. He sticks his head in a microwave oven and cooks himself to death. His skull explodes under the pressure. His brains leak onto the floor. His suicide devastates his family and reserves a special torment for the son who returned home from tennis practice to discover his father’s remains. But here’s the kicker. The kid is haunted less by his grisly discovery than by the moment he stepped inside the house and thought to himself that ‘something smelled delicious! … That it’d been four hours plus since lunchtime and I’d worked hard and played hard and I was starved. That the saliva had started the minute I came through the door. That golly something smells delicious was my first reaction!’
This anecdote is the beating heart of David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest (1996) and, I think, the heart of Wallace’s body of work. I love it: I love how precisely it balances horror and heartache, perversity and poignancy. That poor kid is otherwise a thoughtful genius and a disciplined elite athlete, usually in complete control of mind and body. But the instant he lets down his guard he is mugged by the signature weakness of the human being: the realization that consciousness itself is imprisoned in a body too distracted by, and too eager to indulge in, the abundant stimuli of a deceptive world. And when he vents his anguish he illuminates the essential ‘Wallaceness’ of Wallace’s work – what makes it distinctly his and what makes it worth reading.
Of course, Wallace tackled a wild array of subjects across three door-stopping novels, three collections of stories, two volumes of essays, and countless other occasional pieces yet to be republished in book form. The ethics of boiling lobsters alive, the morality of the American porn industry, the physics of playing tennis in the winds of a tornado – he mastered them all. Looking back at his work now, though, it seems to me that Wallace in fact obsessed himself with just one enormous subject and then dragged this range of other subjects into its orbit. And once you know the subject and how it informs everything he wrote, you hold the key to Wallace’s world.
This year, David Foster Wallace (1962–2008) has commanded the spotlight like never before. When a severe depressive episode led him to take his own life at the height of his powers in 2008, he was working on a long, plotless novel comprised of dozens of character sketches of the wage slaves working in a tax office in the American midwest. Together with Wallace’s notes, those sketches appeared as The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel in April 2011 and Wallace’s closest admirers seized the opportunity to proclaim his genius to anyone who’d listen. Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup called ‘Saint David’ the ‘greatest American writer of my generation’. Jonathan Franzen, a friend of Wallace, put his adoration on record in The New Yorker. The Guardian asked Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, to discuss her husband’s literary gifts and the emotional toll of his suicide. In The Awl, a Wallace critic entered the author’s personal archives to explore the collection of self-help books he annotated with notes on mental illness. The appreciations flowed thick and fast, and a glance at Wallace’s alternately charmed and troubled life shows where they were coming from.
Wallace was your classic tortured genius. The son of two academics, one a professor of philosophy and the other a professor of English, he was raised in rural Illinois before he moved east to double-major in those same two subjects at Massachusetts’ elite Amherst College. At 25, he published his English thesis as his debut novel, The Broom of the System (1987), a dialogue-rich picaresque – the lovechild of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 – about a young woman searching for her runaway grandmother while plagued with doubts about whether she herself is a real person. Over the next 20 years, Wallace wrote scores of stories and essays in some way exploring the cultural schizophrenia of a postmodern America – ubiquitous advertising and entertainment, the commercialisation of everything, the prefabrication of the human experience – and followed the victims of these cultural conditions as they plunged into anomie, depression and existential confusion.
Wallace’s breakthrough came in 1996, when he packed all these interests and more into his megalithic second novel, Infinite Jest, with Kurt Vonnegut, Kathy Acker and Don DeLillo joining Gaddis and Pynchon as powerful influences. Depicting a post-apocalyptic future in which time itself receives corporate sponsorship, Infinite Jest follows a Quebeçois terrorist group’s attempts to locate and broadcast a film so engrossing, so addictive, that anyone who watches it slips into a state of catatonic spectatorship. As the terrorists search for the film’s master copy, they are led to a recovery centre for drug addicts located next to an elite tennis academy whose teenage athletes are also addicted to various substances. The novel wrestles not only with these various addictions, but the addicts’ loss of self-control.
Unfortunately, while writing the novel Wallace descended into depression and addictions of his own, and then strove to overcome them with antidepressants, years of counselling, and finally, desperately, electroshock therapy. None of those remedies worked, and now the publication of The Pale King has enticed Wallace’s most ardent admirers to reminisce on the tragedy that ensued.
For me, however, it’s an equal tragedy that those very admirers have allowed Wallace’s depression, addictions and suicide to cast shadows over his work. To use his biography to facilitate a discussion of his literary legacy is to imply that the art that was his life’s work is now, at best, an instrument with which to understand the life itself: a coded record of the symptoms of his illness. Yet there’s no profit in using his work to understand his life unless you’re already interested in his life, and there’s little chance you’re interested unless you’ve already devoured his work. I see a circular logic at play here; and, as that logic has underpinned much media coverage of The Pale King, I imagine that readers unfamiliar with Wallace feel as if they’ve been left to observe him through the wrong end of a telescope.
How to get closer to his work? And since he attracted a legion of fellow writers who admired him and aped him in style and subject – Gary Shteyngart, Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and even 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan – why turn to Wallace’s work ahead of theirs? If they’ve been drawn to many of the same subjects that interested him, what makes his work most worth reading?
Wallace’s sharpest skill – the skill that I think allows him to outshine his influence – is his ability to recognise the one enormous subject that unites, say, broadcast TV, marital infidelity, substance abuse, Caribbean vacationing, viral marketing, pornography and workplace boredom, and to explore these facets of that enormous subject in a way that implicates everyone touched by his work: the people he depicts, the readers he attracts and the narrators hovering over the pages. That one enormous subject is the contemporary inability to pay attention to anything in a world that captivates us with an endless parade of tempting distractions. In Wallace’s work, nobody escapes them.
Think of the kid in Infinite Jest who helplessly craves his father’s microwaved brains, or the anxious wreck in The Pale King, whose unstoppable sweating is a constant reminder of ‘the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to’. Wallace recurrently gravitates towards people whose attention is held hostage to bodily impulses and worldly stimuli far beyond their control, and he does so to warn against the despair that awaits the undisciplined mind. He stated it plainly in his 2005 address to the graduates of Ohio’s Kenyon College, posthumously published as This Is Water (2010). ‘Learning how to think,’ he said, ‘means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to… If I don’t make [that] conscious decision… I’m gonna be pissed and miserable.’
Here, of course, I means you. Wallace structures his work to cajole readers into sharing the experience of distraction. With sentences unspooling hundreds of words at a stretch, bloated by parenthetical asides and broken up by thousands of footnotes that drag you out of the main text and leave you struggling to slip back into it, Wallace persistently disrupts the reading experience to test your attention with bursts of seemingly directionless prose. When he obscures or postpones arriving at the point of whatever subject he’s writing about – as he does on almost every page – how closely can you pay attention to the digressions he dishes out in the meantime? He wants you to want him to be more focused and purposeful than he actually is, and he wants you to not know what to do with all the loose, disconnected details he offers.
More than that, Wallace wants to draw your attention to the very frustration and confusion he tries to brew inside you. His story ‘Octet’, collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, is classic Wallace: he presents a series of fictional moral dilemmas and explicitly asks his readers to respond to each one. Then he writes himself into the story as a character who asks readers to respond to the brazen manipulation of their moral sentiments by the fiction they have just read. If it sounds a bit conceptual, a bit academic, it is. Wallace, after all, had an academic upbringing, and despite some of the street-slang of his prose, his writing recurrently shows that he approached his work with the self-reflexivity of an Ivory Tower native.
What makes Wallace’s work special is the extra dimension it opens up when he allows his narrators to emerge as victims of the very distraction that troubles his characters and his readers alike. His narrators tend to be just as unsure about what to pay attention to as the people whose stories they narrate. When drug addicts get high in Infinite Jest, the narrator doesn’t focus solely on how their addictions affect their lives: he painstakingly details the chemical makeup of the drugs they take, page after page after page. Nothing escapes this narrator’s attention, and that’s exactly their problem: they tie themselves in knots as they try to distinguish what matters from what’s beside the point.
The genius of Wallace’s fiction is that it reads like the work of a genius in intellectual meltdown, slathering words across the page with as much difficulty in concentrating on the important things as the people he writes about and the people who read what he’s written. Since the writers who influenced and have been influenced by Wallace tend to avoid this extra dimension, it is what makes him intriguing and most worth reading.
What makes Wallace fascinating is how he toys with the very idea of being interested in, and paying attention to, anything at all – and with that being the overarching project of all the work he left behind, The Pale King has brought the project to a fitting conclusion. No, it’s not by design that the novel is only a skeleton of what Wallace intended, or that its final pages consist literally of Wallace’s barebones notes on what would’ve been if he’d lived to finish it. Still, since he did design a decades-long dissection of distraction, which extended into everything he wrote, The Pale King sits comfortably beside his earlier work when it collapses into a commentary on the sort of novel it wanted to be but never became. ‘Dullness is associated with psychic pain,’ Wallace writes, ‘because something dull … fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there.’ The novel unearths the stimuli with which its tax administrators distract themselves from the pain of their own tedium.
But then the novel is itself a source of stimulation, offering a distraction from dullness for its readers as well as for Wallace. And so, once again, the superficial subject of a single Wallace book becomes a facet of the enormous focus that obsessed him, distilling his lifelong project into a work fragmented by a life cut short.