A Rumination On The Genius Of David Foster Wallace

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Like many people, I’m sure, I was part way through Infinite Jest when I realized that David Foster Wallace is a genius. The entire scope of the book, its almost encyclopedic nature (not to mention the length, because I’d be remised) in how it feels so all encompassing of this world, no, universe that he created, to these painful characters who are so human and raw. I knew he was a literary genius as soon as I read that book, then later on I got further through his bibliography and read Everything And More (his book literarily about the history of infinity largely told through mathematic equations) and Fate, Time, And Language (his college thesis on free will and his critique on philosopher Richard Taylor) and realized I had to throw the “literary” caveat away and realize he was just a flat out genius.

It didn’t start out that revolutionary, though, as I was pretty averagely whelmed by his first novel The Broom Of The System. I really enjoyed it for the first half when it was building up its world and ideas, but then everything fell off a cliff in the back half and I found it a slog to get through. Wallace just meandered in these character’s thoughts and didn’t seem too intent on actually doing much besides the very base introductions into the main character Lenore’s mental crises. I found it funny that Wallace himself famously hates looking back on this novel as he thinks its pretty juvenile and amateur in a writing sense. Not that I’m taking any extra credit in not really liking it, quite the opposite, in fact wish I could write something this good at my age, let alone his age at the time.

Girl With Curious Hair just seemed like a fine enough short story collection where I particularly liked the ones on Jeopardy!, Lyndon Johnson and Late Night With David Letterman, but the rest fell pretty flat and often were a slog to get through. His collaboration book Signifying Rappers: Rap And Race In The Urban Present with his friend Mark Costello read like it was just written yesterday with its pin-point thoughts on everything inside of hip-hop from race to piracy to communication to its perception and on and on. Wallace and Costello both expertly broke down the prejudices laid against the music and the untruths about it and how hip-hop encapsulates a wide breadth of modern culture, even back in the early 90s, that some might not even be fully aware of. And as good as it was, I’m preconditioning to liking hip-hop anything because I love the genre so much, but I still felt like maybe I just didn’t “get” Wallace and was waiting to see if anything of his really clicked with me, or if I was going to be part of the other group who just never understood his hype.

And, yes, now we cue Infinite Jest. Everybody cries about the length of the book, and yes it’s long as hell with its footnotes section being longer than your average book, but it never really feels that long. This is a 1,000 plus page book that never feels like it drags, and that’s something when it’s largely just spouting philosophical thought or rambling on about the effects of whatever random drug. The book is obviously dense and has layers upon layers, but it’s not hard to get through per se, but it just takes time. A lot of the plot doesn’t even matter, because not all that much really happens, it’s just really following these various storylines that really never make any grand aspirations to go anywhere, and thus you reading this is less of following what happens, but living in this absurdist world that Wallace has created. “Absurd” is the word I always keep coming back to with this book, especially in something I wasn’t really expecting, even though I should have, was how hilarious this book is. Wallace knows how to write true characters, and this book has straight-up jokes, but also mines humour from just basic humanistic things that nobody ever speaks aloud, but pretty much everybody does. I never really thought I’d like this this much, but I was kind of left in awe of this world that Wallace created where I was constantly admiring his scope in world building, characters and fine details that made this thing a piece of art from simple word to word connections on each page.

Following that he delivered A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Anymore which is basically his masterpiece essay collection which I loved it all the way around. The highlights are his essay on television which is very insightful and surprisingly relevant from when he wrote it over twenty years ago, the tennis essay on Michael Joyce which lets Wallace dig around in his passion and exposes some of the oddities of the tennis world, and his famous essay documenting his stay on a cruise ship which is full of all his signature observations on human behaviour.

As I mentioned above, Everything And More and Fate, Time And Language took Wallace to another echelon with me, even though I probably understood about 10% combined of what he was saying in both of these works. Seeing that Everything And More was subtitled “A Compact History of Infinity” I of course thought it was a tongue-in-cheek joke from Wallace, just an ironic outlandish name to title a selection of essays that obviously wouldn’t measure up to the concept of infinity. Except, no, David Foster Wallace wrote a legit history of infinity and quite literally writes what is basically a math textbook, with some of that Wallace flair.

Fate, Time And Language is like a sibling to Everything And More in that it continues to prove that David Foster Wallace is a genius beyond the bounds of fiction literature, into mathematics and philosophy. I mean, I couldn’t entirely connect with this book/essay/thesis because I really don’t care that much about philosophy (and definitely not to the astronomical levels that Wallace did), so these questions posed, fighting back on theories and breaking down of these phrases into their literal and metaphysical parts by Wallace just seem pointless to me. It’s like you knew David Foster Wallace was some kind of literary savant on some high level, but then he busts these two things seemingly out of nowhere and you think this guys gotta be on some kind of genius level to have all this scholarly strength rattling up in his brain. It’s kinda crazy how he can switch from writing about sociology to tennis to politics to complex math problems and make them all digestible and brilliant in their own way.

His various other collections throughout the years in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Oblivion, Consider The Lobster and Both Flesh And Not all exceed in their own ways giving Wallace equal balance to explore his more serious efforts sandwiched in between something funny or even just fawning over Roger Federer. Up, Simba! Up, Simba! was a fascinating read on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, mainly because I at my young age really only started knowing about McCain from his 2008 bid, so it was fascinating hearing about him in this context because all the insights about his personality don’t really seem that interesting or new due to the fact that I’m reading this 16 years after it was written and I was already aware of this portrait of him (ie. the whole Vietnam POW stuff, and how he seemingly flys in the face of what a buttoned up politician should act like). This Is Water, his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, proved that, hell, Wallace might as well tackle another medium for his words and make it masterful.

Wallace’s last piece of work before his death, The Pale King, is terrific in its own unfinished right. It’s great all the way around and has sparkles and glints of a masterpiece buried beneath it. Of course we’re always gonna wonder what this novel would’ve looked like if Wallace got it to how he wanted it before he died, but I bet it isn’t too far away from what we got to read and all-and-all it’s a pretty great reconstruction of chapters in varying levels of madness. Dude literally made a book about the IRS interesting, that should be grounds for a masterpiece itself.

It’s funny, coming into reading David Foster Wallace I kind of didn’t want to like him. I have this semi-hipster mentality where I hate liking things that the mass media fawns over and loves. Infinite Jest would not stop popping up wherever I looked like some goddamn gopher, so I said “okay, I’ll finally read this thing” and because I’m an insane maniac I can’t just read a book part way through someone’s bibliography, so I read all his works from the beginning and as gross as it sounds, I’m better for it. Knowing very little about David Foster Wallace I just assumed he was kind of a shut-in literary snob who was this lame, pain-filled writer who had one legendary book and killed himself. Reading all of his works, including the essential Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (and the great film version, The End Of The Tour, with fantastic performances from both Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky)road trip recollection from David Lipsky that charts Lipsky’s time with Wallace over part of the Infinite Jest book tour, I found out about the beautiful person Wallace was amongst all that pain bubbling under.

David Foster Wallace was SO human. That’s what I liked about him, I mean sure I believe he’s actually operating on some genius level I don’t understand, but he also just fucking loves Alanis Morissette a lot and wrote an essay on why Terminator 2: Judgment Day sucks so much and writes about tennis like Michelangelo is sculpting it. He’s simultaneously this smart guy in mathematics, philosophy and higher-thinking and should probably be a snob about it, but he’s just too human and understands low brow and high brow equally enough that those two definitions wouldn’t seem like a division to him. In other words, the history of infinity to him is of the exact same importance to why Terminator 2 sucks so much. As I read his books I would often become very sad that his genius wouldn’t continue to create great works, but happy that the ones he did create exist and that they represent himself so accurately in all the happiness, pain, and wonder that made up David Foster Wallace.

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Chuck Klosterman In Three Sections

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I feel like you can break down Chuck Klosterman’s bibliography into three types of books, so that’s what I’m gonna do. Firstly, you have the “essay” books. These are the books that Klosterman is most famous from and for, including Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota, Sex, Drugs And Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and Eating The Dinosaur, among others. They include essays whether on an overarching topic or not, and just his random thoughts and muses from things on music, sports, sociology and such, drawing on an idea from a piece of pop culture. Secondly, we have his narrative fiction novels with Downtown Owl and The Visible Man. These are his foray into fiction storytelling, but still are just basically a different conduit for him to wax about small town America or frame his theories on human interaction through a different book medium. Lastly, are his essays with an overarching theme that ties each essay and chapter together such as I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling With Villains and But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past. These have essays that may vary in topic, but are still about the theme at large and contribute to a corner of that picture, hoping to paint something new with all these ideas tackling it from different directions. I’m not here to say anyone is better, it’s just interesting to see the progression Klosterman has taken in how he intends to approach his ideas, since it’s a clear leap from one idea to the next in how he frames these books.

1. Essays

I think “Fargo Rock City” is his best book, and coincidentally or not it’s his first one, mostly because it doesn’t fall into any boring memoir traps and focuses on the topic at hand rather than shoehorning himself into everything. When I first heard it was a memoir I was a little apprehensive because I could care less about how popular music affected one dude because it’s literally the same case for millions around the world. Klosterman always talks about the minutiae and differences about growing up in a small town in the mid-west, but he always does it with a tone where he seems to think he’s the only with this upbringing and that there aren’t millions of people who have grown up the same way he did and he’s not honouring us with this special look into small town lifestyle. Anyways, “Fargo Rock City” was good because he focused on the music and charted how it progressed and grew in and of itself and didn’t relate back to himself that much.

“Sex, Drugs And Cocoa Puffs” isn’t as good as “Fargo Rock City” mainly because it lacked the throughline that his first one possessed. I never really buy into that thing where people say you either love something or you hate it, but with these certain Klosterman essays I find you’ll either 100% agree with his opinion/theory or will 100% think he’s off base and thus think his whole argument is dumb and pointless. I love dissecting pop culture and I love how Klosterman will take a seemingly random thing like The Real World, Pamela Anderson or Saved By The Bell and explore some tangential themes of societal roles, sexual identity and ideas about perceived time and identity. Like, I said before, though, if you’re on board with the idea or piece of pop culture, you’ll love it, and thus I know this book would be most popular with Gen Xers, but I can easily see someone hating it due to his wild posits and smug attitude.

Killing Yourself To Live: 85% Of A True Story is a lot like “Fargo Rock City” in that it’s a memoir framed around rock music essays, except this time it’s a lot more memoir-based and focused on the various women in Klosterman’s life and how his relationships succeeded and failed with them. Suffice to say I could not have cared less, because there’s nothing more I hate than writers writing about their love life because they always treat it like some life or death thing that seems so important to the person living that life, but to us reading it it always feels so trite and vapid.

While his first two books have some connectivity, they’re largely just an excuse to write about whatever. Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade Of Curious People And Dangerous Ideas and Eating The Dinosaur on the other hand are just truly a collection of random essays, and thus they all average out to be pretty average with some good and some not-so good. Again, I gravitate to the music essays, so “IV” is great in that it features a ton of his profiles on bands that are maybe some of my favourite things of his to read.

2. Novels

I was really interested to see how Klosterman would fare entering the realm of novels and while they were fine in and of themselves, they didn’t really offer anything new. Downtown Owl is right within his wheelhouse where he gets to paint a picture of small town life, that he is very good at, even when he’s being weirdly elitist about it. He’s great at connecting you to these characters and this small-town world in such a short amount of time.

The Visible Man has a cool concept of a guy that can make himself invisible, but Klosterman doesn’t take it on a “fun” route or anything like that, rather it’s more about the terror it brings to the humanity of those in possession of this power that you wouldn’t think about on a surface level. I did like this framing device because it was a smart and easy way for Klosterman to tell a story, but also an easy way to get out all his theories and ideas about human behaviour that he normally would just have in a pop culture essay. He was able to siphon his thoughts through a psuedo Hannibal Lecter type character (ie. someone being pried for info while they pontificate about random stuff to get into the head of the interviewer). Unfortunately, the novel is quite short and doesn’t really go anywhere in its story or ends up at any credible philosophical ending.

3. Connective Theme Essays

Klosterman’s most recent books “I Wear The Black Hat” and “But What If We’re Wrong” tackle his essay approach in a whole other way. Each essay is made to build up the overarching theme of the book, villains in the first book and the idea about how we think about certain things in the past or present in the latter, whether it be through his usual haunts of music, sports and so forth or through more scientific examining. I felt that “I Wear The Black Hat” failed because while its parts were good it didn’t really add up to anything new, it just confirmed whatever everybody always knows/thought about the concept of “villains” in modern culture.

“But What If We’re Wrong” takes Klosterman books to another level because he actually goes to experts about things and interviews them, because they know all about the scientific side of things, while Klosterman then covers the sociological and culture side of things. He outlines the thought and backs it up with the scientific thought and then approaches it with his idea and what he believes it says about a certain thing.