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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