My first experience with David Foster Wallace was reading Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. And when I say “reading” I don’t mean to suggest that I finished the book. I read the first chapter and threw it down in disgust. It was not an auspicious start. The book was ponderous from the first paragraph and terribly “insidery”; Wallace name dropped so many obscure mathematicians in the first chapter that I thought he might accidentally break a toe. This was a volume in a set of books designed for popular consumption on the topic of math, but it was no where near appropriate for non-trained mathematicians. I have four years of college education in obscure mathematicians: Euclid, Apollonius, Maxwell, Leibniz, Lobachevsky, and Godel are just some of the folks I’ve studied. Some of the texts I used in class were so obscure that former students of the College opened a printing business to keep them in print. I believe they sell Apollonius’s Conics solely to St. John’s and University of Chicago. What I’m saying is, I can name-drop along with the best of them and Wallace’s book left my head spinning.
Maybe the book gets better as it goes. Maybe now that I’ve read lots of Wallace’s other work it would become pleasurably bizarre instead of annoyingly inscrutable. So, while this post may seem to be suggesting that you foreswear any David Foster Wallace, what I’m actually suggesting is simply not to start with hard-core mathematics.
Where can you start? I recently read a collection of non-fiction essays, Consider the Lobster. That’s not a bad place to start. The essays range widely, including the title piece about the Maine Lobster Festival, a meditation on his experience of 9/11, a consideration of why sports autobiography contain so consistently dismal writing, a piece of reporting on an “adult entertainment” convention, and a defense of liberalizing grammar rules. His writing in both expansive and incredibly detail-oriented. Wallace’s viewpoint is consistently humble and non-editorializing yet by the end of the piece you feel like you’ve been taken alongside him and can see these matters most clearly from Wallace’s own perspective. You always end up agreeing with Wallace, not because you’ve been bullied or brainwashed into it, but because it’s clear he’s right.
Wallace’s non-fiction is so enjoyable, so dense, and so tightly wound with insight that I’ve decided it’s best read (by me at least) slowly. I think, a year after finishing the last one, I’m just about ready to start a new essay collection. His fiction, however, is a completely different story.
I consider it a point of pride that I’ve finished Wallace’s seminal work, Infinite Jest, and a special point of pride that I finished it inside of a month. The work is massive, nearly 1100 pages long, the last quarter of which is densely printed endnotes. It weighs in at a full 3 pounds on my kitchen scale. To give you some scale, the paperback edition of the first Harry Potter book is a measly 7.8 ounces.
Infinite Jest is so damn long because it’s so damn complicated. When I try to think of a topic not covered, a place in North America not visited, a contemporary political or social issue not satirized I’m left baffled. Topics covered in Infinite Jest include : chemistry of illegal drugs, the end of the world, slang terms in Boston, medical care provided to diplomatic emissaries, suicide, AA, death cults from separatist Quebec, Hillary Clinton, migraines, addiction, entertainment, tennis (and more tennis), madness, the NFL, Serena Williams, parental love, beauty and disfiguration, more about addiction, the Great Concavity/Convexity, Annularized Time, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Y.U.A.D), cleanliness and filth, responsibility, recovery from addiction, optics, liberal education, the Steelers, French New Wave, and then, to wrap it up, more about addiction (and a haunting).
That list might cover, oh, a whole three or four pages of Infinite Jest. It’s work to read. It really is. But it’s worth it. You can’t start this book lightly. You’ll need lots of time and gumption. Pick that time well, because chances are you’ll become as annoyingly insidery about Infinite Jest as Wallace was about mathematics, and you don’t want to become an impossibly difficult snob to be around. The emotional investment is high in this book, so be prepared for some serious wallowing when you reach the end. I am happily anticipating reading Wallace’s other fiction but I am also waiting for a time when I can dedicate plenty of intellectual and emotional energy for it.
The only bad thing I have to say about Wallace’s work (outside of that horrible mathematics book) is that there won’t be any new works coming out. Wallace committed suicide in 2008 after going off his meds that had helped him battle lifelong depression. His life, work, and death have been written about movingly by a close friend of his, DT Max, another popular author of essays. If you get as drawn into David Foster Wallace’s life and work as I have I recommend not missing out on the insight Max’s work gives. Wallace was a genius, no doubt, but his perceptions about his own life were always colored by his serious illness.
Though I only discovered Wallace’s work after his death, I join the reading and writing community in mourning for him. If you begin reading through his work then you’ll join these sad ranks too. But it’ll be worth it.