David Foster Wallace was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist. He’s best known for his novel Infinite Jest, which totals at 1,079 pages. He’s widely regarded as one of the best American writers of all time, and Time Magazine awarded Infinite Jest a spot among the top 100 English novels since 1923. Some of his other better-known works include his collection of short stories Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, his essay collections Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and his final, unfinished novel, The Pale King. His writing is perhaps the closest we’ve gotten to responding to the postmodernists, and I’m sure with time, Wallace will be officially considered to be in a category of his own, but for now, he’s often called a post-postmodernist.
Writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, and Thomas Pynchon are among the essential novelists of postmodernism. Essentially, the world around us, especially the American world, has been shaped by them. They left us with the idea that skepticism is progress, and that history, science, and religion are all abstract concepts to be torn down. These beliefs rely heavily on our world of consumerism today. To live solely for the self is often mistakenly considered an existentialist ideal, and while the postmodernists were certainly influenced by the likes of Sartre and Dostoevsky, the postmodernists got rid of the idea of “essence.” Living is now selfish, if you want to do something, do it, there are no concrete consequences of mass consumption to the postmodernists. I give this background to what Wallace was responding to because he is often considered among the postmodernists, but when you read his novel Infinite Jest, or his most famous short story Forever Overhead, it’s plain to see he in fact satirized the mindsets of those who came before him. In his writing, he warned of late-stage capitalism and its effect on the soul, reestablishing essence as a crucial aspect to the human condition.
One of my favorite quotes of his is from a 2003 Interview when asked about distraction’s role in society and literature, and I think this reflects his answer to the postmodernists:
“There’s a difference between being mildly bored, but then there’s another type of boredom…[reading] requires sitting alone by yourself in a quiet room…there’s an almost dread that comes up about having to be alone and having to be quiet…when you walk into most public spaces in America, it isn’t quiet anymore. They pipe music through, and the music is horrible and easy to make fun of, but it seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet anymore, and to me, I don’t know if I can defend it…but when the purpose of your life is to gratify yourself and…go all the time, there’s this other part of you that’s almost hungry for silence, and [wants] to think about the same thing for half an hour that doesn’t get fed at all…it’s true that here in the U.S. the culture gets more and more hostile, it’s difficult to ask someone to read or look at a piece of art for an hour…everything is so fast, and the faster things go, the more we feed that part of ourselves but don’t feed the part of ourselves that likes quiet…that can live without any stimulation.”
Infinite Jest certainly responds to the postmodernists, but in the interest of spoilers (and the length it would take to analyze the full text), I’ll leave this argument here. If you’re tired of the postmodern world, read this book. If you want to see where we’re heading (and arguably are), read this book. If you have any interest at all in reading, read this book. It’s a great undertaking, and Wallace’s style has certainly been critiqued, but it remains as one of the greatest books ever printed. Before you delve into his novel though, I’d suggest getting familiar with his style through his other writings. Consider the Lobster was the first book of his I read, and beyond being wildly hilarious and thought-provoking, it’s a great introduction to his style and his mind. The first essay in the collection, “Big Red Son,” is an account of his visit to the AVN awards, and comments on topics from auto-castration to the adult film industry. Another favorite among his readers is “Up Simba,” an account of being tasked with writing for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. And of course, the title essay, “Consider the Lobster,” delves into the ethics behind boiling lobsters alive, and their history in America. As you’ve probably noticed, his books are a web of completely unrelated topics, so please, for your own sake, don’t start with Infinite Jest.
I’d like to close with a few notes from his biography. On top of being a writer, he also worked as a professor at Emerson College, Pomona College, and Illinois State University, where he taught American Literature, English Studies, and Creative Writing. After the initial success of Infinite Jest, he was awarded the Whiting Award (a grant for $50,000) and many other awards from different fellowships. And in 2012 The Pale King was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. That serves as a good segway to close out. You probably caught on that his novel was published posthumously, and is of course, unfinished. If you know his name, you know the story. In 2008, he committed suicide after struggling with depression and addiction for years. Even still, his writing seems to be a voice for the masses. There’s little doubt that The Pale King would have outdone Infinite Jest on all accounts, and I think we’re all left a little worse without the finished work.
-Samuel McFerron, Blog Editor
Sam McFerron – Blog Editor, Asst. Prose & Asst. Poetry Editor: Sam is a Sophomore at Lewis University. They are an English Major with a concentration in literature and hopes to procure a minor in Philosophy. They aspire to become a professor of literature and spend most of their free time reading and writing music. They hope to improve upon their writing skills as well as their literary analysis skills during their time here at Lewis and are seeking publication within this time frame. Some authors they recommend are David Foster Wallace, MIlan Kundera, William S. Burroughs, and Kate Chopin.