From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
More than four years after his suicide, David Foster Wallace remains one of the more dominant landmarks in the literary landscape of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And even if you still haven’t gotten around to reading his magnum opus, Infinite Jest (or if your bookmark still remains sandwiched somewhere in the first 200 pages), you almost certainly know his name.
How did Wallace become such an icon for a generation of readers and writers? Some answers can be found in two recent books that, when read side by side, offer a clearer understanding of the author and his work.
One of the issues with Wallace’s fiction is its intensity of style. Manic, polysyllabic, dense, depressing, anxious – these are all sound words for what it’s like to immerse yourself in a Wallace short story or novel. These aren’t negatives, by the way; his work sees into the human experience in a way that’s remarkably insightful.
It’s like Virginia Woolf on acid. But it is all too easy to get lost in the maelstrom of the author’s mind; to start feeling a little manic and anxious yourself (take any story in his last collection, Oblivion, to see my point).
His nonfiction, however, is much more accessible. The posthumous collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, is a perfect example of Wallace’s ability to engage readers and open their eyes to new ways of seeing how we all live. Of course, being a posthumous collection, one can’t help but feel the editors were picking at the bottom of the barrel in some instances (did we need blurbs on his favorite overlooked novels or lengthy notes on often misused vocabulary?).
Even still, there are some brilliant pieces here, complete with their trademark footnotes that you should never skip. Even if you pick and choose your way through this collection (the recommended approach), be sure to read the title essay (on the god-like abilities of Roger Federer), “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2” (about the then-dawning age of FX-heavy films), and “The Best of the Prose Poem” (a hilariously scathing takedown of a prose poem anthology).
Of course, the life of the man behind the work makes for a heavier read. One of the first authorized Wallace biographies (and undoubtedly not the last), D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a penetrating look at Wallace’s life and career. Working in collaboration with Wallace’s family and friends, and tapping into a host of letters with editors and writers (including frequent correspondence with Wallace’s idol, Don DeLillo), Max has written a detailed and well-researched investigation.
It’s inspiring to learn how Wallace developed his style and career, but it’s also quite painful to read about his addictive personality, his struggle with depression (which he eventually lost), and the ways in which he continually doubted his abilities. Be sure: this is not an uplifting and inspirational story; it’s a deep sea dive into a writer’s mind and a cautionary tale about what’s its truly like to live — and be trapped — inside your own head.