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Nicholas Lezard’s Choice: ‘The David Foster Wallace Reader’

  • Published at 05:34 pm October 10th, 2018
David Foster Wallace Reader

I think 'Mozartishly' is particularly apt, and contains the idea that its creator somehow knew that he had to get an enormous amount of work done in a very short space of time

On the bookshelves of quite a few readers of the more intelligent kind of American fiction, you will see, taking up a greater expanse of shelf than any of its companions, its spine curved not so much through reading as from the book’s own gravity, a copy of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest

There are people who are very impressed by this kind of thing, and that’s before they even start reading it. As the critic Bharat Tandon put it in his review of the novel for The Times Literary Supplement, “the fiction industry [vies] only with competitive vegetable-growing in the importance it attaches to sheer size and weight.” 

This critic, though (and as a critic I suppose that must mean I am some part of “the fiction industry”) is not so impressed, for various reasons, and what I read of Infinite Jest made me suspect that while, at the level of the sentence, Wallace was a supremely gifted writer, at the level of the book, he could really do with some pruning. 

And so what we have here is a very well-produced digest of Wallace’s writings, including 258 pages of Infinite Jest, or about a quarter of it, which is, at the very least, a suggestion that the book could have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. Of course, the sheer endurance that reading it entails is said, by many of those who claim to have read every word, to be the whole point of it; and then again there are those who say that Thomas Pynchon (Wallace’s chief influence) managed to say as much about contemporary American society in a tenth of the space in The Crying of Lot 49

So I tiptoed away from David Foster Wallace, until a collection of essays called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again came out (I didn’t have long to wait). I read the title essay, about his time on a cruise ship, and this time everything that had been exasperating about IJ was instead turned to great use: the prolixity, the crazed footnotes, a DFW trademark, which sometimes were so long that the actual body of the text was nothing more than a thin crust at the top of the page—even the mad attention to detail, both of his surroundings and to his internal state, and his own childishness—I’ll get back to this—in wearing a t-shirt printed with a tuxedo design in the ironic hope that this will suffice as formal evening wear (it doesn’t); this time, it all gelled, and his prose seemed to project a writer who was humane, engaged, extremely articulate, and witty, and his long sentences had a point and reach that didn’t seem rambling, but just took you by the hand and led you around until you felt you had been immersed not only in DFW’s mind but in the very thing he was describing. 

As you can see from that last sentence, it’s a very infectious style, and it accounts for one reason why so many people revere him (though many of them are well into middle age these days: Wallace, asked “who do you imagine your readership to be?” in a long 1993 interview with Larry McCafferey, replied “I suppose it’s people more or less like me, in their twenties and thirties, maybe, with enough experience or good education to have realized that the hard work serious fiction requires of a reader sometimes has a payoff”). At his best, his writing is tirelessly, puppyishly eager, and that eagerness rubs off on you; he is like a supremely intelligent child continually asking very good questions. (The length of his sentences is such that I don’t have the space to quote any of his best ones here. If you haven’t read him before, you will have to take me at my word.)

As you may know, he hanged himself in 2008. It was not his first suicide attempt. This isn’t really the place to speculate on why someone with such gifts should kill himself, but it becomes clear from reading this book’s Afterwords—written by various contributors about whom I know nothing, apart from Hari Kunzru, except that they usually have something interesting and to the point to say—that one thing that didn’t help was the drying up of his creative gift. Basically, he stopped writing fiction, or struggled when he did so; the sixty-odd pages we get of his novel The Pale King (published posthumously in 2011) are plenty. If only, you can’t help feeling, he had disciplined himself, curbed himself, murdered—to use Henry James’s phrase—his darlings. But that wasn’t in his nature. “At twenty-one, he discovered his great gift for fiction,” writes Mark Costello in his Afterword to DFW’s superb essay “Derivate Sport in Tornado Alley”; “it poured out of him Mozartishly, a story in a morning, a novella in three weeks ... this overflowing period of creativity ended four years later, just as he became perhaps the first famous writer of his generation.” I think “Mozartishly” is particularly apt, and contains the idea that its creator somehow knew that he had to get an enormous amount of work done in a very short space of time. 

But in the Reader we have much to celebrate—the essays mentioned, others on Kafka, teaching English (he was a grammar purist, for all the ease and fluency with which he played with the language), television, 9/11 as seen from the American Midwest, Roger Federer (when Wallace, a gifted player, writes about tennis, he really knows what he’s talking about), the ethical considerations of eating lobster. These are among the finest, and most engaging, pieces of descriptive and/or ruminative prose to have been written in the last fifty years, and coming across them again has been as much of a joy as it was to come across them the first time. The fiction has been pruned wisely (the editors seem to be unusually self-effacing, their names only appearing beneath the introduction; this is a good sign), so we can see its outlines more clearly. The Broom of the System, his first novel (1987) is reduced to a scant twenty-seven pages; I can live with that. It’s a shame that we don’t get even an extract of his long piece about following John McCain’s 2008 election campaign; I suppose that to have included it whole would have made this book longer than Infinite Jest itself. But I could have lived with that, too. 


Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.