The Challenge of Writing About David Foster Wallace

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Some personalities lend themselves well to biographies and profiles. These lives can be neatly packaged, edited, and bound. They can be organized into chapters, narratives, lists, and an index. And though these biographies might not make great literature, they can be thrilling to read (cf: Richard Burton). But some lives can't be defined by the adventures therein; some possess an intellect so vast and frenetic that, consequently, it's mostly inaccessible to the profiler and, in turn, the reader. See: Wallace, David Foster.

Wallace was the rare literary wunderkind to enjoy renown even outside the literary community. His gargantuan talent (the acclaimed Harper's pieces, the dazzling Infinite Jest, the bestowment of the Genius Award), and to a lesser degree, his life story (Midwestern upbringing, junior tennis whiz, drug and alcohol use, electroconvulsive therapy) propelled him into literary superstardom. On two occasions the spotlight was especially acute: following the publication of his opus Infinite Jest in 1996, and when he took his own life in September 2008.

Even so, I had never heard of Wallace before taking a creative writing seminar freshman year. The professor was confused by a story I had written and urged me to maintain consistency and an internal logic even in surrealist prose; she offered Brief Interviews with Hideous Men as a paradigm. I read that, and proceeded to attack—that's the only appropriate word—the rest of his oeuvre. And when he died, I read all the obituaries, profiles, tributes. They were mostly excellent, heartfelt, superbly written and organized, but nevertheless seemed a little...flat.

Part of it, to be sure, is that DFW's prose is so sharp, precise, and—especially in his nonfiction—self-conscious, that others' material can't really hope to measure up. Worse, the necessary reductiveness of a magazine profile too often felt like a disservice—a pull quote, no matter how smoothly deployed, won't readily capture a guy who penned winding two-hundred word sentences with digressive footnotes to explain his viewpoint on topics as mundane as cruise-line cuisine.

In any case, two forms of DFW-literature emerged (putting aside the trivial mentions, the newspaper-sidebar "Lives Lived" sort of stuff). First, there was a clinical, New Yorker-style profile, choking with facts and quotes, tied together with graceful reporting and editing. And naturally, the New Yorker owned this category (and in a nice touch, coupled it with an excerpt from his unfinished though soon-to-published book). Rolling Stone kept pace. These pieces, especially in tandem, are exhaustive and informative, and as good a biographical sketch as you could hope to find. Still, Wallace's spirit is elusive, almost haunting. It peeks through in the quotes and minor anecdotes, but is never wholly present.

The second type of reaction was less analytical/factual, and more reflective: people spoke and wrote about the effect that DFW and his work had on them. In a sense, his work demands it. Infinite Jest is massive, unwieldy, structurally challenging, and, to the resilient reader, usually transcendent. Capturing it with concrete terms is hard. (To get a sense of what I'm talking about, witness the struggle that reviewers had summarizing the plot.) Elissa Bassist, in a piece selected by Dzanc Book's surprisingly good Best of the Web anthology, simply listed her feelings about the book instead of a more traditional review. The tributes given a month after Wallace's suicide at NYU, by family, editors, publishers, friends, were more personal and piercing than Bassist's list, but were still marked by a tendency to recall Wallace through his work's impact. Author George Saunders spoke of Brief Interviews, "I found the book to be doing weird things to my mind and body." Zadie Smith, whose tribute was developed into a more formal essay in her collection Changing My Mind, upped the scholarly ante, and wrote that a forced self-reflection was the point of Wallace's fiction. "[The stories] are turned outward, toward us. It's our character being investigated."

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Menachem Kaiser is a Fulbright Fellow in Lithuania.

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