By: Liev Markovich  | 

David Foster Wallace’s Enduring Impact

When “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace was published on February 1, 1996, it created a buzz that is almost impossible for novels to create nowadays, especially a nonlinear, 1000+ page opus teeming with multiple-page endnotes and constantly directing the reader to his/her dictionary with words like “carbuncle,” “pistanthrophobia,” and “crepuscular.” “Infinite Jest” has remained popular ever since, selling over 44,000 copies in its first year of publication and going on to sell over one million copies since its release. 

At the time, Wallace became somewhat of a household name, embarking on a ten-city book tour (part of which is chronicled in David Lipsky’s “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which was adapted into the feature film “The End of the Tour,” starring Jason Segal as Wallace) and ending up on the cover of Time Magazine. He was heralded as a savior of American literature, who, along with a few other authors (Jonathan Franzen is a name that comes to mind), was willing to tackle the big issues, such as loneliness, depression, drug use and unchecked consumerism, that plagued contemporary America. 

Unfortunately, he was not the savior of American literature, and his life and career trajectory did not follow the simple upward pattern that was expected. Wallace did not only write about contemporary American struggles, but was plagued by them himself. He was an incredibly self-conscious figure, never quite comfortable with the fame and expectation that “Infinite Jest” heaped upon him, and for most of his post-“Infinite Jest” adult life he lived in the suburbs of Bloomington, Illinois, doing mainly non-fiction and journalistic work and teaching at Illinois State University. Throughout his life, he battled manic depression, and in 2008 he committed suicide. He never published another novel following “Infinite Jest,” but left behind bits and pieces of a manuscript that would become the posthumous novel “The Pale King.”

In the years following his suicide, Wallace has become quite the controversial figure in literary circles. It seems that every few months his name is trending on Twitter, with many seeing him as a model of toxic masculinity: The straight, white, upper-middle-class male whose massive ego led him to write a long, useless, overcomplicated work for which he received mass adulation, yet remained personally unsatisfied. There are also those who unrequitedly admire Wallace, who have christened him “Saint Dave,” the man who could not handle our decaying culture and died for America’s sins. The truth about Wallace is probably somewhere between these two extremes. What both sides of the debate seem to ignore is his actual work. Unfortunately, as often happens when an artist commits suicide, his final act has defined him, and attention has shifted from Wallace the author to Wallace the person, with much focus being placed on the granular details of his personal life. However, as is true for many writers, it can be intellectually fruitful to place Wallace’s life in the context of his literary work and vice versa. Such an approach will hopefully uncover aspects of his personality and literary goals, as well as demonstrate why his work remains impactful and is worth reading.

Before diving into “Infinite Jest, some context regarding Wallace’s background and milieu is necessary. Born in Champaign Urbana, Illinois, in 1962 to two professor parents (philosophy and English), he was shaped by a nascent culture of mass media as a member of the first generation with access to 24/7 TV programming. In his biography, “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” by DT Max, Max recounts how Wallace would sometimes watch TV for ten straight hours, yet as an incredibly gifted person would still achieve good grades and play competitive junior tennis at a high level (in addition to fiction and journalism, Wallace is one of the best sports writers out there; his compendium of tennis writing, published asString Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis is worth a read). As he entered young adulthood, he became entrenched in weed culture, calling himself an “incredible pothead.” In his college years at Amherst, he grew more interested in literature, enamored by postmodern writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. His first novel, “The Broom of the System,” was published in 1987 and received a Whiting Award, putting Wallace on the map as an up-and-coming novelist. However, around this time he began to struggle mightily with addiction and depression, eventually landing him in rehab at a halfway house in Boston. The house was filled with working-class addicts who came from different backgrounds than the college-educated Wallace, yet clearly had similar internal struggles, leading Wallace to the conclusion that his problems were not confined to his milieu, but were American problems that needed to be further investigated. 

It was this halfway house experience that provided the foundations for “Infinite Jest,” whose two main plot threads follow the daily travails of addicts at Ennet Drug and Alcohol Recovery House in Enfield, Boston, and the talented, brilliant, and obsessive teenagers — many of whom have their own drug problems — at Enfield Tennis Academy right across the road. Wallace, being a person who struggled with addiction and depression, was deeply concerned with the holes we have inside us: what causes them and what we fill them with. He was especially concerned with the insidious effects of mass media and entertainment, and wanted to juxtapose America’s entertainment obsession with drug/alcohol addiction as merely different points on the same appetitive spectrum. This point is embodied in the main plot device in “Infinite Jest, which is a television cartridge called “The Entertainment” that is so seductive that it puts its viewers into a death-inducing stupor. The book’s diverging, discursive structure, filled with endnotes, is meant to reflect the overwhelming world of the information age, where stimuli constantly bombard us and it is unclear what is actually important and what deserves our attention. For this reason, some critics have called “Infinite Jest” the first book of the Internet Age. 

To me, Wallace is trying to challenge the reader to look past the Pynchonesque pyrotechnics and see that “Infinite Jest” is really about a bunch of sad, empty people desperately trying to find meaning and connection and something to hold onto in a lonesome world. Hal Incandenza, the novel’s main character, is a teenage genius and a prodigious tennis player, destined for the pros, yet “hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny” and is incredibly lonely and addicted to marijuana. The other main character is Don Gately, a recovering drug addict and resident staffer at Ennet House, from whose perspective the novel often diverges in order to dive deeply into the psychology of addicts and the mechanics of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is in these passages, where Wallace illustrates deeply empathetic portraits of addiction and extols the unexpected wisdom of AA, that the novel becomes profound. 

However, much of the novel consists of brilliantly written, fun, but often ultimately empty asides. Wallace’s literary talent shines, making “Infinite Jest” immensely re-readable; I often find myself opening to any random page and getting lost in the prose, the exquisite detail and the constantly shifting, unique authorial voice. Overall, Wallace does a great job diagnosing our cultural sickness, both in the book’s structure and substance, but fails to offer a clear solution to this preeminent dilemma of our time. He himself seems to get lost in the book’s seemingly never ending pages, and there is no straightforward redemption for the characters, no obvious way for them to be fully human in an alienating world. Hal achieves fullness of internal personality, but to do so he must lose his ability to communicate. Gately is shot protecting halfway house members from intruders and endures his horrifically painful wounds without breaking his sobriety, but he fades away, and we are left unsure as to where his future lies. The “plot,” if we can even call it that, never gets resolved, as the novel’s various fragments never get pieced together. Perhaps this is an honest portrayal: there are no clean, simple resolutions in life, and every seeming step forward requires a sacrifice, a corresponding step back. 

Wallace himself, though proud of his work, was frustrated about his inability to be truly sincere. In an essay written a few months after “Infinite Jest’s” publication, titled “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” he complains about the lack of moral clarity in contemporary works of art — how they have to hide their moral message in fancy literary tricks and asides as opposed to being brave and upfront like the 19th century Russians he admired: “So, for me anyway, what makes Dos­toevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves … [W]e — under our own nihilist spell — seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate ques­tions.” His newfound dedication to sincerity is on clear display in his 2006 coronation speech to Kenyon College, titled “This Is Water,” which is what he is most well known for in contemporary times. His seemingly simple message —that careful attention allows one to transcend their natural, negative thought patterns and is the secret to enduring even the most frustrating experiences with grace and dignity —resonates deeply with almost everyone I know who has listened to the speech. Only it is clear that the audience in “This is Water” was not the graduating students, or the adults in the crowd, or even America as a whole, but Wallace himself. The speech is littered with lines such as “I am not the wise old fish” and “Please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice.” These are the small hints of subversion and little tics of self-doubt that occur when a congenital skeptic tries to convince himself of the “capital ‘t’ Truth” about how to live a good life. Wallace is drawing out an ideal that he could never quite reach. 

Despite “This is Water” being his best-known work, Wallace was a novelist at heart, and he was desperate to express the worldview found in “This is Water” in the written word. He wanted to write a novel about boredom, the deepest evil of the entertainment age, the thing that the modern world constantly seeks to purge itself of. Perhaps this forgotten thing, boredom, could be liberating. The novel, never finished by Wallace, but posthumously published as “The Pale King” in 2011, revolves around the daily life and tedium of IRS agents in Peoria, Illinois in 1985. It contains a few finished sections, one of which was recently published independently as a strange, hauntingly beautiful novella titled “Something to Do With Paying Attention.” “Something to Do With Paying Attention” is probably the closest Wallace came to his goal of writing “morally passionate, passionately moral” fiction. The prose, while still containing the linguistic flourishes that make reading Wallace so compelling (delights include “wastoid” and “obetrolling”), is precise and straightforward. As the preface, by publisher Sarah McNally, states, “Calm and poise replace the pyrotechnics of ‘Infinite Jest’ and other early works.” The novella is a highly unconventional conversion tale, as a self-described “wastoid” who has sleepily wandered through life accidentally enters an accounting class and is inspired to embrace the profession by a substitute professor who touts accounting as a truly heroic endeavor: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality— there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested … True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care— with no one there to see and cheer.” It is a brilliant and moving piece of fiction that feels more true to Wallace’s essence than “This is Water” and is the first thing I suggest to anyone who is interested in reading his work.
In a way, Wallace’s earlier works, especially “Infinite Jest,” demonstrate the value of careful, quiet attention, even if they are not directly preaching it. To read “Infinite Jest,” you have to sit in a room alone, quietly, with a dictionary at hand, paying close attention. Reading his work could be a transformational and liberating experience; finishing “Infinite Jest” proved to me that I am a better reader than I thought I was, and paved the way for more projects involving long, difficult texts. If there is one message you could take away from Wallace’s oeuvre, it is this: You are smarter than you think you are, and you have the ability to make choices that make your life mean something — if you pay proper attention. Wallace’s own struggles with distraction, addiction, and depression make his work more impactful. He was not writing from an ivory tower, telling his readers to be more like him. Rather, he was trying to cure both his readers and himself, to find connection and solace through writing. While he was not able to overcome his own demons, Wallace’s message continues to resonate in an ever-more distracting and overwhelming world.


Photo Caption: Finishing “Infinite Jest” proved to me that I am a better reader than I thought I was, and paved the way for more projects involving long, difficult texts.

Photo Credit: Liev Markovich