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David Foster Wallace | Electric Cereal

Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

Editors on David Foster Wallace

A Conversation with David Foster Wallace in 2004

David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose

Amy Wallace speaks about her brother David Foster Wallace

Writers on David Foster Wallace

Dave Eggers’ negative review of Infinite Jest from 1996


Novel portrays an escapist culture in which we are willing to die for pleasure

by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown; 1,087 pages $29.95


It’s post-millennial America, sometime after the Jack Kemp/Rush Limbaugh presidential administration. Giant deformed babies and herds of feral hamsters roam the blasted landscape of the Great Concavity, a gigantic toxic waste receptacle that covers much of what used to be Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York.

Relations between the United States and Canada are strained (due to the northerly directed fallout from the Concavity), and a bizarre cadre of wheelchair-bound Quebecer insurgents is planning a massive terrorist attack on the entertainment-lulled and drug-addled U.S. populace.

Federal budget shortfalls have necessitated the privatization of many formerly sacred American institutions. The Statue of Liberty is available for unique advertising opportunities, and for the right price, the government is selling the rights to time itself. The year is 2010, but it’s better known, in this era of subsidized time, as the Year of the Depend Undergarment. (2005 was the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar.)

Such is the provocative backdrop of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, fat, and frustrating second novel, Infinite Jest. Science fiction it’s not. Though set against an epic landscape of environmental toxicity and corporate insinuation, at its core the book is an intimate and bleak portrait of the human fallout caused by a weak-willed country interested only in pleasing itself. Exploring the lives of those enslaved by TV, drugs, alcohol and emotional dependence, Wallace paints a picture, one character at a time, of the decline of a culture paralyzed by its need for escape and its willingness to die in the pursuit of happiness.

Like his earlier novel, The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest revolves around a peculiar and brilliant family. The Incandenzas are proprietors of the posh Enfield Tennis Academy, a combination athlete factory and elite academic high school. Jim Incandenza, the eccentric and hard-drinking Academy founder and family patriarch, has, after failing in his attempt to make it as a filmmaker, recently killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave.

His three sons — Orin, a celebrated punter for a pro football team; Mario, who has a birth defect and a heart of gold; and Hal, a linguistic genius and nationally ranked junior tennis player — struggle to come to grips with the void and legacy left by their father. But the family is coming apart at the seams. Avril, Jim’s widow, is seeing a 17-year-old. Orin has an uncontrollable habit of seducing and abandoning married woman. Hal, listless and increasingly withdrawn, is hooked on high-resign marijuana.

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Gus Van Sant interviews David Foster Wallace

American writer David Foster Wallace (1962 – 2008), East Village, Manhattan, New York City, circa 2002. (Photo by Janette Beckman/Redferns)

From May 1998:

DFW: The thing that I don’t get, and this doesn’t have to go on record, is that either you’re a total mensch, or this is some sort of very important venue, because I would have imagined that you know, you could go around being offered cocaine by the people in LA.

GVS: I’m a mensch. What does mensch mean?

DFW: What does mensch mean…?

GVS: Good guy, right?

DFW: Good, sturdy, good hearted guy.

GVS: (Pause) I thought that after we talk together I would type this up and then send it to you to approve it. Give you a…do you have a computer?

DFW: Uh…yeah. (loud unexplained bang) But I don’t have anything that, like…I make my own disks and stuff. Well, you’re a mensch, I’ll probably sign off on whatever you do as long as you don’t have me you know, confessing to pederasty or something like that (Gus laughs). Not having a passport makes me very blasé about what appears in foreign periodicals since I know I’ll never see it.

GVS: Really, so you don’t travel abroad?

DFW: I will at some point but I haven’t had a passport since I was a little boy.

GVS: Wow. (long pause) Um, well, so , um, how’s your class?

DFW: I’m on leave this year. I’m auditing a class but I’m not teaching. The class I’m auditing is a real bitch but somehow I’m holding on at a high C or low B.

GVS: What’s the class?

DFW: It’s ah, it’s advanced tax accounting, which is a long story and you probably don’t want to know about it but it’s wa-a-a-y over my little noggin’. It’s a Will Hunting class.

GVS: Oh my God.

DFW: 35 pages of incredibly dense, you know, CPA stuff at night and then you get tested on it the next day.

GVS: Wow.

DFW: Speaking of which — can I just ask — did those two guys — was that the first screenplay that they’d written?

GVS: Yeah.

DFW: Did either of them have serious math backgrounds?

GVS: Um (pause) no. But we had a guy — do you know math?

DFW: I mean I, I (breathes into phone) one of the things I majored in um, was like Philosophy of Mathematics so I know a lot of the theory of math. I’m not…

GVS: Mmhmm.

DFW: …I couldn’t do what he does.

GVS: Because we had a guy named Pat O’Donnell in Toronto who was a professor of Physics, University of Toronto, and he devised, he designed the mathematics basically and he had his own kind of like fun with it because he realized, you know, that the people that he was designing the math for were the mathematicians around the world that would see the movie.

DFW: That’s the thing — and some of it was over my head. What was the problem — it was the second problem that Will solved, um, that the grad student notices was correct on the board and that the other faculty member at MIT gets so upset about, because Will comes up with the solution and it involves joining and forming almost what looks like a horizontal tree.

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Rereading David Foster Wallace w/ Mary Karr, Mark Costello, and D.T. Max


Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Short Chapters


The short chapters are something else I have noticed. I like that type of structure. It allows for a lot of temporal leaps, long or short, and for efficient and direct storytelling. Stops any meandering or over philosophizing or purple description. It reminds me of Breaking Bad‘s method of cutting action with jump cuts and skipping over conversations that we already know the content of. Bolaño also works in short chapters in The Savage Detectives and 2666. So does Walser in Jakob von Gunten.

Even authors like Wallace and Pynchon, who sometimes let their chapters go to epic lengths, still operate on the principle of self-contained chapters. Ones that reset to give a new train of thought its own room or to let a sequence be driven by its own momentum. Like a film set piece or a short story.

Other authors like Saul Bellow and W.G. Sebald go from tangent to tangent. Mostly it seems like their chapters are just arbitrary, like they are taking a breath, or more so that they want to insert the type of commentary that can only go at the beginning or end of chapters and books. Grand statements, final words, the summing up of truth.

Hidden Door Theory on Pynchon, Bolaño, etc.


A lot of writers tease the reader with a hidden door. Pynchon does this in The Crying of Lot 49. Wallace does it with Infinite Jest. Bolaño in 2666. And Stephen King in The Dark Tower.

They spend a whole book describing it. They build a history of the eternal search for it. The reader is immersed in the lives of its detectives. He reads about each journey ending in failure after failure after failure but still believes that the author will live up to a certain promise.

He is finally taken right up to the door. He is even allowed to touch it, to turn the knob that leads to the meaning of life, the purpose of everything, and maybe even god himself. But the door is locked, leads nowhere, or vanishes completely.

The reader finishes the book disappointed. He calls the book anti-climactic, like a fool, because he wasn’t paying attention. There was never any deception pulled or promise made. The writer kept telling him that this was a book of dead ends. But the reader hates it because he’s been reading the wrong book.

Or even worse he loves it because he still believes it to be that same book promising the revelation of a cosmic secret. He reads it again and again looking for all the hidden clues that will finally open the door this time around. He convinces himself that the book is a cipher and all he needs is the right key to decode it.

But the true reader knows from the beginning that the author is only a man like himself who is befuddled by the same eternal questions. He knows that life and death are false doors and nothing lies beyond either end. The true reader knows the purpose is to acquiesce to living in the dead ends. He knows that the epic novels of Melville, Kafka, and DeLillo attempt an ordering of reality only so they can confront our mortal inability to ever understand the chaos.