In my experience, there are two (general) attitudes toward David Foster Wallace: 1) Genuine awe and semi-worship, or 2) Disinterest, disdain and dismissal of his thousands of fans as being the result of simple herd mentality. An example: Sarah from Goodreads.com, says that everyone who brings up David Foster Wallace at a party is a “douchebag.” I know I was late to the party and all, but what happened that made all Wallace fans hipsters, cry-babies or pretentious bastards? I’m all for judging folks based on their literary preferences (I think you’re lazy if you say your favorite book is Catcher in the Rye, and I will care for you less if you spent chunks of your life reading Twilight), but it seems unfair to judge an entire group of fans because their object of affection had a wider vocabulary than the general population. This is a soapbox issue, but this attitude seems to signal a personal fear of not being able to access Wallace’s works or feeling condescended to, which I can empathize with completely. The appropriate response, however, would be to move on to something else or taking the time to wade through it and reaping the rewards for your hard work. Gah, off topic.
I rarely choose what to read based on the author, notable exceptions being Raymond Carver, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and now, Mr. Wallace. Full disclosure: I had never read anything by Wallace until his death in 2008 brought his existence to my attention. Judge me as you will. Flash forward two years almost to the day, and I’m hanging out in the library with A supposedly fun thing i’ll never do again, Consider the Lobster: And other essays, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. With the perfect mixture of peer pressure in the form of friendly reminders of Wallace’s brilliance from two Jasons in my life (this guy and this guy), I swallowed my fears of inadequacy and incompetence and dove right in.
A Not So Brief Period of Reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
My history of Wallace prior to today: Halfway through Oblivion (“Incarnations of Burned Children” is perfect) and three-quarters through the opening essay in Consider. I sat down at 5 PM with a cup of coffee across from a stranger at 1369 and plowed through the first 106 pages of BIWHM. First impressions: I’m glad the opening stories are less dense than the opening story in Oblivion. He let me build up my confidence, allowed me to read a page without backtracking or consulting dictionary.com. He reneged on page 31. “The Depressed Person” is everything that Wallace gets criticized for: repetitive, tedious, long.
“The Depressed Person” with Reviews from the Crowd (i.e. Goodreads.com)
This was the first story in the book to trip me up in the way that Wallace is famous for tripping his readers. One Goodreader complained that Wallace doesn’t seem to trust his readers, that he takes 30 pages to tell us what we could get in five. Isn’t that where he’s different, though? Wallace doesn’t want us to simply “get” the abstract concept of a depressed woman who’s so trapped in her narrow point of view. He wants us to get frustrated and dizzy from the repetition. He wants us to pantomime to ourselves, to our roommates that this story is dragging on. He wants us to yearn for our “own full, vibrant, undepressed li[ves].”
In doing so, he doesn’t merely tell us a story; he communicates a harsh and tangible reality: That there are lives being wasted around us and we cannot be bothered to actually stop and listen. That there are whirlpools of depression and dysfunction that cannot simply be snapped out of. The tragedy is the completeness of it, the cyclical nature of focusing on oneself. In a way, the depressed person is the stock horror movie character approaching the basement door, behind which we know only horror and death await, but we cannot reach out to stop her, to steer her away. We can only watch.
As the interviewee B.I. #46 07-97 Nutley, NJ (page 98) articulates: “I mean, all of us will admit suffering and horror are part of being alive and existing, or at least we all pay lip service to knowing it, the human condition. But now she really knows it. I’m not saying she’s thrilled about it. But think how much bigger now her view of the world is, how much more broad and deep the big picture is now in her mind.” (100) To me this sums up what Wallace is trying to do: To hammer down the unpleasantries until we have to stop not looking at them. In some instances, it may even minimize our fears of them. Like I did with Wallace’s writing in the first place.
It isn’t about agreeing with these hideous men, it’s about acknowledging where they’re coming from. (Understanding and empathizing often get confused with agreeing or condoning, which isn’t the point at all.) It’s about following the twisted path to their origins; Wallace shifts our focus from the sum total to the bits that make up the equation to the left of the equals sign. No doubt haunted by his own demons, Wallace employed the age-old method of relieving any monster of its power by staring straight at it. When we fear things, avert our eyes, we host them in our imaginations, sometimes building them into something larger and scarier than what they are.
Disclosures and Such
I do not feign to be a David Foster Wallace expert, nor that I always fully know what he’s talking about. I’m just saying, though he can be difficult to wade through and at times frustrating, I’ve found it’s consistently worth the leg work.
Wallace, David Foster. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.