David Foster Wallace would have had his 50th birthday on February 21, 2012. If he had lived, and maintained the course he was on, he probably would have been the subject of articles about “David Foster Wallace at 50,” “Boy Genius Grows Up,” etc, covering important topics like his shorter haircut, his apparently happy marriage, and his steady teaching job. If Wallace had let The Pale King see the light of day by now, you can bet we would be reading reviews about the “mature” and “grown up” successor to the kinetic Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace Moves to the Suburbs. Instead, 2012 passed without much notice of the milestone, which four years after his death only serves to remind us that Wallace didn’t live to see it.
But it turns out that the world was not at all silent on the matter of David Foster Wallace this year. In the last 12 months, Wallace was the subject of three books, and author of one posthumous collection of essays. This level of attention is significant in and of itself, but it was not all that happened — not by a long shot. Over the year there came a steady flow of news, blog posts and small insights. There were stage adaptations, a Pulitzer controversy, displays of affection from a porn star and a Supreme Court Justice, and references in TV shows, a commercial, a web video and a proper movie. There was a conference and a year-end fundraiser and an unfortunate moment of our present looking too much like Wallace’s near-future dystopia. The internet – which, it was revealed this year, Wallace once referred to as “the bathroom wall of the U.S. psyche” – would not stop saying his name*. Four years after his death, David Foster Wallace is on our minds more than ever.
Some of this was foreordained. There is now an annual cycle, starting mid-May and running through June, of pieces referring to Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon University commencement address. His remarks have become a standard against which the hot speeches of the season are measured, and the address tends to show up on Best Speeches lists and be offered as wisdom that the Class of 20-whatever should take to heart.
A similar phenomenon took place with the 2012 Republican primary and presidential election. Wallace’s John McCain piece “Up Simba” (or any of the various names it was published under in magazine and book and anthology forms) became relevant again, and was often cited as the kind of meaningful political journalism we long for in today’s sorry-ass punditocracy.
But four books and a few recurring occasions do not a YEAR OF make. Most of what happened took place independent of annual or quadrennial events, spontaneously, a result of whatever weird energy was flowing in 2012. It was an event that was both random and regularized that sealed it for me. In early July – just as I was beginning to think that “Boy, I am really hearing a lot about David Foster Wallace this year” – Roger Federer defeated Andy Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 to win his 7th Wimbledon. Writers, journalists, bloggers and WordPressers across print and online media launched a thousand pieces with some variation of, “The late author David Foster Wallace once called Roger Federer…etc.” and Google alerts lit up my inbox like a DFW-themed Christmas tree. That was when I knew. Welcome to YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE.
8 January: The Los Angeles Review of Books began the year reasonably (and auspiciously, as we’ll see) with “Being Bored,” a piece on The Pale King. Four days later, the Christian Science Monitor re-published a list of Wallace’s 10 favorite books. The list had already appeared in a 2007 collection on top writers’ top ten favorite books, and contained surprising choices like Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, Stephen King’s The Stand, and less-surprising choices like C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. The CSM’s reasons for re-publishing the list were not explained. The Top Ten list was re-re-published on Flavorwire on 29 January. Flavorwire had its own, mini YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE in 2012, providing opportunities to see “Awesome Tattoos Inspired by David Foster Wallace” (21 February); invitations to “Read a Postcard from DFW to Don DeLillo” (6 April) and “Read David Foster Wallace on How Sickly Searingly Jealous He was of Jonathan Franzen” (21 August); a look at “An ‘Infinite Map’ of David Foster Wallace’s North America” (5 September); the truth behind “Bret Easton Ellis’ Vendetta Against David Foster Wallace, Explained” (7 September); a glimpse at “David Foster Wallace’s Formative Reading List” (8 September); and also a “Peek Inside of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Pale King’ Notebook” (28 September) — as well as extensive additional coverage in other lists and posts, etc. I’m still holding out hope that Flavorwire will close the year with a list of their 10 best DFW-inspired lists of 2012. Also appearing in January was this shameless plug.
On 2 February the ten favorite books list was re-re-re-published on Slate with commentary on why one of the most challenging authors in our generation would have a favorite books list that included Tom Clancy (“I don’t think Wallace was screwing with us”). That same day, a WIRED magazine blog post appeared on “David Foster Wallace’s Wincing Worries About Wisdom.” This was mostly sections pulled from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 review of The Pale King, “Too Much Information,” but I’m still counting it as YODFW. On 7 February, an episode of the FOX show “The New Girl” included a few subtle DFW references: a wall painting titled “Zero Gravity Tea Ceremony,” and a landlord character named Remy, who carries a sharpened broomstick. The move challenged “The Office” writer and “Parks and Recreation” creator Michael Schur’s monopoly on DFW references in popular television comedies. Sometime around then, though the exact date is uncertain, a police sketch based on the features of Hal Incandenza as described in Infinite Jest appeared on “The Composites” website. The posting swiftly disappeared, though a very similar sketch was posted on 8 February for Keith Talent of Martin Amis’ London Fields. On the 27th, the Huffington Post posted a story that, well, you should just see for yourself:
There is now a plastic surgeon in Northern Virginia offering a “FaceTime Facelift,” a medical procedure that, very specifically, aims to improve the way you look when video-chatting using the FaceTime app on the iPhone.
Yes, this is a real thing, and yes, you can get your own FaceTime Facelift right now.
The procedure closely echoes an entire section in Infinite Jest in which people adapt in progressively worse ways to the anxiety of looking bad on video phones. For the record, this is a low moment in YODFW. Also in February, an Italian reading group started up an “Infinite Summer” analog called Pale Winter to bring people together to read and blog about The Pale King.
Two months in and we’ve already had 11 separate DFW sightings, though the incidents — a few blog posts and a subtle reference in a sitcom – were mostly small stuff. The month of March began with the first substantial event, and the first YODFW artifact you could hold in your hand: Conversations with David Foster Wallace. Conversations is a comprehensive collection of press and journal interviews, starting in 1987 and tracing the trajectory from Broom of the System to DFW’s last living publication, McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express. The closing entry is a 2008 Rolling Stone article by David Lipsky, published after Wallace’s suicide — the piece that held the seeds for Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
Because it contains no posthumous works, previously unreleased material, or even much of anything you couldn’t find on the internet with some relatively rigorous searching, the book was packaged and published with little fanfare. The flat B&W cover image of Wallace, looking bored and unwashed in what appears to be a cut-off POMONA sweatshirt, lacks all hipness. It implies none of the romantic, mystery-unraveling revelations you might expect from a book published four years after its subject’s suicide. I mention this because among the four Wallace books released in 2012, this would be easiest to overlook. But if you’ve been willing to venture this far into a post about annual minutia around DFW, then Conversations with David Foster Wallace should be on your essential reading list. Among all the noise of 2012, it is distilled signal, and it’s as close as we get to David Foster Wallace all year.
For an author who made it his vocation to protest mediation, it may seem strange to say that we can get to him through media interviews. But, as with his own journalism, Wallace is clumsily masterful at dismantling the form. His awareness and anxiety over being processed compel him to be both candid and guarded, clearly not bullshitting about himself and his writing, while knowing that the end product of a press interview is likely to be, by nature, somewhat bullshitty. To wit:
HK: “What would you like your writing to do?”
WALLACE: “You want an honest answer, right?”
“Do you want a univocal answer?” he asks. “Because I can pretend as if I feel one way about it. But, of course, the reality is that at last count I feel about fifty-three different ways.”
“My rule is that no really interesting question can be broached and answered in a forum this fast, and so after a whole lot of head clutching about these things what I do is rant in response to questions and then offer the questioner the freedom he wants anyway, which is to edit my answers any way he wants.”
In most cases, Wallace has a set of practiced answers, even and especially the evasions above. Other times he will take off runs that get to the heart of his fictional efforts. The well-known “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” is here, as are other telling moments: “But I’d say that a whole lot of what I’m trying to do in my writing – and I don’t know whether this is good or bad – is my desire to make something pretty;” “America is one big experiment in what happens when you’re a wealthy, privileged culture that’s pretty much lost religion or spirituality as a real informing presence;” “I think that God has particular languages, and one of them is music and one of them is mathematics. That’s not something I can defend. It’s just something I’ve felt in my tummy since I was a little kid.” Hearing Wallace out loud is often something like joyful. The man in Conversations is funny and approachable, seemingly well-balanced, the exact kind of author we wish would be our college professor or our good friend. In these interviews Wallace is sanguine and sarcastic and miles from anything resembling suicidal. This too is revealing, because we know that this is not the full David Foster Wallace. Conversations is most effective when paired with another member of the 2012 class, D.T. Max’s biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. The interviews offer up a living, breathing Wallace that, for all his good work, Max doesn’t quite manage in his retelling of DFW’s life. By the same token, the short, isolated pieces in Conversations benefit from the context and insights in the biography. Love Story sheds light on parts of Wallace’s life that don’t come through in a 20-minute interface with a pup-reporter from the Boston Phoenix. It’s also nice that both books move chronologically, making for an easy side-by-side reading.
The rest of the month of March continued on quietly until the 25th, when the New York Times reported on a small theater company and its production “A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN (after David Foster Wallace).” The “play” was something like a hyper-kinetic reading of Wallace’s works, in which players recite essays and passages of fiction while acting out scenes with presumable relevance to the pieces. An image from one performance showed a stage filled with loose tennis balls. On 27 March, Hachette Books released the long-awaited audiobook edition of Infinite Jest. When lovers of the novel wondered how the audiobook had replicated the print book’s many endnotes, they learned that it simply hadn’t. The 300-plus NOTES AND ERRATA had been cut completely, or rather, not recorded in the first place. This caused a stir in places where that kind of thing will cause a stir, and eventually reached the audiobooks department of Hachette, which has promised to record and release the missing section.
If cosmic influence is a thing you’re into, consider that April was the single busiest month in YODFW. On the fifth, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, home to Wallace’s papers, kicked off a two-day David Foster Wallace Symposium. The event began with a panel conversation with Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch and his agent Bonnie Nadell. Biographer D.T. Max sat on a panel the second day. (Videos of all the panels collected here.) On 11 April, Seth Colter Walls (also a participant at the Ransom Center), published a New Yorker piece about Wallace’s study of the IRS and the tax system, and his translation of massive bureaucracy into human terms. Walls noted that the paperback edition of The Pale King was due to be released that week. On 16 April it was announced that no Pulitzer Prize would be awarded in 2012 because the judges were unable to choose between their three finalists, one of which was The Pale King. Much analysis followed. The following day, The Daily Beast fact-checked the novel, analyzing Wallace’s fiction to determine if, among other claims, the IRS actually has a plan to collect taxes in the event of nuclear war (signs point to yes) and if they drive repossessed ice cream trucks (“it’s not impossible. According to one regulation, it would just require the trucks to be an upgrade over inferior IRS-owned vehicles”). One week later, on the 24th, Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection Farther Away was released, with a major, bandana-ed shadow hanging over it. The collection opens with Franzen’s own Kenyon University commencement address, titled “Pain Won’t Kill You.” Standing in the place where his deceased friend once stood, he tells the graduates, “If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are.” He also mentions, you may have guessed, his love of birds. Farther Away continues with the eponymous essay about Franzen’s experience coping with Wallace’s suicide, and his trip to scatter some of DFW’s ashes on a remote island that may or may not have been the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. A little further in are Franzen’s remarks at Wallace’s 2008 memorial service. Just before the end of the month, on 29 April, a David Foster Wallace look-alike in a tuxedo t-shirt appeared in the background of a “Simpsons” episode, which was set on a cruise ship and titled “A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again.”
As if all this wasn’t enough, April was also the month in which The Legacy of David Foster Wallace was published. Editors Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou** faced a significant challenge with Legacy, which seeks to bring together the many worlds in which Wallace exists, loosely distinguished as the creative and the critical. Legacy was publicized (not unsavvily) as a collection with contributions from Rick Moody, Michael Pietsch, Don DeLillo, David Lipsky and other well-known figures, but at heart it is a volume of in-depth, sophisticated, and often difficult academic criticism.
The combination of the accessible and personal with the high academic and analytical is well-intentioned. It is, after all, an apt reflection of Wallace himself, and the existence of just such a book is a powerful answer to what his legacy might be. And of everything published in 2012, Legacy is the best reminder that DFW was not all state fairs, cruise ships and inspirational commencement addresses. He also wrote a novel whose emotional core was based on the teachings of Wittgenstein, and he spent time in the philosophy department at Harvard. As attractive as joining these two sides looks, it has limited success. Cohen and Konstantinou’s introduction, for example, tries to be irreverent about the conventions and objective distance required of academic criticism. They break from formality and espouse a strong affinity for DFW, and within the first two and a half pages we’ve already come across four endnotes written in the rambling and conversational Wallace style. (A later endnote has the authors copping to wanting to sound like Wallace.) Within those same pages, however, the editors have also initiated a discussion of reading Wallace in the context of “intentional fallacy” and New Criticism, with references to academic figures and esoteric notions (some quoting Wallace himself) on the death of the author. This kind of thing has its charms for some — and probably quite a few Wallace readers — but it also has the potential to chase away people interested in the Dave Eggers “Foreword to the Tenth Anniversary of Infinite Jest” or George Saunders’ informal remarks at Wallace’s memorial service.
A handful of the critical essays in Legacy find the right balance: Josh Roiland’s examination of Wallace’s literary journalism; Samuel Cohen’s look at the ending of Infinite Jest; and Konstantinou on the work Wallace did to be sincere in an ironic age. Others do not. A piece on the environment in Infinite Jest is intriguing as an unexplored theme in Wallace’s writing and something with potential political resonance. But when the writer begins to explain how Joelle van Dyne’s “Drug use exemplifies a late modern detached position, and the passive voice here instantiates the limits of this condition,” the project gets a little iffy. We are asked to reconcile the idea that Wallace wrote about addiction not because it was sad and relevant to so many human beings, including himself and people he loved, but because he wanted to create a subtextual statement about the late modern condition. Too little fun. Another piece tracking the “Also purchased” networks built around Wallace’s books on Amazon.com begins with promise, but goes cold as the data and analytics get in the way of explaining what any of it means, or why it matters. Wallace himself would probably enjoy some of the more impenetrable stuff here, but he was always painfully aware in his own writing of how little theory and philosophy the average reader could or should be expected to stomach. The writers in Legacy do not always have that same awareness. Outside of the critical essays are a few definite treasures: Rick Moody interviewing Michael Pietsch; a proper excerpt from David Lipsky’s conversations with Wallace; remarks and writings from DeLillo, Saunders, and Moody at Wallace’s memorial service (Franzen’s are here too, if you don’t want to buy Farther Away). Dave Eggers’ Foreword, which I have been critical of before, is a refreshing jolt of unmitigated enthusiasm and subjectivity among all the analysis. The book is also beautifully designed, inside and out, starting with one of my favorite cover illustrations ever.
The verdict on The Legacy of David Foster Wallace may simply depend on how you approach it. It is either an exceptionally good critical collection that should be welcomed in any academic setting, or an ultimately unsatisfying essay collection, with long dry spells for readers who will otherwise enjoy the memories and affection for Wallace in many of the selections. Fortunately, I believe that either approach to Legacy serves the goal Cohen and Konstantinou set for their book: “we’re trying to get you to read more writing by David Foster Wallace.”
Aside from the aforementioned coverage of the Kenyon University speech, there were no reported Wallace sightings in May.
On 2 June a theater company in Berlin put together a 24-hour, city-wide adaptation of Infinite Jest, performing scenes from the book in different locations across the city. For the rest of the month, things stayed quiet. The YODFW geared up for the summer and fall ahead, and the release of two new books, the first-ever biography of Wallace and a collection of his previously uncollected essays.
For the moment, we are going to do the same.
TO COME HERE.
* The experience of the YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE phenomenon is predicated on the use of a David Foster Wallace Google news alert, something I imagine Wallace would have found dubious in the extreme and twisted himself into various explanatory Escher paintings to try and describe, had he felt the need. Back to text.
**Konstantinou was also the brains behind #OccupyGaddis, an online reading group created to crowd-tackle William Gaddis’ J R. The project, while not exactly part of YODFW, had traces of Infinite Summer in its DNA. I gave #OccupyGaddis my best shot, but was put to shame by Konstantinou’s heroic efforts shepherding the reading group through the book. Back to text.
- Michael Moats