Considering David Foster Wallace: The Essential Reading List

David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace

The literary world has produced few figures more flamboyantly talented and prophetically dialed in to the compulsions and concerns that keep us up late at night than David Foster Wallace. From the moment the napkin-headed novelist unleashed "Infinite Jest" -- his anvil-sized avant-garde exploration of the relationship between consumerism and pop culture and addiction and loneliness – he became the reluctant rock star of late twentieth-century letters. Wallace's magnum opus sent ripples to the far corners of the media landscape previously unknown to literary fiction. Suddenly he had been thrust, kicking and screaming, into the kind of celebrity he had so cleverly and effectively indicted in "Infinite Jest."

The fame and attention Wallace cringingly endured while alive grew exponentially after his premature death, to suicide, at age forty-six. In the years since he died, Wallace, who had always battled a particularly virulent strain of depression, has become exalted as a mythic figure -- a martyr to the state of cosmic spiritual and cultural decay that animated and informed all of his work. Wallace’s readership expanded to include a cult of devotees who were just as interested in reading about Wallace as they were in his actual writing. This postmortem interest in Wallace the man was at least partially fueled by the conviction that Wallace died because he felt too deeply, saw too clearly, understood human frailty too personally.

Since his 2008 death, Wallace has been memorialized, eulogized, and sanctified by those who knew him intimately, passingly, or not at all in a burst of biographies and essays. Journalist David Lipsky was the first out of the gate with "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," which recounted the five days he spent tailing Wallace on the promotional book tour of "Infinite Jest" for a "Rolling Stone" cover story that never came to pass. Earlier this year, Wallace's friend and fellow literary golden boy, Jonathan Franzen, published his eulogy to Wallace (which first ran in "The New Yorker") in a collection of essays entitled "Farther Away." Several months later came "Every Love Story is A Ghost Story," "New Yorker" writer D.T. Max's comprehensive and objective overview of Wallace’s life, rich in meticulous reporting spanning a wide spectrum of colleagues and confidants revealing Wallace’s creative exigency and the sustaining passions, addictions, and 12-Step slogans that got him through the rough patches … until they didn’t.

The canon of biographical writing about Wallace  continues to grow with this month’s release of "David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations," a compilation of reflections on Wallace’s work by the likes of Dave Eggers and Laura Miller as well as the titular final conversation with a journalist. The latest in Melville House’s popular "Last Interview" series (previous installments ranged from Kurt Vonnegut to Roberto Bolano), this compact volume promises to shed light on Wallace’s scope of influence on his peers and his state of mind in the months before he died.

For the uninitiated, cracking the Wallace oeuvre ranks among the most daunting tasks in all of contemporary literature. First, there is the wall of words that greets the prospective reader on the opening page of any Wallace work, thanks to his constitutional aversion to paragraph breaks. Then comes the onerous task of shimmying along his mile-long sentences while stockpiling a list of dictionary searches for words like "fantods." But any Wallace work is well worth the effort. The intimacy and immediacy of his voice will hold you aloft and carry you along like a breezy conversation with a smart and funny friend whose company you’re honored to keep. So, in the spirit of opening up that conversation to a wider group, we've assembled the following guide to the best access points into the world according to Wallace.

"A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again"
The title story in this 1998 collection of “essays and arguments” places Wallace on assignment for "Harper's Magazine" chronicling the his full-immersion experience in the orgiastic excess of a seven-day luxury cruise to the Caribbean. This vivid and hilariously grotesque carnival of the absurd doubles as a lacerating portrait of Americans in thrall to escapist consumption. Though it would have been easy to lather the piece in snide satire, Wallace achieves something much more complex and humane with his virtuoso use of detail: “I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as ‘Mon’ in three different nations. I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide.”

"Consider the Lobster"
Back in the heyday of long-form entertainment magazine journalism, an enterprising editor at "Premiere," the dearly departed movie monthly, sent Wallace to Las Vegas to cover the AVN, the Adult Video News Awards (a.k.a. the porn Oscars). The resulting piece, "Big Red Son," captures the pathos and humor of this underworld with the dark poetry of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Wallace renders the event with a riveting combination of New Journalism-influenced narrative drama and his own brand of self-conscious candor about his own attraction-repulsion response to his down-and-dirty subject matter.

"Roger Federer is a Religious Experience"
This celebration of Federer’s preternatural gifts on the court is really a meditation on the mysteries of genius and the Swiss tennis champ’s unique gift for grace under pressure. The piece, which ran in The New York Times just two years before Wallace died, is infused with a melancholy searching quality, as if Wallace were trying to crack the metaphysical code to accepting one’s greatness without the constant urge to self-destruct.

"This is Water: Some Thoughts on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life"
In 2005, Wallace delivered a commencement address to the graduating undergraduates at Kenyon College that was nothing less than a prescription for leading a meaningful life in spite and because of the inevitable creep of loneliness and despair. His heartfelt advice resonates and reverberates with an earnest desire to offer a useful no-bullshit assessment of the challenges we all face in fending off the assault of unhealthy temptation in the big wide world.

"Infinite Jest"
Now that you’ve made it through the initiation phase, you’re likely no longer put off by Wallace's metafictional acrobatics and small-type footnotes. It’s now time to graduate to the DFW big leagues.  One thousand, one hundred and four pages may look like a punishing marathon, but trust that you’ll hit your stride and start feeling those endorphins kick in the deeper you come to know the rag-tag cast of characters battling their own demons with varying degrees of success in "Infinite Jest." Wallace weaves together intersecting storylines involving a halfway house, an elite tennis academy, and Hollywood flunkies to create an infinitely tender and funny portrait of contemporary life.