Below is an essay I wrote about a year ago, shortly after I finished Infinite Jest for the first time (don’t worry – no spoilers) but which is mostly about Wallace’s essays. It is long and self-indulgent and, if I were you, I would skip it entirely. Actually, now that I look at it in blog format, it is way way too long. Nonetheless, here it is:
It’s often pretty hard to say what exactly is great about something that is, to you, so great you don’t feel like your own words can do it justice. For this reason, it’s a lot easier to write a bad review of a bad book than a great review of a great book. That’s why it’s hard to write recommendation letters, especially if you really like the person you’re recommending. This sort of difficulty arises from a not-unreasonable certainty that description, explication, or analysis will automatically diminish the subject to something that can be categorized and described and labeled in the same way that everything not-so-great can be. It’s why talking about your favorite things is a lot harder than talking about your least favorite. It’s especially hard when the thing you consider great is exactly someone else’s ability to do what you’re having trouble doing yourself.
Please, try to empathize. Understand how hard this is for me. Understand that I don’t want to describe David Foster Wallace as genius or insightful because I’m sure there are several writers who have been described as insightful geniuses whose work you couldn’t care less about. Understand that, if I describe Wallace to you as brilliant, I see you associating Wallace with all the other supposedly brilliant people whose work you find pretentious and boring. So I’ll tell you right off the bat: Don’t. Justâ€¦Don’t.
Wallace is the type of writer who makes people who don’t read start reading. His essays and journalistic pieces are a league/genre unto themselves. He is scholarly and journalistic in the sense that he analyzes and picks apart his subjects with a razor eye and an ear for the telling detail, but distinctly unscholarly in the humor and humanity that seeps up through the incisiveness. His fiction is dense and challenging but endlessly entertaining, well worth every five-minute page.
Wallace has in spades exactly what all enthusiasts fear we lack – an ability to explain things without explaining them away; a talent for labeling things without diminishing them; the verbal facility to create lucidity without simplicity; a style that makes us deeply understand a subject without forgetting for a moment its simple and literally indescribable human importance.
What makes the scholarly side of his writing great is not hard to spot. Wallace has an instinct about what really are the important questions to ask and answer. His journalism is never just who-what-when-where-why in the traditional sense. It explores the questions on way deeper levels than anyone is expecting. His Gourmet article on the Maine Lobster Festival is not good-food-good-times fluff; it is an exploration of the philosophy and psychology involved in getting everyone together to throw live animals into boiling water. (The magazine included Wallace’s acknowledgement that this is probably not what the Gourmet readers usually want/expect from their magazine.) DFW’s writing is almost preternatural in its ability to answer our questions a sentence or two after it occurs to us to ask them. At their worst, his essays and journalism answer every question we have, from the philosophical to the factual, with analytical incisiveness and humor that leaves us smarter than we were. At his best, DFW does all the aforementioned and also introduces ideas and questions the significance of which we don’t realize until he brings them up. At his best, he makes us see people, places, and issues from angles we didn’t know existed, though they are clearly the right angles to take.
Through “Television and U.S. Fiction,” “Up, Simba,” “Big Red Son” – which are about television and literature, politics, and porn, respectively – and every other non-fiction piece of his I’ve read, DFW has a pretty much 100% hit rate on what really are the Big Questions raised by the subject and how to look at them. It’s not just that he’s persuasive, he does what only the very best critics can: he presents things in a way that makes all other perspectives seem somehow off-center. Everything he does is, in one sense or another, definitive.
Through his analysis and critiques, his informality and mannerisms never let us forget that these are the perceptions of a human being with personality and flaws and instincts. Part of this is his writing style. His use of foot/endnotes and his comfort inside tangents are more honestly representative of the way people really think. Our brains don’t give us a topic sentence and neatly listed supporting evidence. He makes no apparent attempt to hide his thought process or, for that matter, the main structural beams of his writing. It is a style that, for all its inefficiency, indicates a real live person instead of the syncopic analysis of so much journalism and criticism.
But the truly remarkable part is that, for all his analytical chops, he never leaves behind the parts that more linear, thesis-oriented writers might consider fluff. By fluff I mean not the logical conclusions but the natural human questioning and considerations that come during rational parsing. I mean the feelings that certain subjects evoke despite our better judgment. I mean the things that make all the problems and questions and ideas that Wallace defines inescapably and profoundly human. It is stuff that, if we take a moment to honestly look at how much it affects us, turns out not to be fluff at all.
The piece I point people to for DFW Essay 101 is his 2000 Rolling Stone article on John McCain. It is an article that, by any other writer, would probably involve a few interviews and an entertaining anecdote or two, eventually concluding with something along the lines of “John McCain is a really interesting candidate.” What Wallace creates is one of the, if not the outright best pieces of political journalism ever written. And what makes it great is not the generous portion of brilliant analysis. What is great is that, instead of looking at how McCain should make us feel, Wallace looks at how McCain does make us feel. The essay resonates because it doesn’t leave out emotions and basic human drives, the instincts and needs we would turn off if we could. Instead, DFW accepts that the need for real leadership and the literal sickness and pain modern politics brings on are real considerations, like it or not.
I’ll give you an example: At a moment of extreme political good fortune for McCain – something so well- executed and almost literally unbelievable that it could only have been planned by strategists, but also so moving and spontaneous-looking that how could it have been — Wallace doesn’t try to look for the truth of the matter in the sense of finding out whether McCain and his strategists were really behind it all. Instead, he looks at how much we, regardless of political party, achingly want McCain to have been sincere in the things that were said and done surrounding Chris Duren. There’s basically no factual analysis; there’s just an honest discussion of how much we want, really crave genuine leaders and how politics’ conspicuous lack of them hurts and disgusts us and turns us cold and apathetic. There’s no look into what the facts should lead us to believe; there’s an infinitely more complex and important look into how painful and throat-tighteningly heart-wrenching it would be if it were all an act, after all.
The article’s conclusion – often like our own emotions – is at once profoundly clichÃ© and profound. Wallace’s point, after a long and complicated look into John McCain and all the questions he raises, turns out to be what all of us feel in the first place: that it matters relatively little whether John McCain is genuine and sincere; that what really ends up mattering in the voting booth is how much we’ve been jaded and pained by disingenuous leadership and how much we’re willing to risk to get rid of that pain. It is a conclusion that only the most honest and perceptive of writers could go after.
Wallace’s essays and journalistic pieces strike what might just be a unique balance between revealing what should be important and understanding what really is. His writing leaves us not only understanding the complex philosophical and subject-specific issues, but also understanding ourselves a bit better now too. His delicate balance of humanity and theory never fails to make us smarter, more honest, and more compassionate than we were.
One of the many, many themes of Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a samizdat, a film so entertaining that it causes literally life-ending addiction, so entertaining is it that viewers forget all aspects of their life in favor of consuming the film over and over. Infinite Jest itself is not so different from this; it too is so entertaining, engaging, challenging, rewarding, and long that I, at least, had to put serious amounts of time aside in order to work my way through. (For this reason, I will not address at length the serious confusion and enlightenment that reading Infinite Jest has put me through.) But, unlike the samizdat, Infinite Jest does what entertainment should: instead of killing our minds, it breathes into us new life, new perspectives, and new ideas that, for all their entertainment value, also seem really to mean something.
Fiction and non- alike, Wallace’s is writing that reminds us what great writing can do. It is writing that inspires us to write and read. It makes us actually grateful for footnotes and endnotes that, by pretty much any author, we would probably skip right over. It makes us delighted to dip back and forth between it and the OED. It is writing that charms, enlightens, and, most importantly, teaches. It teaches that thoughts and feelings don’t have to be mutually exclusive and that paradox is often truth.
With this style of writing, talking and writing about our favorite things becomes a lot easier. If negative criticism is usually the result of neat, rational thought and appreciation is the result of – at least at first – a feeling, the Wallace thought-feeling blend is just about the best way to look at the things we love.