The David Foster Wallace Reader By David Foster Wallace

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I enjoyed extracts from the Broom of the System and some stories from The Girl with Curious Hair, but that was it; it soon struck me how he AMPLIFIES everything he writes about, like seeing everything in constant closeup (this is why, I think, I find his non-fiction much more palatable, as it is more mediated). I tried, I really tried, and gave it a fair effort, but I simply didn't want to spend more time in that masculine, silently screaming, white place. Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories Just had a look at this (new) compilation in my local Waterstones - it looks great. Fun-sized best bits from all his scary books. Exactly right for everyone intimidated by DFW and his enormous brain - people like me, that is. Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories I'm not a Daniel Foster Wallace fanboy. Save for a few short stories I ran across in literary anthologies years ago, I'd never read anything by him; neither am I one of his savage critics, constantly railing against his excesses. I entered The David Foster Wallace Reader as a blank slate and, The Reader, like most of Wallace's works, is a daunting doorstopper of a book, clocking in at nearly 1,100 pages when including the footnotes (and if you read Wallace, you can't leave off the footnotes).

Much like how The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcom Cowley, brought William Faulkner to a wider audience by knitting his stories and novels together as a single piece, The David Foster Wallace Reader can also be viewed as one, albeit weighty, work. Though the players change, the same tone and themes pulse through each entry here with a high-wire performance of verbal jiu-jitsu, intellectual heft and humor.

But I would be negligent to not mention Wallace's pain, his battle against the demons of perfection and depression, that pop up throughout his work. This juggling act — between a magisterial control of the English language and a fight to the death against the black spot on his soul — is at once tragic, considering Wallace's eventual suicide, but also awe-inspiring, realizing he could create so much great work while a dark disturbance refused to leave his side.

The Reader includes stories, novel excerpts, essays and even the syllabus he used in the English classes he taught for decades at various colleges. The texts he required his students to read is an eclectic lot, a list that fits Wallace’s varied tastes:

Renata Adler, Speedboat
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America… In Watermelon Sugar
Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
Paula Fox, Desperate Characters
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children

All of the pieces in The Reader are shrewdly chosen from an all-star list of editors, including Sven Birkerts, Deborah Triesman, Anne Fadiman and the author's mother, Sally Foster Wallace, among others. I could write something about every item in here, but then I’d be here all day. So, in typical Wallace fashion, a fellow lover of lists, I give you my thoughts on three of my favorite sections from the book.

1. “E Unibus Pluram Television and U.S. Fiction” -- This essay, about the intersection of the television generation and the writer's diminishing role within that growing culture, is nothing short of brilliant. When Wallace wrote the piece in 1990, the digital age was a dim glimmer that had not yet infected mainstream America. We had the boobtube then, but were without our tablets, smartphones and TV binge-watching that was made possible through the advent of Netflix and DVRs. But that doesn’t negate Wallace’s themes of alienation through our digital obsessions and the ironic tones that writers have worn on their sleeves as an act of rebellion to those obsessions.

As Wallace writes, “The next real literary ‘rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”

Clearly, as we continue to bend a knee to a culture made up of reality TV stars, we are not there yet, but we can hope, can’t we?

2. “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All” — In this wonderful piece about the Illinois State Fair, Wallace is at once the smartest guy in the room, constantly pointing out the flaws and foibles of bovine-like Midwesterners, while also being the biggest punchline: A sad sack outsider who is afraid to take chances, to let loose, to just freakin’ enjoy life.

The article, which originally appeared in Harper’s under the title “Ticket to the Fair, is a treasure trove of tips on how to write great nonfiction. The language is alive with multi-sensory descriptions. Every paragraph, it seems, is brimming with the pungent smells, sickly sweet tastes and visual punchlines of a State Fair. Try this random sample on for size:

“So along the path there are I.D.C. milkshakes (my lunch), Lemon Shake-Ups, Ice Cold Melon Man booths, Citrus Push-Ups, and Hawaiian Shaved Ice you can suck the syrup out of and then crunch the ice (my dessert). But a lot of what’s getting bought and gobbled is to my mind not hot-weather food at all: bright-yellow popcorn that stinks of salt; onion rings big as leis; Poco Penos Stuffed Jalapeño Peppers; Zorba’s Gyros; shiny fried chicken; Bert’s Burritos—“BIG AS YOU’RE HEAD” (sic); hot Italian beef; hot New York City Beef (?); Jojo’s Quick Fried Donuts (the only booth selling coffee, by the way); pizza by the shingle-sized slice and chitlins and Crab Rangoon and Polish sausage. (Rural Illinois’ complete lack of ethnic identity creates a kind of postmodern embarrassment of riches—foods of every culture and creed become our own, quick-fried and served on cardboard and consumed on foot.) There are towering plates of “Curl Fries,” which are pubic-hair-shaped and make people’s fingers shine in the sun. Cheez-Dip Hot Dogs. Pony Pups. Hot Fritters. Philly Steak. Ribeye BBQ Corral. Joanie’s Original ½-lb Burgers’ booth’s sign says 2 CHOICES—RARE OR MOOIN. I can’t believe people eat this kind of stuff in this kind of heat.”

As Anne Fadiman writes in the afterword, “For the past ten years, I have asked my undergraduate nonfiction class at Yale to read three pages from (Wallace’s story). Other readings for English 469 have changed, but not that one… because (it) contains a mind-bending payload of writing lessons (truly mind-bending, as in 'How could that tiny VW hold all those clowns?'). The very next week, the students write better. It sounds impossible, but it’s true.”

3. “Winter B.S. 1960—Tucson Az” — It may be sacrilege to even attempt to make the comparison, but this section from Wallace’s novel, Infinite Jest, should be placed on a shelf of literary sublimity next to Molly Bloom’s monologue from Ulysses.

The chapter is an extended speech, almost a rant, from a father who’s speaking to his son about life and the pursuit of tennis greatness. I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed while also feeling utter shame so much as I did while reading this selection.

“Son, don’t be that way, now. Don’t get all oversensitive on me, son, when all I’m trying to do is help you. Son, Jim, I hate this when you do this. Your chin just disappears into that bow-tie when your big old overhung lower lip quivers like that. You look chinless, son, and big-lipped. And that cape of mucus that’s coming down on your upper lip, the way it shines, don’t, just don’t, it’s revolting, son, you don’t want to revolt people, you have to learn to control this sort of oversensitivity to hard truths… Jim, I know, you know, we’ve been through this before, leave the book alone, boy, it’s not going anywhere... Jim, well pick it up then if you’re afraid of a little dust, Jim, pick the book up if it’s going to make you all goggle-eyed and chinless honestly Jesus why do I try I try and try… my son, my flesh of my flesh, white slumped flesh of my flesh who wanted to embark on what I predict right now will be a tennis career that’ll put his busted-up used-up old Dad back square in his little place, who wanted to maybe for once be a real boy and learn how to play and have fun and frolic and play around in the unrelieved sunshine...”

I could go on and on about this and other pieces such as The Depressed Person,” Good Old Neon,” §36 from The Pale King, Consider the Lobster,” and so many others… but I’ll leave you with just one more item, a selection from Wallace’s nonfiction piece, Federer Both Flesh and Not.”

“There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace—all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.”

As I read that quote, I couldn’t help but think about Wallace writing not only about tennis great Roger Federer, but also, and more importantly, about himself and the way he sought to expand the use of language through his books. Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories Five stars coz this book, contains his teaching materials. The secret of the genius. Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories This book was so long and so worthwhile. The fiction was stunning, but the non-fiction left me in awe. I had read most of it before, but having his writing all in one place and just reading straight through makes you realize just what a uniquely gifted writer he was. Not only that, but he was a gifted noticer of people. His essay about the cruise and the state fair were just remarkable. If you enjoy writing, this will serve as inspiration AND it will make you realize that you will never create anything that comes close to DFW. Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories

The David Foster Wallace Reader is a selection of David Foster Wallace's work, introducing readers to his humour, kindness, sweeping intellect and versatility as a writer.

A compilation from the one of the most original writers of our age, featuring:

· the very best of his fiction and non-fiction;

· previously unpublished writing

· and original contributions from 12 prominent authors and critics about his work

From classic short fiction to genre-defining reportage, this book is a must for new readers and confirmed David Foster Wallace fans alike'One of the most dazzling luminaries of contemporary American fiction' Sunday Times

'There are times, reading his work, when you get halfway through a sentence and gasp involuntarily, and for a second you feel lucky that there was, at least for a time, someone who could make sense like no other of what it is to be a human in our era' Daily Telegraph

'A prose magician, Mr. Wallace was capable of writing . . .about subjects from tennis to politics to lobsters, from the horrors of drug withdrawal to the small terrors of life aboard a luxury cruise ship, with humour and fervour and verve' Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

David Foster Wallace wrote the novels The Pale King, Infinite Jest, and The Broom of the System and three story collections. His nonfiction includes Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. He died in 2008. The David Foster Wallace Reader

Está aquí mi libro favorito de todo 2018. En sus casi 800 páginas hay algunas de las líneas más brillantes, desesperadas y acrobáticas que haya visto la literatura norteamericana en décadas. Es irrepetible, es un puto genio y no conozco a nadie que logre hacer esto, es la sensación constante que te da mientras lo lees.

Ya sea un cuento, un ensayo o hasta su puta correspondencia. Foster Wallace tenía una forma brutal, extraordinaria y única de ver el mundo. De procesar todo, entre el vómito, la belleza y la agonía. De pintar un paisaje aparente donde debajo late algo más primitivo y peligroso. Con pulsiones de muerte. Logrando siempre textos tan kilométricos como imbatibles.

Es un genio, y resulta muy pero muy triste que no haya seguido adelante. Pero este libro en especial, junto a toda su demás obra, queda como testimonio de su verdadera genialidad. Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories [N.B.: Goodreads reviews have a word limit. TIL. Read the full review here, or just skip to the bottom for the Conclusion. Have removed some sections and italicizing for this shorter version of the review. Really short on space here; this thing is like 3,000 words.]


Here you go: Here is Nicole’s first (and perhaps last) bona fide, full-effort Goodreads review.

As just a quick note, I think David Foster Wallace was a talented writer and is an undeniably space-occupying cultural figure. I’m not sure I’d go as far to say I love him or his work, but I do think it is captivating to study and read his nonetheless interesting work in the way one might study, say, Ian Curtis or André Gide. He also has interesting takes on mental illness, which is an area of literature in which—and by which—I am both interested and affected. (Just wanted to clarify this for the people who have seen a torrent of DFW on my feed recently.)

The Method

I’ve listed the parts of the Reader and my brief thoughts on each of them below. For length reasons, I’ve truncated the selections from his novels (Broom, Infinite Jest, and Pale King) and the Teaching Materials” section (I’m sure you don’t care about the difference between his “English 64A First-Day Pop Quiz” vs. his “English 183D, Spring 2008 Syllabus”) into one entry each. I hope this is at least semi-comprehensive, given the whole tome is almost 1,000 pages and comprises over fifty excerpts. Only going to give summaries/premises if the review truly needs it.

If you want a Cliff Notes version, skip below to the “Conclusion”. It’s like a couple sentences.

The Content Itself


“The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing” (1984):

Wallace’s first short story (ever, if I remember correctly), and never really published till now. Really devastating and gut-wrenching little piece. Very Salingerian (and as Kevin J. H. Dettmar notes in the Afterword, inconsistent) voice-wise, upsetting in the context of Wallace’s life. If nothing else, an important precursor to a lot of the content and themes DFW would explore in his later fiction. “Trillaphon”, though, exhibits Wallace’s great skill: communicating beauty and pathos even in (and through) the most upsetting, mortifying situations: suicide attempts, friends dying, face-mutilation… and more, all lit from within by beautiful explanations of mental illness and the state of in-betweenness. One of the strongest pieces in this book. A really strong start.

Girl with Curious Hair (1989; henceforth GWCH): “Little Expressionless Animals”:

It seems that, at the time of its release, Girl with Curious Hair was largely regarded by critics as sort of a Pynchon/DeLillo ripoff. Which I get, I guess, but what famous writer hasn’t emulated their literary heroes? I do agree with the critics, though, in that this volume is underwhelming in itself (Reader aside). It’s DFW at his most pretentious—and that’s a word I try to employ sparingly. But, truly, most of this book has such a mismatch of content and style it’s almost saddening to read. By that I mean: I don’t personally believe that there is content in this book meaningful or complicated enough to necessitate the neurotic and convoluted narration and voice Wallace employs in almost every story in Girl. (And that’s not to mention his tasteless and often incomprehensible use of dialect; I’m thinking “John Billy” here. None of this, problematicness-wise, augurs particularly well for his future writings.) I think this was the stage in DFW’s life and writing, where he was still stuck in his “self-obsessed MFA grad” persona and not yet at his “snowboarder with a PhD”, as Peter Grier described him in a review of Consider the Lobster.
This story, though: It’s fine. I like it more than the other stories in the collection. It doesn’t try as hard and is honest and sincerely emotional in a similar way to “Good Old Neon” and “Trillaphon.” The frequent perspective-switching, though, is symptomatic of that “trying-too-hard”; I just don’t think the story is complex or dense enough to necessitate that narrative gimmick. But queer themes—so, like, cool. He’s also pretty good at describing clouds.

(GWCH): “My Appearance”:

Much of the same almost-there feeling as “Little Expressionless Animals” above, though this time a different, more yuppie and McInerneyified version of corporate America. Ties in well thematically with “E Unibus Pluram” and is an early (if not the first) full exposition on Wallace’s thoughts on entertainment. Obviously going to become a theme with him. And though I strongly disliked much about GWCH, DFW does really funny and unrealistic portrayals of celebrities in both this story (Letterman) and “Animals” (Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak, and whoever Bert Convy was).

Infinite Jest (1996):

Don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over. It seems impossible to give any opinion about this book and not come off as cliché. In terms of the selections from the text, I’m glad the eds chose what they did. I’d recommend reading the book first instead of diving into these excerpts—but if you’ve already finished it, these excerpts do serve as nice little thoughtfully curated reminders. Though if you want a good introduction to the book, I’d guess you can read the “If, by the…” excerpt out of context. It runs from pp. 200–211 in IJ and is one of my favorite passages of any book ever. I even have the pages memorized; it’s the reason why I tell people, somewhat facetiously, that “the book really picks up around page 200.” Reminiscent of the best parts of “Trillaphon,” “Good Old Neon,” and “Incarnations of Burned Children,” but there’s truly nothing like it in all of Wallace’s writings. I believe that this is the most crushing section of IJ and also the most unique and moving, perhaps in competition only with some of the sections involving Joelle’s drug history (cf. pp. 234–240, 736–747 in original volume).

(BIWHM): “B.I. #14 & #40”:

I’ve always been very conflicted when thinking about how I feel about these “interviews.” On one hand, they’re lively and animated and lifelike—almost like a real screenplay, I guess. (John Krasinski made it into a movie in 2009 so I guess that makes sense.) On the other hand, much of what DFW says and illustrates here is symptomatic of the exact kind of thing he’s trying to critique in this collection.

(BIWHM): “Forever Overhead”:

D. T. Max had noted that this story “received great praise” when Wallace wrote it in grad school at the University of Arizona; though it was later chosen for Best American Short Stories 1992, but Wallace “dismissed it in his contributor note as ‘straining to make a personal trauma sound way deeper and prettier and Big than anything true could ever really be’” (Love Story, p. 90, 313). I think this conflict is representative. “Forever Overhead” is undoubtedly one of DFW’s more candid pieces, not as shrouded in layers of irony as are Girl with Curious Hair and portions of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Definitely a weirder one, though. Something something Freud.

(BIWHM): “The Depressed Person”:

So I only later learned, after reading Max’s biography, that this story is meant to be satire? It seemed sincere enough to me, and—Every Love Story in mind—parallel enough with Wallace’s life to be autobiographical. I don’t know; I enjoyed it, though it felt like a more diluted, somewhat more self-conscious and cagey version of “Good Old Neon”.

Oblivion (2004): “Good Old Neon”:

D. T. Max was right when he noted that this story “is the most uncomfortable of the stories in an uncomfortable volume” (Love Story, p. 277); it is, and very much so. Usually I’m the first one to lambast DFW’s self-indulgent rambling—but in this story it just works, self-referentially and stylistically. I think it’s one of Wallace’s best pieces, both in terms of personal enjoyment and also in the context of his output. It’s hard-hitting, really funny, cringey, and mind-boggling. Premise: A man writes about taking his own life after he took his own life.

(Oblivion): “The Suffering Channel”:

In much the same way the consistent and polarizing voice worked with “Neon” and “Incarnations”, it pretty much fell flat (for me!) here. I just don’t think Wallace’s “Dickensian scope” (as Max described it; Love Story p. 279) works in these short stories/novellas. Too much to process, too many people to meet, too little space. Same goes for his “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” from Girl with Curious Hair, which suffers the same issue. And the story itself felt thinly veiled, which is something I rarely ever feel with DFW. It felt almost like low-hanging fruit. Which is sad. Not a great choice for the Reader, I don’t think.

Teaching Materials

This was just really fascinating. The whole § contains both a selection of his emails, presumably verbatim, to his mother, Sally Foster Wallace (who also wrote the §’s Introduction) and a listing/transcribing of some of his course syllabi from over the years of his teaching at various colleges. What is, I think, coolest about this is just that it’s a biographical itch that most information with which we try to get a look into DFW’s life (short stories, interviews, biography) can’t scratch. Very interesting to look at what books he’d teach, how he’d teach, what the classroom praxis of his grammar anality looked like. This 36-page stretch of the book is perhaps its best part—both because it’s wholly original material, but also because it’s only interesting to people interested enough in DFW to archive-dig, who are as it happens the only people who’d probably even be interested in buying this huge Reader.


“Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” (1990):

Not a huge tennis fan, as I’ll get into below in the “Federer” essay review, but this one is, at least for me personally, anodized by the tie-in of math. But even then this feels like the disingenuous aw-shucks persona Wallace was known to put on throughout his life. This essay felt just very cutesy and hyperbolized in a way that I: A.) Just don’t enjoy, personally, and B.) Cannot relate to, having been brought up in the Midwest, OK at math, and semi-OK at tennis, and having never thought about any of this. If there is such a thing as unrealistic Midwest fetishization, I’d gander this is it.

“E Unibus Pluram” (1990):

More the Business District of DFW’s corpus: the body of texts for which he’s most well known. And for this essay, as with Infinite Jest, it’s difficult to come up with anything at all that hasn’t already been said. I mean: What he was is true (or, at least, was true, as David L. Ulin wryly notes in the Afterword). And this piece is definitely where Wallace puts forth his thoughts on entertainment-and-fiction most directly and lucidly (as opposed to his fiction and other, similar, essays, like his 1988 “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young”, part of which I guess is also in this essay?). But I’m no real elegant writer, and I don’t possess some fancy cultural-/media-studies degree, so I won’t pretend to be able to comment on the salience of “E Unibus Pluram”. But it surely was riveting, if only just as a window into the world that birthed Infinite Jest.

“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (1995):

In the introduction to the mass-market edition of David Foster Wallace’s senior philosophy thesis, Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, James Ryerson quotes out of context (of course) a dense line from said thesis, and then quips after doing so: “There are reasons that he’s better known for an essay about a cruise ship” (Fate, p. 2). That, he is: known for that essay, but also known for his relative lucidity within that essay. Though that’s not to say his encyclopedic narrative quality is lost in this piece: Oh it’s there, and with a vengeance. As I noted elsewhere in this review, my lukewarm reaction to a lot of DFW’s nonfiction is just a taste thing. For a lot of people, the human-camera thing is a real kicker. But for me it just works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. And this is one of those times. Perhaps that’s because I’ve never once in my life wanted to know—nor cared—what cruise ships are like, but also probably because there are other times in Wallace’s writings (I’m thinking “Good Old Neon,” “Trillaphon”) where that voice, that narrative thing he does, works much better. But alas, the essay is a classic, and I do not blame the editors for including the piece.

“Authority and American Usage” (1999):

Mostly apt and comprehensive overview of the ongoing “Usage Wars,” but begins to fall flat, miss the point, and generally guarantee its own eventual irrelevance once it begins to bring race and AAVE-vs.-SWE into the discussion. No fault of the eds here, though; this essay is also fairly well known. But if you want some more good commentary on DFW, grammar, and race/racism, check out Chapter VIII (“Persuasion and Pretension”) of Cecelia Watson’s Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (citation below; as an aside, that is my all-time favorite book, and I highly recommend it).

In Conclusion (and How the Reader Actually Is)

Though at times flawed and slightly misrepresentative, the Reader more or less hits the DFW nail on the head. The selections were across-the-board and wide-ranging, but I think the incorporation of more secondary sources (e.g. Max’s Love Story and Lipsky’s Although of Course…; or even also Wallace’s philosophy senior thesis, which was despite its abstruseness interesting and philosophically significant) would have been worthwhile.

Perhaps I wasn’t as claim-making or straightforward as I should have been in a review of this size and ambition. That seems to have been inevitable, though. Maybe I’ll expand this more in the future and add some more thoughts to each review as they come to me.


Lipsky, David. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.

Max, D. T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. New York: Penguin, 2012.

Wallace, David Foster. The David Foster Wallace Reader. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014.

Wallace, David Foster. Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Watson, Cecelia. Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. New York: Ecco, 2019. Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories I tried reading Infinite Jest about a decade ago and stopped when I got to a passage written out in heavy dialect. I read very quickly, and anything that slows me down tends to put me off the book. (I’m looking at you, text pages in comic books!) By my recollection, the book was interesting but not worth my effort at the time.

I picked up the Reader after watching The End of the Tour with a special interest in the non-fiction piece “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, Wallace’s take on cruise line vacations. The Reader is broken into three portions: fiction, class materials (syllabi, assignments, etc..), and nonfiction essays. I only read the last two sections. The class materials are engaging (for what they are), but mostly show off Wallace’s fanatical devotion to grammar and some interesting reading choices for his classes.

Of the nonfiction essays, I appreciated most the aforementioned piece on cruises, “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All” (a visit to the Illinois State Fair), and “Consider the Lobster” (half travelogue based on the Maine Lobster Festival and half dissertation on whether a boiling lobster feels pain). All the pieces straddle the low brow and high brow parts of American culture --- you have Wallace approaching the events both with his Midwestern upbringing and his East Coast academic eye. What’s engaging is that tension between the two viewpoints is clearly expressed in Wallace himself; he’s an anthropologist clearly uncomfortable with his studies. There’s a great bit at the State Fair where a female friend is ogled by some ride operators, and Wallace throws himself into despair about his response (or, more accurately, his lack of response). Shouldn’t he be doing something? Is his Midwestern friend aware of the sexual harassment? (Quick answers: no (she can handle herself) and yes (aren’t those guys stupid?).) You mix Wallace’s introspection (and sometimes downright paranoia), his baroque writing style (footnotes have footnotes), and a willingness to find the whole thing tragically funny, and the pieces just shine.

Not everything is such sweet reading, however. Two pieces, “E Unibus Pluram” and “Authority and American Usage” are densely packed pieces of rhetoric that are alternately enlightening and maddening. The latter masquerades as a review of a usage guide, but really explicates Wallace’s take on grammar wars --- it’s worth a read for language fans. The former is an exposition on the impact of television (and the phenemenon of us watching television, knowing we are watching television, and coming to grips with knowing we are watching television) on recent (pre-1990, the time the piece was written) American fiction. I would read pages of this, despairing to get anything out of it, and then hit paragraphs that blew me out of the water. There’s a take on irony as an overly dominant part of our national culture (find page 695 and start reading at the last paragraph). Wallace also has an extremely presicent response to those who believe that new technology will make television viewers less “passive” as he describes what we now think of as Web 2.0. “Make no mistake: we are dependent on image-technology; and the better the tech, the harder we’re hooked.” [page 702]

So, what’s the takeaway? I can see myself trying Wallace’s fiction at some point, although his detailed style is exhausting even in small chunks. Thrashing about on the internet, I see that Wallace is now associated with the “New Sincerity” movement, and I’m intrigued by what types of postmodern literary fiction can move beyond the ironic. And, the Reader is a great exposure to Wallace's philosophy and distinctive style.
Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories The David Foster Wallace Reader is a distillation of the author's best fiction and nonfiction. It is,simply, the finest writing I have ever encountered in a lifetime of reading. I have included a few of my favourite excerpts here. (These are a small sample.of his brilliance). Incarnations of a Burned Child is not included but is you are interested, look it up. It is a masterpiece. I have included 2 examples from his fiction.The first from his piece, The Suffering Channel where journalist Skip Atwater from Style Magazine interviews Amber Moltke …

Mrs. Amber Moltke, the artist’s young spouse, wore a billowing pastel housedress and was, for better or worse, the sexiest morbidly obese woman Atwater had ever seen. Eastern Indiana was not short on big pretty girls, but this was less a person than a vista, a quarter ton of sheer Midwest pulchritude, and Atwater had already filled several narrow pages of his notebook with descriptions and analogies and abstract encomia to Mrs. Moltke, none of which could be used in the compressed piece he was even then conceiving how to pitch and submit. Some of it was atavistic, he acknowledged. Some was simply contrast, a relief from the sucking cheeks and starved eyes of Manhattan’s women. He had personally seen Style interns weighing their food on small pharmaceutical scales before they consumed it. In one of the more abstract notebook entries, Atwater had theorized that Mrs. Moltke’s was perhaps a sort of negative beauty that consisted mainly in her failure to be repellant. In another, he had compared her face and throat to whatever canids see in the full moon that makes them howl.

The next piece is from Good Old Neon ...

My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people….

In the dream, I was in the town commons in Aurora, over by the Pershing tank memorial by the clock tower, and what I’m doing in the dream is sculpting an enormous marble or granite statue of myself, using a huge iron chisel and a hammer the size of those ones they give you to try to hit the bell at the top of the big thermometer-like thing at carnivals, and when the statue’s finally done I put it up on a big bandstand or platform and spend all my time polishing it and keeping birds from sitting on it or doing their business on it, and cleaning up litter and keeping the grass neat all around the bandstand. And in the dream my whole life flashes by like that, the sun and moon go back and forth across the sky like windshield wipers over and over, and I never seem to sleep or eat or take a shower, meaning I’m condemned to a whole life of being nothing but a sort of custodian to the statue.

The non- fiction work is of equal calibre to DFW's fiction. Here is a selection from his article for Harpers Magazine on the Illinois State Fair.

The horses are in their own individual stalls, with half half-height doors and owners and grooms on stools by the doors, a lot of them dozing. The horses stand in hay. Billy Ray Cyrus plays loudly on some stable boy’s boom box. The horses have tight hides and apple size eyes that are set on the sides of their heads, like fish. I’ve rarely been this close to fine livestock. The horse’s faces are long and somehow suggestive of coffins. The racers are lanky, velvet over bone. The draft and show horses are mammoth and spotlessly groomed and more or less odorless- the acrid smell in here is just the horse’s pee. All their muscles are beautiful the hides enhance them. Their tails whip around in sophisticated double- jointed ways, keeping the flies from mounting any kind of co- ordinated attack. The horses all make farty noises when they sigh, heads hanging over the short doors. They’re not for petting, though. When you come close they flatten their ears and show big teeth. The grooms laugh to themselves as we jump back. These are special competitive horses, intricately bred, w/high-strung, artistic temperaments. I wish I’d brought carrots: animals can be bought, emotionally. Stall after stall of horses. Standard horse- type colors. They eat the same hay they stand in. Occasional feedbags look like gas masks. A sudden clattering spray-sound like somebody hosing down siding turns out to be a glossy chocolate stallion, peeing. He’s at the back of his stall getting combed, and the door’s wide open, and we watch him pee. The steam’s an inch in diameter and throws up dust and hay and little chips of wood from the floor. We hunker down and have a look upward, and I suddenly for the first time understand a certain expression describing certain human males, an expression I’d heard but never truly understood till just now, prone and gazing upward in some blend of horror and awe.

Thank you, David Foster Wallace.

Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories Re-reading these shorts stories and excepts from DFW's books reminds me of what a unique voice he had and how much I enjoyed reading his work. Of course it also makes me sad that he is dead. The notes from his teaching days were incredibly interesting and showed how strict he was as a professor. Literature Fiction, Nonfiction, Short Stories