Article

Alissa Wilkinson


"Everybody Worships"

On David Foster Wallace.

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Once, I was a David Foster Wallace doubter. For years I assumed he was an ironic, self-absorbed writer of novels too heavy to carry in one's purse, an egocentric precocious brainiac entranced by his own awesomeness, beloved only of overeducated young men. After he hung himself in 2008, the Internet eulogized him as the voice of his generation, a prophet of postmodernity. He was all but canonized. He sounded awful.

A couple of years later, I was caught bookless while traveling. In desperation, I opened a copy of Wallace's first essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. And it lit me on fire.

I fell violently in love with the narrator, because any person who can say what you're thinking before you find the words is irresistible. He wrote long, beautiful, tumbly sentences and invented adjectives like "methamphetaminic" and made me laugh till I hiccupped at inappropriate jokes. Then he turned around and said something about what it was like to be a person, and I'd forget to breathe for a while. He wrote about David Lynch and math and tennis and TV and despair induced by a luxury cruise, and I thought someone had pointed a firehose directly into my brain and—soon—my soul.

A cradle Christian, I find everyday belief elusive. I don't feel an otherly presence, much; I doubt when I ought to have faith; I pray badly. For years at a stretch, I've gone to church only because that is how I continue to have faith. Wallace himself never succeeded in joining a church, though he was an intermittent regular attender; he tried to become Catholic twice, partly because he was in love for years with Mary Karr, but the priest finally told him to go away because he asked too many questions. And yet, you'd be hard pressed to find another mind so obsessed with and honest about everything religion asks us to wrestle to the ground all our lives, and the answers he found were often rooted in something like faith. Wallace could be funny and cool and a little bratty, but he was rarely ironic about the stuff that really mattered: what we think, how we treat one another, depression, desire, addiction, kindness, wonder.

Wallace's death prompted a stream of posthumous publishing that hasn't yet petered out. His unfinished novel The Pale King was nominated for a Pulitzer; there was the nonfiction collection Both Flesh and Not and a bunch of selections from his archives (housed at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin) and D. T. Max's biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. An undergrad thesis Wallace wrote at Amherst was published by Columbia University Press in 2010 as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, and Columbia has just published Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace.

In May 2014, David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words appeared, a set of recordings of Wallace reading some of his own work, including selections from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, "Big Red Son," "Consider the Lobster," and the recording of his Kenyon College commencement speech "This Is Water." Wallace's voice adds an unexpected dimension to familiar work. Coming from a writer whose sentences trip over themselves in their eagerness, his midwestern drawl is a surprise—but it also fits a sort of naturalness to the words, and helps you understand how they must have sounded in his head. Jokes about porn stars and fairgoers become less jokey, more thoughtful, as if you're listening to him talk over a campfire or on a long road trip.

The David Foster Wallace Reader landed in November, an Infinite Jest-length volume that begs to be assigned in college seminars, with selections from all of Wallace's nonfiction and fiction, some syllabi, emails to his mother, Sally Foster Wallace, with grammar questions from his teaching days, and a few previously uncollected works (including the stunningly sad undergraduate story "The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing"—the "bad thing" here being depression, and Trillaphon being a depression med). The selections are bookended by short reflections from friends and admirers.

And at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour premiered to relieved critical acclaim, and was picked up by A24 for release. Based on David Lipsky's book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, itself published after Wallace's death, the film weaves Lipsky's transcripts of his five-day roadtrip with Wallace near the end of his Infinite Jest tour into a deeply sad, deeply moving portrayal of what it must have been like to be Wallace (with a scruffy Jason Segel in the lead).

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