<3 David Foster Wallace

Personal Account > Grace Brenan > Amsterdam

Sharing lessons learnt from the late, great David Foster Wallace.

I love David Foster Wallace. I mean I really love David Foster Wallace. But I hate that everybody else loves him too. And I don’t mean that in a “if something is overly popular, it’s commercial; it’s Rhianna-found-house-music” way. I mean it in that I want to keep Wallace’s words for myself. It’d be nice to be reassured that every time I read his books and am suddenly unsure if Wallace had some sort of Truman Show control of my life, that he really is just writing for me.


There’s a real beauty in Wallace’s ability to establish that kind of intimacy as an author, let alone as a human who was struggling with mental health and coping with newfound fame. I sadly only discovered Wallace’s literature after his suicide in 2008, and remember feeling genuinely unhappy that he’d never produce more books, and never supply his opinion on future world events.


But I hope this doesn’t qualify as mere fandom. Besides ‘David Foster Wallace’ now being my number one answer to ‘Who would be your fantasy celebrity dinner guest?’, I truly believe that Wallace marked the beginning of a young, optimistic movement. Without being too philosophical, life in the twenty-first century can be bleak: war, terrorism, global warming, depleted energy sources, economic crises, the list of reasons to be terrified is growing, and doesn’t it seem like more problems arise than solutions being offered? I’m never sure what to take from the ongoing analysis of modern culture that speaks and speaks, but never answers.


*Enter David Foster Wallace*

You don’t have to be head over heels with Wallace to at least appreciate his work. Regardless of the innovation in typography and literary voice, so many of his stories provide something new, something constructive for the reader. It’s precisely this reward-reading that makes Wallace so popular; not in the sense that it is physically possible to finish all of the 1,079-paged Infinite Jest…



…but in the sense that so much can be taken from his writing. Obviously such learning is entirely subjective, but here’s three significant things that I’ve taken from Wallace:


Empathy is impossible.

I’ll never wholly know what someone else experiences or feels, but I can still try. And with trying, you come a lot closer to understanding people. And yourself for that matter. One of Wallace’s most endearing traits is his ability to render himself completely vulnerable in a story as part of this trying. “Good Old Neon” is probably the best example of this, where Wallace openly talks about being manipulative, the moral dilemma of writing, and the blunt truth that everyone is a fraud. Sounds depressing? It isn’t, it’s darkly funny and explorative in a very honest manner. It’s getting drunk and baring your soul to a complete stranger, having them wide-eyed, violently shake their head in agreement at it all.


Ironise irony.

This is an expression Wallace used in an interview with Larry McCaffrey (and I have endlessly had the piss taken out of me for using in an undergrad essay) and does what it says on the tin. All that postmodern sarcasm got really empty really fast, and the novelty of constantly complaining wore thin along with it. Wallace essentially proposed making fun of making fun, and the result is optimism, is finding the good in things. He manages to maintain a seriously witty sense of humour in his writing and simultaneously bring being serious back into fashion. Which makes his literature entertaining and engaging in an earnestly original way.


Logic can be dangerous.

It’s difficult to explain this and not sound like I’ve refused to wear shoes all my life and own only tie-dye clothing. But basically, there’s no formula to live by, no ‘rational’ standard to abide to. Your instinct/emotions will always pre-exist any sense of logic – trust them. One of my favourite quotes from David Foster Wallace is when he said that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being”, and this translates so readily through his texts. Wallace’s writing is – at its core – a document about the utter shit, and utter brilliance of living. Plus, it’s comforting knowing that Wallace was a literal mathematics genius and yet held so much more conviction in the power of language over the influence of logical equations.


Part of the enjoyment in reading Wallace is his immense talent to converse with you as an individual, and at the same time, with these huge existential questions that undoubtedly affect everyone else. But he never does this in a pretentious way.


So having said that this isn’t mere fandom, maybe it is. Because on one hand I could happily talk about Wallace and the incredibly restorative quality of his writing all day, but on the other, I really would like to keep him for myself. He is pretty bloody lovely.