For those who have been interested in the literary avant-garde during the last twenty years, David Foster Wallace is a big name, and not just because of its length. Starting as a college student, Wallace experimented with fiction writing and would soon progress into a writing career that would include short story collections, novels, and essays that left a mark on how modern writers and readers think about literature. Infinite Jest is perhaps his most famous novel, a book as big as his name with its massive 1000+ pages that explore identity in the world of modern entertainment and media. Wallace may well have written many more novels of similar length, but his life was cut short by his tragic death in 2008 at age 46. As younger readers rediscover Wallace’s work, the legacy of the writer has continued its growth post mortem, seen most recently in the announcement of “The End of the Tour,” a new biopic on Wallace’s life that will feature Jason Segel of How I Met Your Mother fame as the pensive writer.
After reading a single page of Wallace’s writing, it’s little wonder why millennials are so drawn to his work. With its informal voice, intense details, and long sentences, Wallace’s writing tends to captivate readers and even speak to them. Take this line from his short story “Forever Overhead,” which explores the coming-of-age experience of a boy standing atop the high dive:
“Forever below is rough deck, snacks, thin metal music, down where you once used to be; the line is solid and has no reverse gear; and the water, of course, is only soft when you’re inside it.”
What’s more, Wallace’s writing is funny, and it’s the kind of funny that comes from looking at things in a new way. Perhaps the best example of his humorous insight is the commencement speech he gave to the Kenyon College class of 2005, entitled “This is Water.” In the speech he relays the story of two fish who meet an older fish as they swim along. The older fish asks the two younger fish how the water is, to which they respond, “What the hell is water?” From there Wallace goes on to talk about arrogance, thinking, and the “day in day out” struggle of adult life. And people really like this speech. On Youtube, videos of the speech have as many as 300,000 views. For many, “This is Water” is what Wallace is known for. This is Wallace.
And yet, there is so much more to this much-acclaimed author. Wallace was a man who was deeply philosophical, simply kind, and vastly intelligent (he graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College). As D. T. Max describes in his recent biography on Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, “he saw clearly the danger of a mind unhinged, of the danger of thinking responsive only to itself.” Likely, this lonely introspection contributed to Wallace’s livelong bout with depression, which culminated in his untimely death. Considering the complexity of Wallace’s character, one may wonder why an actor like Jason Segel, so well-known for his humorous performances, would be chosen to portray Wallace in the upcoming biopic “The End of the Tour.”
Regardless of the choice of actor, Wallace’s persona will certainly prove hard to capture. If there is any way to really access this witty, perspicacious, and talented human being, it must surely be through his writing: Infinite Jest, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—these stories and essays entrance the mind, binding it in a world of words that leads it to question, to imagine, to discover. They are beautiful stories churned out by an author who pressed such a slew of ideas into them. They are stories that ought to be read and re-read.
Finally, there is the fear that Wallace’s image will become hidden in his stories, so much so that he will be remembered as an impersonal, looming ghost-of-a-writer more than a flesh and blood human being. In “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” an essay in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, Wallace expressed a similar fear regarding the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky:
“Dostoevsky is a literary titan, and in some ways this can be the kiss of death, because it becomes easy to regard him as yet another sepia-tinted Canonical Author, belovedly dead. . . .To make someone an icon is to make them an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people.”
Is Wallace heading in the direction of becoming just such an abstraction as a literary icon? The outstanding quality of his writing suggests so. Still, Wallace’s ability to communicate with people with his writing seems to have always been his greatest strength. He has touched hearts and opened minds with his words. And millennials who read his work may well discover that his words remain just as powerful now.