“Lonely people tend…to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.” (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)
I first read David Foster Wallace in high school. My English teacher had assigned us an essay—perhaps the eponymous essay itself—from Consider the Lobster. He hugged the thick stack of stapled copies to his chest, eyes sparkling as if he were about to give us a real treat.
“Let me just say,” he said, “that this is some good shit.”
It was some good shit, but I thought his prose meandered too much; it was too labyrinthine. Only a few years later, in college, would I think differently after reading his essay on David Lynch, a movie director with whom I’d been transfixed at the time.
I remember falling in love with Wallace’s voice. With other heart-eyed readers, I began to call him DFW with the affection of a schoolboy crush. I wanted to be like him and I wanted him to like me, even though I knew he’d committed suicide in 2008 and I’d never meet him.
I dreamed of meeting him nonetheless. I wrote last week in “Cultivating Style” that reading him changed my writing—he could bend my inimitable syntax into a try-hard clone of his own. My writing became “discursive and I [tried] to emulsify a virtuosic vocabulary with an idiomatic, compassionate prose.” For a while he was my favorite writer of all time.
In the years after his death, Wallace has become canonized as a literary saint. Saint Dave, as he’s sometimes now known, is the construct of a readership romanticizing the archetype of a lonely genius writer who, in a Christ-like sacrifice, bears the suffering of the world by echoing it in ink. Wallace’s private torment, much of which has only been revealed posthumously, is a controversy in and of itself. One of his close friends, Jonathan Franzen, has suggested (in passing) that Wallace’s suicide may have been a stunt for attention. Biographies—and biographical sketches—of Wallace make a point of pulling him from the pedestal he stands on now.
Regardless, he’s still a great writer—there’s no doubt about that, even if his cult-like following may worship him as more. His first collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, is a classic. Sure to engage you in playful, stimulating, eye-opening ways, the book’s topics range from irony and TV to the Illinois State Fair to Wallace’s experiences on a week-long Caribbean cruise. To be honest, this is the only work of Wallace’s that I’ve read in its entirety. His novels—from the notorious Infinite Jest to the unfinished but still 548-page Pale King—are often less accessible than his nonfiction. They’re serious commitments that should be saved for a summer break.