A David Foster Wallace Primer


If you’re already a David Foster Wallace fan we’re guessing that you won’t need our help pointing out that tomorrow marks the publication of his posthumous novel, The Pale King. But if you’ve been following the various reviews, remembrances, and commentary that Wallace has inspired over the past few months with a curiosity and mild puzzlement — sure the guy seems great, but a 600-plus page unformed novel about taxes? — we’ve got your back. Likewise if you once picked up a copy of Infinite Jest but found yourself drifting away after the first 200 pages … well, we’ve been there. Brevity is not one of the man’s many virtues. But an incredible eye for detail, a gut-busting sense of humor, and the ability to tell a story so engrossing that you don’t want it to end? Those DFW has. So for the uninitiated, the intimidated, or the intrepid reader, we’ve compiled a guide to reading Wallace’s work.

A Glossary of Wallace-isms

We know it sounds schoolmarmish, but there are a couple of things you’ll want to have around before you plunge into Wallace’s collection. The first is a dictionary (or a tab open to dictionary.com, if that’s your style). Even if you aced every vocab quiz in high school, you still might want to have a reference guide handy when Wallace busts out ones like “digitate” and “azygous”. Also handy: having two bookmarks around. This becomes especially crucial with the endnotes in Infinite Jest, but it’s useful to have for the footnotes in some of Wallace’s stories too. Since the abbreviations Wallace uses can be both rapidfire and something out of a mathematical proof and/or legal document, we’ve compiled a brief list of frequently used Wallace terms below:

1-P first person

e.g. for the sake of example

N.B. nota bene, note well

pace used to indicate disagreement with a source

q.v. used to refer to a phrase that should be looked up earlier in the article/book

[sic] any errors are reproduced from transcription, also used to draw attention to a quoted author’s mistake

SNOOT grammar/usage fanatic, “the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to hunt for mistakes in the very prose of Safire’s column”

sub. below

SWE Standard Written English

w/r/t with regard to

viz. namely, that is to say

yr. your

Image credit: Suzy Allman for The New York Times

Buccaneer of Words: Beginning with Essays

Aside from his short stories and novels, David Foster Wallace produced some truly excellent, truly hilarious nonfiction. The easiest place to start with DFW is with his essays, which cover things as serious as postmodernism and as light-hearted as a state fair. If you’ve never read anything by Wallace, reading his commencement speech at Kenyon College is a good place to start. (A truncated online version is available here. It’s also available in oh-so-giftable book form as This Is Water .)

Once your appetite is whet, check out a couple of DFW’s essays that are available online. Like sports? Try his essay on Roger Federer for the New York Times. Interested in Kafka? Give his essay on the funniness of Kafka a read. All of Wallace’s work for Harper’s, including his article detailing the horrors of a luxury cruise vacation (13-year-olds in toupees, a leisure suit DFW dubs “menstrual pink”), are available for free on their website. If you like those, grab Wallace’s two collections of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. In the former, we particularly love “Getting Away from Pretty Much Already Being Away From It All,” in which DFW waxes poetic about the nature of Midwestern milkshakes and the various weirdnesses of state fairs, and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” an excellent quasi-profile of the director. In Consider the Lobster, “Big Red Son” is DFW’s painfully astute look at the world of porn and “Up, Simba” is a interesting look at John McCain on the campaign trail in 2000.

Intermediate: Short Stories

If you like Wallace’s essays but cracking a 1000 page novel doesn’t seem like something you want to do in your free time, we’d suggest dipping into his short stories. A handful are available online — like “All That” and “Good People”, both on the New Yorker‘s website — but the really meaty stuff is in Wallace’s short story collections. We’s start with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (no watching the movie first!), then check out The Girl With the Curious Hair and Oblivion. Our favorite story? The achingly sad “Good Old Neon” from Oblivion.

Double Black Diamond Reading: DFW Novels

With all the gateway Wallace out of the way, it’s on to the serious stuff. If you’re raring to go on Infinite Jest, then hop right in, but if you’re still a little bit wary–understandably so–read The Broom of the System first. Broom is Wallace’s first novel, about a 24-year-old telephone switchboard operator in the midst of existential crises.

And then, of course, there’s Infinite Jest, an epic tome of junior tennis, marijuana, film theory, and entertainment. It’s worth the struggle, but it can be tricky. For help, try this reader’s guide or this list of tips from Jason Kottke (who recommends three bookmarks). Look through the Infinite Summer website for an index of characters and themes. We’d also recommend not bringing it on the subway to prevent back strain.

For the Wallace Completist: Biographies and Uncollected Bits

If you’re now hopelessly addicted to Wallace’s work, never fear. There’s The Pale King, Wallace’s unfinished study of boredom and the transcendence of the mundane. And there’s still more out there. The Howling Fantods, a website dedicated to DFW’s work, has a comprehensive collection of Wallace’s uncollected fiction and nonfiction, not to mention updates on all things DFW. Then you can look at the Wallace memorials on McSweeney’s, watch Wallace’s interview with Charlie Rose, and read a week-long interview with Wallace in And Then Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. True fanatics can take a trip to Austin to dig through the David Foster Wallace archives or try to recreate DFW’s self-help library. And then you can wait for the upcoming biography of Wallace by S.T. Max, coming out next year. Go forth, you SNOOTs, and read.