A Christian’s Introduction to David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) is an utterly unique author for an utterly unique generation. But he’s not nearly as well known as many who know him think he should be. He was once awarded the so-called “Genius Grant” by the MacArthur Foundation. Time magazine named Infinite Jest, his second novel, one of the 100 best novels in the English language since 1923. And Wallace’s unfinished, posthumous novel The Pale King was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. A nearly lifelong sufferer of clinical depression, he tragically took his own life in 2008. He was most well known for his novels and several books of short fiction (notably Brief Interview with Hideous Men and Oblivion), but his nonfiction often gets almost equal praise. Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again are two of his acclaimed works in that genre.

But what most people think of when they hear the name, if they have heard it, is that he’s the guy who writes doorstop novels littered with footnotes and endnotes. He’s the guy who churns out sixty-seven-line sentences and writes about everything from philosophy to math to drug addiction to tennis. He’s witty, ironic, pushes the envelope with both his characters and his prose, and if you have enough coffee on hand the verbal pyrotechnics will probably be worth your while if you’re that kind of reader. On the other hand, scores of others say this: His references are too obscure. He’s too difficult, too cerebral. A hundred pages of endnotes tacked on to a thousand-page novel are not necessary. And so on. It’s true that I once found myself with fingers in five different places while reading Infinite Jest, realizing I was reading a footnote within a footnote within an endnote within an endnote. But despite that, and despite the persistent word about him on the street, I see an incredibly different picture of Wallace and his work.

Aside from the prose barrier, not many orthodox or conservative Christians will have read Wallace. And those who have wouldn’t likely recommend him to their cohorts. Many Christians will find his work too worldly, too far removed from the kind of place they’d like to inhabit. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is partly a fictive compilation of “interviews” with scumbags of every possible shape and size outlining and justifying their sordid exploits with women. Infinite Jest takes readers into the dark dens of such circumstances as suicidal depressives addicted to pharmaceuticals, teenagers concocting elaborate methods for hiding narcotics, and casual promiscuity.

But, his work consistently displays a concern for getting people out of a self-focused paradigm and into an other-focused one. He argues for this change, especially in his fiction, by taking us inside the very culture and minds that resist it.

In his now famous commencement speech given at Kenyon College in 2005, posthumously titled, “This Is Water,” he beseeches young graduates to take at least one habit of mind away from their liberal arts education. He urges them to refrain from spending their adult lives looking at people and then urges them to instead look, imaginatively, along with them.

Says Wallace: “You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.”

This habit of mind, this angle of vision, this way of seeing the world and oneself in relation to it is the distinct province of Christianity. Jesus instructs: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” And then he ties a cloak around his waist and washes his servants’ grimy feet. The Apostle Paul: “For the commandments . . . are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Moses: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And, through the prophet Jeremiah, God says of one king who was particularly mindful of the poor: “Is this not to know me?”

This emphasis on counting others as more significant than ourselves, on surrendering freedom and privilege, on granting others favors when they decidedly don’t deserve them, is quite literally embodied in the narrative of history—where God is protagonist—and reaches its pinnacle in the man Jesus of Nazareth. The God who emptied himself by taking on the form of a servant, leaving the throne room of heaven and the bosom of the Father for people he knew would spit on him, snub him, run away from him and yell up at his hanging form to avail himself of the very power he forewent for their sake. The one who did all this “for the joy set before him.” The one who exhibits true selflessness.

One of David Foster Wallace’s main projects is pointing out both the pervasiveness and hideousness of an orientation toward self that has reached its pitch during our time. This other-centered stance is an essentially Christian one. And I mean the word “essentially” in its full and deepest sense.

But Wallace’s usefulness to the Christian reader extends further in his considering himself part of the organism he’s dissecting. He seems to inveterately toss himself up on the chopping block along with everybody else.

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace seems to be, at least in many of the pieces, practicing a kind of self-critique, pointed at, on the one hand, a distinct variety of the overly-intellectualized person and, on the other hand, a distinct variety of the completely self-absorbed person.

See, for example, the first page of the story “Death is not the End,” and note the list of accolades Wallace gives to his “Poet’s Poet” who’s depicted as existing, almost literally, inside a garden-walled universe. It is high-fenced, perfectly serene, utterly controlled, and entirely solitary. The only sounds come from the occasional “soft gurgle of the pool’s pump and drain” and the sound of the man’s own toe scratching the arch of his other foot. It’s completely devoid of outside chatter, except what’s allowed inside—by the Poet—in the form of a Poet-selected magazine. Then take note of how strikingly this Poet’s accolades resemble Wallace’s own.

In the act of gutting himself, exposing all his messiness and grotesqueness and imperfection, Wallace pulls us into the mind of another and allows us to see both the horror and the exquisitely sad groping for meaning that characterize our present age. He drops us inside C. S. Lewis’s toolshed-beam and turns our heads to make us “look along it,” to experience our freakish society for a moment from within it. This pouring out of himself for the sake of his generation is one way in which Wallace’s life’s work reflects that of our Creator’s. As incredulous as some of his devotees might be at this claim, I think it’s a fair way to describe his efforts; he lamented, quite often, how people only talked about the wit and the humor and the brainy acrobatics in his work rather than focusing on the heart of it, the incredibly sad situations it presents.

Wallace is a particular kind of prophet for a particular kind of crooked and twisted generation. Prophet? Yes. God can and does use an array of vehicles to deliver his indictments of particular societies to them. And we the faithful can learn a lot from this one.

One other point may be fairly important to make.

David Foster Wallace is not for everyone. Not simply because of the abstruse intellectual stuff. But because of the depths to which he delves (in an effort, truly, to expose a pandemic blindness) into the nastiness of contemporary amoral life. Content of this nature is so pervasive in his work that it might do more to distract some readers than to benefit them. As indeed, in a similar way, many of the faithful who were contemporaries of Flannery O’Connor found her use of violence and depravity in and between her characters simply more than was helpful.

We are right to rail against and recoil from gratuitous violence, sex, etc—for pietistic and artistic reasons alike. But David Foster Wallace’s use of such typically abused things is, I submit, anything at all but gratuitous, or glorifying as some might put it. Much to the contrary, Wallace could almost be described as a kind of generational Dad gripping a disobedient young pup by the scruff and rubbing its nose in the carpet where it really knows, deep down, it shouldn’t have messed itself.

Those familiar with, or perhaps even steeped in, the contemporary world that Wallace paints—and its dominant literary idiom—will find a brilliant, wise, intensely sophisticated portrayal of the plight of our media-saturated, information-overloaded, rampantly unreflective, commercially-driven society. And, hopefully, in looking at his work through the lens of Wallace-as-critic-par-excellence-of-post-modern-solipsism some readers who find themselves antagonistic to the faith may see, for the first time, a meeting ground where they and those they consider opponents can stand at the same angle and look along the beam together.