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David Foster Wallace: The Essential Suggestions

Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0 / Steve Rhodes

David Foster Wallace: The Essential Suggestions

There is no fixed rule when it comes to literary preference, but readers often seem to fall into two camps: those who love David Foster Wallace for his linguistic quirks, obsessive detailing, footnotes and endnotes and endearing long-windedness … and those who hate him for those exact same qualities. And then there's a third group of those who haven't had the pleasure (or the agony, as it may be) of reading this particularly divisive author.

Wallace has been back in the spotlight with the release of "The End of the Tour," a critically acclaimed biopic starring Jason Segel as Wallace. The film dramatizes a long-form interview author David Lipsky conducted with Wallace just after the publication of "Infinite Jest" – the massive, 1,079-page beast of a novel that would propel him to literary notoriety. With the film's success, a new generation of potential fans is learning about Wallace. But considering the sky-high page count of his best-known work, getting into Wallace may seem daunting to a first-timer.

For those who aren't sure just where to jump in, we offer a primer of a few particularly great works to serve as a jumping-off point. Old fans may find themselves wanting to go back and reread these favorites, too.

"Forever Overhead"

Some of Wallace's critics will point to his long-windedness as one of his worst sins. He goes on and on forever, they say. He provides way too much detail. He never gets to the point. His fans will counter: Yes, he does. The detail is what we're here for. The point is not to get to the point. "Forever Overhead," from the short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, will deeply annoy the first group as it simultaneously comforts and delights the second. Its plot, unfurling over the course of 10 pages, is practically nonexistent: A 13-year-old boy prepares to dive off a diving board, then dives. But the plot, of course, is not at all what the story hinges on; instead it's about the obsessive detail, the lengthy buildup to a fleetingly brief conclusion (sometimes Wallace just didn't even bother with conclusions, so the critics should probably be grateful that the "Forever Overhead" kid completes the dive at all). Three full paragraphs describe the two dirty spots at the end of the board. Those three paragraphs are very Wallacian, and if you love him, you would have been game for a fourth.

"Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley"

Reading this story seems like a pretty good way to start getting to know Wallace if you don't already, as it tells of his boyhood as a competitively ranked junior tennis player. (Wallace returned to tennis several times as a writer, and this essay, collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, helps illuminate why, as he discusses his strengths and weaknesses as a player and what it was that fascinated him about the game). In typical absurd-yet-analytical style, he also discusses tornadoes and math and the ways they relate to tennis. Along the way, he introduces us to the Illinois plains where he grew up and to which he returned as an adult, teaching at Illinois State University in Normal. Wallace loved the Midwest and wasn't afraid to say so, or to live there, even after achieving fame as the Next Great Writer upon publication of Infinite Jest.

The Broom of the System

Wallace's first novel, written as his undergraduate thesis, is downright cute and easy when compared to his second novel (more on that later). But that doesn't make it forgettable. So many of the hallmarks of Wallace's style were present already when he wrote The Broom of the System in his early 20s – the wild swing of language from serious to slangy, the fascination with pop culture and advertising, the various ways he actively tries to disrupt the story and refuses to resolve the plot. It's also, like his other writing, really fun to read. It was actually one of two undergraduate theses Wallace wrote; the other was for a philosophy major that he ended up ditching in favor of writing when he really got going on The Broom of the System and discovered just how addictive creative writing was to him.

"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"

In this essay for Harper's Magazine, reprinted in the essay collection that's named after it, Wallace recounts a Caribbean cruise he took – not for pleasure, or not deliberate pleasure, anyway, but because Harper's paid for the trip so that he could write about it. You can guess from the title what Wallace thought of the experience, but must read the essay itself to get a real understanding of how Wallace's natural pessimism made the quintessentially fun-and-carefree vacation into a terrible experience to be slogged through. But not to worry; the essay itself isn't a slog – it's hilarious, as Wallace wrings every drop out of inside jokes with himself (e.g., his personal renaming of the ship, MV Zenith, to Nadir), socializes only extremely tentatively, invents any number of cruise-related conspiracy theories, and actually does manage to enjoy himself from time to time, if grudgingly. And, in true Wallace form, he offers an impressive 75 footnotes over the course of a 51-page story.

"Consider the Lobster"

Wallace pissed a lot of people off with this essay, originally written for Gourmet magazine and later reprinted in an essay collection bearing the same title. The people he pissed off, to be specific, were foodies, and the way he pissed them off was by questioning their ethics. The truth is that he probably could not have cared less about pissing them off. His assignment was to cover the Maine Lobster Festival and write amusing things about it, a la previous articles about the Illinois State Fair ("Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All") and a Caribbean cruise ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" – see above). He did that for a while at the beginning of the piece, but then things got weird. After giving some background info on the history of the lobster and the preferred methods of cooking it (primarily, boiling it while it's still alive), Wallace asked: "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?" It's a question that probably a fair number of lobster eaters have either asked themselves or stubbornly tamped down as it tried to surface in their brains. The fact that Wallace went on to wrestle with the ethics of lobster cookery over several pages, with great detail given to the suffering of the lobsters, probably didn't sit well with a lot of Gourmet's readers. That was not the sort of thing Wallace seemed to care about – he just wrote the article he felt he needed to write, and as with his fiction, the annoyance of offense or confusion of his readers was not really his concern.

"My Appearance"

In this short story from "Girl With Curious Hair," Wallace imagines an actress preparing for, and then making, an appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman." Letterman and Paul Shaffer figure in as characters (drawn in a slightly exaggerated, but extremely recognizable, way), and the story takes place early in "Late Night's" history, when it was still the edgiest show on late night TV, dripping with irony and refusing to take anything very seriously. The actress has to navigate the show amid her husband's fears that Letterman will eat her alive if she seems too fake, and ditto if she seems too real. "My Appearance" showcases Wallace's fascination with TV and pop culture and the glittery, false worlds they create.

"Infinite Jest"

If you're familiar with Wallace, perhaps you've either been awaiting or dreading this entry. That's because probably you've either already read "Infinite Jest" and loved it, or you've tried to read it, and you were at some point defeated by the novel's length, endnotes, weirdness or some combination of the three. That would be understandable. The novel is really long – 1,079 pages (and Wallace's editor reported cutting hundreds of pages from the draft). It has a ton of endnotes – 388 of them – and it's legitimately distracting to have to keep flipping back and forth between the main text and the endnotes (which is because Wallace wanted to distract the reader – the endnotes are intended to disrupt the narrative). And it is weird. It can be hard to follow, hard to stick with, and especially hard to make peace with once you're done, given that it doesn't really end, per se, in the traditional sense of endings wrapping up the plot. Wallace himself said that rather than telling the reader what happens in the end, the novel "resolves ... outside of the right frame of the picture. You can get a pretty good idea, I think, of what happens." And yet, if you love Wallace, this one's not optional. That's because, as frustrating and long and weird as it may be, it's also his masterpiece, the work that made him famous, a Great American Novel, and unlike anything else anybody has ever published. If you haven't read it, or haven't finished, give it a try. You can use the template of Infinite Summer for support – the summer after Wallace's death, fans everywhere read the novel together, 75 pages a week, with commentary and timetables offered online. They're still indexed online, waiting for you to dive in and read.

What's your favorite work by David Foster Wallace? Share in the comments.