David Foster Wallace as Religious Experience

David Foster Wallace
Over the last couple of weeks I have become obsessed with David Foster Wallace. I have consumed two of his non-fictions books of essays and watched and listened to countless interviews of and about him. I have waded into the beautifully enveloping world that is Infinite Jest and in two short weeks I have had my life changed.


verything in the world is connected in some way. This is cliche because it’s true. I’ve found that my most enjoyable way of living and learning and growing is through the organic process of following the little threads that hang from each and every thing and that lead you to each and every other thing. Like Six Degrees of Separation1 and Wikipedia, if you know where to look, you can find the connection between anything.

I think this is generally understood, and agreed upon, but sometimes it strikes me how under-the-surface these connections are. How they stare you in the face and how blind we are to them most of the time. For the last, I don’t know, maybe three years, I’ve been exploring a world of topics and people and places — things that have caught my attention and piqued my curiousity — that have been far more closely related than I think realized. I lose track of the chain when I try to think back to how it all started. It makes me wish that I adopted the Steven Soderbergh routine of recording everything I consume.

What I know is that I was nibbling at the edges of David Foster Wallace for a long time, and that it was one of his major influences, Thomas Pynchon2 who finally led me to Wallace’s doorstep.

It was while getting more information on Pynchon that the connection to Wallace was made. One article mentions Pynchon’s influence on Wallace, undoubtedly when Wallace is discussed so to is Infinite Jest. Researching David Foster Wallace, I remembered having seen him on an episode of Charlie Rose some years back but couldn’t remember the content of the discussion. One thing leads to another.

I’m sad to say that even after revisiting those uncomfortable but stirring Charlie Rose interviews, I put Wallace on the back burner, out of mind. It wasn’t until Federer played Djokovic in this year’s US Open tennis final, after I felt more compelled by Federer in defeat than Djokovic in triumph, that I came across Wallace’s 2006 profile on Federer titled Federer as Religious ExperienceNeedless to say, it’s very good.

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avid Foster Wallace is difficult to peg. Even more than most people, he is a paradox, a collection of contradictions. If your introduction to him is televisual, this is even more immediately apparent. He was handsome and overpoweringly intelligent, yet nebbish and obviously, sometimes cripplingly, self-conscious. He was both somehow charismatic and awkward. He could speak eloquently in long, agile stanzas, then conclude with a wince, a grimace and an unsure “… if that makes any sense.”

During interviews, he struggles to conceal how hard it is for him to participate and at first, because of the raw intellectual power on display, it can easily be mistaken for a sort of condescending disdain for his interlocutor. The more you watch though, the more clear it becomes that he is mentally doing several calculations — absorbing the question and crafting his answer; worrying about whether his answer is the right one; worrying about whether his answer will be perceived correctly — all at once. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person whose mental wheels were more obviously spinning. Usually when someone’s cerebral mechanics are so easily visibile, it is because of a lack of intelligence. With David, it was the exact opposite.

David Lipsky, who spent a time covering Wallace for Rolling Stone and, eventually, for his book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, once accused Wallace of putting this countenance on as an affectation. He said, speaking of Wallace’s intelligence, that it was as if he were playing softball against children, and not hitting for power in order to give everyone else a chance. This seems to me the most accurate estimation of Wallace I’ve ever heard. Although, at the time, I believe Lipsky was accusing Wallace of doing it condescendingly, I think in reality he was just so overwhelmed with anxiety and self-consciousness that he was worried about sounding too pretentious or too intelligent.

Reading David Foster Wallace is quite a bit different. It’s everything you’ve heard and more. I think if Wes Anderson were to be given full creative license to write and direct a 18 hour movie, it might approximate something along the lines of a David Foster Wallace novel. DFW creates entire worlds just different enough from our own to be proprietary. They are filled, and I mean filled with his characters. As someone who loves language, and loves to read someone who can wield it expertly, who can make it dance and sing, Wallace is a master. A linguistic gymnast.

But there’s more, of course. There was a darkness about him. Wallace committed suicide in 2008 and long suffered from depression before that, but when I read his work, specifically Infinite Jest, I feel the same pain and same loneliness that he writes so goddamn poignantly about. I feel like David Foster Wallace was more in tune, more aware of what it feels like to be a human being, and the more able to touch that you are, the more susceptible to it you are, and the greater the likelihood that it will kill you.

Like almost everything I really, truly enjoy, Wallace fills me with melancholy. I find his writing wildly entertaining and funny, while still being challenging and affecting. It hurts to know not only that he’s gone, but that he was gone before I could even enjoy him in real time. It’s like a huge party was thrown. I could have gone to it had I known about it, but I missed it, and all I can do now is talk to as many of the guests as possible to soak up what it was like to be there.

More than anything else, David Foster Wallace makes me want to write, and he makes me want to read and he makes me castigate myself for having allowed crippling self-doubt to keep me from writing. I’m not sure reading DFW has been an epiphany so much as it has been the magisterial confirmation of what I already knew: that life is absolutely absurd and not at all what it’s cracked up to be and, maybe most importantly, that knowing that is okay.


  1. The theory, not the film.

  2. I read Inherent Vice about a year ago now, then pump-faked on starting Gravity’s Rainbow before moving on to something else entirely.

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