≡ Menu

David Foster Wallace Books, With Brief Reviews


David Foster Wallace

A few criticisms that often get aimed at DFW:

  • Pretentious
  • In love with himself
  • Show off
  • Holds his readers in contempt
  • Self-indulgent
  • From Michiko Kakutani’s NYTs review:

The book [Infinite Jest] seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.

Excited yet?

I’ve yet to read a negative review of Wallace’s work that does not also mention his virtuosity, creativity, curiosity, and intellect. The more shrill criticisms all seem to stem from their annoyance that he does not use his gifts to conform to what they think novels should be. (His non-fiction is pretty straightforward in comparison to his fiction, and these criticisms I refer to are all aimed at his experimental made-up stuff).

I can see both sides. There were times when some of his quirks would have annoyed me. Maybe those times will come again. But not today, so let me introduce you to one of my favorite authors.

Getting started

Knowing where to start with David Foster Wallace can be tough. Choosing the wrong book–or maybe even the wrong paragraph or sentence–can set a reader back like a punch in the brain. So let me say this first: if you can read this you are smart enough to read his work and understand the majority of it. How do I know this? Because I can do it.

I would suggest perhaps first reading a wonderful book about DFW, which has helped tie a lot of things together for me. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky. It is a transcription of the five days of interviews Lipsky conducted while accompanying Wallace on the final stage of his Infinite Jest tour.

It is a brilliant, lucid portrait of a surprisingly plain-speaking author during more casual moments that his books provide. And it’s a poignant piece, given Wallace’s suicide in 2008.

In Although of Course you learn enough about what he was trying to do with his writing that you might some of his more challenging tendencies more forgivable. Or not. Just a suggestion.

Okay then, here is a list of David Foster Wallace books, with brief reviews by yours truly. When I haven’t read one, I’ll say so.

The Pale King

Wallace’s unfinished last novel, although given his stylistic oddities and the fragmented nature of his fiction, it doesn’t feel as unfinished as it might if it had been written by someone else.

Anyone who made it through Infinite Jest knows what I’m talking about. It’s not always about the resolution.

Pale King has at its core the most boring material imaginable: a snapshot of life in an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois. That is exactly what attracted me to the book in the first place–well, in the second place, given that I read everything he writes. I knew that he’d find a way to make it worth reading, and he wouldn’t have chosen the subject (boredom) and the setting without reasons.

This book contains some of my favorite passages and chapters that DFW ever wrote. Especially delightful was a section about a young boy who was so goodhearted and helpful and goody two shoes that everyone hated him. It doesn’t sound funny but it is.

Be prepared to wade through (or not, it’s pretty easy to find the more accessible parts) lots of tax-related minutiae. Like all of his work, I found immense payoff in reading closely and sticking with it, trying to figure out what I thought he was getting at.

Infinite Jest

At over 1,000 pages, with 200+ of those being footnotes, Jest is an imposing book. It’s heavy, it’s nearly as deep as it is wide (okay, not quite), and you could open up to a random page and discover to your horror that you’ve chosen a page with no indentations or paragraphs, just wall-to-wall text.

The book centers on a piece of entertainment, a movie that is so entertaining that anyone who watches it can’t do anything else. They will forget to eat, drink, sleep, visit the bathroom, etc. It’s so entertaining that people are dying of it. Throw in lots of wonderful, odd characters, a Tennis academy, a rehab center, and some of the most inventive use of language that I’ve ever seen, and it’s a great read for anyone who can put out the effort. If you can’t, there’s nothing wrong with that. It kicked my butt the first two times I tried to read it–I don’t think I even made it to page 100.

I have revisited this book several times, cover to cover, and I have enjoyed parts of it even more with each successive reading. Also: it’s a different book if you skip the footnotes, so I’d read them. They contain some of the most entertaining bits.

If I had to summarize more succinctly, I’d say: this is a huge book about sadness, entertainment, and addiction.

Consider The Lobster and Other Essays

The title essay examines the lobster and whether it can feel pain. It was probably my least favorite. The first essay in this book is easily worth the price. It concerns Wallace’s trip to the equivalent of the Academy Awards for the adult industry. Absolutely hysterical.

Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in The Urban Present

A really long essay on understanding rap at a level that most listeners (my hand is raised) don’t begin to approach. I enjoyed reading it because it still has all the elements I love about Wallace’s writing and the way he thinks, but I don’t listen to much rap so I didn’t get a whole lot out of this besides viewing the music in different contexts.

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will

I don’t have a copy of this one yet. Haven’t read it.

Oblivion: Stories

I think this is his most depressing book. Deteriorating marriages, scalded infants, a classroom hostage situation, and an artist who makes art in a medium so absurd that I won’t spoil it for you. I enjoyed the book but thematically it’s the heaviest one for me. I might not read it again.

Everything And More: A Compact History of Infinity

This is a book about infinity. I opened it once, saw some math, closed it, will not be back.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

My favorite DFW book. Essays and stories about everything from trying to play tennis in the wind, to a detailed look at David Lynch’s challenges during the filming of Dune and Twin Peaks, and the title essay, a hilarious novella-length piece about how much fun he did not have during a cruise.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

Exactly what it sounds like. Short stories in the form of interviews with people you are probably better off not knowing. There was at least one observation in every story that made me laugh.

Girl With Curious Hair

More short stories. David Letterman and Lyndon B. Johnson make appearances. A fun book that will really annoy anyone who can’t stand Wallace’s style, which is on full display here.

The Broom of The System

His first novel. It’s mostly dialogue, it’s almost always funny to me, and it has a plot that I can’t describe.

Back to Although of Course, DFW talks about how he doesn’t really like Broom anymore. As his first novel, it is drowning in look-how-clever-I-am and look-at-how-much-theory-and-p

This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered On A Significant Occasion, About Living A Compassionate Life

The text of Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College. One of his rare public appearances. A speech I wish I could have heard at my own graduation. I can’t even remember who spoke.

And that is that. Are any of you fans? Love him? Hate him?


A Supposedly Fun Thing - Click for more reviews

One suggestion: If you read his fiction and hate it immediately, please try A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. You can enjoy his non-fiction immensely even if you despise his novels and short stories.



If you liked this post, please subscribe to the RSS feed.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Andy Fossett June 1, 2011, 6:44 pm

    Nice summaries. I agree that A Supposedly Fun Thing is probably the most accessible and fun for people who are daunted by the likes if Infinite Jest (which picks up considerable beyond the first 100 or so pages – to those of you who are struggling).

    I haven’t read Although Of Course…, but now I’m really looking forward to seeing how it colors my experience of IJ, which is already one of my very favorite works of fiction.


    • Josh Hanagarne June 2, 2011, 9:51 am

      Andy, let me know how it goes. His thoughts about IJ and his intense discomfort with many parts of his fame were fascinating reading for me.

      • Andy Fossett June 2, 2011, 11:41 am

        I will. I’ve added it to my Amazon cart for the next order.

        From what I’ve read, one can’t help but think that his feelings regarding fame and the reception of his “show-off-y” style exacerbated his depression (though certainly not the cause, as he suffered long before that became an issue). His intense self consciousness was a huge factor in his writing style, so I can imagine his words on that would be a source of deep insight.

      • Andy Fossett July 20, 2011, 11:08 am

        Hey, so I finally got around to reading this, and you’re right – it really sheds light on IJ. I’m not sure if I’d recommend it to people who prefer DFE’s fiction to his essays, but parts of it definitely reminded me of a less-formal version of, for example, his TV essay.

        After reading so much of his nonfiction, I had developed a sort of voice of what I thought DFW would “sound” like in conversation, and Although Of Course rounded that out with a much less-rehearsed quality that comes from him really trying to come to grips with new experiences. It’s fascinating.

        So again, thanks for the rec. Just thought I’d follow up to say that it did not disappoint.

  • Jeroen June 2, 2011, 3:54 am

    I loved Infinite Jest. One of my favorite books, I need to read it again. There’s so much in there. Addiction, violence, movies, art, Canadian terrorists. Though I have to admit, the ending frustrated me.

  • amelia rose June 4, 2011, 1:57 pm

    i think that roald dahl is the best writer ever