Review: The David Foster Wallace Reader

The writing is easily good enough to deserve the Greatest Hits treatment and if the Reader encourages students to continue the conversation with Wallace’s work, then it will have done its job

The David Foster Wallace Reader
The David Foster Wallace Reader
Author: David Foster Wallace
ISBN-13: 978-0241145463
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Guideline Price: £19.99

David Foster Wallace has, since his death in 2008, been roundly recognised as one of the most brilliant writers of his generation. His influence has been acknowledged by the likes of Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan and Zadie Smith as well as by writers closer to home like Paul Murray and Colin Barrett. However, he can be a surprisingly tricky writer to recommend to friends. The problem is: where to start?

Infinite Jest (1996), a hyperactive tragicomedy set in a near-future Boston ravaged by consumer culture and addiction, is clearly his masterpiece, but the heavily-footnoted 1,079-page behemoth has a habit of intimidating would-be readers. His first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), is prodigiously accomplished, but reads like an apprentice work next to its successor; his posthumous novel, The Pale King (assembled and published by his editor Michael Pietsch in 2011), is fascinating but unfinished. His short fiction – of which there are three collections – is brilliant but often denser and darker than his novels. Wallace fans often recommend his nonfiction essays as the best gateway into his work, but these don't necessarily provide the concentrated, immersive experience to be found inside his fictional worlds.

The David Foster Wallace Reader is, essentially, an attempt to address this question by presenting as many of the answers as possible between one set of covers. Assembled with one eye firmly on the classroom (and, perhaps, the other on a world in which people are less and less likely to read 1,079-page novels), it includes selections from each of Wallace's fictional works as well as several of his most celebrated essays with occasional commentary from writers, critics and friends.

Literary figure, not pop icon The foreword (written jointly by Wallace's editor, his agent and his widow) claims that "teachers will find here an ideal introduction for students", a statement that makes the book's main purpose clear. The Reader can be seen as a move by the Wallace estate in the emerging struggle to manage his legacy. Since his untimely and tragic death (he took his own life at the age of 46) a certain amount of romantic tortured-genius aura has accumulated around Wallace, to the dismay of friends and family. A Hollywood biopic is due shortly in which the author will be played by Jason Segel (star of The Muppets and Knocked Up, among others); the Wallace estate has already disowned the film. The Reader represents an attempt to position the writer as a serious literary figure rather than a pop icon.


The work assembled here is the best argument that Wallace deserves this treatment, showcasing his mastery of formal constraints and capacity to create genre-bendingly innovative work in any medium to which he turned his hand. The short fiction fares best here: some of the stories from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004), in particular, are stunningly compressed and self-contained pieces that require no surrounding context and show that this writer of maximalist doorstop novels could write in miniature as well as anyone.

Key literary manifesto

The essays, meanwhile, place Wallace's comic abilities on full display. His diverse magazine pieces explore subjects like travel, food and tennis (the superhuman athletic abilities of Roger Federer and the gluttonous, guilt-inducing pleasures of a luxury cruise ship holiday are two of the subjects illuminatingly discussed here) by presenting a perceptive, endearingly neurotic writer-persona observing his surroundings with wit, subtlety and precision. Also included is E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, Wallace's seminal 1993 essay on the postmodern irony trap and the difficulty of sincerity, which not only paved the way for the writing of Infinite Jest but now looks like one of the key literary manifestos of the past 25 years.

There is little new work here: the most substantial inclusion is Wallace’s first published story (written in 1984 for a college magazine), an early and remarkably direct treatment of the depression that would recur throughout his life. We also get a sample of some classroom documents from Wallace’s many years as a creative writing instructor, which show him to have been a dedicated and demanding teacher. These are introduced by a note from his mother – a university English professor who bequeathed him his love of language – along with samples of their affectionately geeky grammatical queries to each other which serve, among other things, to highlight the terrible loss behind this enterprise.

All posthumous work compels the question: what would the author think? Since Wallace's death there has been a steady stream of books, some more essential than others. It's not at all certain that Wallace would have agreed to publish his college philosophy thesis, for example, or to reissue the odd and quite dated book on rap music he co-authored in 1989. Examining the Reader, it's also hard to think that the author would be comfortable with the idea of Infinite Jest – a novel that, despite its considerable length and surface-level chaos, was written and edited with jigsaw-puzzle care – being excerpted in this way. The novel is the work that suffers most in the Reader, due less to the particular selections made than the simple fact that its intricate construction precludes sampling: first-time readers will get a flavour of its inimitable narrative voice and exhilaratingly sharp dialogue, but will struggle to make any sense of the plot.

However, the “teaching materials” section is a reminder, in the form of selected syllabi for his intensive-looking courses and some playfully pedantic corrections of his students’ linguistic mistakes, that Wallace himself took the classroom with the utmost seriousness. The author’s archive at the University of Texas shows that he was a close reader of the active, pen-in-hand kind, and his books by the likes of Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and John Updike overflow with comments and arguments that often continued on into his own work. The writing collected here is easily good enough to deserve the Greatest Hits treatment and if the Reader encourages students to continue the conversation with Wallace’s work in the same way, then it will have done its job.