My wonderful and loving lecture agent, Ellie Deegan, recently left me a voicemail message in which she told me how “grateful” she is to me for giving her David Foster Wallace. She read his brilliant, luminous, and heavy—according to philosophical and physical measurements—novel, Infinite Jest, and has just started Although, Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace after I emphatically encouraged her to do so.
Deegan told me how much Wallace’s insight that “reading is for lonely people” resonated with her. She particularly liked his point that when one opens a book, one opens a relationship with its creator.
Any relationship with Wallace is destined for generosity, spirituality, and given the honesty and vulnerability of the writer, intimacy. It’s also—despite Wallace’s amazing ability to maintain endearing ordinariness as a genius, despite his gut punch sense of humor, and despite his unique skill to write literary fiction that entertains—going to be a serious challenge. It will challenge the reader’s intellect, ideology, and most of all, conception of morality.
In This Is Water, the commencement address that Wallace gave at Kenyon College that is now available in book form, he shares two thematically connected points that possess such profundity that, in his view, to ignore their wisdom is to court catastrophe.
Before it even began, he cut through the charade of the new atheism generated debate when he told his audience of new college graduates that “in adult life there is no such thing as atheism”, explaining that “everyone worships something”. Similarly, a character in Infinite Jest lectures a naïve American that “all our free choices follow from this: what is our temple?” Wallace, in his speech, insists that the choice of worship is the ultimate choice of citizenship and humanity, and that if the choice doesn’t involve God, something spiritual, whatever you worship “will eat you alive”.
During the commencement, Wallace also gave a nearly perfect definition of the purpose of a liberal arts education. It shouldn’t teach people what to think—that would be totalitarian and tyrannical. It shouldn’t teach people how to think—to assume that people require such rigid training is condescending and elitist. It should teach people that it is important to think. It should assist in the formulation of intellectual awareness, sensitivity, and prioritization of attention.
It’s easy and common to create an avalanche of superlatives when releasing interpretation of Wallace’s work and value. It must be said, however, that his interest and near-obsession with what is worthy of attention, engagement, and investment is a further testament to his unique genius. Before the advent of cell ubiquity, cyber social networking, and the digitalization of everything, he was exploring boredom, stimuli starved reaction to it, and people’s lack of ability tolerate any environment or activity that doesn’t stimulate and plug a user into the culture of connectivity, in which users are constantly enmeshed within a portal of superficial communication, thought defeating noise, or virtual reality entertainment.
The culture of connectivity of Americans salivating for stimulus perfectly complements the ethic of entertainment that Wallace explored in Infinite Jest. Addiction to entertainment, and eschewal of anything less than optimally entertaining, devalues and degrades citizenship and deracinates and declaws spirituality. As the Rev. Gardner Taylor said, “Americans now want to reach a destination without taking a journey and triumph without being tested.” There is a game show mentality that expects instant gratification and reward without effort.
The essays of Wallace coalesce to create a travelogue of American checkpoints of communal, social, and spiritual destruction—disaster zones and craters in the earth made out of the entertainment ethic and game show mentality’s conquest of all enemies foreign and domestic.
In “Big Red Son”—perhaps the finest essay in “new journalism” since Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night—Wallace acts as correspondent in Las Vegas throughout the AVN awards (the pornographic industry’s Academy Awards) by attending the ceremony, visiting the pre-ceremony porn convention in which industry heavyweights and the high-price ticket buying public intermingle and interact, and interviewing several pornographers, porn stars, and porn writers.
Wallace also wrote intensely personal, reflective, and journalistic reports on a right-wing talk radio host in California and the premier lobster festival in Maine. In all three essays, Wallace examines how the entertainment ethic is corrosive and destructive to an important, and perhaps sacred, part of the human experience. He did it with subtlety, humor, and complex insight. He wasn’t a fire-and-brimstone preacher, but it’s impossible to read “Big Red Son”, Consider the Lobster”, and his talk radio examination without mourning the damage inflicted on sexuality, animal rights, and politics by the popular belief that nothing is intrinsically important, that nothing is sacred, and that everything is fair game for measurement according to the market-driven calculation of the lowest common denominator in the entertainment for entertainment’s sake world of decision-making.
While much of Wallace’s non-fiction identified the problem points of a country suffering under rapid cultural decay and spiritual decline, his fiction navigated the same terrain, but did so by harnessing the focus on the greatest inquiry of fiction—what makes the individual lonely, affectionate, and terrified? What makes the individual tick?
The humanity at the heart of Wallace’s fiction is empathetic to the point that the reader can almost feel and hear it beating beneath the page. His short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men features an endearing, heartbreaking, and soul-stirring account of the life of a bathroom attendant—a man who spent the majority of his days cleaning up after arrogant businessmen, while he inhaled the fumes they left behind. The collection begins with a portrayal of a multi-award winning, bestselling literary genius whose life has declined to a point of vast spiritual emptiness, emotional isolation, and moral uncertainty.
Wallace’s application and assignment of dignity was the polar opposite of big business, big government, and big media. The bathroom attendant’s life was boring, inglorious, and at times, humiliating, but it might benefit us to consider how his life may be more respectable that that of a brilliant millionaire. It’s a very Christ-like worldview that places someone that everyone walks by in a room built to hold and deposit human waste at the moral center and a contemporary superstar at the periphery. Vantage point becomes the ultimate concern, and good literature should always insist on shaking, disturbing, and altering the reader’s vantage point. Wallace’s obsession with prioritizing attention served his higher purpose of finding the correct angle, clearest sightline, and best vantage point to view the world.