Book Review: The David Foster Wallace Reader

“A writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything.”

walacereaderThat’s what one critic once said of David Foster Wallace. Its ringing truth is on display in the recent anthology of Wallace’s writing, The David Foster Wallace Reader. The collection contains non-fiction essays, short stories, excerpts from his novels, class notes/syllabi from his time as a professor, and email exchanges with his mom.

It’s an essential addition to the library of any hardcore Wallace fan and a pretty decent introduction to his work for newbies, since it’s a curated and edited “greatest hits” collection. Buy the print edition not the e-book, as it’s the sort of thing you might want to flip through, not read every last word on every one of the 800+ pages.

One of my favorites in the collection, which I hadn’t read before, was “Little Expressionless Animals,” a story originally published in The Girl with Curious Hair. There’s a hilarious sequence about how one character was “reeling into Lesbiansism.”

I had also not read “Incarnations of Burned Children” before. It originally appeared in Esquire in year 2000. It’s three pages long, a single paragraph, and very powerful. A must read.

Some of my favorite excerpts from The Pale King are in here, including his extended riff urging the reader to ignore the disclaimer on the copyright page that what follows is fiction. Many other paragraphs to potentially quote in this post, such as:

The paradox of plagiarism is that it actually requires a lot of care and hard work to pull off successfully, since the original text’s style, substance, and logical sequences have to be modified enough so that the plagiarism isn’t totally, insultingly obvious to the professor who’s grading it.

Or this one, which I tweeted:

Many of the chapters have an afterword written by an academic or commentator. One of Kari Kunzru’s comments after one of the stories gave me pause:

If being expressionless is the result of trauma, as it is in this story, then self-expression must be healthy. But somehow, in the cities of the developed world, expressing yourself has started to feel like work. We’re constantly exhorted toward ever-greater feats of affect, to be that little bit more creative; to commit to our goals; to give service with a smile, feigning excitement like contestants on a game show. When life takes on this game-show quality — fake, regimented, spiritually exhausted — expressivity pulls in two directions, both toward and away from truthfulness. It can be another kind of mask, the kind that eats away at the face until you’re no longer sure what your off-camera reaction would be.

6 comments on “Book Review: The David Foster Wallace Reader
  • I listened to this (it weighs in at 48 + hrs on Audible), and really loved it. DFW, finally, with the sh*t separated from the corn.

    His riffs on depression, which open this volume from a short story from college, cut to the quick when one realizes how autobiographical they all are.

    I’ve always had a complicated response to DFW; he’s self-consciously brilliant, intensely curious, and prodigiously gifted. All of that can be canceled for me by his urgent need to show off. I’ve tried a couple of times to enjoy Infinite Jest, but I’ve never been able to endure the pedantry of explaining so much that would have to be obvious to anyone reading DFW.

    The talent was always imperiled by his refusal to be edited.

    And without appropriate editing, the poor taste of peacocking his smarts undercut the joys of his clear observations. If you need to be reminded how badly he could write, try to read his book on transfinite set theory. Instead of being a great ride (which is how it feels with a writer like Rudy Rucker), the pose postures and throat clears and falls into imprecision at every turn.

    So, yes to this book, yes to the many insights that are available from DFW’s legacy.

  • Hi Mr. Ben, I agree to Kari Kunzru’s comment in The David Foster Wallace Reader book that expressing ourselves in developed world feels like work. We often have to force our face to smile and look energetic – when we are actually not in the mood – in front of others, especially customers or those we want to get something from to reach our goals. This is because people typically feel happier and more convinced when dealing with positive people, and thus they are more likely to say yes when asked for something.

    However, I personally disagree if that is called ‘feigning excitement’ or ‘mask’, not only since showing negative mood makes others less influenced, but it is also a mentality that can cause bad impact to one who has it. Practicing our mind to keep positive can encourage ourselves and others too – as emotion is contagious – to face daily obstacles and seize opportunity more courageously than how we may do it when we feel negative. I believe that none can feel 100% positive all day long, thus it is fine to sometimes dwell in negativity, yet I think it is best done when none is around us so we do not spread the mentally discouraging effect.

    Therefore, this society’s conditioning us to always look positive, although tough, benefits us as well in life. Once we espouse this mindset, trying to appear impressive to others will make us feel like a fraud no longer. All in all, it is my view that behaving positively is in most situations better than behaving negatively toward ourselves and our fellow humans.

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