What is the David Foster Wallace Reader for?
At nearly a thousand pages, certainly, an argument could be made for its completeness, inasmuch as one is inclined to allow that a compendium of excerpts can be complete. I am not. Most of the essays, such as the famous “Consider the Lobster” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” are accessible online, without charge. And though the portions of Infinite Jest selected for inclusion in the Reader are well-chosen(1), it is sacrilege even to contemplate whether there might be some possibility of grasping the provocations of that work without absorbing it in its whole. The only people who do not love Infinite Jest are the envious and the willfully blind. Of course, one of its most salient messages is to “be careful what you love,” so, caveat lector.
Wallace’s short stories “The Depressed Person” and “Good Old Neon,” are presented adjacent to one another and, given the time that passed between their original publication in separate collections, one alluring perspective from which to read them is as persistent expression of Wallace’s anguish, whether it resulted from severe unipolar depression or from something more pathological, as some duplicitous assholes have suggested(2). But then again, it is perilous and presumptive to psychoanalyze an author through his writing.
So what is the Reader for? It does not replace anything. It does not supercede anything. It’s form as “selection” does not augment the value of the root pieces. If it is intended to make accessible Wallace’s writing by abridging it, it fails, for that is a futile task, akin to publishing a book comprised of only the bottom right corners of a hundred Picassos.
I own the Reader. I pick it up often. I page through it. I read the stories again and again. I nibble at the excerpts of the novels. I revel in it, in Wallace’s insight, in his prescience, and I wonder, hopefully, “Is this wisdom?”
Plus also: Too Much Fun.
(1) To wit:
“She is now a little under two deliberate minutes from Too Much Fun for anyone mortal to hope to endure … Her glass of juice is on the back of the toilet, half empty. The back of the toilet is lightly sheened with condensation of unknown origin. These are facts. This room in this apartment is the sum of very many specific facts and ideas. There is nothing more to it than that. Deliberately setting about to make her heart explode has assumed the status of just one of these facts. … Joelle’s limbs have been removed to a distance where their acknowledgement of her commands seems like magic, both clogs simply gone, nowhere in sight, and socks oddly wet, pulls her face up to face the unclean medicine-cabinet mirror, twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner, hair of the flame she’s eaten now trailing like the legs of wasps through the air of the glass she uses to locate the de-faced veil and what’s inside it, loading up the cone again, the ashes from the load make the world’s best filter: this is a fact. Breathes in and out like a savvy diver- … -and is knelt vomiting over the lip of the cool blue tub, gouges on the tub’s lip revealing sandy white gritty stuff below the lacquer and porcelain, vomiting muddy juice and blue smoke and dots of mercuric red into the claw-footed trough, and can hear again and seems to see, against the fire of her closed lids’ blood, bladed vessels aloft in the night to monitor flow, searchlit helicopters, fat fingers of blue light from one sky, searching,”
(2) “It is, admittedly, harder to connect with the infantile rage and displaced homicidal impulses visible in certain particulars of his death.” Franzen, Jonathan. “Farther Away.” The New Yorker. April, 2011.