The Cult Could Become a Church: On David Foster Wallace

I once dated a David Foster Wallace fanboy. You know who I mean: He’s white. He’s straight. He went to a small liberal arts college. He interrogates you on which DFW books you’ve read—the novels, or just the essays? He’s read Infinite Jest probably more than once. He thinks he has a unique take on the author’s work and the man’s life (and death).

My ex isn’t alone; DFW fanaticism swept the literary States in the early to mid-aughts. Prepare for the fans to be flamed (or the flames to be fanned): The End of the Tour (based on an account of Wallace’s Infinite Jest book tour) stars Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel and hits theaters on July 31. If you’ve never heard of this acclaimed author, treasure your last moments of innocence; then, read this primer at Vulture on DFW’s contested legacy.

David Foster Wallace has always been an unstable commodity. For two decades, the writer and his writings have been at the center of a cult with several branches. The first branch is other fiction writers, who also tend to be the most serious readers. This makes a certain obvious sense. ‘Infinite Jest’ is, on its face, the most daunting of novels; 1,079 pages, 96 of them endnotes; text in small type pointing you constantly to text in smaller type, necessitating multiple bookmarks; an immersion in two subcultures, junior tennis and addiction recovery; a time commitment to be measured in weeks, not days — two months for serious readers, Wallace thought…

The second branch are the magazine writers for whom his essays renewed the possibilities of a fast-aging New Journalism by clearing away Tom Wolfe’s cynicism and replacing it with a dazzling faux-amateur act.

The third are the academics; English professors hadn’t received the gift of fictional worlds so rich and susceptible to their hermeneutics since Nabokov, Beckett, or Joyce.

But before his suicide he compared his own fame only to that of a high-profile classical musician. 

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