SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS is commonly declared the enemy of art. The mind catches itself in the lofty act of creation, finds the work-in-progress embarrassing, and complains that it cannot be expected to express itself under this kind of withering scrutiny. David Foster Wallace felt this acutely from an early age, telling a university roommate that he could only write well when he was barely aware of himself and his surroundings: “When I can’t feel my ass in the chair.”
In the end, he produced so much impossibly good stuff that this paperback breezeblock of a compendium – almost 1000 pages – represents only what its curators call a Greatest Hits collection. The bulk of it is given over to Wallace’s best-known short stories and essays, plus solid chunks from his defining mid-1990s megatext Infinite Jest and forever-embryonic third novel The Pale King, which was unfinished when he killed himself 10 years ago last month.
And that ending can be read into the beginning. The book opens on The Planet Trillaphon – his very first story, published in a student newspaper, and an early attempt to defy the indescribability of an all-consuming psychic or cosmic pain that earthbound medical professionals can only diagnose and treat as depression:
“Imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick,” proposes his proxy-narrator. “[And] every proton and neutron in every atom … quarks and neutrinos out of their minds and bouncing sick all over the place … so that your very essence is characterised by nothing other than the feature of sickness.”
The problem, as Wallace understood it, was rooted in consciousness itself. Or, as he put it to the 13-year-old protagonist of his wonderful story, Forever Overhead, in a second-person narrative voice that might have been speaking from within the boy’s own biology: “You have decided that being scared is caused mostly by thinking.” Like much of his best work, that piece has such an elegant geometry too – an account of a first dive from the high board at an outdoor swimming pool that engineers its images through long and diagrammatic sentences that describe the spiked outline of the surrounding evening mountains as “an EKG of the dying day.”
Consider also his non-fiction effort to blueprint in prose the gorgeous physics behind Roger Federer’s range of motion on the tennis court (Wallace was a gifted player in his youth), or his tracing the trajectory of a clay pigeon fired from the deck of a cruise ship in his now-classic travelogue, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again:
“Finally, know that an unshot discus’s movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean’s sky is sun-like – i.e., orange and parabolic and right-to-left – and that its disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad.”
Sadness is everywhere in this collection, personal and societal. Even broken into abstracts and extracts here, Infinite Jest gets across its upsettingly prescient vision of a near-future America where a spiritually unhappy population makes an obliterating god of entertainment – Wallace saw Donald Trump coming if anyone did. At the same time, that novel is frequently hilarious.
There’s a growing tendency to read his whole body of work as one superlong suicide note, appended with endless logorrheic footnotes, but this says nothing about how playful his writing could be. His extravagant verbosity, his linguistic-philosophic erudition, his sheer cognitive firepower, are still off-putting to many, not least because they have made him such a favourite of cultish fanboys whose worship of that cleverness reflects back a form of self-flattery.
Female readers may be no less averse after hearing posthumous tales of Wallace’s abusive semi-relationship with the poet Mary Karr. In the decade since his death, the “genius” defense for male writerly toxicity has been steadily rendered untenable, though this volume also contains entries from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men that betray a horrified recognition of the most destructive masculine pathologies.
What seemed to frighten Wallace most, especially in later work, was the thought that there was no explaining or escaping the self, no way out of “the inbent spiral that keeps you from ever getting anywhere” as he wrote in Good Old Neon. But he tried as hard as anyone to break the bounds of language, and his words describe a phenomenal orbit around a black hole.