Catherine O’Flynn, Rodge Glass and Ewan Morrison remember David Foster Wallace
Publication of US author's The Pale King
Approaching a David Foster Wallace book is akin to launching towards a psychological assault course. His writings included his 1987 debut The Broom of the System (about a switchboard operator who fears she may not actually exist), his 1999 short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and a 2005 set of reviews, essays and reportage from election campaign trails under the umbrella of Consider the Lobster. All of them are packed to the gunnels with über-irony, dense vocabulary and existentialist enquiry, brightly-lit panoramas full of exhaustive footnotes that were often compared to the best of Thomas Pynchon and John Irving.
This ‘difficult’ author earned some of his most fanatical admirers over long periods, eventually worn down by his innovative narratives and blinding intellect. ‘I avoided David Foster Wallace for a long time,’ says Catherine O’Flynn, author of The News Where You Are. ‘My husband had been reading Infinite Jest and kept telling me how great it was. It really didn’t sound great, and with its physics textbook cover, eyebleeding fontsize and general bulk, it looked like the least inviting prospect imaginable. It was in sheer desperation and abject boredom that I picked it up one afternoon. Five weeks later I emerged on the other side after one of the most intense experiences of my life.’
For No Fireworks author Rodge Glass, that intensity and the sheer volume of Wallace’s ideas and output has left behind a rich heritage. ‘What made Wallace so rare was his unflinching honesty about the world around us, even when discussing ordinary things,’ he says. ‘He never let the human race off the hook, but attacked human nature with sympathy. Reading his work can be a bit dizzying at first as there are so many things going on at once but, like many geniuses, Wallace found it impossible to say or write anything without thinking, instantly, of several better ways to express the same thing. It must have been hell to live in that brain. But it has left behind enough ideas for any reader to spend a lifetime exploring.’
Fellow Glasgow-based author Ewan Morrison first came across Wallace in the early 90s through a friend who was so obsessed with the 900-page epic Infinite Jest, that he nearly married a fellow fan in the States. ‘I could see how folk were drawn into the DFW cult,’ admits Morrison. ‘He had a witty, hyper-self-conscious mind, creating stories and non-fiction so overloaded with footnotes that they threatened to collapse whatever he was writing. Some thought him a pioneer, others a show-off; others still said he was mapping the workings of the postmodern mind.’
These workings came to a stop on 12 September, 2008, when he was found hanging in his California home. Wallace had suffered from severe depression for the best part of two decades. But those in mourning at least now have The Pale King, the mock memoir of a bored tax office worker, to relish. Last September, announcing publication plans for the book, Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch would say only that it included everyday irritations such as queuing, traffic jams and horrid bus trips, which were turned into hilarious sequences infused by a profound understanding. ‘Although David did not finish the novel,’ Pietsch concluded, ‘it is a surprisingly whole and satisfying reading experience that showcases his extraordinary imaginative talents and his mixing of comedy and deep sadness in scenes from daily life.’
For Ewan Morrison, Wallace’s hyper-packed mind may ultimately have been his undoing. ‘It was only when I read his incredible book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again that I grasped that he was very bright and very troubled. He clearly despised the all-smiling consumerist world around him. He was like a radical born in the wrong time, in the wrong mind. How could he survive? It is hard, once you have laughed at the world and all in it, to come back and be wholesome again, to have reverence and conviction. That is the struggle DFW lived with and which may have killed him. Even the last line of his great essay teeters between joke and self-hatred. With no question mark, it reads: “Are you immensely pleased.”’
The Pale King is published by Hamish Hamilton on Fri 15 Apr.