The Reason I'm Obsessed with David Foster Wallace
If you're a frequent reader of this website, you know how obsessed I am with the writings (and interviews) of the man David Foster Wallace. I'm here to construct the argument of why I find him so compelling, for those of you confused.
In 9th grade, I stumbled upon an extraordinary new concept: individualism. Well, I didn't really stumble upon—I didn't think to myself "individualism, what a nice word, it will change my life"—or anything like that, but it was there, like a guiding beacon for me to steer my ship through in a storm, or rather on a sunny bright day—too bright—where I couldn't see shore only the sun's reflection on water. The concept of individualism, or making the best of my life, was a grounding notion, the notion, that I guess, founded the entire structure of what would become "Chris Barclay's high school adventure."
Early on, I learned in life that playing the "cute kid" could get you far. That being kind and considerate and innocent would grant the sympathy to coast through life with no issue. Keep your head down and don't bother anyone—or, if you did bother someone, smile and say "oh oh oh I'm so so sorry my fault my bad my fault"—then you'd live an easy and fulfilled life. And it got me pretty far. I did my homework, I tried at studying, and I got good grades. I made some meaningless friendships, I maintained meaningful relationships, I was kind to everyone. I gained confidence through acting. I observed a lot of things, and I used what I observed to further guide my little boat through high school waters. That was freshman year.
10th grade I learned what beauty was. There are a lot of things to rock a boat—a storm, a cannonball, a waterfall—but I never expected it to be beauty. Firstly, I grew really, really attached to some physical objects—my handmade pen, my notecards, my shoelaces, the figurine chess pieces in my bag, the rock in my bag, the poetry I had written, doodles given to me by a girl I liked—and found a solace whenever I held them. I felt a tug, an abrupt something pulling me away towards a new confident sincere. Simultaneously, the magnetic-pull towards the easy innocent persona gripped my other side. At about halfway through the year, the accreted energy tore through me, and I think that's about the time when I started developing the real virtues that people like to see in me, whatever they happen to be. A real person started to form there, someone real and caring and soft but also ridged, and I wanted to write everything down.
In 11th grade I learned what loneliness was. All my friends had moved away, moved to different schools across the country. I was so happy for them. I also, unfortunately, soon found out I had nobody to talk to. My classes became my vox creaturae for creative independence and I so forth bent my creativity through their lens. Except in English—something about that class made me overwhelmingly sad, like nobody cared. Physics taught me about waves, and light, and sound, and how everything is vibrating, and about space and time, and how beautiful it all truly was. I never spoke to anyone in that class, but I'd always raise my hand. AP US History taught me the virtues of hardworkingness, the ability to repeat and repeat and try again in the creative sense: what it was to stay up 3-4 hours, sometimes 5, and read through 20-30+ pages of textbook and then write a 2+ page paper on some prompt. My teacher told me, well, I have the quote right here.
By the end of the year, I had written many, many historical essays. Most of them dense, well written and fact-supported articles articulating some thesis about a thing. The others being flimsy reports on something too complex for a groggy, sleep-denied highschool student.
I thought for a while that my art teacher disliked me, which he probably did. I would've too, in his position. I didn't know why, until my dad mentioned something in a conversation about some non sequitur. He said that many of the people who came to the tougher advanced art courses in college had already believed themselves to be smarter than the teacher in some, or most, respects. And that he could see how the teacher viewed that arrogance, and that with him (my dad), there was some sort of genuineness in his naivety towards the craft that really shined through to the teacher. I realized that I held onto a similar arrogance, not in art, but in general. Something fueled by solipsism, and being alone.
It wasn't actually a realization. More of a long period of nonsuffering where I didn't exactly "suffer" as much as wait. I waited a long time. I waited until 11th grade was over. That was the only out I had from that, and in the mean time I tried to make the most of my time. In math class, I learned about existentialism and life, from The School of Life, and I wrote my short story. My time waiting for 11th grade to end was a gift, whether it felt that way or not, because I understood who stood by me and who pretended to when it was convenient or opportunistic. I struggled with a couple of things, mostly due to the fact that I had been extremely quiet during tech crew at the beginning of the year and had lost my sense of balance in the theatre company.
David Foster Wallace was the first author who vocalized, eloquently and intelligently, the notion of vast loneliness. I've watched a LOT of videos on it—grow your confidence! how to make new friends! Ted talk on blah! New book review on person who became rich! Easy, effortless life changer!—a ton of these philosophies on life. I even made a campaign at the beginning of the year to uncover these philosophies, only to have that word (philosophies) engulf and un-gulf itself in irony or "buy this book to maybe help your life" thing. DFW understood this as best as someone really could, because he had lived it. The points he made about TV, or about shallow-pleasure, and addiction, they resonated with me. The way he spoke in youtube videos sounded exactly as I imagined myself wanting to speak—with a sincere caringness, soft but confident and intelligent and empathizing. I fell in love with his quotes, his essays, his style of writing, his ideas, all somehow my ideas too, and ideas worth talking about—as he says—over a pot of tea, or coffee.
I don't remember if I wrote about this encounter I had a while back. Anyways I was in one of those coffee-shop/book-store shops, and across from me sits this older guy with a large notepad scribbling away. It's one of those scratch pads you'd see an architect using to plan a building. I asked him "what are you planning?" and he said it was for his book, and he showed me the book plans. Then he asked where I went to school, and what grade I was in, and where I was looking at going to for college, to which I replied generically "oh, somewhere in the Northeast, I think. I want to be a writer, or go into something with writing in it." And he asked what my favorite author was, and I said "I really like David Foster Wallace." and he said "You know, I'm really glad you said that." And his face sort of lit up, like he remembered something really sentimental and happy in his life, and he reached into his briefcase and pulled out some pictures. He put onto the table actual documents, actual copies of David Foster Wallace's scratch-writings, his notes for books and writing, like his actual handwriting and thoughts on things. And the guy says to me that he keeps this around, because he's been to some Texas University where they keep all this stuff from David Foster Wallace, and of course I've already researched this before, but I'm in complete awe and ecstasy that I found someone else like me.
There are so many elements of writing that are hard to master and harder to try to master. Like minimalism. My grandfather once told me "there are no true synonyms in the English language." What he means by that is that every word is different, perhaps for a purpose or perhaps by nature of how they're read or spoken/heard. Red is different than Scarlet because not only are they two slightly different shades of color but when you say Scarlet it sounds smooth. It's like the poem The Raven, where Edgar Allen Poe pretty much just made a poem that sounded really great when you listened to it, and evoked some feeling of dread or fear or whatever into the audience. There's an existential dilemma in thinking about this. You get too caught up on syntax or how a piece sounds or how long it is or its meaning when parsed or holistically, and you're paralyzed. I guess that's similar to how you live your life, but I find it's better to at least have a plan of approach because you won't end up living a recurring hypnotic loop, which I believe is a pretty bad thing.
The reason I'm obsessed with David Foster Wallace is mostly because of this loop thing. Since the beginning of 11th grade, I've dug and dug and dug through writing and research trying to find some way to live my life. I guess it comes to pragmatics—sure you say to yourself "screw authority, I don't want people to dictate my life anymore!"—but you still buy commercial-made products and work a 9-5 job at the store down the street. Watching My Dinner with Andre you quickly get the sense that there's an undescribed turmoil between the two characters. One character living the ordinary lifestyle of comfort and pleasure, and one character repelled by that notion into living an adventurous meaning-seeking life, traveling the world and living romantically. There's no consensus on which is right, and you're put into the position of being in on the conversation yourself, a third member at dinner just listening in and observing your own thoughts. There's so much energy spent on useless things, so much life just wasted.
I find that David Foster Wallace's idea of using literature to escape from loneliness, using it to break free of the loop, like with sincere, serious art, it's really quite amazing and profound, the way religion is for some people. DFW's writing is like the word elusive, it's so smooth and well-written. Something about it seems genius, intellectual, far-far-far above what's been seen before. I want so badly to reach that level.
Endnote: Infinite Jest was structured like a Sierpinski Gasket, which is sort of like a fractal with all the smallest details making up a larger picture. I think that's pretty fucking cool.