How did you discover David Foster Wallace’s work?
I actually read his journalism first, before knowing who he was – I read his piece in Premiere on David Lynch back in 1997 when I was in my teens, and remember thinking that it was very good and idiosyncratic, but not remembering his name. He was not really a widely-known writer in the UK at that point. It was only when I found myself re-reading it in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again years later that I joined the dots. I first came to his fiction in the mid-2000s, shortly before I started my PhD. The first thing I read was Infinite Jest – I went through a phase of devouring these huge postmodern encyclopaedic novels, and that was one of them. By that point the name had been floating round in my peripheral vision for a good while, and I wanted to know what the fuss was about.
I was immediately – immediately – struck by it. Sometimes it takes a while for a big book to bed in before you really love it – I think Bolano’s 2666 is a case in point – but I distinctly remember that by the time I got to the first line of the second chapter of Infinite Jest (‘Where was the woman who said she’d come’) I thought “I’m in this until the end”. Which is very unusual, for me at least. I think I read the last 200 pages in a day.
What motivated you to write the book? And what does it mean to read David Foster Wallace ‘genetically’?
I’d written on Wallace and form for part of my doctoral thesis – a little on cinema, a little on geometry – but the book is a very different thing that I started more or less from scratch. The ‘Big Bang’ moment came when I first visited the Wallace archive in the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas in early 2011. I was there to look at drafts of Infinite Jest for a particular thesis chapter, but it soon became clear that it was a very significant archive indeed. Unlike some archives, and perhaps unsurprisingly for Wallace, it has a strong sense of meta-commentary – his ‘composing voice’ is all over the pages, in the margins, everywhere, so you can witness these conversations he’s having with himself as he writes.
The drafts of Infinite Jest are so substantial that I didn’t have time to look at anything else in detail on that first trip apart from Wallace’s letters to Don DeLillo, which are also fascinating. However, I managed to briefly look over some drafts of Wallace’s other works and, upon discovering that they had this same level of authorial ‘noise’ all over them, I began to seriously think about the prospect of creating a kind of genetic history of his form – a detailed account of how the structures of his fiction developed over his career. And then somewhere along the line something else started to crystallise for me – that I could think about this history in terms of a series of continuing dialogues. There’s Wallace’s vocal dialogue with his own composition in the pages of the drafts, his dialogic approach to engagement with the reader, which he’s famous for, and then my own dialogue with both the drafts and the history of Wallace criticism. For me, to pursue this book in terms of dialogue was the only real way to do justice to the complexity of both Wallace’s fiction and what I was seeing in those archive drafts. So I went back in 2013 on a Ransom Centre Fellowship and read everything else, including all the Pale King material. Mercifully, they now allow you to take photographs in the library so I could review the data afterwards too – there’s no way that all that information can be digested that quickly!
Did you come across any shocks or surprises during your archival research?
A significant characteristic of this archive is that, for obvious reasons, it wasn’t compiled by the author. If you look at, for example, the DeLillo archive, it’s generally very neat and tidy and ordered because DeLillo has presumably submitted it himself and has thought about how he wanted to present it. By the circumstances of its submission, the shape of Wallace’s archive is much more sprawling and less selective in its contents. I know that for some people this is a kind of vision of organisational hell, but I loved the challenge! There are many surprising and revealing notes about structure and composition hidden throughout the archive, and they’re not necessarily always in the relevant file – for example, he might make a pertinent note in his drafts for Brief Interviews with Hideous Men about a story that ends up in Oblivion, so simply going to the Oblivion file isn’t necessarily going to give you all the information. It’s maddening but also exciting, because you have to really search to find the full histories of these works.
“The lion’s share of shocks and surprises came from the notes for The Pale King because – and I spend quite a bit of time on this in the book – at this point Wallace is working on several projects and they’re all cross-pollinating each other.”
The lion’s share of shocks and surprises came from the notes for The Pale King because – and I spend quite a bit of time on this in the book – at this point Wallace is working on several projects and they’re all cross-pollinating each other. Characters from one thing pop up in another, whole plot-lines emerge and are then scrapped. Sometimes you get genuinely bizarre attempts to try something radically different – there’s an early version of the novel that begins with a meditation on the concept of four-dimensional space before zooming in on Earth from some point out in the universe! My admiration for Michael Pietsch’s coherent assembly of what remains of that novel grew with every document I looked at – I can’t imagine having to work on constructing that book completely from scratch.
“There are tantalising glimpses of unfinished stories throughout the archive.”
There are tantalising glimpses of unfinished stories throughout the archive. Perhaps the most obvious example is ‘Wickedness’, which is about a reporter trying to take undercover photos of the ailing Ronald Reagan for a tabloid website. That story gets broken down for various other pieces, most obviously ‘The Suffering Channel’ in Oblivion. There’s also a really strange story called ‘Bunty’s Aria’ about a man who sees a girl wearing an electric-shock collar while riding on a public bus, and is later encouraged to participate in a mass sing-along of ‘Happy Birthday To You’ against his will. Coming across these lost fragments is incredible – you’ll be reading something familiar before realising that you’re suddenly in uncharted territory.
Could you say a little bit about the way the book is organized? And how do you situate David Foster Wallace within contemporary American literature?
In this book, I’m generally interested in thinking about Wallace in relation to particular formal vocal, spatial and visual motifs as well as the archive, so this is a pretty ‘close’ study. I tend to approach other writers in this book as occupying a sort of chain of influence. I talk about the influence of DeLillo quite a bit, and also William Gass and John Barth – although he’s reasonably vocal about their influence, you can’t underestimate how important these writers were for Wallace, particularly in terms of structure and form. I also wanted to flag up the very under-reported influence of visual artists and filmmakers on Wallace – people like Maya Deren, Sidney Peterson, Takahiko Iimura, Willard Maas and Michael Powell – as I think the visual arts are at least as strong an influence as literature on some of Wallace’s most important work.
There’s sometimes a tendency to group Wallace generationally and quite tightly with a group of writers who all seem to be called Jonathan, or to place him in opposition to particular writers, the most obvious being Bret Easton Ellis, although that feud doesn’t hold much interest to me. There’s also, of course, the approach which sees him as breaking through postmodernism to something new. I used to be much more subscribed to this position, but I’ve drifted from it for the simple reason that the more I read, the more implicated I find Wallace in so many of those original postmodern strategies, and the more I see so many of those so-called ‘post-postmodern’ strategies in the postmodern works themselves. That’s not to say, of course, that Wallace’s ‘moment’ was not distinct, and there are a number of scholars – like Lee Konstantinou, Clare Hayes-Brady and Adam Kelly – who are doing some really special work analysing that moment historically, philosophically, socially and economically. I’m also looking forward to reading Lucas Thompson’s forthcoming book Global Wallace, as his approach is so different to mine – looking at the influence of global literature on Wallace’s writing.
Do you think Wallace’s tragic death shapes public perceptions about his work?
Speaking personally, as a reader who loves Wallace’s writing deeply, I think it’s tragic that there will be no more writing – I think it’s a loss to the world. There’s a moment in the drafts where The Pale King is finally coming together after years of effort, and those characters are really starting to come alive on the page, and then you hit mid-2007 and the drafts just stop. And even though you know it’s coming, you can’t help but feel the gravity of that – of the work just ending. There are pages in the drafts where you can see the last time the floppy disc was saved, and you eventually get to the last-saved point of the last document, and then that’s it – it’s over. That was a moment where I felt a genuine sadness, both personally and as a reader.
It can’t not shape public perception, to a certain extent. It might sound obvious, but I teach a course at Liverpool that contains texts by both Wallace and Sylvia Plath, and I try to spend some time talking about how important it is to unpick easy readerly associations between the writer’s death and their subject matter – it can damage an understanding of the text and its contexts. I think Plath is perhaps more vulnerable to it, in part because she produced fewer works. But it’s a delight when students start to see the humour and politics and narrative complexity in The Bell Jar, and we can stop thinking of it as this ‘suicide novel’, with all that baggage. I don’t think that has quite been allowed to accumulate around Wallace yet, and because of the sheer range of subjects covered by his fiction and non-fiction I think he’s reasonably resistant to it. But there’s no question that after his death there was a surge of re-readings of stories like ‘The Depressed Person’ and ‘Good Old Neon’, where people would try to peg the life directly to the work.
Can you recommend a place to start for newcomers to Wallace?
Well, I started with Infinite Jest, and it didn’t do me any harm! I teach Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in an undergraduate class, and I think that’s a good way in to the fiction. This year I’m teaching The Pale King for the first time, over a couple of weeks, and I’m interested to see how that goes for people who don’t know his work. In terms of his non-fiction, I think the state fair and cruise ship essays would appeal to virtually anyone.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m lucky enough to be taking this book out on the road for a few launch and discussion events. I’m going to be doing events in York and Liverpool in November, then at Lillian Vernon House Public Reading Series at NYU next April with two very special guests to be officially announced soon, and then I’m giving the keynote at the first Australian Wallace conference next September, which is very exciting.
My chapter on ghostliness in this book has sent me on a slightly winding path thinking about ghosts and their function in contemporary literature, and I’m hoping to follow that and see where it takes me. I’ve also just devoured the amazing recent BFI Alan Clarke box set, so now I just want to write essays on all the endless walking in his films.
Read an extract from the book at the LA Reviews of Books website.
David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form is available from Bloomsbury.
About the Author
David Hering is a lecturer in American literature at the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom. He is the author of David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form (2016) and editor of Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays (2010). His essays on Wallace have also appeared in David Foster Wallace: Critical Insights (2015) and The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace (forthcoming). His writing has also appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Review of Books, Orbit and Critical Engagements. He tweets at @hering_david.