In 1981, when I was a senior at Amherst College and dreaming of becoming a great American novelist, little did I know that someone else on campus was already well on his way. Did I ever notice a tall, longhaired, granny-glasses-wearing person toting his tennis racquet toward the courts? I didn’t know many first-year students, and David Foster Wallace – high school tennis star and future author of the novel Infinite Jest and other unclassifiable books of genius -- was just one of the many lowly Freshman I paid no attention to. 

But Wallace, who suffered from depression and took his own life in 2008, was even then becoming known as a phenomenon. One legendary professor at Amherst, the late William Kennick, told me years later that in the four-plus decades he taught philosophy at the college, Wallace was far and away the most brilliant student he encountered, with the most powerful mind. At Amherst Wallace wrote not one senior thesis but two – a Pynchonesque novel, The Broom of the System, published soon after his graduation, and a critical inquiry into the work of American philosopher Richard Taylor, later published by Columbia University Press under the title Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will – and graduated with a double-summa degree. Years later he would add to his corpus a philosophical study of the history of the concept of infinity. At the same time, he produced a swath of articles taking up pop-cultural themes, like rap music, or political ones, like John McCain. And, of course, that enormous novel. His mind recognized few boundaries.

For a reader, Wallace isn’t so much an acquired taste as an overwhelming force. He can do everything – and does. Back when I started writing fiction, my hope was to create well-wrought narratives that would operate subtly, bringing readers into nuanced human situations and dilemmas that could spark moments of sympathetic recognition. This was emphatically not Wallace’s approach. His writing was symphonic, self-conscious, and never satisfied with presenting a mere simulacrum of life itself. Yes, there were subjects and settings, but the real action was the writer himself, and his avid, promiscuous, and scarily beautiful mind. Much of his writing took place where madcap scholarship (expressed in an incorrigible enthusiasm for footnotes), wanton narrative inventiveness, a tenacious philosophical bent, and a readiness for self-interrogation converge. Need I say that this marked off a truly sui generis sensibility? His literary m.o. betrayed a touch of the idiot savant.

One place for Wallace novices to start (and for veterans to refresh their admiration) might be his remarkable essay, “Consider the Lobster,” which appeared in 2004 in Gourmet Magazine. Starting off like a standard travel piece (“The enormous, pungent, and extremely well marketed Maine Lobster Festival is held every late July in the state’s midcoast region...”), it soon devolves into an elaborate inquiry into the ethics – and esthetics -- of killing and eating lobsters. Like much of Wallace, the writing concocts irony and sincerity in unusual admixtures. Also typically, the author brings himself into the line of fire, exploring the action of eating lobsters – the meaning of it, to parties on both sides of the transaction -- in self-conscious detail that might be excruciating, were it not so captivating.

Along the way, the essay’s preoccupations are historical, ethical, sociological, etymological, neuroanatomical... everything, in fact, but culinary. I know from my own long experience as a food and travel writer just how hard it can be to get big glossy magazines to think outside the box. Not only did Wallace succeed in getting a culinary magazine to compare a lobster festival to “a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest,” to include references to “nociceptors” and “prostaglandins,” and to showcase prose like this: “PETA has been around so much in recent years that a kind of brittlely tolerant homeostasis now obtains between the activist’s and the Lobster Festival’s locals.” He also got Gourmet Magazine – Gourmet! – to print 2000 words of footnotes. To which I can only say, Bravo!

David Foster Wallace is the subject of a recent biographical film by the director James Ponsoldt. You can read my review here.




Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads