Becoming Himself

Illustration: Render Stetson

The Progression of David Foster Wallace’s
Writing Ethic

by Rob Short


The period in David Foster Wallace’s literary career between his first novel, The Broom of the System, and his second novel, Infinite Jest, saw his writing progress from that of a brilliant student enamored of his own abilities into that of a mature author focusing those abilities to faithfully render and diagnose the most difficult parts of American culture. One of the catalysts for this change in Wallace’s ethic was that during this period, Wallace read David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, an experimental work of fiction that drew from the same source material as Broom. Feeling that Markson had completely eclipsed what he had tried to do with Broom, in 1990 Wallace published an effusive 23-page analysis of Wittgenstein’s Mistress in The Review of Contemporary Fiction wherein he dismissed his own novel as “pretty dreadful.”

By 1996, Wallace is on record all over the place — in NPR interviews, in his essay on Markson’s novel, and in various other print publications — saying disparaging things about his first book. In David Lipsky’s extended interview with Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace explained that he had come to regard Broom’s notorious mid-sentence ending (a move that Wallace’s editor advised him against) as “a very cynical argument [that] was way too clever. It was all about the head. It’s a brilliant little theoretical document — unfortunately it resulted in a shitty and dissatisfying ending.”

Wallace, driven by a desire to show off intellectually, designed Broom’s narrative on a theoretical chassis, a choice that yielded a rather conventional novel of ideas: One that sacrifices character realization in the name of grinding its particular theoretical axe or dazzling readers with metafictional technique.

In another 1996 interview that appeared in Speak magazine, Wallace expands on why he felt Broom had failed and describes how his writing approach had evolved since Broom: “Now, ten years later, I understand that people read for intellectual reasons and emotions. And that the ending that I wrote is almost off putting, like giving the finger to the reader. I’m interested in a marriage of the two.” Wallace’s dissatisfaction with his fictional treatment of Wittgenstein’s language-philosophy, especially given how Markson was able to bring it to life, was still fresh in his mind as he wrote his next — and last complete — novel.

Many readers and critics, myself included, find plenty to admire in Wallace’s first novel, especially given the age of its author and the circumstances of its creation. And yet it is his second novel that is recognized as the major accomplishment and high-water mark of his fiction output. It’s not entirely uncommon to hear someone say that a Wallace novel changed his or her life; I have yet to hear anyone say that novel was The Broom of the System.

By his second novel, Wallace knows that there’s nothing emotionally engaging about philosophical abstraction without a narrative that resembles the reader’s lived experience. He also understands that readers’ empathy is predicated on this recognition of commonality, a relationship between the reader and the text that, as Wallace explained to Lipsky, has a lot to do with the writer’s relationship to that text.

During the process of writing Infinite Jest, Wallace’s thinking shifted dramatically: “I think I work harder now. […] I think when I was twenty-two or twenty-three, I pretty much thought every sentence that came off my pen was great. […] I feel like this thing, this is a living thing. With whom, with which I have a relationship that needs to be tended. [T]hat I feel un-lonely working on.”

[Wallace creates] characters who are clearly representations of competing or contradictory theoretical ideas, yet who are alive enough to engage us emotionally.

And this work paid off. Compared to the deployment of theory in The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest’s diffuse and subtle use of theory represents an order-of-magnitude jump in sophistication. Infinite Jest evolves beyond Broom’s simple ventriloquizing of Wittgenstein’s theories into a maximalist narrative that dramatizes the logical consequences of those ideas in terms of real human cost: Isolation, loneliness, depression, and addiction. And perhaps more importantly, Infinite Jest is not content to faithfully render some of the most poisonous aspects of our culture without offering some kind of antidote.

Unlike his first, when Wallace’s second novel concludes, what’s left unsaid doesn’t risk alienating readers so that it can get in one last metafictional wink. Rather, Infinite Jest’s ending leaves us with questions about the resolution of conflicts within the fictional world of the novel.

Wallace succeeds in making us care about what happens to his characters, succeeds in forging an actual connection with the reader. He accomplishes this by creating characters who are clearly representations of competing or contradictory theoretical ideas, yet who are alive enough to engage us emotionally.

Furthermore, Wallace has dropped enough hints along the way to satisfy these narrative questions if we’re reading closely — and this is finally the point: This is our portion of the work. This is our end of the conversation. This ratio of work vs. payoff is often cited by readers of Wallace’s work — both its detractors and admirers. Infinite Jest succeeds precisely because the amount of work we put into reading it is repaid not only in the traditional sense of reading enjoyment, but more importantly in extratextual ways, in the spheres of our day-to-day existence outside the text.

And this is Wallace’s greatest gift to us as a writer: If you care about somebody, you don’t do the work for them. You show them how to do it so that they can do it themselves. You run alongside them and hold them upright while they pedal frantically and wobble the handlebars, but eventually you stop running and pull away and watch them go.


Rob Short is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Florida, where he sometimes gets to teach courses on DFW. His dissertation is on how crit-theory works in Wallace’s novels.


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