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Home News by Category Critical Analysis Claremont Review Essay about DFW

Claremont Review Essay about DFW

Algis Valiunas has an essay about David Foster Wallace in the Claremont Review of Books, King of Pain, that packs a significant overview of his career into a relatively short essay. I'd be calling it excellent if not for the brief, almost flippant and insensitive, discussion of the lead up to Wallace's death in it's closing paragraph.
Here's the opening:
Just about everyone who pays any attention at all to contemporary fiction knows two things about David Foster Wallace (1962-2008): he wrote a thousand-page novel with hundreds of end-notes that launched him as a cult hero, and he killed himself while still quite a young man. The novel, Infinite Jest (1996), his second, and the last one he completed, has established Wallace as a supreme postmodernist master, revered like John Barth or Thomas Pynchon by those who take a passionate interest in that kind of thing. The suicide for its part enhanced the mystique, as suicides of distinguished artists almost invariably do.
Wallace may be dead but he is not finished, or rather the Wallace industry is not finished with him. His 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College has appeared posthumously in a book of postcard dimensions, with one sentence per page, a format more suited to the lucubrations of Khalil Gibran or Rod McKuen. Columbia University Press has issued Wallace's undergraduate philosophy thesis in a volume with his name above the title and his photograph on the cover, although his essay actually occupies 75 pages of a 262-page book, the rest filled with pieces by assorted other hands on similar topics. The torso of an unfinished novel, The Pale King, appeared last year. A volume of unpublished stories and another of uncollected journalism look to be on the horizon; two volumes of letters are in prospect as well.
Encomia soar ever higher with the passing of time; every admirer feels obliged to surpass every other admirer in the length, breadth, and depth of his admiration. James Ryerson, an elegant and judicious journalist, mourns the loss of contemporary American fiction's "most intellectually ambitious writer." Greg Carlisle, an actor and drama professor from Kentucky who spent five years producing a 500-page commentary on Infinite Jest, calls Wallace "the best and most important author of the late 20th and early 21st centuries"; one supposes Wallace had better be at least that important, if the professor is to justify devoting five years of work to criticism of a single novel. An even headier enthusiast, Jon Baskin, claims nothing less than world-historical significance for his hero:
It became a commonplace and then a cliché and then almost a taunt to call him the greatest writer of his generation, yet his project remained only vaguely understood when it was understood at all. With the benefit of time, it will be recognized that Wallace had less in common with Eggers and Franzen than he did with Dostoevsky and Joyce.
Jonathan Franzen, who was tight with Wallace, will be joining Don DeLillo and others in a collection of memorial essays from the University of Iowa Press; the praise will doubtless flow profusely, although, novelists being what they are, comparisons to Dostoevsky and Joyce will likely be in short supply, such honorifics generally reserved in celebrated writers' minds for themselves alone. Franzen has spoken of an asymmetrical rivalry in his friendship with Wallace. Wallace got the "cult credibility" and academic regard, while Franzen got wider fame and more money—which is to say, though Franzen does not say it, the imprimatur of Oprah's Book Club. Franzen allows that while he felt the rivalry, perhaps Wallace did not. Which is to say, though Franzen does not say it, that Wallace was a better man than he.

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