A - A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997)
Everyone’s favourite Sarah Palin impersonator Tina Fey, parodied the title to this compendium in her own autobiography, Bossypants, adding: “If you get this reference to David Foster Wallace’s 1997 collection of essays, consider yourself a member of the cultural elite. Why do you hate your country and flag so much?!”
So is DFW just another talked-up, highfalutin, American-basher? Not quite, no, because in addition to all the talked-up, highfalutin, American bashing he did, he also had a lot to say about TV, lobsters, Weight Watchers and the infinitely fascinating world of semi-professional tennis…
B - Bret Easton Ellis
Ellis has made no secret of his card-carrying anti-Foster Wallace status, branding him a “fraud and jerk” in frenzied Twitter rants. But is DFW’s admittedly prone-to-being-over-preachy delivery half as yawn inducing as these ‘controversial’ attacks?
C- ‘Consider the Lobster’
When it was first printed in Conde Nast’s haute cuisine title Gourmet, this essay sparked squeals as loud as those from the boiling crustaceans it considers. After a visit to the Maine Lobster Festival in 2004, DFW asked us to question the ethics of throwing a live creature into 100 degree waters. And on that note: ‘Incarnations of Burned Children’ printed in Oblivion: Stories follows a similar vein, with its fictional account of how a couple discovered their child had been severely scalded by a pot of boiling water.
(Consider the Lobster is also the title of a 2005 non-fiction collection, in which this essay is printed.)
D- Drug addiction
Friends have attested to DFW’s questionable relationship with alcohol and prescription drugs. The seriousness with which he treated this issue might not fulfill 2005’s idea of cool in the way that taking to Twitter to write “come over and do bring coke now” (Bret Easton Ellis, a few nights ago) does. But DFW was less about bragging about getting gacked up, and more about diagnosing a whole generation of Americans who looked to be hooked on everything, from meth to slimming pills to…
E- ‘E Unibus Pluram’
…television. The thing that separates us all, that keeps us housebound with eyes fixed on the same images being projected from identical screens the land over. In this essay, printed as part of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again, DFW considers television’s role in the life of an American, whose identity is still, supposedly, based on the country’s de facto motto of E Pluribus Unum (‘out of many, one’).
His wife Karen Green said of his death that it “turned him into a “celebrity writer dude”, which would have made him wince.” The notion of fame and the pandemic of inadequacy that it nurtures never appealed to the reclusive writer who returned again and again to this idea, proposed here in ‘The Suffering Channel’, printed in Oblivion : that celebrities were not “functioning as real people at all, but as something more like symbols of themselves.”
G- ‘Good Old Neon’
This is the title to one of the early noughties’ most pored over short stories. Meet its narrator: a few minutes away from killing himself and considering his life of success by the American standard - a good bank balance and a bit of skirt in high school. Did he ever experience true pleasure? And even less likely, did he ever know contentment?
H - Headband
For a memorial piece in McSweeney’s, Italian publisher Marco Cassini recalled the time he traded his Lucky Charms t-shirt for one of DFW’s headbands, or bandannas. So impressed was Marco’s friend Zadie Smith by this story, she wrote about it in the foreword to a collection of essays. The bandanna is now a symbol of America’s literary heritage, a contender to John Berryman’s beard, Tom Wolfe’s white suit, but speculation still surrounds why he wore it. Some claim it was to prevent migraines, others perspiration. Most likely it was just his style and who are we to say that it wasn't cool?
I - Infinite Jest (1996)
Fifty words on the book fellow writer Jay McInerny described as a “sleek Vonnegut chassis wrapped in layers of post-millennial Zola”? The widely regarded seminal classic of the last twenty years? Out of respect to DFW’s own refusal to be concise on this particular work, I resort to the following list: agrophobia, acronyms, academies, films, foot-notes, free-markets, Berkeley, bullying, Big Buddy and Hal, Demarol, depression, rehab, relapse, television, talking screens, Los Angeles, and pot. Phew!
J- John McCain
In the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, DFW took to the campaign trail with his republican nemesis John McCain for Rolling Stone in 2000. The resulting, and surprisingly poignant tale is printed as ‘Up Simba!’ in Consider the Lobster.
K- Kenyon College
In 2005, the graduating class of Kenyon College was treated to an eloquent rendition of the benefits of reading. In it, DFW explained how studying countered his “unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.”
L – Love
Somewhere between prophesizing the fate of America and its politics, DFW also delivered some of the most heart-wrenching accounts of our most basic emotions, such as this extract from Infinite Jest:
“What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?”
His undergrad philosophy thesis was in modal logic and six years after writing Infinite Jest, DFW put his pen to bringing the subject of infiinity to the masses. ‘Quantum calculus for Dummies’, it isn’t – Everything and More (2003) is about as impenetrable a book published in the last 20 years.
N- New Sincerity
Your friend who bought a bejeweled hand-harness. You start by saying “wow I love that bejeweled hand-harness”, then you move on to saying, “wow, I “don’t” love that bejeweled hand-harness”. Eventually you start wearing a bejeweled hand-harness for reasons that are either ironic or not…you can’t quite remember.
Welcome to opposite land! Home of the confused! If you want to get out you’re going to have to sit though some straight talk from Cat Power and our man, DFW.
O- Oblivion: Stories (2004)
From the infinite to the non-existent, this short story collection published in 2004 contains all of the best nihilistic narratives: ‘Good Old Neon’, ‘Incarnations of Burned Children’ and ‘The Soul is not a Smithy’, with its ROFL-inducing account of an advertising focus group (that is, a slow death).
P- The Pale King (2011)
His wife Karen had the unenviable task of sifting through and ordering this incomplete manuscript for print, following DFW’s death in 2008. Still a masterpiece, its exhaustive (and purposefully exhausting) attention to detail rivals the best of Infinite Jest.
Perhaps the most quoted line from DFW is this, taken from ‘E Unibus Pluram’, celebrated for its ‘untrendy’ claim on something beyond irony: “The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.”
R- Roger Federer
Both Flesh and Not opens to the sound of Roger Federer’s grunting as he smashes an over-arm against long-term rival, Nadal. In high school DFW achieved regional tennis ranking and much of Inifinite Jest is set at the Enfield Tennis Academy.
Along with his friend and short story writer Mark Costello, DFW also penned Signifying Rap: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (1997). In addition to waxing lyrical about some of his favourite artists, including Schoolly D, DFW proposes the following idea: that rap music functions for white people "like little more than looking at something venomous in a tightly closed jar."
S- September 11th
‘The View from Mrs. Thompson’s’, printed in Consider the Lobster, tells the story of how, on a quiet morning in his hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, DFW learnt of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers from the pixelated fragments shown on his neighbour’s antiquated TV-set.
T- ‘Ticket to the Fair’
Cynical and poetic in equal measure, this account was printed back in 1994 in one of our favourite literary journals, Harper’s…Wherein our reporter gorges himself on corn dogs, gapes at terrifying rides, savors the odor of pigs, exchanges unpleasantries with tattooed carnies, and admires the loveliness of cows.
U- ‘United’ States of America
The problem underpinning nearly all of DFW’s writing: a nation of immigrants, brought together through a shared belief in the joy of individual ambition. Did the idea ever succeed and can it in the future?
Hence the lobster essay. Like all of our favourite literary figures - Percy Shelley, William Blake, Tolstoy… Hesiod? – DFW was a regimented non meat-eater. He also spoke passionately about the necessity of treating animals humanely and in a conversation with Russian journalist Ostap Karmodi, said: “It’s unbelievable what people did to other people and what we still do to animals. We’ve actually built concentration camps for cows and chickens who live only to be killed.”
W- 'Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way'
It’s the title of the painting hung in the House of Representatives at the US Capitol, and – just as exciting! – it’s the title of the most unwieldy, convoluted ‘short story’ ever written, printed in Girl with Curious Hair (1989). Clocking in at 140 pages, this snappy number about a reunion between cast members of a McDonald’s TV commercial is probably our favourite DFW offering. Controversial, we know.
X- Generation X
The term that seeks to pigeonhole your parents as unsuspecting victims of an economic boom: your Reaganites, your Thatcherites, your Mondeo Men… Countless articles have cited him (but tellingly, always crediting an unnamed source) as “the man everyone else referred to as “the mouthpiece of Gen X.” Yet despite the sprawling, US-wide scale of his novels, DFW was all too subtle and funny in his treatment of human emotion to ever sit comfortably among those other “state of the nation” writers.
Somewhere over the rainbow (or the Hudson River, from Manhattan) lies a magical place/artist colony going by the name Yaddo. At one time or another it’s housed Langston Hughes, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, John Cheever and our man, DFW.
Z- Zadie Smith
She saves libraries, she loves Steve Coogan and in her 2009 essay collection, Changing my Mind, Zadie Smith gave an arresting argument for why DFW was “A visionary, a craftsman, a comedian.”
Is there anything she isn’t right about?
Both Flesh and Not is published by Hamish Hamilton and is on sale now.
Follow Nathalie Olah on Twitter here: @NROlah