“Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – part IV


Julius, the moderator, asked the panelists about the recurring themes of adolescence and adulthood in Wallace’s works.  Laura brought up the obvious connections between Hamlet and Infinite Jest, focusing particularly on those between Prince Hamlet and Hal Incandenza as both try to escape the legacies of their parents’ generations.

On this topic of adolescence, Jonathan brought up the interesting biological idea of neoteny.  Neoteny is an evolutionary principle in which adult members of a species retain certain infantile or adolescent or even ancestral traits that give the organism a survival advantage.  He applied this idea both to Wallace’s characters and to Wallace himself as a writer.  Many of his characters – and again most of this portion of the discussion focused on IJ – rely on childlike behavior to cope and to survive.  Additionally, Infinite Jest is full on childish, sometimes infantile, jokes and silliness.[1]  Others of his stories can also be seen as childlike and immature.[2]

As a writer, Wallace placed great value on the things of childhood.  As one of the panelists said (I believe it was still Jonathan talking), great art comes from childish behavior, and the act of playing matters even in the adult world.  He went on to explain how Wallace exalts in his writing things[3] that most other writers “grow out of.”

Daniel chimed in during this part of the discussion to highlight the fact that most of Wallace’s writing has a certain self-conscious, juvenile affect to it, until we get to The Pale King.  His last, unfinished novel stands out in that it is much more “grown-up” than his other works.  The characters, themes, and conflicts are all much more mature than those in his earlier works.

The last topic of conversation brought up by Julius was the power of language.  The question was asked, what is art – in whatever form it takes – for?  The panelists discussed how Wallace might answer such a question.  They talked about how he didn’t seem to hold much of an “art for art’s sake” attitude, but rather that art – and especially fiction – ought to serve a purpose.  And in Wallace’s writing, much of that purpose was to explore and address real moral issues and problems.  His writing was very philosophical, engaging in dialogue with the likes of Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard,[4] among others.  Good fiction ought to have a positive value.

Before opening it up for questions from the floor, Julius asked each of the panelists for a non-Infinite-Jest-related reading recommendation.  Daniel’s two recommendations were The Pale King and the short story “Good Old Neon” from Oblivion.  Jonathan’s recommendations were “Westward the Course of Empire Takes It’s Way” from Girl with Curious Hair and “Brief Interview #20,” the “Granola Cruncher” story from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  Laura had several recommendations: the entirety of Girl with Curious Hair, the Dostoyevsky review in Consider the Lobster, and the previously mentioned “E Unibus Pluram” from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.[5]

Julius thanked the panelists for their lively discussion and wonderful insights into both the writing and person of David Foster Wallace while the audience enthusiastically applauded.  A majority of the crowd left at that point, but a few people stuck around to ask questions of the panel.

As the crowd died down, I made my way up to the front to ask a question of DT Max.  I waited my turn as others asked him questions, and finally had my chance.  I shook his hand, introduced myself, and asked him what he thought of the role religion and spirituality played in Wallace’s life and writing.  He thought it an interesting question that he hadn’t seen any obvious answers to.  We discussed several examples from his fiction, primarily from The Pale King.  I mentioned how “Good People” was probably the more real and authentic depiction of a Christian faith I’ve ever read.  I asked about the references to church in his nonfiction, such as “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” and the end of AOCYEUBY.  Daniel said that some of the “church” references in his nonfiction were a cover for AA groups.

We talked about these various examples and through out questions for each other to consider for a good five minutes.  We didn’t arrive at any definitive answers – none probably exist – but concluded that Wallace saw the importance of faith and religious community in an individual’s life.  And both Wallace’s fiction and nonfiction writings have a very moral and didactic bent to them.  If anything, I think I left my short conversation with DT Max with more questions than I had before I introduced myself and with a greater desire to pursue this line of thought.

I left the Ballroom and walked across the darkened campus to my car.  Four pages of notes and too many thoughts and questions to even begin to count.  I tried to begin processing it all on my drive home, but it had been hours since I last ate.  Fortunately I had spotted what looked to be a good Mexican food restaurant on my way to the College.  So I topped off my wonderful evening with a delicious carne asada burrito.

It had been a good day.


[1] I haven’t gotten more than about 60 pages into the behemoth of a book.  But I have engaged in and listened in on plenty of conversations about the book, and I’ve see plenty of quotes from the book online, so I’ve come across many of these jokes.[back]

[2] “Forever Overhead” comes instantly to mind, as does “Little Expressionless Animals.”  The first is a coming of age story of a thirteen-year-old boy; the second has an ensemble cast of physically mature adults all trapped in juvenile and immature relationships with others.[back]

[3] I don’t recall what any of those “things” are, or if he even gave specific examples.  But the YouTube video should be able to fill in any gaps here.[back]

[4] These are philosophers whose writings are on my “to-read” list as I proceed with my reading and research into the spiritual and religious themes in Wallace’s works.[back]

[5] A number of these I have not yet read, but based on their descriptions, I think I will be diving into “Good Old Neon” next.  Though rather dark sounding,* it seems like it would be a fascinating character study.

* It is a first-person narration of someone who has just committed suicide, explaining all his reasons for doing so.[back]

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