- Introduction: David Foster Wallace and “The Long Thing”
At the time of his death in September 2008, David Foster Wallace had published nine books. Three were story collections (Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and Oblivion) and four were works of nonfiction, either in the form of collections of journalism and reviews (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster) or book-length works focusing on a single topic (Signifying Rappers, which he co-wrote with his friend Mark Costello, and Everything and More, a study of Georg Cantor and infinity). The remaining two books were novels. Wallace’s posthumous publishing record is very similar, with the 2011 publication of his unfinished novel The Pale King flanked on one end by the chapbook edition of his Kenyon Commencement Address, This is Water, and, on the other, by a forthcoming book of thus-far uncollected essays titled Both Flesh and Not (due out in November 2012). All told, he published as many story collections, essay collections, and works of nonfiction as he did novels, which constitute merely one-fourth of his published output.
So why devote not one but two issues of Studies in the Novel solely to Wallace as novelist? Given these numbers—as well as the fact that he never finished The Pale King—it is reasonable to wonder why critics and readers don’t regard Wallace as primarily a short story writer, or perhaps a journalist and story writer who also published novels, similar to the way one might view, say, his contemporary Lorrie Moore, whose ratio of story collections to novels matches Wallace’s exactly. The obvious explanation is because one of those two-and-a-half novels is the 1079-page encyclopedic behemoth Infinite Jest, the bulwark atop which so much of his burgeoning reputation rests. But the centrality of Infinite Jest in Wallace’s published oeuvre also obscures the [End Page 263] degree to which Wallace thought of himself as primarily a novelist, and not a jack-of-all-trades who happened to have produced one big, generation-defining classic, though he was certainly haunted by this latter possibility. Unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries, most of whom honed their craft by subjecting streams of apprentice short fiction to nitpicking critique in undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, Wallace started out as a novelist. He wrote his sprawling debut novel, The Broom of the System, in more or less total isolation while still an undergraduate at Amherst College. In 1985, at the age of 23, he submitted the five-hundred-page manuscript as one of his two undergraduate honors theses, resulting in a double summa cum laude. Only then did he turn to short fiction. Most of the stories that make up Girl with Curious Hair he produced while pursuing his MFA at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he earned both the ire of his professors owing to his refusal to kowtow to the then prevailing ethos of Raymond-Carver realism and the envy of his classmates due to his having secured a publisher for his undergraduate creative-writing thesis before completing his first year at the program (see Max 39–71, which covers this crucial period in Wallace’s life). While his peers were still gearing up for the arduous task of producing a competent debut novel, Wallace was merely taking a breather before his next big book.
From 1989, when Girl with Curious Hair first appeared, to his final days, Wallace was buried in a novel project. The stories he produced during those tumultuous two decades were either diversions from the novel-in-progress, exercises undertaken to overcome writer’s block, or test runs for themes and techniques that he was developing for the novel project occupying him at the time. In a private letter to me dated May 2002,1 he explains that he began writing Infinite Jest, “or something like it,” as early as 1986, and returned to it again in 1988 and 1989. “None of it worked, or was alive,” he explains. But then “in ’91–’92 all of a sudden it did.” Similarly, Michael Pietsch, Wallace...