Hear David Foster Wallace Read His Own Essays & Short Fiction on the 6th Anniversary of His Death,

Yes­ter­day, of course, marked the 13th anniver­sary of the hor­ri­ble attacks on the Twin Tow­ers and the Pen­ta­gon. Today marks the 6th anniver­sary of David Fos­ter Wallace’s death by sui­cide. The two events are relat­ed not only by prox­im­i­ty, and not because they are com­pa­ra­ble tragedies, but because Wallace’s work, in par­tic­u­lar his 1993 essay “E Unibus Plu­ram: Tele­vi­sion and U.S. Fic­tion,” has become such a touch­stone for the dis­course of “post-irony” or “the new sin­cer­i­ty” since 9/11, when Van­i­ty Fair edi­tor Gray­don Carter and oth­ers pro­claimed the “end of irony.” But the cul­tur­al con­scious­ness has shift­ed mea­sur­ably since those heady days of fer­vent affir­ma­tion. In a recon­sid­er­a­tion of Wal­lace on irony, Bradley War­shauer writes, “he wasn’t wrong—but he is obso­lete.” Our nation­al discourse—as much as it can be defined in broad terms—may have, some argue, swung fur­ther toward sin­cer­i­ty and sen­ti­men­tal rev­er­ence than Wal­lace would have liked. And he may have been much more an iro­nist than he liked to believe.

Wal­lace, writes War­shauer, was “a wannabe sen­ti­men­tal­ist who was too absurd­ly tal­ent­ed and prob­a­bly too obsessed with the arti­fi­cial­i­ty of fic­tion to be the sort of ‘anti-rebel’ that he him­self talked about.” While he may have roman­ti­cized the high-mind­ed fig­ure who “stands for” things in uncom­pli­cat­ed ways, Wal­lace him­self was com­pli­cat­ed, prick­ly, and just too hyper-aware—of him­self and others—to be seduced by easy sen­ti­ment, what Som­er­set Maugh­am called “unearned emo­tion.” While his work pulls us still toward deep­er lev­els of analy­sis, toward con­tem­pla­tion and cri­tique, toward seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tions of val­ue, it does not do so by eschew­ing irony. In the descrip­tive force of his prose are the eva­sions, par­ries, asides, cir­cum­lo­cu­tions, and jar­ring­ly odd jux­ta­po­si­tions of the iro­nist, the satirist, and—what might be the same thing—the moral­ist. “The inher­ent contradiction”—the irony, if you will—of Wallace’s stance, Washauer argues, cit­ing 1999’s Brief Inter­views With Hideous Men, is that he him­self “was addict­ed to iron­ic detach­ment.” But, of course, it’s not so sim­ple as that.

Today we bring you sev­er­al read­ings by David Fos­ter Wal­lace of his own work. We begin at the top with “Death is Not the End” from Brief Inter­views, that col­lec­tion of “weird metafic­tion” that couch­es raw and painful con­fes­sions in lay­ers of irony. Below it, from that same col­lec­tion, we have “Sui­cide as a Sort of Present,” a piece that, in hind­sight, offers its own poten­tial mor­bid­ly iron­ic read­ings. Just above, hear Wal­lace read the short sto­ry “Incar­na­tions of Burned Chil­dren” from the 2005 col­lec­tion Obliv­ion, full of sto­ries Wyatt Mason described as “tight­ly withhold[ing]… hid­ing on high shelves the keys that unlock their trea­sures.” Replete with tiny mech­a­nisms that can take many care­ful read­ings to parse, these sto­ries are fine-art stud­ies in iron­ic lan­guage and sit­u­a­tions.

One may class David Fos­ter Wal­lace as a mas­ter iro­nist, despite his crit­i­cal stance against its overuse, but this reduces the full range of his mas­tery to one mode among so many. His work embraced the voice of irony and the voice of sin­cer­i­ty as equal­ly valid rhetor­i­cal means, alter­nat­ing between the two in what A.O. Scott once called a “feed­back loop.” “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” the essay Wal­lace reads above from 2005’s essay col­lec­tion Con­sid­er the Lob­ster, is a piece he wrote just days after 9/11. Writ­ten quick­ly as a com­mis­sion from Rolling Stone, the essay records his tren­chant obser­va­tions of the reac­tions in Bloom­ing­ton, Illi­nois between Sep­tem­ber 11–13. It’s a piece that show­cas­es the ten­sion between Wallace’s sin­cere desire for imme­di­a­cy and his almost uncon­trol­lable impulse to amused detach­ment. And hear­ing Wal­lace com­mem­o­rate the trag­ic events we remem­bered yes­ter­day high­lights the sad irony of memo­ri­al­iz­ing his own death today.

You can hear many more of David Fos­ter Wallace’s read­ings and inter­views at the David Fos­ter Wal­lace Audio Project, and be sure to stop by our siz­able col­lec­tion, 30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

‘This Is Water’: Com­plete Audio of David Fos­ter Wallace’s Keny­on Grad­u­a­tion Speech (2005)

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

Read Two Poems David Fos­ter Wal­lace Wrote Dur­ing His Ele­men­tary School Days

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Richard Abad says:

    It’s also inter­est­ing that it’s 2015 now and yet it seems like in our local vil­lage of Cebu City, irony nev­er even land­ed sail. It’s like, you all are anti-irony already when we here haven’t gar­nered its full bloom­ing fun of a fruit yet. ‑Richard of Bisaya Short Films.

  • Ty says:

    That is inter­est­ing indeed, Richard. I’m not too sure we’ve aban­doned irony yet — in fact, I’m pret­ty sure we haven’t. So enjoy it as you arrive. Would­n’t it be iron­ic if you all dis­cov­er what fol­lows before we do?

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.