The Cult of Wallacemania

After trashing Infinite Jest in a 2013 post, Vox Day wrote another David Foster Wallace post, and sites like the Atlantic and Salon keep writing articles about Wallace, so I’m going to write one, too, and this will be my first and probably final article about him.

There is Wallace, the author of notoriously difficult books that sell well but are seldom read in entirety, and then there is Wallace the cult figure. I didn’t understand Wallacemania until I realized he is the literary equivalent of Mitch Hedberg or Kurt Kobain. So many similarities – all were famous in the 90’s, all died prematurely at or near the peak of their stardom, all were blonde with ‘surfer’ looks, and all exuded authenticity and counter-culture appeal in repudiation to the perceived consumerism and banality of the 80’s. By critical consensus, Wallace isn’t the best or most prolific postmodern/hysterical realist author – that title would probably go to DeLillo, Pynchon, or Zadi Smith – but because of the aforementioned factors, he still, seven years after his suicide, gets more attention than those other authors combined.

And even though it’s a slog that few readers saw to its end, perhaps what made Infinite Jest unique and enduring, in contrast to DeLillo’s Underworld and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, also both published in 1997, is that Wallace was looking towards the not-so-distant future, to a world not much different from our own, but in other ways terrifying, and all too prophetically true, whereas Pynchon and DeLillo were writing about the past.

Wallacemania is a cult, his most devoted followers living vicariously through him. Like a religion, they think reading his books (or at least keeping an unread copy on a bookshelf or on top of a desk) will provide personal fulfillment and answers to existential questions. In the years since his death, there are many articles that implore ‘what would Wallace think of xyz’, similar to the ‘what would Jesus do’ refrain. Another factor is signaling, in that Wallace’s cerebral brand of subversiveness and cool will rub off on anyone who is seen with his books; reading is optional.

And listening to a Kobain or Hedberg album is an enjoyable experience and only a small time commitment, unlike the self-inflicted Sisyphean torture that is a Wallace book or one of his rambling articles such as the one about lobsters, tennis, or whatever.