The Cobainification of David Foster Wallace

Since his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace has receded beneath a mountain of marginalia and reinterpretation - and with a Hollywood film starring Jason Segel due, we are at risk of losing him forever.

What’s the difference between Doctor Who and David Foster Wallace?

One’s a questionably dressed cult figure who’s constantly being reinterpreted by white men, and the other’s a Time Lord from Gallifrey.

On Thursday last, plans were announced to film a DFW biopic with Jason Segel – he of How I Met Your Mother and Forgetting Sarah Marshall – taking the role of Wallace.

This is a terrible, terrible idea.

First things first: I’m a huge Wallace fan. I picked Consider the Lobster off a charity-shop shelf about ten years ago and fell for his mix of high culture and lowbrow gags, packed tight in pinballing, funhouse prose. His short stories and novels – Infinite Jest in particular – were like nothing I’d read before, and after his tragic death in 2008 there was the sense that we’d all lost something more than just a zeitgeisty author with a sweating problem.

But a Hollywood DFW? I’m sceptical. It already feels like remembering Wallace has inspired a literary sub-genre all on its own. There’s David Lipsky’s Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in the New Yorker and DT Max’s 2012 biography Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel contains a bandanna-wearing, tobacco-chewing character who seems strangely familiar.

And it’s not just the memoirists. Like Tupac, Wallace himself seems even more productive in death than in life. A posthumous novel, an essay collection, and (by my count) three other "new" books have appeared since 2008. Some are good, but others seem to have been published with little more in mind than squeezing more cash out of Wallace completists – most notably the reissue of Signifying Rappers, a set of painfully sophomoric reflections on rap jointly written with a college roommate in the summer of 1989.

But what’s even more worrying than the bald-faced cash-in on DFW’s memory is the sense of something more insidious going on. Just as more and more of Wallace’s writings are coming into view – from the syllabuses he set his students at Illinois State University, to marginalia from books he’d owned – the man himself is receding.

If Wallace’s prose sometimes seems difficult, it’s got nothing on its author. DT Max’s 2012 biography offered a nuanced portrait of a very human genius: clear-eyed about his many addictions, neuroses, and his problematic or perverse relationships with those around him. Max’s book was an important corrective to the growing image of Wallace as the wise old genius with all the answers – the author as a kind of Dudebro Confucius.

The weird reverence accorded to DFW means his name is becoming a shibboleth, a byword for with-it-ness. And he’s sexy. Trust me: somewhere in the world, right now, an earnest twenty- or thirty-something bearded male is trying to use David Foster Wallace in order to sleep with someone.

Maybe things started to change when Wallace went viral. His commencement address to a Kenyon College graduating class in 2005 was a massive hit online. Published as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, it’s a pitch-perfect exhortation to mindfulness in everyday life, and a challenge to practice "simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time". And it’s beautiful.

But Wallace isn’t an aphorist. For me, what makes his fiction so good is that it’s hard – not "difficult" in an elitist sense, but just in that it wants you to work with him, to dig towards something half-remembered and hard to grasp and maybe, just maybe, true. The Wallace of This Is Water – and the Wallace of popular culture – is a fortune-cookie merchant: the artist as life coach.

This is why the idea of a Wallace movie makes me so uneasy. Not just because it’s insensitive, and not just because there’s no way it won’t get twisted into some awful, jarring morality tale about genius and suicide. It’s because a Hollywood DFW feels like the final step in the canonisation – or maybe the Cobainification – of David Foster Wallace.

Sure, a film might make people go back and read the work. Back to the tight horror of a short story like "Incarnations of Burned Children", or the screwball picaresque of his finest essays – if anyone else gets to experience that feeling of reading him for the first time and thinking "hey, this is my guy", then that can only be A Good Thing. 

But the stakes are high. I’m worried that we’ll lose a very real, very flawed genius to the romanticising impulse of the big screen. In Infinite Jest, his finest novel, Wallace cast a cold eye on grief, loss, and memory in an age of entertainments. He deserves better than a Hollywood ending, and so do we. 

David Foster Wallace in 2002 and Jason Segel, who will play him in the upcoming film The End of the Tour. Photographs: Getty Images.

John Gallagher is writing a history PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker for 2013/2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @earlymodernjohn.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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