‘Good Old Neon’ by David Foster Wallace

‘Good Old Neon’ might represent the apex of Wallace’s fiction for me. It’s perhaps the clearest distillation of what he was trying to do; to work within a register of generational irony in order to transcend its form. Wallace’s best work is affecting before it is smart, and ‘Good Old Neon’ holds the metafictional tricks at a distance, letting them percolate throughout the story before they emerge, finally, in a transformative way. The story is narrated by a dead man, a suicide, who considers how communication after death is not bound by time or space, but also how that transcendence cannot necessarily obviate a sense of failure. Many of Wallace’s hobby horses – Wittgenstein, Derrida – are here in some form, though the main influence on this story appears to be Buddhism; the protagonist, Neal, is so fixated on the binary of success or failure that he remains trapped in the bardo-like space of the story and needs someone to pull him out, which they (sort of) do in unexpected and quite beautiful fashion at the story’s climax.

First published in Conjunctions 37, Fall 2001, and collected in Oblivion, Little, Brown, 2004

‘The Depressed Person’ by David Foster Wallace

Psychic torment is to Wallace what the Tuscan sky was to Hazzard. Here the protagonist is not only in “terrible and unceasing emotional pain” but feels that “the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror”. So Wallace, as he often did, invented a new prose style – affectless, paranoid, recursive – to imitate the inner workings of his character’s mind. The result is at once a story about the limits of expression and an act of expression that in its virtuosity is almost joyous.

First published in Harper’s Magazine, January 1998, and collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Little, Brown, 1999, and The David Foster Wallace Reader, Little, Brown, 2014

‘Girl with Curious Hair’ by David Foster Wallace

Our narrator, Sick Puppy – a sociopathic Young Republican with a penchant for sadistic burning –attends a jazz concert with a group of nihilistic punks with names like Grope, Tit and Gimlet. Terrible events ensue. Thanks to Foster Wallace’s virtuoso distortion of the English language, the narration resembles a writing exercise by an unhinged child in an ESL class. It is hilarious. It is also deeply unsettling: you get the feeling that anything (the most awful things) could happen; and beneath the layers of chaos and hilarity, there is a kind of stark moral terror. Sick Puppy is somebody with only shards of a personality – and beneath those shards, a roaring, violent nothingness. Good stuff.

Collected in Girl with Curious Hair, W.W. Norton & Co, 1989

‘Incarnations of Burned Children’ by David Foster Wallace

Just a couple of pages in length, but it feels like the molten product of some golden imaginative moment. Similar in subject matter, though very different in tone to Carver’s ‘A Small Good Thing’ – and even better. If I had to rescue just one story of all those represented here from the flames, it would probably be this one. It is emotionally devastating, articulating the unthinkable. Simply brilliant and terrifying all at the same time. It shows that the author, famous for his sprawl, could also work in miniature. Don’t read it if you’ve just had a baby. Otherwise this is my pick for the finest story I know. 

First published in Esquire, April 2009. Collected in Oblivion: Stories, Abacus, 2005 and now The David Foster Wallace Reader, Penguin, 2018. Read the story online here

‘Forever Overhead’ by David Foster Wallace

Most of David Foster Wallace’s work was ‘closed’ to me for a long time. I found his style overbearing, heady with detail, footnotes and stylistic play. Reading this story was a turning point for me. It’s in the second person (a rare example of when the use of the second person actually works), and I’ve seldom felt closer to a character than in this story. It minutely describes the moments of a boy ascending the diving board and preparing to jump into the pool.

From Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Little, Brown/Abacus, 1999

‘Forever Overhead’ by David Foster Wallace

When David Foster Wallace writes in the imperative, you stop and listen. You accept his personal as universal in the story ‘Forever Overhead’ because he’s gifted it to you in such an airtight condition, that you don’t feel a single draught when you read it. It’s spiked with the usual DFW arrangements, which are filtered through the punch of the present tense. While the focus is on a boy about to dive into a pool, it’s the process rather than the result that’s tested out here. It’s a disservice to pathologise every bit of text that DFW wrote, and to relate this piece directly to his mental health. The process of thinking and its consequences need not always be understood in a clinical context; it can be more interesting to reach for an alternative. Thinking is both a gift and a curse in ‘Forever Overhead’. One of the most impressive things in this story is how the narrator’s thoughts order and manipulate time. You can see that this was achieved through utter graft and witness the energy it must have taken to capture anticipation so accurately: “There’s been time this whole time. You can’t kill time with your heart. Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.”

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Little, Brown, 1999. Can be read online here

‘Mister Squishy’, by David Foster Wallace

I am frequently confused by literature’s seeming lack of interest in corporate life. We work constantly, in the industrialised west, answering emails on our holidays, checking our phones just as we wake up, but so much fiction seems to be interested only in the stuff around work. ‘Mister Squishy’ shows how you do it, the entire story taking place in a focus group where they are testing reactions to a new chocolate snack, the narration switching between corporate jargon and acutely observed characters who are struggling to fit the moulds that capitalism requires them to fit.

Oblivion was the first time I really got David Foster Wallace, having tried (and failed) to read Infinite Jest and having thoroughly disliked Girl with Curious Hair. I found this at one of those bookstores that has more Moleskines on display than actual books, and since I saw very little else of interest, I thought I would give Wallace another try. I am glad I did: if there is one story I wished I had written, this would be it.

First published in McSweeney’s #5, 2000, as ‘Mr. Squishy’ under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm, collected in Oblivion, Little, Brown, 2004

‘Octet’, by David Foster Wallace

This is Wallace at his po-mo-est. It takes the form of a series of ‘Pop Quizzes’ sketching out scenarios for unrealized stories, complete with fatuous pop-psychology questions for the reader. It has footnotes. Sometimes very long footnotes. And it conducts a commentary on its own performance that takes up-its-own-arse-ness to a whole new level. But it shows what makes Wallace so essential as a writer: his immense psychological acuity – and I mean immense to the point of freakishness. No writer since Muriel Spark has been so adept at putting her characters on a skewer – the thinnest, sharpest, most surgically precise skewer imaginable – (and of course the author is just as much a character as anyone). That said, Wallace does it with more compassion than Spark. And he does it even when the characters have none of the heft and texture expected in literary fiction, or fiction of any kind. They don’t even have names. All they have is their problems. No, the pyrotechnics are smokescreen. The story is all about the pain and nausea inherent in self-consciousness.

(in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men)