Brain Pickings

Endnotes: A David Foster Wallace BBC Documentary

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Taking a master class in artistic bravery, or how to honor the work of a literary lion.

When the writer David Foster Wallace ended his own life in 2008, the engines of culture immediately began producing analyses of his work with suicide as the subtext. How had depression informed his 1,000-page-plus masterpiece Infinite Jest, or his collections of short stories? Besides pronouncing Wallace’s martyrdom, the other tendency was to fix a specific place for him in the literary pantheon, so that his genre-bending oeuvre could be classified for posterity.

Now an excellent new BBC Radio piece aims to rescue him from these dual dangers of early hagiography. First aired on February 6th, the audio documentary is called Endnotes — both a melancholic acknowledgment of his early death, and an allusion to the author’s fondness for footnotes. (As the BBC reminds us, Infinite Jest contained 388 of them.) We were thrilled to hear the author reading portions of his own work and commenting on the challenges of writing fiction in late-millennial America.

Featuring interviews from Wallace’s sister Amy, his literary hero Don DeLillo, and novelist friend and contemporary Rick Moody, the BBC feature contextualizes his writing in terms of Wallace’s Midwestern upbringing, early love of math, and yes, his depression. But it does so without sentimentality and is explicit about rejecting any reductive interpretations of his legacy.

In the words of his editor, Michael Pietsch:

David loved to set himself enormous challenges… [He] was thinking about the fact that most of our lives are made up of boringness. Most of our lives are what he calls ‘irrelevant complexity,’ things that you just do again and again and your brain learns to go elsewhere while you’re doing them. And most novelists just avoid them; they just compress around the exciting bits.” ~ Michael Pietsch

Wallace, by contrast, managed to make the mundane profound. Listening to the piece we felt that heart-pounding feeling we had upon first reading his writing, of ideas pumping through the brain and blood at a rate faster than they could be absorbed. It was exhilirating, and reminded us how much we’re anticipating his final unfinished work, The Pale King, forthcoming in April.

In the meantime, load up the BBC’s endnotes and enjoy a 45-minute tour through the ideas of an unfailingly ambitious, quintessentially American author.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA but still stubbornly identifies as a Brooklynite.

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