Perhaps you want to see the new David Foster Wallace movie, but you aren’t sure why. You know that you like him, or that you might like him, that you are supposed to like him. Or maybe you just like Jason Segal and Jesse Eisenberg. Maybe you just think that the movie looks really good, or really sad, or you just want to understand why people are talking about it so much.
Maybe the only thing you know about David Foster Wallace is that someone made a video about fish and he narrated it, and that it’s one of your favorite motivational YouTube videos. Or maybe not.
Regardless, DFW is one of those authors who can be extremely inaccessible, especially if you haven’t ever read anything by him. It can feel like trying to start reading graphic novels or listening to Joy Division: you don’t know where to start and none of it makes any sense.
So here you go. Five things by David Foster Wallace that are both readable and that will give you a good idea of who he is and why he matters. And they’re free.
1. Consider the Lobster
I recommend one starts with the essay “Consider the Lobster,” published in Gourmet Magazine in 2004. If you don’t like this essay, then you won’t like David Foster Wallace. But chances are that you will like it. It’s fun, informative, intelligent and bizarre. It’s also non-fiction and not too long. And it gives you an idea of how wild his footnotes can be.
You can find it in more than one place online, but it’s most fun to read it in the format that was originally published, footnotes and all.
2. The Depressed Person
Unlike “Consider the Lobster,” this story is definitely not fun. And its footnotes are even more out of control.
But it’s a good way to understand both his fiction and the man himself. It’s a story about depression and suicide, published in Harper’s in 1998, about ten years before he eventually took his own life.
3. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
After reading “The Depressed Person,” you might be completely disinterested in trying to read another short story by Wallace. Well, try this one out. It’s one among many fictional brief interviews with unnamed men, and this one is arguably the best.
This Brief Interview is actually the twentieth in the series, but there is no need to read the first nineteen in order to read this one. The only thing linking these is their style and that their subject matter is hideous men.
You should note that, if you like this, both it and “The Depressed Person” are collected, along with the other interviews, in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
4. 9/11: The View from the Midwest
Would you like to try another essay? Maybe? You might be reluctant, as the title of this one definitely doesn’t promise much laughter.
Surprisingly, there are a few laughs to be had in this reflection on September 11th. It also might remind you of things you had forgotten from that day, as it brings you back to the bizarre state of shared nationwide grief. It was also, as the author says at the beginning, “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock” for Rolling Stone.
5. Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise
Here’s another one published in Harper’s. It’s also an essay, but with the same amused first person narrator who accompanied us to the Maine Lobster Festival. This time he’s on a cruise ship, and it’s amazing.
“I’ve seen nearly naked a lot of people I’d prefer not to have seen nearly naked.” Trust me. You definitely want to read this essay.
Extra Credit: Infinite Jest
No, you won’t find this one for free, other than at your local library, where there will probably be a waiting list. But after you make it through the three essays and two short stories above, you might crave more, and this is one of the many books that will be waiting for you.
I would recommend sticking with reading his collected essays and stories from your local libraries and bookstores. Not that Infinite Jest is bad. I just don’t know, because no one has ever read it.