Notes and Errata*: A Companion Guide to “The Unfinished”


dfw-yorker*The Rumpus presents endnotes (and some additions and/or digressions) w/r/t “The Unfinished” by D. T. Max (The New Yorker, Mar. 9, 2009), a.k.a here are a lot of links to David Foster Wallace that help us feel even more connected to the man and the work he left behind.

Some nota benes before you begin:

– Everything in ” ” is quoted material from “The Unfinished.” I picked out everything that could have had a source. I cited first mentions only. What did not have a conspicuous source, I did not cite. It is impossible to find everything mentioned in the article because Google is fallible and personal privacy is real. For example, I wasn’t able to find Wallace’s correspondence with Michael Pietsch, Jonathan Franzen, Bonnie Nadell, Don DeLillo, etc. Let me take this opportunity to express my unbounded admiration for D. T. Max and The New Yorker‘s fact-checking department.
– I apologize for any and all copyright infringement; I linked only with the best of intentions.
– This is a contribution to DFW’s immortality. (see 12)

You may now begin.

1. “The condition had first been diagnosed when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College, in the early eighties; ever since, he had taken medication to manage its symptoms. During this time, he produced two long novels**, three collections of short stories***, two books of essays and reporting****, and Everything and More, a history of infinity*****.” +
**Broom of the System, first novel, 1987; “tells of a young woman who worries that she might exist only as a character in a story. The book suggests that the world should not be taken too seriously: life is an intellectual game, and words are the pieces on the board”; Infinite Jest, second novel, 1996; “a vast investigation into America as the land of addictions: to televisions, to drugs, to loneliness.”
***Girl with Curious Hair, 1989; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 1999; Oblivion: Stories, 2004
****A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, 1997; Consider the Lobster, 2005
*****Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, 2003

+Two of Wallace’s books not shouted out explicitly in the article:
McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking about Hope, 2008 (For instant gratification, see: The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub from Rolling Stone.)
This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, available 7.5.2009 (See also a related article/link extravaganza from The Book Bench.)

2. “Depression often figured in his work. In ‘The Depressed Person,’ a short story about an unhappy narcissistic young woman—included in Wallace’s 1999 collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men–he wrote, ‘Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Wellbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT (during a two-week voluntary in-patient course of treatment at a regional Mood Disorders clinic), Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth.’ He never published a word about his own mental illness.”

3. “‘What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant,’ he wrote in ‘Good Old Neon*,’ a story from 2001.”
*”Good Old Neon” is in Oblivion and nowhere online for free. Sorry.

4. “His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. ‘Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,’ he once said. Good writing should help readers to ‘become less alone inside.’ Wallace’s desire to write ‘morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,’ as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky*, presented him with a number of problems.”
*Here is a blog with excerpts of the essay, from Consider the Lobster.

5. “Anything comforting put him on guard. ‘It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,’ he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State.”

6. “The critic James Wood* cited Infinite Jest as representative of the kind of fiction dedicated to the ‘pursuit of vitality at all costs.'”
*Two pertinent links: Book Review: James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self, by Nigel Beale (the quotation “pursuit of vitality at all costs” is given context here); Remembering David Foster Wallace (Wood’s comment is last)

7. “As Wallace noted at a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom ‘means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.'”

8. “‘The Planet Trillaphon‘ appeared in the Amherst Review in 1984. The autobiographical story captures the intense pain of the depression he suffered.”

9. “In a letter to Howard* [Broom‘s editor], Wallace had promised to be ‘neurotic and obsessive’ but ‘not too intransigent or defensive.’ But they disagreed on how Broom should end. Howard felt that the text called for some sort of resolution; Wallace did not think so. Howard urged him to keep in mind ‘the physics of reading’—or, as Wallace came to understand the phrase, ‘a whole set of readers’ values and tolerances and capacities and patience-levels to take into account when the gritty business of writing stuff for others to read is undertaken.'”
*I don’t have a link to the actual letter, but here is more on Howard’s relationship with Wallace: “Gerry Howard on Discovering, Editing, and Hatching David Foster Wallace: ‘He Was the First Person Who Ever Called Me “Mister”‘” (It’s no typo that there are five apostrophes there. It may be a mistake.)

10. “Broom received varied reviews. Caryn James, in the Times, called the book ‘a manic human flawed extravaganza,’ and said that it reminded her of Pynchon’s V. But where James saw homage others saw derivativeness. They thought that Wallace was too eager to show how smart he was.”

11. “Each negative review surprised and hurt Wallace. After reading a review from Publishers Weekly*, Wallace wrote Howard, ‘The guy seemed downright angry at having been made to read the thing.'”
*I didn’t find that review, but I did find “David Foster Wallace: In the Company of Creeps” from Publishers Weekly.

12. “‘Writing fiction takes me out of time,’ he said in his first interview, in Arrival*, published when he was in Tucson. ‘That’s probably as close to immortal as we’ll ever get.'”
*Reprinted at, with permission by the author. I’m sorry if I don’t have permission to reprint this here.

13. “The halfway house also showed him that less intellectual people were often better at dealing with life. They found catchphrases such as ‘One day at a time’ genuinely helpful. To his surprise, so did he. As he later told Salon, ‘The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting—which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff—can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important.'”

14. “Around town, Wallace was a familiar sight in his T-shirt, granny glasses, shorts, and bandanna. (He told Rolling Stone* that he wore it to keep his head from exploding.)”
*See also: “Getting to Know David Foster Wallace,” from Rolling Stone.

15. “Wallace was pushing himself to get beyond the facile skepticism of Broom. In 1993, he told Whiskey Island*, a literary magazine, “This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values, and it’s our job to make them up.”
*The Howling Fantods, thank you, for I borrowed this link from you.

16. “He hit upon the idea of endnotes to shorten [Infinite Jest]. In April, 1994, he presented the idea to Pietsch, adding, ‘I’ve become intensely attached to this strategy and will fight w/all 20 claws to preserve it*.'”
*A sliver of this correspondence to Pietsch is reproduced in Harper’s. Pietsch read the portion at Wallace’s memorial service on October 23, 2008. See also Zadie Smith, George Saunders, and Don DeLillo’s remarks.

17. “When Charlie Rose interviewed him, in 1997, Wallace said, ‘A lot of my problem right now is I don’t really have a brass ring, and I’m kind of open to suggestions about what one chases.'”

18. “Wallace had by then accepted a new teaching appointment, at Pomona College, in Claremont, California. ‘I have a lottery-prize-type gig at Pomona,’ he bragged to The Believer in 2003. ‘I get to do more or less what I want.'”

[Not really an endnote at all] 19. “One student, Kelly Natoli, remembers Wallace introducing himself on the first day of a creative-writing class: ‘He said, ‘It’s going to take me, like, two weeks to learn everyone’s name, but by the time I learn your name I’m going to remember your name for the rest of my life. You’re going to forget who I am before I forget who you are*.'”
*I misread this as: “You’re going to forget who I am before you forget who you are.”

20. “At Pomona, Wallace published Oblivion; the last story is about a man for whom great art comes so easily he can defecate it. He also wrote essays, published his book on infinity, and went to Wimbledon to write about Roger Federer for the Times. To DeLillo he wrote, ‘I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do, but it does, and now I’m back here flogging away (in all senses of the word) and feeding my own wastebasket.'”

21. “In 2007*, he published in this magazine [The New Yorker] a small part of [The Pale King], which dealt with Lane Dean, Jr.,’s earlier decision to have a baby with a woman he was dating. A picture of the infant on his desk comforts Dean when he considers suicide.”
*As opposed to the portion published in 2009: “Wiggle Room

22. “Another scene, in which an I.R.S. agent’s calm is disturbed by a colleague’s menacing baby, found its way into Harper’s, as ‘The Compliance Branch.'”

23. “In his final major interview, given to Le Nouvel Observateur* in August, 2007, he talked about various writers he admired—St. Paul, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky among them—and added ‘what are envied and coveted here seem to me to be qualities of human beings—capacities of spirit—rather than technical abilities or special talents.’ He was no longer sure he was the kind of person who could write the novel he wanted to write.”
*I couldn’t find the final major interview, but I did find “Novelist and Tennis Player, Wallace Wind Champion” (that translation can’t be right…)

24. “In the early evening on Friday, September 12th, Green went to prepare for an opening at her gallery, Beautiful Crap, in the center of Claremont, about ten minutes from their home.”

25. The New Yorker Web extras: D. T. Max answers readers’ questions (upcoming); and two pages from the manuscript of The Pale King and artwork by Karen Green

26. Some of Wallace’s notes on endnotes:

“He explained that endnotes ‘allow . . . me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns . . . 5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.'”

“He was known for endlessly fracturing narratives and for stem-winding sentences adorned with footnotes that were themselves stem-winders. Such techniques originally had been his way of reclaiming language from banality, while at the same time representing all the caveats, micro-thoughts, meta-moments, and other flickers of his hyperactive mind.”


See also: A Reading List as Suggested Posthumously by David Foster Wallace
And: A Baker’s Dozen of My Feelings about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. She teaches humor writing at The New School and Catapult. Follow her on Twitter, and visit for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →