For all the possible directions a last post about Infinite Jest could take, I’ve decided to look ahead to what comes next. The last few months with you guys have been totally awesome, and I’ve loved the adventure of helping “guide” y’all through the subterranean underbelly of the Enfield Tennis Academy and out to the freezing sand of Gately’s beach; we hope you’ve enjoyed the tour.
But so where does one go after Infinite Jest, novelistically speaking?
One of my favorite questions to ask people is what book they read after Jest, and to see how their experience compared. I remember reading David Sedaris’ Naked right after, and though it was a light, funny break from the density of Wallace’s dystopian future (or present as the case may be now, twenty years after publication), I recall feeling that it was somehow very lackluster, underwhelming by comparison. I’m sure if I’d read it any other time in my life, it would have been a great experience, but coming off the high of Jest is very hard to follow indeed. I feel like I’m still chasing the literary dragon almost ten years after my first read, and nothing has compared to that high since.
So here are my recommendations for books/authors that I think can hold something of a flame to Jest and Wallace, and that I think you might enjoy. (If you listen to The Great Concavity podcast I co-host, some of these will be familiar to you, since I’ve talked about books/authors other than Wallace there from time to time. If you don’t listen to it, now’s a good time to start, since you’ve now conquered Jest):
The Instructions by Adam Levin
Like IJ, it’s really big, mostly about teenagers, has violence, and takes place at a school. It’s not as dense or hard to follow as Jest, so it’s a nice follow-up if you want to carry on the theme of rich literary worlds, while also coming down off the big high. Not that this doesn’t pack a punch; it does.
White Noise, Underworld, and Libra by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo started me on my path to Wallace, having read these three of his novels before I finally got to Jest. I was thrilled to later find out that the two writers had correspondence, and that Wallace looked up to DeLillo as a major influence. DeLillo even spoke at Wallace’s funeral (page 13). Underworld is a particularly massive and rich undertaking, so go there if you need more of that in your scene. Lots of stuff in there about garbage and waste, so shades of the Concavity abound.
Gob’s Grief & The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
Mostly unrelated, these two books are brilliant. I recommend reading them in this order. GG takes place during the U.S. Civil War, and Walt Whitman is a main character. CH imagines a diluvian apocalypse wherein a children’s hospital serves as an ark. Magical realism of high order, this stuff. I saw Adrian give a reading at Buena Vista Park some years ago, and he was wearing a dog costume, so that’s tough to beat.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Pretty similar in style and tone to Wallace (footnotes included), Diaz introduces us to a nerdy loaner in the character of Oscar, with descriptions of comics, Dungeons and Dragons, and the romantic woes of someone with no game. Magical realism here too. Won the Pulitzer in 2008.
Anything by George Saunders
I’ve read Tenth of December, In Persuasion Nation, and Pastoralia by Saunders and they’re all brilliant. He’s a master short story writer. Wallace apparently loved CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which I still have to get to. Really similar themes of techno-paranoia, waste, and absurd consumerism like those in Jest. Saunders also spoke at Wallace’s funeral (page 15 of the above document with DeLillo), and speaks of him with great respect and fondness (like in this Charlie Rose interview starting at 22:40).
The Brothers K by David James Duncan
We hear of “the good old Brothers K.” in IJ in the scene with Barry Loach and his Jesuit brother, and this novel picks that up heavily. Like Jest, Dostoevsky’s work is engaged big-time here, also in a contemporary U.S. setting. Lots about baseball, growing up in post-WWII America, and the spiritual paths of four brothers, this book is super funny and very poignant.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
A thinly veiled depiction of Wallace, Leonard in this book seems to capture all the qualities and traits of Wallace himself, though casted as a Biology major rather than an English/Philosophy/Math guy. Like Eugenides’ other novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, this is a great read and sure to make Wallace fans smile. (Also won a Pulitzer)
The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony
Think Tommy Doocey but instead of being a drug dealer selling out of a camper in Massachusetts, the protagonist is a mute Hungarian dwarf selling meat out of one in Virginia: meet Rovar Pfliegman and the bizarre history he chronicles of his ancestors. Amazing cover by one of my favorite all-time artists Jacob Magraw-Mickelson.
The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
One of the wildest, most playful textual forms I’ve seen, this book is about a village that’s preparing to wage war against Saturn. The planet. Originally published by McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’ publishing company continues to put out my favorite magical realism hits (The Instructions, The Children’s Hospital, The Convalescent, and this).
The Pale King, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace
A novel, a collection of essays/journalism, and a short story collection, respectively, these three books are good places to go next if you want more Wallace. And if you made it this far, I wager you might.