We asked Lucas Thompson to answer a few questions about his studies on David Foster Wallace and his new book, Global Wallace: David Foster Wallace and World Literature.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
My book is an argument for reimagining David Foster Wallace as being not merely an American but also a global writer, whose project incorporates and responds to numerous world literary texts.
What drew to you writing about this subject?
I’ve loved Wallace’s fiction and non-fiction since I first stumbled across it. He’s always struck me as one of the most gifted contemporary American novelists of our time, who used his extraordinary talents to explore some of the deepest problems we face. His work engages with all kinds of philosophical and intellectual positions, and it often enacts really incisive forms of cultural criticism. And somehow, at the same time he’s also able to entertain and delight: he’s a great comic writer, and he’s written some of the most moving characters and emotionally powerful scenes in contemporary US fiction. For me, the ability to do all of this at once really sets him apart from the kinds of writers he’s usually associated with, and goes a long way toward explaining his diverse and enduring appeal.
There really are so many things going on at once in Wallace’s fiction, and I wanted to try and untangle a few of the strands that I found most interesting. As an Australian approaching US fiction from an outsider’s perspective, it always struck me that Wallace was being slightly shortchanged by being associated so relentlessly with an American literary tradition. When I first began thinking about the project, precursors such as Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, and Don DeLillo were being talked about a great deal, while many of the international figures I’d noticed Wallace invoke or reference (Jorge Luis Borges, for example, along with Manuel Puig, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and many others) were being overlooked. It seemed that there was something potentially significant about this omission, and I began to build a different argument by gathering references to a range of global figures from across Wallace’s extant publications – as well as from texts such as the interviews, profiles, letters, and archival materials of various kinds. These references started accumulating, and eventually coalesced into a broader argument about the unexpected importance of world literature to Wallace’s project as a whole.
How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?
I’d been reading Wallace’s work for a long time before I realized that the best way to test out my freewheeling and slightly unfocused theories would to try and write something about it. I began this research in 2012, and spent around four years researching and writing the book.
What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?
Wallace’s work is usually read in light of the American literary tradition, and his project is often seen as a response to the American postmodernists of the 1960s and 70s. This is in many ways a really productive starting point for interpreting his work, since his fiction does indeed engage in a dialogue with texts from this period. Yet what I argue in the book is that this US-centric mode of reading severely limits the kinds of things we are able to find and perceive in his fiction, since his own reading experiences and intellectual interests go far beyond the confines of the United States. I wanted show how deeply indebted Wallace was to Russian fiction, for instance, with several of his short stories and novels responding to various nineteenth-century Russian literary texts, and reveal how enamored he was across his career with various Latin-American figures. I also trace many of his French and Eastern European influences, and show how Wallace’s global understanding of race, ethnicity, and culture also plays out across his work.
What initially drew you to Literary Studies?
Across my own disciplinary training, I came across so many inspiring figures who modeled the kind of attentive and endlessly curious interpretive orientation needed to engage with literature, showing just how rich the pleasures of literary studies could be. One of the things I love about our discipline is how expansive it is – it really does encompass so many different sub-fields and speak to many other disciplines. I also like the fact that, as Lionel Trilling pointed out, almost everything you read will make you a better literary critic. Ultimately, I think that the kind of deep attention needed to do justice to literary texts of all kinds is perfect training for learning how to be more ethical and more engaged in life off the page.
Which Bloomsbury Lit Studies books have you read? Which are your favorites, and why?
Stephen J. Burn’s A Readers Guide to Infinite Jest (2003) was a profound influence on me when I first started reading David Foster Wallace, since it really unlocked many of the secrets of Infinite Jest and opened up the novel’s complexity and richness – much of which I’d missed on an initial reading. While working on this project, my thinking was also shaped by the vast range of critical texts Bloomsbury has published on Wallace, including Allard Den Dulk’s Existential Engagement in Wallace, Eggers, and Foer (2015), Mary K. Holland’s Succeeding Postmodernism (2013), Clare Hayes-Brady’s The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace (2016), and the edited collections David Foster Wallace and the Long Thing (2014) and Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy (2014). David Hering’s recent book, Fiction and Form (2016) was unfortunately published slightly too late to inform my own, but his analysis is really insightful, particularly on The Pale King and its highly unusual compositional history.
I’ve also learned an enormous amount from Mads Thomsen Rosendahl’s Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures (2008) and, more recently, have been enjoying Lou Jillett’s edited collection on Cormac McCarthy, Cormac McCarthy’s Borders and Landscapes (2016). In 2017, I’m really looking forward to reading forthcoming titles in the Literatures as World Literature series, edited by Thomas Oliver Beebee, which I see as being on a kind of continuum with Global Wallace – broadening our understanding of how various writers and national traditions can benefit from being repositioned inside much larger frames.
Lucas Thompson is a Research Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia. His primary research is on contemporary U.S. fiction and its intersections with world literature. Other research interests include aesthetics, affect, intertextuality, literary influence, and the relationship between film and literature. He is the author of Global Wallace, the first book in Bloomsbury's new series David Foster Wallace Studies.