One of the essays written by David Foster Wallace in his collection, Consider The Lobster is ‘Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky’, a lengthy review of the Princeton and Stanford scholar Joseph Frank’s four volume biography of the Russian novelist. A thoughtful and detailed review, Wallace doesn’t shy away from looking in depth at the hardcore criticism and theory that Frank is working with in his biography.
David Foster Wallace, like Dostoyevsky, is one of the people you just have to try. The two have a lot in common. Both are the sort of writers who are good to have read if you’re headed to a cocktail party, both write long and involved books that grapple consciously with the serious philosophical questions that end up defining what it is to be a human being. This underlying theme in Dostoyevsky’s work is acknowledged by Wallace through asterisked sections listing off some the questions which preoccupy Dostoyevsky; ‘What exactly does faith mean?’, or ‘Am I a good person?’. While this stylistic trope can seem confusing, superfluous or even pretentious, Wallace manages to get to the bottom of what Dostoyevsky aimed to address.
When people talk about Wallace, they often talk about the ‘New Sincerity’. The cultural movement which looks fondly back to the honest and sincere literature produced before post-modernism, and which distances itself from the gutless aestheticisms of novels after Joyce. The Stanford scholar Cynthia Haven equates Dostoyevsky with what literary fiction had lost: “Who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoyevskys?”, she asks.
Wallace similarly sees Dostoyevsky as a throw-back to a time of philosophical confidence, writing: “The big thing that makes Dostoyevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, and conviction and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here today, cannot or do not permit ourselves.”
What Wallace sees in Dostoyevsky, he tries to emulate in his own fiction. The really hot thing about Infinite Jest, Wallace’s gargantuan magnum opus about addiction and tennis, is that it reaches a couple of half-formed conclusions in answer to the questions Dostoyevsky’s asking.
In the last 200 pages of Infinite Jest, a truly extraordinary example of modern fiction, Wallace depicts a wounded demerol addict resisting the offer of anaesthetic. Describing the pain is dealt with, he writes: “He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. Here was a second right here: he endured it…he could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there.” Wallace suggests that we can manage if we just stick with our convictions and endure, or Abide, to use one of his favourite words.
After finishing Infinite Jest, the reader is left with a sense of cautious optimism; despite the moral labyrinth of personhood, there is – Wallace posits, a passage though. Similarly, Dostoyevsky is important because he engages. In a way that’s unusual in a lot of modern literature, novels like Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov take the reader by the horns and demands that we think about the basic problems of the moral world we inhabit. As Wallace famously quipped, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being”. Dostoyevsky is about what it means to be a fucking human being, and that’s why he matters.