He's my favorite writer. I love everything he wrote. A fellow DFW-er sent me this link to a New Yorker article about him published after his death, and it's alarming to read about how dissatisfied he was with so much of his work. I think it's pretty flawless, but who am I?
There are three things that strike me most about his writing: the obscure details that stick in your head, the way that he seems to be challenging or testing you, and the distinctive voices of his dialog.
I just read a book about what makes great writing, and one of the author's points was that we believe something because of the details. If the details are free of cliches and resonate with us, the author can lead us anywhere and we'll follow. I think Wallace was a master of this. I remember a character who compulsively smoothed down the crease in the front of his trousers when he was nervous. A woman who was paranoid that when she was one the phone, the person on the other end was making that circular "on and on" gesture with their hands to someone else in the room. A drugged-out party where the music on the stereo was a Wings song that had been messed with so that all that was left to hear was Linda McCartney singing timid back-up vocals and shaking a tambourine. How do you make this stuff up? Is it not genius?
Footnotes, and plenty of them, pop up in many of Wallace's books. They are one of the somewhat challenging elements. Can you skip them? No, they're part of the book. But that doesn't mean that all of his tangents are logical or easy to follow. He's a master of minutiae, no detail too small to be included. His explanations of tennis, for example, may be a little more information that you needed, but he's certainly thorough. Some of his more experimental pieces appear in a collection of short stories called Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and I almost feel at points like he's seeing just how far you'll follow him, what you'll let him try. I feel like that engages me in a way that most writers don't. It adds another layer to the experience of reading.
When I read a book, there are times that I don't really hear the dialog. It doesn't sound like a person talking, it sounds like a writer flapping the mouth of a puppet. Wallace's dialog sounds like real people, with real rhythms and ums and bumbles. His use of language is just inspiring, and I love that he loved grammar and usage and syntax, and played with it and showed that it wasn't boring stuff.
I'm really sad that he's dead. Sad for all the books he'll never write.