One of the things that Wallace is very, very good at is what you might call cultural diagnosis. He sees clearly what challenges people of our age face, and he creates the characters who exemplify them. It is a common experience to find yourself reading about a character whom you feel you know, and to feel moreover that he has somehow nailed in detail the features of that person that are at their center but you never really managed to articulate for yourself. His most interesting characters face challenges of one sort or another that are characteristic of the modern age.
The challenges I’m most interested in are the ones that revolve around what he once called the “stomach-level sadness” of Americans around the turn of the millennium. I think that phrase, and the way it gets spelled out in his work, is recognizable to a lot of people. I also admire his attempt to articulate a response to that sadness though, as we argue in the book, I think the response that he most often lights upon is ultimately not a livable one. Still, I think his diagnosis of the problem is often very satisfying.
So here’s a question. Suppose you had to assign one piece by DFW to a freshman Gen Ed class, and suppose you wanted the one that would leave them feeling, “Yes, I now really understand something about the world I live in, and the challenges I am faced with living in it, that I didn’t really understand before!” It seems to me that Wallace is the person most likely to have written that piece. But I can’t figure out exactly which one it is.
This is not an idle question. The graduate seminar I am now running is devoted to putting together such a course, and I begin to think that it should start with Wallace. That’s roughly what we do in the book as well, but in the book I had the luxury to skip back and forth among a lot of different pieces, since I could just fill in the background as needed. Courses don’t really work that way, though. They need to be focused mostly on a single reading that your typical Freshman can read the night before in one sitting. Which piece by Wallace do you think will do the trick? Or is there some other author you think I should look to?