The New Sincerity & David Foster Wallace

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The New Sincerity & David Foster Wallace

The idea of “New Sincerity,” which was especially noted in popular culture of the 1990s, drew a large amount of its nominal popularity from the essay work of David Foster Wallace. Lately, the emotional sentiment of this sensibility has seemed to find a stronghold in the current creative culture as well, where it has seemed to creep like a vine along book spines, along the edges of movie theater screens, and even float above the bars of music we listen to. 

The following titles provide a distinct window into the themes and format of the "New Sincerity" cultural movement; these books and this movement are especially interesting to revisit today because, although he is a person whose flaws have been well documented, Wallace’s attempts to be prophetic or anticipatory, have proved unexpectedly prescient.  

Note: All titles are linked to their physical copies, and many are available as library e-books or e-audiobooks with OverDrive and its app Libby. 

Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace
A posthumous essay collection, this book includes essays by Wallace that discuss topics ranging from professional tennis (one of Wallace’s most prominent interests) to book reviews of an experimental novel and a poetry collection -- and other topics ranging from Terminator 2 to (then) contemporary politics. Collected after his death, these essays span a wide range of Wallace’s preoccupations and are slightly less well known than some of the works published while he was still alive.

Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace
Girl with Curious Hair follows Wallace's familiar tone as it explores his remarkable and unsettling reimaginations of reality. From the eerily "real," almost holographic evocations of historical figures like Lyndon Johnson and over-televised game-show hosts and late-night comedians to the title story, where terminal punk nihilism meets Young Republicanism, Wallace renders the incredible comprehensible, the bizarre normal, the absurd hilarious, and the familiar strange.

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace 

Published when he was only 24 and was written as his senior thesis at Amherst College, The Broom of the System is a quirky and chaotic take on a slightly alternate-reality version of Cleveland, OH in the (then future) year 1990. Replete with systemic absurdity and anxieties, the book follows Lenore, a switchboard attendant at a publishing firm, who, in addition to her mind-numbing job, has a few other problems. Namely: her great-grandmother, a one-time student of Wittgenstein, has disappeared with twenty-five other inmates of the Shaker Heights Nursing Home. Her beau (and boss), editor-in-chief Rick Vigorous, is insanely jealous. And her cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler, has suddenly started spouting an amalgamation of psychobabble, Auden, and the King James Bible, some of which may propel him to stardom on a Christian fundamentalist television program. Fiercely intelligent and entertaining, this debut novel explores the paradoxes of language, storytelling, and reality.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace 
The preeminent Wallace title skates tonally between being a philosophical quest and a screwball comedy. It feels astonishingly prosaic because of the almost unfathomable (to my mind) technological leaps and exacerbation of social and political discord. In looking at it through the lens of Wallace’s analysis of New Sincerity, it is not outlandish that it feels cutting, but also quite sweet (if, like the author himself, perhaps occasionally misguided). Set in an addicts' halfway house and a tennis academy -- and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction -- Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives, how our desire for it affects our need to connect with other people, and what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. As is well stated by its publisher, it is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human -- and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Unfinished at the time of Wallace’s death, this posthumously published final novel touches on contemporary absurdity of mid-2000s capitalism and the boredom it provokes is deeply compelling and satisfying -- harkening to questions of life’s meaning and the value of work in society while speaking with the voices of characters crafted with great interiority and generosity. A Pulitzer Prize Finalist, the novel is nominally about IRS Agents working out of an office in Peoria, Illinois but because it is a novel by Wallace, the deep reflections on humanity make it something special to read.

This is Water by David Foster Wallace
My personal favorite book of Wallace’s, This is Water is another non-fiction title -- taken from his speech (his only public talk) at Kenyon College. It is built as little snippets of wisdom that demonstrate incisively and poignantly what he thinks about life and who he feels himself to be, as well as hoped for himself to become. The book is earnest advice for how to be compassionate and is well-worth a read.

Looking to go deeper into Wallace's writing? Check out additional titles written by him or cast a wider net to include titles by or about him. Two additional such resources I recommend are The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace edited by Ralph Clare and The David Foster Wallace Reader by David Foster Wallace.