If I remember correctly, Tense Present (published in the April 2001 issue of Harper’s) was the first bit of writing I ever read by David Foster Wallace. I didn’t fall for him immediately. I liked the article fine, but as I thought more about it in the following weeks — particularly in light of other nonfiction I was reading in magazines and newspapers — the more I liked it. A quick search on the Web revealed that not only had this Wallace written more nonfiction for magazines, he’d written entire books and was considered by some to be the best young author writing in America. A few months later I read Infinite Jest and it was love.
Tense Present is one of the essays included in Consider the Lobster, a collection of nonfiction by Wallace due out on December 13th. It’s included under a new name (Authority and American Usage) and is, like many of the other pieces in the book, the “director’s cut” of the original, but re-reading it brought back good memories about, well, how good it was to discover Wallace’s writing.
Several of essays in CtL I’d read before, including the title essay from the Aug 2004 issue of Gourmet (which according to Gourmet EIC Ruth Reichl almost didn’t make it into the magazine at all). I read The View From Mrs. Thompson’s in Rolling Stone shortly after 9/11 and remember thinking that it was the best reaction to 9/11 that I’d seen, but reading it again 4 years later, the impact wasn’t quite the same…until the last 2-3 paragraphs when you remember that he spends the whole essay setting the table so he can hit you with the whole meal in one mouthful and you then spend several hours attempting to digest what you’ve just read.
The View… and Up, Simba, a piece on John McCain’s 2000 bid for President that also ran in Rolling Stone (at half the length under the title The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub), were my favorites, but they’re all so good (if you enjoy reading nonfiction in Wallace’s signature style, which I very much do). A common complaint of Wallace’s writing is that it’s not very straightforward, even though clarity seems to be his purpose. I don’t mind the challenge the writing provides; I read Wallace for a similar reason Paul is reading surrealist poetry, to make my brain work a little bit for its reward. In The End of Print, David Carson outlined his design philosophy in relation to its ultimate goal, communication. Carson used design to make people work to decipher the message with the idea that by doing that work, they would be more likely to remember the message. I’d like to think that Wallace approaches his writing similarly.