The ‘Radically Condensed’ project

David Foster Wallace is primarily known as an author of novels, in particular his 1996 magnum opus, the 1,079 page long Infinite Jest. In terms of page count, that book alone accounts for a significant portion of Wallace’s published work – the total page counts for Wallace’s other two novels, his short story collections, and his essay collections each fail to match Infinite Jest. Conversely, Wallace’s three novels account for only a quarter of his published works (for more on this theme, see Marshall Boswell’s preface to his edited collection, David Foster Wallace and “The Long Thing”: New Essays on the Novels (London: Bloomsbury, 2014),

Boswell makes a strong case to justify this categorisation of Wallace, but this project posits that there is an equally strong case for considering Wallace as an author who operated primarily in short fiction, regardless of the foundation of his critical reception on the strength of his great novel. On average, Wallace published a book (including, as Boswell does, the posthumous publications of The Pale KingThis is Water, and Both Flesh and Not) once every two years – an impressive legacy considering the length of some of those books. However, this is not the complete story – between those ‘major’ works Wallace published well over 50 short stories in various journals and magazines, and many more journalistic articles, although these regrettably fall beyond the scope of this project.

Many of these stories received more ‘canonical’ publication in book form in the years following their initial publication. Some were collected into the three story collections – Girl with Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), and Oblivion: Stories (2004) – some became sections of the three novels – The Broom of the System (1987), Infinite Jest (1996), and The Pale King (2011) – and many remain uncollected.

In the five years leading up the publication of Infinite Jest, 11 sections of it were published in journals and magazines as stories. (Whether the story was presented simply as a standalone short story or explicitly as an excerpt of an upcoming longer work most likely varies between publications.) A twelfth, ‘Church Not Made With Hands’, was published in 1992 bearing the subtitle ‘excerpted from Infinite Jest‘, but was later published as a standalone story in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. This last fact alone has potentially fascinating repercussions on our understanding of Infinite Jest and Wallace’s method, and raises many urgent questions: did Wallace submit any drafts to Michael Pietsch that included ‘Church Not Made With Hands’ as a chapter of the novel? Was the story depicted in the short story ever developed further, with the intention of including it in the novel? How would this impressionistic story fit into the world of the Organization of North American Nations and Subsidized Time? And how are the seemingly disparate characters of ‘Day’, the mononymous protagonist of ‘Church Not Made With Hands’, and Geoffrey Day, the precocious recovering drug addict in Infinite Jest, connected?

About 80% of Wallace’s short fiction published in journals and magazines corresponds to a story published in a collection book or to a section of a novel, a fact which challenges the notion – albeit one apparently encouraged by the author himself – of Wallace as a novelist foremost, and a short story writer secondarily. The Hegelian antithesis to this consensus view of Wallace is to consider – based on a knowledge of his bibliography that extends beyond the books – that Wallace was primarily a writer of short fiction, albeit one adept at reworking a significant percentage of his stories into novels.

This ‘reworking’ is the focus of this project, demonstrated in the post below with reference to Wallace’s shortest story, ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’, from which this site takes its name. (Perversely, the method of this task is not one of radical condensation but in fact on of opening up, expanding Wallace’s oeuvre beyond the six major works (i.e. books) of fiction and exposing the numerous minor works that precede them.) It is hoped that, by applying this forensic method to the stories that were revised from their original publication in journals for inclusion in Wallace’s novels or short story collections, a more accurate synthesis of Wallace-as-novelist and Wallace-as-short-story-writer may be achieved, and that insights into his writing method may be inferred.


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