Student Research Projects

Human Connectivity in the Fiction of David Foster Wallace

Student Michael Connors, ‘13
Faculty Mentor(s)
Department English
Course ENG 489: Senior Capstone


Much of David Foster Wallace’s work, particularly his fiction, presents genuine human connection as a virtually impossible feat. Two of his short stories, “My Appearance” (1996) and “Good Old Neon” (2004), assert a parallel claim: sincere human connection is immensely difficult because of the media’s image-filled culture, the apparent need to fulfill a presupposed lifestyle, and the problematic nature that is inherent in language, since it too must be mediated. My research addresses the problem with connection that Wallace delineates through these two stories. I foreground my argument with theory developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard. Wittgenstein defines an important concept in my project: the nature of “language games” within society. Lyotard further develops this theory and introduces the term “performativity.” Baudrillard’s successive phases of the image help explain the nature of images as they appear in these stories. The archival research I completed on Wallace’s papers enabled me to compare the final published form of these stories with their original manuscripts and to reflect on correspondences between Wallace, his editors, and Don Delillo (a writer he overtly admired and was surely influenced by), to explore how Wallace approaches problems with human connection. Wallace posits that humans must shed preconceived ideas of an individual’s role within a language game and disregard vanity when it comes to one’s individual image even to attempt to connect to one another. Wallace is a major contemporary literary figure. From his first novel, The Broom of the System, to his posthumous novel, The Pale King, Wallace has shared important, urgent, humane ideas with the literary community. Although his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, draws the most attention from scholars, some of his most difficult, fundamental, and important problems are addressed in his short stories, of which “My Appearance” and “Good Old Neon” are no exception.