When I first read William Faulkner, in high school, it felt less like reading a book and more like an archeological find—unearthing something long dormant that I’d always known. His cadence, and that humid, repetitious, biblical world of the South, tapped into something in my bones.
The first time I read David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children,” at my brother’s strenuous recommendation, it struck me the same way—whole cloth, True in the capital-letter sense of the word, so perfect I didn’t want to deconstruct it as a writer, lest I drain a bit of its magic. A writing teacher of mine once said that Wallace made a detailed outline of the story to render every gesture and pivot of the story’s tight timing flawless. I have never tried to verify that bit of information, but if indeed there was an outline, Wallace stitched the story together such that no seams show. It throbs with an urgency like a story you sit down and write in one headlong, rushing draft. Perfect on the first go.
It’s a story about parenthood, and the human condition, and though Wallace had no direct experience with the former, he was a master of empathy on every dimension of the latter. It’s a story that makes me think, every time I read it: this is what fiction can do.
Read it online in Esquire, where it was published April 21, 2009: