D.T. Max takes on the life of David Foster Wallace
D.T. Max knew what he was getting into when he decided to write a biography of David Foster Wallace. In March 2009, he published a long piece in the New Yorker about Wallace’s suicide and the author’s inability to finish “The Pale King,” the novel left incomplete at the time of his death.
“It was 10,000 words, an immensity,” Max says of his New Yorker article by phone from Long Island, where he is spending the last dwindling days of summer with his family. But even then, he knew there was more to say. Max wanted to get to know the intricacies of Wallace’s life more fully. “I felt,” he recalls, “the piece made everything seem fated for his sad ending. No one lives like that.”
This is the difficulty of reckoning with Wallace, four years after he hanged himself at age 46 in Claremont, where he moved in 2003 to teach at Pomona College. How do we frame his life as more than tragic, as a triumph even, albeit with a tragic end?
Throughout his career, Wallace wrote about suicide and depression — in the story “The Depressed Person,” in his epic novel “Infinite Jest.” His first published piece of fiction, “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” is a thinly veiled bit of autobiography about an early breakdown; his 1995 essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” uses a week on a cruise ship as a metaphor for a desolation that is abiding and profound.
And yet, despite his ongoing intimacy with depression, Wallace came to stand for a staunchly moral approach to literature, constructed, Max believes, around “the sense that life was always worth living thoughtfully.”
That’s one of the central arguments, and achievements, of “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace” (Viking: 356 pp., $27.95). Among the most anticipated books of the fall, it is the first biography of the author. Max, a New Yorker staff writer, also wrote “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery.” Although he never knew Wallace, he responded to him both as a reader and as a contemporary, someone trying to make sense of the same culture, the same world.
“When I finished the article,” Max says, “a lot of ideas were still percolating in my head. First, his insistence on looking out for the reader. But even more, you’d have to be blind not to see his effect on people — young women with ‘This Is Water’ tattoos, young men with dog-eared copies of ‘Infinite Jest.’ It was thrilling to see a writer have this kind of influence, especially in what we think of as a post-literary age.” He pauses, then adds, as if sharing a confidence: “Also, I wanted to read ‘Infinite Jest’ again.”
For Max, as for many others, “Infinite Jest” is “indisputably” Wallace’s masterpiece, a 1,000-pages-plus novel about commodification, tennis and addiction that means to do for its moment what precursors such as Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” did for theirs. Published in 1996, at the end of a difficult period for Wallace, it was both a deeply personal look at our culture of illusion and spectacle and an ambitious statement of intent. Since its publication, it has galvanized readers both privately and publicly; in 2009, it inspired the Infinite Summer Project, a Web-based collective effort to read and interpret the book.
“Like all real literature,” Max says, “it’s very hard to put your thumb on why ‘Infinite Jest’ matters. But 16 years out, it captures millennial America better than the books that sought to capture millennial America, not just in predicting corporate sponsorship and media saturation, but also in the delicate placement of literature as a mirror in which we see the present, yet refracted, broken up.”
This sense of fragmentation, of diffusion, is a key component of the novel, which involves three overlapping plot lines, including a revealing meditation on recovery (Wallace spent years in 12-step programs for drugs and alcohol). Although it has been called the first novel of the digital age, Wallace saw it differently. “This is sort of what it’s like to be alive,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “You don’t need to be on the Internet to feel this way.” Still, his sense of overload, of the insistent incursion of the inconsequential (he would later call it “Total Noise”) runs throughout the book like a warning of things to come.
“David wanted to write realistic fiction for a world that was no longer real,” Max explains, “and yet he also worried he was adding to the noise.” In “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,” Max uses a phrase of Wallace’s — “making the head thrum heartlike” — to get at the tension that drove his work.
“Everyone says ‘Infinite Jest’ is difficult to read,” Max notes, but for him, that’s mostly a function of the novel’s length and tendency to digress. Indeed, looking back over the last decade and a half, one might argue that we have grown into the novel, experiencing as a circumstance of daily life the multilayered textures of Wallace’s fictional world. Even so, Max admits, one of his motivations in writing the biography is to “serve as a platform for ‘Infinite Jest,’ and especially the first 200 pages, which can seem trackless and wild.”
As to why this is important, Wallace continues to be present in a way most dead writers don’t. Partly, it’s his age; were he alive now, he would be only 50, in the middle of his career. He is still the object of a fiercely loyal fan base, who may or may not want to see him as he is in these pages — conflicted, tormented even, alternately cruel and generous, beset with doubt.
Even more, four years after his suicide, the wound remains fresh. For the book, Max talked to all the principals: Wallace’s family, including his widow, Karen Green; his agent Bonnie Nadell (full disclosure: She is my agent also) and editors Michael Pietsch and Gerald Howard; friends such as his college roommate Mark Costello, and Jonathan Franzen, with whom he shared a complex literary rivalry; former lovers such as poet and memoirist Mary Karr. Max portrays each of them in three dimensions; one of the revelation here is just how toxic some of these relationships, especially the one with Karr, could be.
And yet there is nothing sensational about Max’s writing, which blends the critical and the reportorial, always cycling back to the connection between Wallace and his writing. “David touched people in a special way,” Max notes, “and I wanted to respect their grief. People were processing their grief, and a real part of processing is sharing. The hard part was that these memories are still developing. Many of those I interviewed didn’t know what they remembered, so I had to go back to them again and again.”
That’s a fascinating observation, highlighting not just the challenges of a biography such as this one, written so closely after the death of its subject, but also of Wallace’s work. His project, after all, involved a similar sifting, an obsessive noticing, which grew increasingly pronounced from book to book.
In some ways, perhaps, this may have helped undo him; after “Infinite Jest,” he never completed another novel, although he did publish two story collections, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and “Oblivion,” notable for their interiority, as if the only real life is the life within. Such a sensibility too marks “The Pale King,” released in unfinished form in 2011, which seeks transcendence in the stultifying routines of the day-to-day.
“David kept setting the bar higher,” Max says. “He refused to write the same book twice. He struggled to be a better person than nature made him, a more empathetic writer than nature made him. That is the courage of his life.”
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