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Friday, September 28, 2012

A Few Thoughts On Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace


"Infinite Jest, for all its putative difficulty, cares about the reader, and if it denies him or her a conventional ending, it doesn’t do so out of malice; it does it out of concern, to provide a deeper palliative than realistic storytelling can, because, just as in Ennet House, you have to work to get better.”
That is my favorite passage in D.T. Max's new biography of my favorite writer. It almost perfectly captures what I've thought about Infinite Jest since I first finished (and loved!) it. Hey, you get out of it what you put into it, to use an annoying platitude that DFW would've probably hated.

If you're a DFW fan, this biography does a great job of filling in the meat on the bones of a lot of piecemeal anecdotes or generalities you probably already knew about him. Yes, he battled lifelong depression, managed with a drug called Nardil. Yes, he was a passionate prescriptivist and a "hard-core syntax wienie." Yes, he wrote Infinite Jest based much on his own experience in rehab and a halfway house in the late '80s after his own drug and alcohol addiction nearly brought him down. And yes, trying to figure out how to write The Pale King is what practically killed him — he wasn't blocked, per se, he just couldn't figure out how the book should come together, and he thought going off the Nardil might help. It didn't.

The biography assumes you've read most of DFW's work, and includes a lot of literary theory. Max spends much ink in the early part of the bio discussing DFW's early thrall with Derrida, Barth and Wittgenstein, and how these thinkers manifest in his first novel The Broom of the System, which he wrote during his undergraduate days at Amherst, and published while working on his MFA at Arizona. "For Wallace, the great flaw of most fiction was that it was content to display the symptoms of the current malaise rather than solve it," Max explains.

I won't lie to you, these theory sections (even interspersed with tales of boozing and philandering with women) were dull and difficult — and probably even duller if you've never read DFW's first novel or his collection Girl With Curious Hair, which is anchored by his nearly impenetrable novella, Westward The Course of Empire Take Its Way. Indeed, the first part of the bio — as many chronological bios are — was the least interesting. But I did love this idea, about DFW's first days at Amherst: "There was a moment in many of his fellow students' lives when they realized Wallace was not just smart but stunningly smart, as smart as anyone they had ever met."

After rehab, though, DFW "converted" to an advocate for "single-entendre" writing. As he stalked the poet and memoirist Mary Karr, he produced the novel for which he'll be forever known,. This is the most fascinating section of the bio, to me. Max discusses the aftermath of getting clean, his trouble with women, writing, and then cutting and editing Infinite Jest while teaching at Illinois State.

The last third of the bio discusses DFW's new fame — and his discomfort with it. Even though DFW claimed to have never heard of Nirvana until after Cobain committed suicide (a dubious claim, DFW's friends say), Max argues that there are some parallels between Nirvana, and other music of the early '90s, and Infinite Jest. ("The chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" paralleled Wallace's portrait of a generation addicted to media with its assertion that everyone was 'stupid and contagious...Here we are now, entertain us.'")

For the rest of his life, DFW wrestled with his fiction. He published two more volumes of short stories (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion) and some fantastic non-fiction. His 2006 essay on Roger Federer in The New York Times Magazine is, in my view, the standard by which all other sports journalism should be judged. But it was his next "Long Thing" that he could never quite get right. He wasn't a perfectionist, but his inability to "figure out" what exactly The Pale King should be was his undoing. He decided to try new meds in 2007, but his anxiety increased and depression worsened, and on the night of Sept. 12, 2008, he hung himself. Max: "This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but was the one he had chosen."


10 comments:

  1. I just discovered DFW last year. Infinite Jest is on my very short list.

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    1. My advice to you is to read...and read deeply! ;)

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    2. Slowly too. Don't be afraid to take two or three months. It's better savored slow.

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  2. I want to get into DFW's works. Where to start? Thanks for the Federer article link; will read. Did DFW and Karr have a relationship? Or no? It's a terrible awful shame that he's gone

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    1. Maybe this'll help get you started: http://bookriot.com/2011/10/27/reading-pathways-david-foster-wallace/

      Yes, Karr and DFW did have a relationship, though it was rather tumultuous. (Is there any other kind of artist relationship?) He stalked her, basically, while she was still married, and when her marriage ended, they "dated" for awhile, but wound up not...um...getting along well.

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  3. As excited as I was about the idea of a biography of DFW, I'm not sure about this one. Knowing myself, I'll probably end up reading it anyway, but Max seemed to spend a lot of energy trying to say DFW was brilliant and show how good he understood him. Which is 1) What all his fans know and 2)What all his fans do.

    Not sure who's up to the task, but it doesn't seem to me D.T Max is the right guy for the job. But I haven't read it, so I might do and fall in love with it.

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    1. I didn't get the impression Max tried to put himself up as understanding DFW better than anyone else could. He spends a fair amount of time in literary theory and explaining the origins of DFW's works, but that's legitimate for any bio. And he admits in the first line of the acknowledgements that he never met DFW. Maybe Franzen or Costello would produce a more "personal" bio of DFW, but this one is solid for what it is, I think.

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  4. I liked that it was subtitled "A Life of David Foster Wallace" instead of "The Life" since it allows it to be one (of which there will certainly be many) interpretations of it.

    Minor quibbles over the book aside (occasionally Max seems to speculate too much about what DFW was thinking at this point, or that point without a source), I really enjoyed the whole thing.

    It has also reinvigorated my stagnating attempt at finished Infinite Jest too, so... that's something.

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  5. Amazing details derived from research rather than personal knowledge. Made me want to read more DFW as well as the books he and his friends read. Thank you for this loving work.

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  6. I would encourage any writer to take a look at this biography. Much is said of Wallace's writing process, which I think many will find fascinating. Parts of the book will make you love DFW all the more, others will make you despise the kind of person he was. I came away sad that I hadn't gotten the chance to ever talk with the guy or just be his friend. The fact of the matter is: love him or hate him, DFW is a guy whose legacy we can hardly ignore.

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