"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.
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."