October 16, 2017

Posted September 21, 2012 by D. K. Holm

As with James Dean, it is interesting to speculate what David Foster Wallace might have accomplished if if he had not committed suicide on Friday, September 11th, 2008. Wallace might have written an “ironic” and self-conscious group review of the two or three critical studies that were published while he was still alive. As a fan of David Simon’s The Wire, he might have covered for Rolling Stone the shooting of the first season of Treme in New Orleans. He might have commented somehow on the world of the Internet, or “reviewed” the fan movies recreating the filmography of James Incandenza in Infinite Jest. And if he hadn’t died, would he still be a character in novels by Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Richard Powers?
Some of these speculations are fueled by Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking Adult, 368 pages, $27.95, ISBN-13: 978-0670025923), New Yorker journalist D. T. Max’s brief account of a hideous inner life. The author of the bestselling-and-literary-landscape-changing Infinite Jest, Wallace was born into a competitive academic family of teachers and authors. His father is a philosophy professor and his mother a schoolteacher and grammarian, whose book Practically Painless English Wallace consulted in his own classes. Raised in rural Illinois, the Wallace family was on the surface placid but roiling with tensions underneath. Wallace bullied his younger sister. His father does not make much of an impression in Mr. Max’s book, but Mrs. Wallace was unhappy, moving out of the house at one point, though eventually the couple reunited. Wallace speculated that his mother was sexually abused by her own father. A Freudian might analyse that if this abuse happened1 it might account for the mother’s barrier-erecting grammatical hard lining and for some life experiences that Wallace may have fictionalized under the guise of the character Avril Incandenza. If this is true, as Max hints, knowing this puts limits on the mystery of the Avril character in the novel.

Wallace was apparently an oddity at school, with bad acne, a tendency to profuse sweating, and an unusually high level of self-consciousness, even for a typical American youth in the prison house of public school. These difficulties led to eccentric behavior, such as an excessive interest in hygiene, courtly manners vying with class clownism, a tendency to exaggerate for dramatic or comic effect which developed into a habit of remorseless lying that may have had a dire effect on his later journalism, and an academic aggressiveness clearly derived from the family environment but also fueled by what Wallace’s father discovered was his son’s unique intelligence. In order to stay ambivalently in the public eye, Wallace used his intelligence to be always the “smartest kid in the class,” scramble for As, and win prizes. This competitiveness carried over to Amherst, his father’s alma mater, where he produced no less than two theses, a philosophical tract, and the novelBroom of the System, which reflected his newfound interest in writing fiction. Yet throughout this time, Wallace’s ambivalence about wanting fame and attention honed the spikes of his self-consciousness, and he seems to have found solace from his teen years in liquor and marijuana, as well as a tendency towards self-dramatization. He had a few breakdowns in college, then had a controversial stint in an MFA program in Arizona, entered Harvard as a philosophy grad student, but dropped out after another breakdown. This initiated the darkest phase of Wallace’s life, at least until the end, during which he went through various recovery institutions, had a tempestuous relationship with memoirist Mary Karr, and still managed to produce a co-authored book on rap music, issue a collection of short stories, and embark on the project that resulted in Infinite Jest, the book that bumped Wallace into the stratosphere of coveted, envied writers, the perhaps unwilling “spokesman” for his “generation.” Meanwhile, Wallace was immersed in academia, as a writing professor in Illinois, and later in Pomona, where he met his wife, now widow, after what seems to be an unyielding stream of girlfriends, one night stands, and The Game level pussy-hounding, hard core roué behavior that sits at odds with his sensitive, prolix, groping, and emo public interviews, both in print and in video, many of them found on YouTube. After a few years of seeming marital happiness but creative blockage Wallace attempted to get off the anti-depressant he’d been taking since college, with drastic consequences that resulted in his suicide by hanging, his corpse displayed in a backyard patio for his wife to find upon returning from a contrived errand, and his last novel arrayed on his desk.

Wallace’s self-consciousness, which often seems calculated, was not particularly new. In 1926, T. E. Lawrence wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “I was very conscious of the bundled powers and entities within me; it was their character which hid. There was my craving to be liked – so strong and nervous that never could I open myself friendly to another. The terror of failure in an effort so important made me shrink from trying; besides, there was the standard; for intimacy seemed shameful unless the other could make the perfect reply, in the same language, after the same method, for the same reasons. There was a craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known. Contempt for my passion for distinction made me refuse every offered honour. I cherished my independence almost as did a Beduin, but my impotence of vision showed me my shape best in painted pictures, and the oblique overheard remarks of others best taught me my created impression. The eagerness to overhear and oversee myself was my assault upon my own inviolate citadel.” Lawrence’s push-pull of publicity craving and embarrassment about it, tripled by meta-analysis of that very ambivalence, mirrors Wallace’s as he strove for literary preëminence while trying not to see to be doing so while confessing in letters to others that this is exactly what he was doing while hating himself for doing it and backhandedly pleased that he had succeeded.

Nevertheless, Wallace’s self-consciousness made him a sensitive, analytic, and adept observer, at least as long as the observation emerged or reflected from his own emotional sensuality. In Infinite Jest, for example, “The early-November day is foggy and colorless. The sky and the street are the same color. The trees look skeletal. There is bright wet wadded litter all along the seams of street and curb. The houses are skinny three-deckers, mashed together, wharf-gray w/ salt-white trim, madonnas in the yards, bowlegged dogs hurling themselves against the fencing. Some schoolboys in knee-pads and skallycaps are playing street hockey on a passing school’s cement playground. Except none of the boys seems to be moving,” the passage ending with the striking, “The trees’ bony fingers make spell-casting gestures in the wind as they pass.” Or his characterization of sportsmen at rest: “I can picture deLint and White sitting with their elbows on their knees in the defecatory posture of all athletes at rest, deLint staring at his huge thumbs, while C.T. in the reception area paces in a tight ellipse, speaking into his portable phone.”

Wallace’s self-absorbed, so to speak, observations, striking as they are, nevertheless illuminate what might be a drawback in what would otherwise be an expansive literary career. In the end, all of Wallace’s work is really about himself. Thanks to Mr. Max’s excavations, we learn that not only are almost all the incidents in his novels and stories drawn Updikally from his own experiences2, but virtually every character in the books is a variation on himself. Even characters who might be examples of score-settling, such as clinically depressed pothead Kate Gompert inInfinite Jest, or the subject of “The Depressed Person,” apparently based on his short-lived quasi-romance with Elizabeth Wurtzel, clearly now are Wallace surrogates, as at one point Wallace admitted to a friend. Almost all the Incandenza siblings contain real life or imagined attributes of Wallace himself, Hal his pot-smoking, inner death,3 and public competence, Orin his Casanova ways and fetishes, and Mario his physical self-consciousness and homespun midwestern sincerity and guilelessness. Very rarely does Wallace really get into the head of a created character who is not in some way him. His imagination of effects of life on human beings seems to stop with his own flesh. This literary solipsism is masked by the dexterity and invention of his comic Pynchon – though really more DeLillo – inspired plot premises4 and his observational skill. When Wallace wasn’t writing about himself, he was getting back at someone through a character, a short story, or an essay. This is why Don Gately is his best creation – though as usual the product of novelistic reporting. Gately is wholly other from Wallace’s own experience, being a criminal, a sophisticated edge play addict, physically strong, fearless, unselfconscious, and noble, and yet Wallace manages to get into his head and into his life, in a sense blending their two lives into a brew redolent of the best of both their lives.

Yet one element of Wallace’s career that continues to be fascinating is its duality. Wallace started out in his college years as a disciple of John Barth and especially the Thomas Pynchon of The Crying of Lot 49, whose “post-modernism” and stories about story construction appealed to Wallace’s analytic and self-conscious bent. But after coping with drugs, breakdowns, and romantic chaos, Wallace began to drift to the “sincerity” side of Lionel Trilling’s dichotomy between sincerity and authenticity. The “moral” side of post-modernism was its “authenticity,” playing games straight, so to speak, with the reader so as to dismantle or unveil the machinations of fiction making, as ideally a moral project to assert something about our delusions and reflex habits. But in work from Infinite Jest on Wallace was more interested in the moral imperative of elucidating his own persona as representative of the self-questioning, addictive personalities, and quandaries of typical Americans, to whom he can speak to (more or less) directly by baring his own soul. If Broom of the System and its immediate successor short stories inspired a new brand of post-Pynchon literary posing, then Infinite Jest developed its own acolytes, too, the anti-ironic “new sincerity.” In this he reflects one of his heroes, Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose two intellectual careers developed competing streams of 20th century philosophy. Wallace’s characteristic verbal tic inInfinite Jest, the throat-clearing trio of conjunctions and adverb, “And so but,” derived from heard street speech, captures the excitable connectivity of everything, the somethingness of something, the results of it, and the demurral, or argument, contains in its weird way a shorthand the postmodern selfconsciousness and an earnest sincerity.

Mr. Max’s book offers a chronological account of Wallace’s life, with numerous facts previously not public knowledge, such as one of the most famous revelations, of Wallace’s contemplating murdering Mary Karr’s estranged husband in order to “facilitate” winning her, and much detail into the roots of many of his stories and novels with interesting insights into how they work. Though the book is not a critical biography, the reader may still be disappointed by its thinness, possibly founded on its beginnings as a magazine profile, especially when it comes to intriguing incidents mentioned only in passing, such as the lawsuit that the real Katherine Gompert brought against Wallace after the publication of the trade paperback version of Infinite Jest. And the natural human curiosity about what people look like is thwarted here by a lack of a photo section, so the reader can’t visualize Avril Incandenza as a version of Sally Wallace, or see what Ms. Gompert looked like, or track Wallace’s various girlfriends or pals and mentors. Sadly, also, the book has the feel of a final rush job.5 There are numerous typos, such as “gar” for car, and repetitious use of the certain phrases presented as new each time. Nevertheless, the style is clean and clear in the tradition of the mass monthly or weekly magazine, and inspires reflection on the “meaning” of Wallace in late 20th century American literature.

There is a larger concern for aficionados of Wallace’s work. A literary biography, especially a bio just some five years after the subject’s death, can do little more than to diminish the author’s life unless the biographer shows the empathy and identification that a Richard Ellmann, say, showed to James Joyce. The artistry can be overwhelmed by the minutiae of the subject’s personality, which in a brief bio become quirks. Wallace’s anger, his selfishness about his writing time, which is also understandable, his treatment of women, his brown-nosing, his disingenuous letters, at least as they appear in this book, his unsightly competitiveness, his magpie manners when it comes to other writers, not to mention his own life, and other traits, many of which could be tracked through the fiction without being necessarily attributed to their creator, knock the Wallace fan off his wheels, not unlike early bios of John Cheever, or more recently Joseph Heller, show the darker side of what it takes to become successful in publishing. Frankly, if one has literary ambitions, it makes one want to turn away from that world as just another futile endeavor, a racket saved for those with connections or a cold chip of ice in their heart. Wallace’s attraction to a few generations of males is lodged in the reader’s identification of Wallace as “one of us,” and his ability to communicate the inability to communicate, or at least to find an empathetic other, resonates with outsiders, whom these readers take him also to be. Wallace’s blend of emotional uninhibitedness with Kubrickian technical specificity and jargon are almost pro forma designed to make his appeal to a male sensibility that bitterly resents the isolation that average society confines them to, a life of singlehood paired with constant yearning and with interests that few can be found to share. Perhaps the antidote to this diminishment is to dive back into the waters of Wallace and start reading again.


A good place to start might be his third collection of essays [to be reviewed in this spot when released]. Published with near simultaneity is Wallace’s own posthumous Both Flesh and Not: Essays (Little, Brown and Company, 272 pages, $26.99, ISBN-13: 978-0316182379). This is not the first posthumous book, nor will it be the last. Readers someday can expect a preliminary collection of Wallace’s letters, a new and fuller version of Infinite Jest, a re-reëditedPale King, and a complete short stories.

1 Wallace’s belief in the abuse arose from therapy sessions and thus is highly suspect.

2 Which often led to legal problems.

3 A shorthand way of referring to Wallace’s candidacy as a victim of the culture of narcissism, as describe in Christopher Lasch’s book of that title, in which he lays out a personality type anchored by its belief in being a fraud who will eventually be caught out by others, yet also a deadened person capable only of thinking of themselves.

4 The pollution machinery of Infinite Jest seems to owe a lot to White Noise.

5 The book feels rushed even in its physicality. The paper is of a soft blend that is resistent to pen tips, rendering reviewer notes in the margin smeary things. The paper is like the stock used forJack and Jill magazine, though I remember as a kid especially loving the smell of it – maybe due to the ink.