SEPTEMBER 9, 2012
WHEN DAVID FOSTER WALLACE committed suicide on September 12, 2008, at the age of 46, it was inevitable that we’d eventually read a biography of his life. He was, after all, widely considered to be the greatest writer of his generation, an author of prodigious range and talent who was not only an American literary innovator, but also one of those rare experimental writers who found a way to attract a small army of loyal fans. He broke genuinely new ground not only in his fiction (which inaugurated nothing less than a post-postmodern wave of writing) but also in his nonfiction and journalism (it’s frankly hard to imagine writers like Wells Tower and John Jeremiah Sullivan doing what they do without Wallace’s example).
What wasn’t inevitable is that we’d have a biographer as sensitive and careful as D.T. Max to give us such a strong account so soon after the author’s death. The resulting book, released a little less than four years after Wallace’s suicide, is Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, which grew out of Max’s widely read 10,000-word New Yorker article, “The Unfinished.” After reading Max’s moving book, I have been haunted by a question that I’m finding incredibly hard to answer.
What would David Foster Wallace have made of his own biography?
I ask this question in two senses. First, there’s the relatively straightforward dilemma of what role biography should play in our understanding of the meaning of an artist’s work. If it’s a mistake to read the work of a writer through his biography, then Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story cannot help but be an exercise in gossip-mongering, an exploitation — however well-meaning, however skillfully wrought — of the culture of celebrity that has since the 1980s overtaken publishing, just as it has colonized more or less every other sphere of American life. Wallace would simply be the latest Famous Man to have his writing subordinated to his book jacket photo. That the cover of this book is a large, pleasant headshot of Wallace — that the subject of this book was himself so notably anxious about appearing in public, in performing himself for the mass media — suggests the problems Wallace might have had reading his own biography, even before opening the book itself. (Perhaps Thomas Pynchon was, all along, right to run from those who have tried to photograph him.)
And yet this objection is hard to sustain. As Max reveals, Wallace’s writing and his life were deeply intertwined, in ways that reward careful biographical analysis. The author’s ruminations on suicide, depression, addiction, and the devilish double binds of contemporary consciousness were not themes he just happened to write about but were the very ones of his life. Artists are always also human beings, and however badly celebrity culture corrupts our relationship to the fact of their humanity, biography nonetheless remains essential to a full appreciation of their work. It was Viking’s marketing department that probably chose Max’s book’s cover, after all. Though he felt that readers would make what they would of his writing, Wallace ultimately conceived of his art as an act of communication between two distinct but equally real minds. Would it be so much of a fallacy then to care what was going on in his intricate mind as he was composing his many masterpieces?
Whatever the man himself would have thought, I confess that I’m a David Foster Wallace obsessive, a reluctant but steadfast fan of celebrity culture, and a bit of a gossip, so I read Max’s book with gusto, not too troubled by what Wallace himself might have thought. I flew through its emotionally punishing pages, raptly absorbing any new information I could find about Wallace’s life and thought. The obsessive will already, through osmosis, have picked up a lot of the details and the broad structure of the story that Max tells, thanks in no small part to his enlightening New Yorker profile. Nonetheless, there are lots of little surprises, and a few big ones.
We learn definitively, as others have already noted, that Wallace voted for Ronald Reagan. We learn that he once attempted to purchase a weapon with the intent of murdering the then-husband of Mary Karr. Max confirms speculation that Wallace stayed at Granada House, a halfway home in Allston, Massachusetts, which also inspired large parts of his 1996 magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Most intriguingly, and controversially, Max sheds new light on a cryptic comment Jonathan Franzen made in a discussion with David Remnick at The New Yorker Festival in 2011. Wallace, it becomes clear from Max’s account, frequently fabricated details of his reportage, changed key facts, and merged characters, basically giving himself license to invent in his nonfiction.
Whether this revelation is treated as a Mike Daisy-like transgression of the reader’s trust or a David Sedaris-like Playful Romp Entirely To Be Expected of an author like Wallace remains to be seen, but our view of Wallace’s journalism will have to change after reading Max’s bio, not only on ethical but also on literary-historical grounds. What previously seemed like Wallace’s intensive hyperattention, his superhuman, Sherlock Holmes-like ability to walk into a room and notice every tiny detail surrounding him, now might have to be regarded as hyperinvention, an ability to loquaciously spin countless plausible-sounding details that successfully simulate minute observation. If one wanted to imagine what a more mainstream version of Wallace’s fiction would have looked like, one need only turn to his journalism, Max implies.
All of which will make for fascinating debates in a journalism classroom, no doubt, but misses the vastly more important point: the reason many of us want to read a biography about David Foster Wallace in the first place. That is, many of us love Wallace not for who he was, but for what he wrote and how he wrote. Whatever the status of his journalism, his sentences changed American literature. His prose yoked technical description, surprising observations, philosophical puzzles, and heartrending dilemmas to a syntax that managed to be both informal and punishingly rigorous. Wallace wanted to contrive new forms of writing adequate to our times. The story of his life is, among other things, the story of his struggle with words, his effort to come up with new kinds of American sentence through which to measure and remake our world. Indeed, his life might be described as an effort to take the chaos of the contemporary United States and find a formal analogue for its madness, sadness, and zaniness.
This is one of the overt subjects of Wallace’s long conversation with David Lipsky, originally conducted for a Rolling Stone profile, published as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself in 2010.
DFW: But there’s also, there’s ways that experimental and avant-garde stuff can capture and talk about the way the world feels on our nerve endings, in a way that conventional realistic stuff can’t.
Lipsky: I disagree. I’m a realism fan. You agree?
DFW: It imposes an order and sense and ease of interpretation on experience that’s never there in real life. I’m talking about the stuff, you know, what’s hard or looks structurally strange — or formally weird — I mean some of that stuff can be very cool.
Lipsky: But Tolstoy’s books come closer to the way life feels than anybody, and those books couldn’t be more conventional.
DFW: Yeah, but life now is completely different than the way it was then. Does your life approach anything like a linear narrative? I’m talking about the way it feels, how our nervous system feels.
Given the view Wallace articulates in this conversation — given that Wallace’s readers like the formal convolutions of his work — some of us might have hoped that Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story would be a thousand-page, massively endnoted biography capable of matching how contemporary American life felt as it battered the author’s frazzled nervous system. What we have instead is a longer version of Max’s very fine New Yorker profile, written, sentence after sentence, chapter after chapter, in perfectly balanced, perfectly linear magazine prose. (It’s notable that Wallace’s nonfiction never appeared in The New Yorker, was never subjected to its punctilious fact-checkers).
Which means that the better way to rephrase the question I asked above is, In what style would David Foster Wallace have wanted his biography to be written?
The story of Wallace’s life makes it hard to say whether it should be written in experimental, fractured prose or in sentences that are right at home on the pages of The New Yorker, but our effort to answer the question — and this is the most important one that must be asked of Max’s book — necessarily recapitulates the major intellectual and artistic struggle of Wallace’s life, a struggle he never found a way to overcome. Wallace spent years battling those who would domesticate his sentences and put a harness on his imagination.
From the beginning, he was a massive success in his academic classes — philosophy, French, literature — but struggled with an academic creative writing system too obtuse and self-involved to help him flourish. He was an intellectual superstar who wanted to make his name in a field where intellect is not enough.
At Amherst, he took only one creative writing class, with a visiting writer, Alan Lelchuk. As Max reports, things did not go well:
Wallace submitted a story; Lelchuk told him the writing was shallow and tricky, “philosophy with zingers.” The young man would have, Lelchuk remembers, a clever thought and then “three wise-ass sentences around it.” Lelchuk called Wallace in to discuss it with him, expecting the student might get angry and quit the class. He told Wallace that he could be a philosopher or a writer, and if he wanted to be a writer, Lelchuk could be of use; he should take the week to think about it. To his surprise, Wallace was back the next day asking for help. Lelchuk was pleased; he thought Wallace was acknowledging how much he had to learn. But privately, Wallace was seething. He was probably Amherst’s best student and expected the respect that came with that rank. He did not like to be criticized. But then Lelchuk, a realist in the style of Philip Roth, gave a reading of a portion of his new novel, Miriam in Her Forties, and Wallace relaxed. At one point an inmate has his first meal after getting out of jail and exclaims, “A mite better than prison fare.” A new punch line was born among Wallace and his friends, as Costello remembers. Looking at the weather: “A mite rainy, no?” And on the way to Valentine: “Care to get some breakfast fare?” To Wallace, Lelchuk’s effort embodied the clumsiness of mainstream realist fiction. He thought he could do better.
Lelchuk gave Wallace an A-minus. Whether we regard Lelchuk as narrow-minded or Wallace as an arrogant undergraduate writer who think he’s smarter than his own teachers, one who naively thinks writing good fiction is a matter of thinking rather than feeling, this confrontation can serve as a neat template for the fundamental conflicts that haunted Wallace, and that haunt Max’s book at the level of the sentence.
It’s worth noting that Wallace’s senior thesis advisor, the person who advised what would become his first novel, The Broom of the System, was in fact not a creative writing teacher, but a professor of literature who “let Wallace do as he wished.” One suspects that no conventional creative writing instructor — no instructor like Lelchuk — would have abided a student writing a lengthy Pynchon-inspired novel inspired by — and meant to be an illustration of — the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The young, aspiring novelist would have been advised to go into philosophy instead or to learn how to write decent realist prose.
Despite the discouragement he received, Wallace would not be dissuaded from following an experimental path, and despite his literary proclivities, he got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He chose instead to attend the University of Arizona. At Arizona, his struggles against the creative writing establishment began again in earnest, and took on much the same character as his struggle with Lelchuk. Wallace had gotten into Arizona with a writing sample from The Broom of the System that might have been mistaken — that in fact was mistaken — for conventional realism. His admission letter did not prepare him for the narrow-minded environment he found in Tucson.
Most of the teachers at Arizona were not fans of postmodernism, which they associated with a different era and condition and a preciousness that stories in the true American grain should not possess, but they also did not like minimalism, which smelled trendy to them.
Jonathan Penner, an Iowa-style realist who was initially enthusiastic about Wallace’s admission, bucked against the new student’s difficult experiments, and thought Wallace’s talents were being wasted, telling him that “we’d hate to lose you.” This iteration of the story ends the same way: Wallace ignores the advice of his teachers, continues along an experimental path, and ends up far surpassing his detractors.
And yet even when Wallace was successful, finding a publisher for The Broom of the System while still getting an MFA, his publishers pushed back hard against some of his more extreme tendencies. Gerry Howard, the editor of The Broom of the System, tried to get Wallace to change the ending of that novel and to eliminate some of the more abstract sections of the book concerning one character’s philosophically strange, Derrida-inspired “membrane theory.” Though a fan of postmodernist fiction, Howard insisted that Wallace keep in mind what he called “the physics of reading,” that is to say the norms and conventions that readers bring to the page, even the experimental page. A decade later, Michael Pietsch had similar conversations with Wallace about the length, complexity, and ambiguous ending of Infinite Jest. It almost goes without saying that Wallace fought passionately to preserve these difficult aspects of his novels (he fought his editors, in his own words, “w/ all 20 claws”), and managed to get most of what he wanted, even as he did heed some of his editors’ advice.
In short, everywhere he turned, Wallace encountered a variation of the same situation, one often obscured now because in death the author has gained a kind of saintly glow: Enthusiastic admiration for his talent, but strong resistance to the specific application of that talent. If only his fiction could be more conventional, these critics — most famously Michiko Kakutani — suggested, he might someday realize his true potential and achieve greatness.
The great dramatic irony of Wallace’s career is that, in his victory over these myriad critical voices, he was in fact defeated. Wallace unambiguously demonstrated that there was a broad and loyal readership eager to read experimental prose, or at least his experimental prose. He wrote the books he wanted to write, in the style he wanted to write them, with all the footnotes and endnotes he thought they needed, with brashly incomplete endings that flouted the so-called physics of reading, but came in time to reject the artistic impulse that gave rise to his success.
In the last decade of his life, he began to distance himself from the postmodernism of his youthful enthusiasms. He came to find his own style tedious and mannered. In his unfinished third novel, The Pale King, he sought (in his view, without success) to find a way to speak directly and without affectation about human problems and concerns, to move beyond his considerable achievement in Infinite Jest.
That is, if Wallace at 46 were to teach a creative writing class in which his younger self was a student, his advice to that younger self might very well have resembled Lelchuk’s.
And so, many Wallace readers — among whom I include myself — will have complaints about Max’s style. We will want a biography of Wallace to be as complex as Infinite Jest. We will notice that Max’s book is far too short. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story glides briskly over the last 10 years of Wallace’s life, compressing what is arguably the author’s most fruitful and accomplished period of productivity — years in which he produced books such as Oblivion, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, and Consider the Lobster — into relatively few pages.
We will grouse that Max, though undeniably insightful and observant, does little to analyze the meaning of Wallace’s life, leaving analysis to others, never really stating why he found Wallace a subject worth writing about in the first place. In Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, Wallace is born and, after a number of difficult and then happy and then difficult years, Wallace dies, almost without comment. The first sentence of the biography is:
Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.
The final sentence, following immediately after Max’s brief account of Wallace’s suicide, is:
This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.
And that’s it. The flatness of these sentences is hard to take, but their bluntness perhaps also stands as a symptom of the impossibility of writing an adequate biography of a major literary figure so soon after his death. We have in Max an able biographer who has been given an impossible task, and has done the best that could be done given these limitations.
So it’s perhaps unfair to expect Max to have written a biography that makes a stronger argument about its subject. After all, it’ll take years of thought and effort to give a full picture of the meaning of Wallace’s life, for scholars to study at length the archives at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. More intriguingly, the reason I mention Max’s style in the first place, is that I — and other Wallace fans — might be wrong to complain. I wonder whether Wallace himself might have ultimately preferred the straightforward approach — the fluent and elegant style — Max offers in Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. The evidence of his final years suggests he might have.
Yet it’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that however linear and perfectly formed Max’s biography might be, however much it resembles a brilliant realist novel in its construction, it will soon be reabsorbed into the clamor of our mediasphere. It will not be the definitive word on Wallace’s life — it cannot be the definitive word — because the cacophony of additional commentary will soon match, if not exceed Max’s account. To begin to understand the life of David Foster Wallace, to in some way wrestle with the protean body of information we now have at our disposal, will be the project of lifetimes, and will require a dialectic between the experimental impulse and the desire for straightforward realism. However he came to feel about his own writing at the end of his life, Wallace’s true legacy may now be found in the exploding commentaries and footnotes that will continue to accumulate around his writing and his life.
In his struggle to find a type of sentence best suited to the world as he saw it, Wallace may have offered us a model of how we might make sense of the chaos of voices, sources, and information in his life. As he suggested in his now famous Kenyon College address, speaking of the meaning of the cliché that a liberal arts education teaches us “how to think,” “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” D.T. Max has made one set of choices — honorable, informative, and insightful choices — but the project of constructing meaning from the life of David Foster Wallace is far from over.