The Genius in the Room

D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace at Booksmith at All Saints Church, 2006

Photograph by Steve Rhodes/Wikiquotes.

In a 2004 New York Times review of Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life, David Foster Wallace invoked what he called a “paradox about literary biographies.” Most people interested enough in a writer’s life to read a whole book about it were, he argued, likely to be admirers of that writer’s work, and were therefore inclined to idealize him or her as a person. “And yet,” he wrote, “it often seems that the person we encounter in the literary biography could not possibly have written the works we admire. And the more intimate and thorough the bio, the stronger this feeling usually is.” The Borges that Wallace encountered in Williamson’s book (“a vain, timid, pompous mama’s boy, given for much of his life to dithery romantic obsessions”) didn’t seem to have a whole lot in common with the genius who wrote the stories in Ficciones and The Aleph.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace, doesn’t elicit quite as stark a sense of paradox, or as thorough a disillusionment. The things we learn about DFW the Guy tend to correspond to what we already knew about DFW the Writer. What’s surprising, though, is how often those correspondences take forms we mightn’t have expected. Wallace was preoccupied with the ungainly, unfashionable questions of how to live and of how to be moral, and he believed that fiction had to try to provide answers to those questions. It shouldn’t be surprising that he himself was often guilty of exactly the kind of (specifically male) moral failures he focused on in, say, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

But it’s still something of a shock to see the extent to which Wallace—the perspiring, softly spoken and tortuously sincere figure of popular affection—could himself be a Hideous Man. Sure, his friend Jonathan Franzen felt compelled to point out that Wallace was never “Saint Dave,” but it’s another thing entirely to see him walking through the Amherst campus as an undergraduate, remarking on the springtime “smell of cunt in the air.” We later learn that Orin Incandenza’s penchant, in Infinite Jest, for seducing young mothers is in fact something he shared with his creator. We learn about DFW’s womanizing, about his book-tour fondness for “audience pussy,” and that he once wondered aloud to Franzen about whether his only purpose in life was “to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible.”

It might at first seem difficult to reconcile this guy with the writer who famously demolished John Updike and his fellow “Great Male Narcissists” for their priapic self-absorption, but what’s at issue here isn’t hypocrisy so much as a kind of outward-directed self-reproof that was crucial to Wallace’s writing. A lot of what he disliked in other people, and much of what concerned him about contemporary culture (polymorphous addiction, shallow self-obsession, ostentatious cleverness, reflexive irony) was a reflection of something that discomfited him in himself. Unlike Updike, Wallace refused to make an artistic virtue out of the necessary evil of his own narcissism; he wanted, in his life and his art, to be a great deal better than he often was. (As a teacher he was hard on clever students who reminded him, either in their work or their personalities, of his younger self.)

One of the most compelling aspects of Every Love Story is the drama of this ongoing struggle between the ideal and actual selves. “In general,” as Max puts it in a section on Wallace’s first sojourn at the Yaddo artists retreat, “he gyrated between wanting to impress and disliking himself for having such impulses, between making his mark as the genius in the room and getting his work done.” He badly wanted fame and success, which he of course got, but what he wanted even more was to be the type of writer for whom these things didn’t matter. This he never quite managed to achieve.

Max quotes a letter Wallace wrote to Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, with whom he was briefly involved. The letter captures a raw form of the kind of exponential moral self-scrutiny that is now so associated with Wallace, and which could often make him seem like the hypertrophic offspring of Derrida and St. Augustine:

I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am—for just an example—self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I’m not one of the good ones; but then I countenance the fact that here at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don’t notice or worry about it […] but this soon becomes a vehicle for feeling superior to (imagined) Others.

In that Borges piece, Wallace also identified a problem he saw as being more or less built into the genre of literary biography: that “the personal lives of people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill rides to hear about.” That may be true in general (it’s certainly true of the Borges biography, which is, I can confirm, no Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), but it’s not true of Wallace’s life, and it’s not true of this book. “Thrill ride” wouldn’t be quite the right term for what is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I’m having trouble remembering when I was last so consumed by any piece of writing, fiction or non.

A lot of this, of course, has to do with a sort of semipuerile curiosity value. (And there’s a curious reflection here of the quintessentially Wallace-esque phenomenon of self-loathing as a specific result of self-infatuation; reading about this stuff is utterly compelling, but you kind of hate yourself for being so compelled by it.) The extensive, substance-soaked wreckage of Wallace’s romantic life is, for one thing, detailed in horribly fascinating detail. Often, this is done in ways that illuminate Wallace’s work, or at least the background to it. (The real-life model for the protagonist of Wallace’s excruciatingly brilliant short story “The Depressed Person,” Max tells us, was Wurtzel.) More often, though, it’s just plain gruesome—and nowhere more than in Max’s detailing of Wallace’s relationship with the poet and novelist Mary Karr, who was married with a teenage son when he met her through a recovery program. He turns up at a pool party Karr is attending with her family, a bandage on his shoulder covering a fresh tattoo of her name. He contacts an ex-con fellow AA member looking to buy a gun to shoot Karr’s husband. He tries to push her from a moving car. During another fight, he throws—literally throws—a coffee table at her.

D.T. Max.
Author D.T. Max

Photograph by ©Flash Rosenberg.

Max expertly handles all these aspects of Wallace’s damaged life, and the unsensational, just-the-facts approach serves the material well. But he’s also very good on the editing process, and on Wallace’s relationships with Gerry Howard at Viking Penguin and Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown (who told Wallace’s agent that he wanted to publish Infinite Jest “more than I want to breathe”). You wouldn’t expect the war of editorial attrition over a 1,200-page, footnote-encrusted novel to make for especially gripping reading, but it does. Max’s detailing of the push and pull between Wallace and Pietsch highlights, above all, the contingency of the published text, the extent to which it is a result of countless reinings-in, relinquishments and grudging compromises. His reading of the fiction itself is thoughtful and subtle; although it’s never groundbreaking, it’s never perfunctory either. Max also doesn’t overstretch himself, as literary biographers often do, in pointing out correspondences between the life and the art.

Max’s focus is, not surprisingly, more or less resolutely on Wallace’s life as it related to his art. This decision to strip the story down to its narrative essentials pays off in terms of compulsive readability, but there are places where you wish he’d peeled away a little less. The problem is most acute when it comes to Wallace’s mother Sally, a professor of English and grammar specialist. Max refers to the story “Suicide as a Sort of Present” as “a meditation on [Wallace’s] difficult relationship with his mother,” but the nature of this difficulty remains largely undefined, and Sally is never more than a hazily peripheral figure. (This may well have to do with the fact that Max is writing here about a person whose family are all still alive. Maria Bustillos’ essay on the annotations in Wallace’s collection of self-help and psychology books is more revealing on this topic.)

And yet it wouldn’t be fair to say that the book sacrifices characterization to plot, because, where it counts for most, Max certainly pulls it off. Wallace himself emerges as such a complex, poignant figure—is so thoroughly brought to life in all his affliction and ambition and dangerousness and decency—that, in the closing pages of the book, I felt, as though for the first time, the terrible magnitude of his loss. And though much of it is already familiar from Max’s 2009 New Yorker piece about the author’s final depression and suicide, what happens in those pages still comes as a strangely abrupt bereavement. I knew what was coming, of course (how could I not?), but knowing what’s coming turns out not to be the same thing as being ready for it.

It was primarily the details that I found myself unready for. Like how he’d previously prepared to kill himself by tying a garden hose to his car’s exhaust pipe with his bandana (which would have been like Freud somehow committing suicide with his glasses, or Joyce with his walking stick). Or how, during the terrible days of his final illness, his parents moved in with him: “Sally Wallace cooked him the meals he had loved as a child—casseroles and pot pies; they watched The Wire. It was obvious to his family that he was in unendurable pain. Before she left, he thanked her for being his mother.” There may well be readers who can get through sentences like these without having to put down the book and take a few deep breaths, but I’m certainly not one of them.

Part of this emotional force is due to the relative recentness of Wallace’s death, to the not-yet-fully-dissipated haze of unreality that surrounds the fact of his 2008 suicide. But it also has to do with the way in which a book like this, which reveals for the first time many of the facts of a life of such serious cultural consequence, serves as a kind of public completion of that death, as a final rite in the literary funeral. There is, in other words, a slightly paradoxical effect to Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. In providing a more complete sense of Wallace than we ever had while he lived, it makes his death feel more real, somehow more irrefutable. And, for anyone who felt a profound emotional connection to Wallace and his work, there’s a strenuously cathartic dimension to this: the experience of knowing him more fully, and of thereby feeling more completely the force and finality of his absence.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max. Viking.

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