Brow Beat

Finding Myself in David Foster Wallace’s Notebook

David Foster Wallace

I have long been a passionate fan of David Foster Wallace, with Infinite Jest ranking among my very favorite novels. I’d been looking forward to D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace. So I was startled when I began leafing through it and encountered a surprising subject: me.

Back in 1999, I wrote a review for Slate of Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a then-new collection of short fiction. According to Max, Wallace printed out this review and taped it onto the inside back cover of one of his notebooks.

I recall that I’d enjoyed parts of BIWHM but found it a bit airless—more a formal exercise in metafiction than an effort to please the reader. Here’s the last paragraph of my review, which was part of a longer dialogue about the book with one of my Slate colleagues:

It’s true that in some ways BIWHM is a more grown-up work for DFW: He’s taking on the big issues in a heartfelt way instead of churning out a comic spree. But Jest took on some of the big stuff, too. The difference: BIWHM’s just too much telling, not enough showing. He needs to combine that urge to confront what matters with his ability to spin a wonderful tale. When that book comes out, I’ll be waiting in line.

I confess that when I first learned Wallace had read this, I briefly wallowed in a rather narcissistic line of thought: What if my review, plucked from the Web and pasted somewhere Wallace could see it again and again, had worsened Wallace’s depression? Of course, Wallace’s severe, ongoing mental and emotional struggles ran far deeper than that. And I hoped that my closing thoughts made the review less a pan than a call to arms. But I phoned Max to see if he thought Wallace had received it as such.

Max told me that 1999 was “not a happy time” for Wallace as a writer. The notebook in question was one Wallace used while working on The Pale King—the long novel he was already kicking around by then and would leave unfinished at the time of his death in 2008. “It surprises me he taped up your review,” said Max, “because he hardly needed more pressure on himself. But that’s who he was. Sort of self-lacerating.” The one other item taped into the notebook was an anecdote about T.S. Eliot, reading, in part: “all that’s stopping [Eliot] is his fear of putting anything down that is short of perfection. He thinks he’s God.” (Wallace had underlined this last bit.)

I’ve just finished reading the incomplete version of The Pale King that Little, Brown published last year. Had Wallace seen it through, I think it would have been exactly the book I was hoping for. Like the halfway house and the tennis academy in Infinite Jest, the IRS workplace portrayed in The Pale King boasts a collection of vivid characters who interact in mesmerizing ways. The thing I’ve always loved most about Wallace—even more than his astonishing wit and electrifying prose—is his constant, earnest grappling with the human condition. The boredom. The angst. The needy desire. The existential dread. That grappling is at the heart of The Pale King. Finished and polished, the book might well have been a masterpiece.

But now I’m left thinking about that moment back in 1999, when I was a 24-year-old who’d encountered essentially zero obstacles in life. Wallace was 37, battling addiction, debilitating depression, and crushing literary expectations. I had no idea what he was going through. I couldn’t have empathized if I’d tried.

What would I have felt at the time if I’d known he’d taped my review into his notebook? There would have been pride, of course. DFW actually read something I wrote! Followed immediately by panic. What if he taped it there as a reminder of the idiocy he was up against?

Now 38, hauling a little emotional baggage of my own, I have a different response. I think about how difficult life can be in even the best of circumstances, and how impossible it is to create a perfect work of art. And I feel bewildered—almost ashamed—that David Foster Wallace paid any attention whatsoever to that snotty little kid.