On the second floor of London’s Royal Festival Hall, New Yorker journalist DT Max is staring at the carpet. “David Foster Wallace would have had a unique way to describe it,” he says. “He’d be really touched by the stains. He had a hyper-attentiveness to detail. When you leave childhood, you are guided into thinking in a certain way. David always resisted that.”
David Foster Wallace sent a rip tide of shock through the literary world when he committed suicide in 2008. He was 46. A cult literary figure often photographed sporting long hair and a baseball cap, he was known most as the zeitgeist-defining author of Infinite Jest (1996), a 1100-page stylistically intimidating novel about the search for the master copy of a video so compulsive that viewers are unable to do anything else but watch it.
A bit like James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s the sort of novel that many more people have bought than have actually read: an epic, hyper-reflexive, ADD-style splicing of slacker pop culture, collegiate irony and a zoned-out generational anxiety that wreaks ebullient havoc with conventional rules regarding plot and narrative, and which, through a pile-up of digressive riffs on everything from addiction to tennis to the modern entertainment industry, exuberantly sums up the cultural/ consumer anxieties of premillenial America.
As Zadie Smith wrote in an essay in 2004, Infinite Jest “was a college-dorm favourite and the heaviest hardback of its time. It sat like a challenge on the shelves of hipsters everywhere. If you couldn’t write a bigger one, you could compete with your roommate to see how far you could throw it from a standing position. Either way, Infinite Jest was the book you were going to have to deal with sooner or later, just as a previous generation had to deal with Gravity’s Rainbow, or Midnight’s Children.”
DT Max is the first to admit he probably hadn’t dealt with Infinite Jest when he was commissioned by the New Yorker to write about Wallace in the months after his death. “My favourite David Foster Wallace novel had been his first, The Broom of the System ,” he says. “But for me the words were always glorious. By the time I started the piece, I realised he was one of a handful of writers who changed the way you saw the world.”
The piece duly ran in March 2009, but Max, by now utterly sucked into the real and imaginative world of his complex subject, was haunted by what he had not said. “You can’t dispose of David in 10,000 words,” he says. “Also, the piece received a reception that felt connected to a huge sense of loss out there at David’s death. I began to see things I hadn’t noticed before. There are people out there with DFW tattoos. There was one woman who had on her arm a tattoo for the day she began Infinite Jest and the day she finished. I thought, ‘If she can do that, then I can go back and give him another three years.’”
Anyone who knows the work of Wallace (who also left behind three short-story collections, various non-fiction essays and the unfinished novel The Pale King), probably knows he was a clinical depressive; a genius whose novels brashly interrupted America’s literary love affair with minimalist realism in the 1990s; and for a period in his twenties a serious drug addict and alcoholic. What they might not realise is the depths of that depression, the searching, restless shape of that genius, the extraordinarily destructive appetites of his demons. Max’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, delicately explores the way Wallace’s turbulent privately life fuelled a lifelong quest to seek a form of redemption through literature.
Ironically, Wallace was always sceptical of literary celebrity and the notion of the writerly biography. But by clearing the man from the mythology his short life accumulated, Max remains entirely respectful. “The main thing I wanted to do, which I knew I hadn’t done in the [New Yorker] piece, was to make David funny,” he says. “He was just funny. And although there were some things too dark for him to turn into humour, he did his best. One of the tragedies of his depression was that there was no humour in it.”
Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, to bookish, academic parents, who then moved to Urbana, Illinois, where his father held a post teaching philosophy at the university. His anxiety began at an early age – Max recounts how the young Wallace once jotted down his neuroses about his body: “ankles too thin, calves not muscular enough, thighs squnch [sic] out repulsively when you sit down”; Wallace believed his depression first took a grip when he was nine or 10. At high school, Wallace discovered tennis and marijuana. It was also clear, early on, that this nerdy, shy, precocious boy was exceptionally clever. He won a college place at Amherst, where he aced his classes, but he had a breakdown in the second semester and returned home.
It was a pivotal moment: the first time his illness had seriously attacked him, and the first time, back in his childhood bedroom, he started properly to write fiction. It also set an uneven rhythm – periods of stability followed by troughs of suicidal depression, mixed in with ecstatic bursts of creativity – that would define the rest of his life. Max’s biography is conventional in many respects: it’s both the story of a life and the story of the work. But Wallace’s life and work are unusually intimately connected – both continually feed into the other. An early short story, The Planet Trillaphon, published in the Amherst Review, is a fictionalised account of his first two breakdowns. “I don’t think anyone writes about depression the way Wallace does,” says Max. “It stunned me, the intensity with which he described it. Every atom in his body is on fire.”
Ennet House, the halfway house for addicts in Infinite Jest, is clearly inspired by Wallace’s stint in Granada House, a rehabilitation facility for addicts he checked into in 1989. “And you don’t have to be tricky to realise that the IRS [Internal Revenue Service] in The Pale King is a metaphor for the writer’s life,” adds Max. “In his case, it was unusually useful to remember he was a writer every minute of the day.” He certainly was.
Wallace was also an inveterate, emotionally candid letter writer. “I was reading a biography of Brahms a while ago and there’s this key moment in his life where he and Clara Schumann go for a walk,” says Max. “Something transpired between them, yet we have no idea what happened. But if it had been David I’d have known exactly what took place. Of course, there’s a big pitfall with that, in that you can think you know him too well. David was a big manufacturer of stories. A lot of the time you’re trying to figure out if something is true or not.”
Wallace comes across as complicated, vital, passionate, erudite, geeky – and agonised. What has shocked many people, however, are the revelations about his attitude towards women. He was absolutely fascinated by pornography. He was aggressive and relentless in his sexual pursuits – he once wrote to Jonathan Franzen wondering whether his sole purpose in life was to “put my penis in as many vaginas as possible”. He developed a dangerous obsession with poet Mary Karr and once tried to push her out of a moving car. Max doesn’t shy away from any of this. But it’s clear the biography becomes its own form of love letter, and at the same time an elegy.
In writing the book, Max came to love and to mourn his subject. “His death was terrible on so many levels, but when someone who is almost your own age and has many of your own interests dies in that way, it casts a pall. You want to know why. You want to know what this means for you. “I have all these letters – lots of times he says something so clever it amazes me. There’s a bit that crops up in The Pale King: he says Gwyneth Paltrow’s face reminds him of the ghost of a horse. That’s absolutely lovely. It’s as clever as clever gets. I also hadn’t realised how intensely he engaged with problems of how to write, for the reader’s benefit and not just his own. He wanted to change their behaviour for the better.”
In his final years, Wallace found an emotional stability with artist Karen Green that had eluded him all his life. Cruelly, it coincided with a deterioration of his creative energies, and in the end one final, lethal blast of black depression. He hung himself above the patio of his and Green’s home. Perhaps fuelled by the violent, sensational nature of his death, a David Foster Wallace industry has sprung up in subsequent years. Does Max worry about contributing to it? “When a person dies who is well known, the private person and the public person split off from each other,” he says carefully. “And the family get to lose control of the private person in terms of the public discussion. But they always have the private person in terms of the people they love.
“In the academic world, it’s already happening with David. There’s so much research going on. As Green [who Wallace married four years before he died] once said, she didn’t want this. And as the biographer, there are moments when I think, ‘Couldn’t he have just been given a quiet burial?’ But I don’t think there is anyone who would have really wanted that. He belonged to a larger life.”
EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY: A LIFE OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, by DT Max (Granta, $49.99).