When David Foster Wallace killed himself at his home in Claremont in September 2008, it came as a deep personal shock. I had become obsessed with him in college, when I read Infinite Jest over the course of a long and otherwise dull semester. The book came along at the right time: I was listless and a bit lost, and staring at the approaching abyss of adulthood with dread.
Infinite Jest clearly was written by someone who had felt those things with much greater intensity. The mood of the book is despair. But it was also hilarious and wise and, ultimately, morally instructive. I read everything else he had written.
His suicide reignited my need to know everything about him. I found myself scanning the reactions on a fan site. It felt for many like losing a close friend. For others it was like a betrayal, as though a beloved teacher had turned out to be a fraud. One comment stuck with me: “Was it all bullshit?”
A new biography has arrived to help answer that question: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max. Max has written a well-researched and clearheaded book. Wallace's fans will recognize his brilliant and empathetic literary persona. But they will also discover that his nonfiction tended to be wildly embellished, and learn from a string of ex-girlfriends that Wallace could be a real dick.
The most engrossing section deals with the creative process that led to Infinite Jest. Wallace's early work tended to be tricky and airless — more about literature than about life. But a stay at a drug and alcohol recovery center in Boston converted him to a belief in honest, emotional connection with readers. He came to feel that “the stuff you don't want to see or let anyone else see … turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel.”
But Wallace never did convert to traditional novelistic structure. He wrote absurdly long, and without regard for climax and resolution. It is darkly amusing to watch Wallace's editor, Michael Pietsch, urge him toward a more conclusive ending.
Wallace refused: “I can (but hopefully will not) give you about 4,300 thematic/theoretical reasons why an aclimactic close here will be best.” As Pietsch continued to press him, Wallace dug in further: “I can give you 5,000 words of theoretico-structural argument for this, but let's spare one another, shall we?”
That looks like a bluff. A more revealing explanation came in a 1996 review, in which Wallace complained that “serious” contemporary fiction was constrained by the expectations of “formal ingenuity” and “textual self-consciousness.”
It is frustrating, then, to see Wallace still struggling under those constraints as he tries to work out a structure for his next novel, The Pale King. The novel, set in an IRS office, explored the power of intense concentration and mindfulness to overcome boredom. Yet Wallace did not seem to value the intense concentration required to fashion a convincing plot.
“To rely too much on plot risked seducing the reader; it was like selling Tide,” Max writes.
Wallace was still struggling with that when he decided to go off his depression medication, which led to his spiral toward suicide.
His death brought forth a surge of acclaim. The Pale King, published in unfinished form, was a Pulitzer finalist, which seemed like belated praise for Infinite Jest. Out this fall is Both Flesh and Not, a nonfiction collection comprising mostly Wallace B-sides, which will appeal only to completists.
In the process, Wallace has become sort of a hipster sage. Max's biography does a great service by poking holes in that image.
To know Wallace better is to risk disillusionment. But for diehards, it will never be enough.