I first encountered the name “David Foster Wallace” when I was in high school. There was a “long book club”, a group of kids who would read exceedingly long books for extra credit. One member suggested Infinite Jest, and so I spent the next few weeks buried under Wallace’s many words.
I remember very little of the novel. I remember a tennis prodigy with a drug addiction, and a guy who runs a halfway house. There were tons of footnotes, and it surprised me how willingly I waded through all of the fine-print verbiage.
The book ended without an ending, and I’ve never had a strong desire to re-read it.
However, I did go on to read The Broom of the System and Consider the Lobster. I agree with Wallace’s own assessment of The Broom of the System—a few impressive pages that do not add up to a great book. Consider the Lobster enchanted me. It made the world seem new and exciting. It was addictive.
When Wallace died, I was both shocked and not shocked. It’s rare that a major celebrity, still young-ish, takes his own life. On the other hand, he was so odd, so mythic, that his dramatic death seemed fitting.
When D.T. Max announced his plan to write a biography of Wallace, I took note. Max had already written a mesmerizing book about a bizarre disease that makes you stay awake until you die (The Family that Couldn’t Sleep). He seemed to have a talent for choosing gripping subjects.
I read the Wallace biography hungrily, in just a few days. Here is what I learned.
Wallace had an academic father and a compulsive mother. Mom was/is a strict grammarian. Commas and periods are part of a complex and logical system, and Mom passed on her fascination to her brilliant son. Also, Wallace was never a saint. In childhood, he once became enraged with his sister and dragged her through a pile of dog shit. (One is tempted to become a psychoanalyst, here. The fact that young Wallace could treat another human being so cruelly suggests that he might one day brutally mistreat himself. And one day, he did.)
Wallace went off to Amherst, in part because the school offered him very early admission and he did not want to prolong the stressful process of interviewing. He excelled at Amherst, earning many, many A’s. He also battled severe depression. (I can’t recall Max using the term “bipolar”, but surely Wallace was manic-depressive?) …Eventually, Wallace wrote not one but two theses, one an essay on philosophy, the other The Broom of the System.
You probably know bits of the story from here. The Broom of the System established Wallace as a major literary voice. Girl with Curious Hair followed. Serious addiction problems followed that, along with a stint in a halfway house. Recovery seemed to purify his soul, and led him to his renunciation of irony. Infinite Jest appeared when Wallace was in his early 30s; it was sincere, occasionally moving, and bricklike, and it turned him into a star.
What went wrong? Well, Wallace was very sick and intensely self-absorbed. He went through long periods in which he could not write a single satisfactory word, and this made him feel useless. He was an outstanding teacher, reviewing each student manuscript three times, with three different pens… But when he could not derive pleasure from his own writing, he felt unmoored.
Having gone off his outdated drug of choice, Nardil, he floundered. Life became unendurable. You get the sense that his loved ones were bracing themselves for his near-inevitable suicide.
I won’t quote much here, because Max’s sentences are unremarkable. I will quote just a bit from a Wallace interview with Charlie Rose in March, 1997:
Wallace: Here’s why I’m embarrassed talking about (my addiction), not because—
Rose: I want to know why.
Wallace: Not because I’m personally ashamed of it, because everybody talks about it. I mean, it sounds like—
Rose: In other words, everybody—
Wallace: It sounds—
Rose: Everybody talks about it for themselves or everybody talks about you?
Wallace: No, everybody talks—it sounds like some kind of Hollywood thing to do. “Oh, he’s out of rehab and—”
Rose: No, I—
Wallace: “—back in action.”
Rose: –didn’t say anything about rehab.
I like this because it shows Wallace taling off-the-cuff. You hear his energetic, endearing voice. I would have liked to hear more from him in this biography, particularly from the famous commencement address at Kenyon College, in Ohio, in May 2005.
Granted, there were reams of words that Max had to sift through, and he seems to have the admirable goal of being the opposite of Wallace: That is, he has the goal of being succinct. But Max could have delved deeper and taken longer with this job. Exactly when was Wallace in and out of therapy, and what were his therapists like? What happened in a typical conversation between Wallace and the poet, Mary Karr? How did Wallace’s mother feel about her long period of estrangement from her son? How did the family react to his suicide? And how have critics responded to Wallace’s final unfinished tome, The Pale King? You won’t find answers to these questions in Max’s book.
On the other hand, a small helping of information is better than an empty plate. I will treasure the story of Wallaces’s tattoo: It originally said “Mary”, in honor of Mary Karr, but as Wallaces’s love faded, the tattoo faded and began to say “Marv”. Also, I like the account of Wallaces’s decision to read Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child. He was reading this because he was angry with his mother. Still, ever his mother’s son, he corrected Miller’s grammar: When Miller used “effect”, Wallace penciled a corrective “affect” into the margin.
You certainly won’t be bored when you read Max’s book. But you’ll wish it were longer.
The experience is like a brief visit with a smart friend from high school. You’ll wish your friend had hung around much longer than he did.