The Deaths of David Foster Wallace
Wallace's intersecting plotlines and cascades of footnotes were a testimony to the ‘infinitude’ of the world, as he experienced it. His biography, on the other hand, is more like a square meal than a crack binge. But it satisfies some basic biography...
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide, his death wasn’t just mourned—it was read. It was read like code, like apology, like an event in a novel—not simply a plot-level event but a meta-level event, a commentary on the history and future of the novel itself. Theories went something like: Wallace killed himself because he’d lost faith in postmodernism and/or his own efforts to replace it (“killed himself if only to prove that postmodernism was dead”)1; because he was sick of irony but couldn’t see a way out of it; because his own virtuosic mind was no match for its own despair; because he’d lost faith in the ethos of daily attention to which his writing paid homage—as his friend Jonathon Franzen put it, had “arguably…died of boredom.”2 Insofar as one could find hope in his magnum opus Infinite Jest—“no single moment is unendurable”—his death seemed to negate this hope, to proclaim that this hope was not—ultimately, in the final analysis—enough.
Wallace’s widow, on the other hand, doesn’t talk about his suicide in terms of aesthetic or metaphysical despair. “It was just a day in his life,” she says, “and a day in mine.”3 She folds his death back into the longer story of his life—it was one day amongst many—and robs it of the sense of inevitability that others have forced upon it.
Even the title of D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, suggests the size of his suicide’s shadow: it has become impossible to love Wallace’s work without reckoning with his ghost, how he ghosted himself. The book’s structure reinforces this suggestion of totalizing importance by closing, somewhat abruptly, with the event of the suicide itself. There’s no closing retrospective glance—no depiction of the mourning or eulogies—only the hanging and the unfinished manuscript left behind.
Max generally steers clear of the “Was his suicide an expression of generic/metaphysical anxiety?” fray, but his final lines nonetheless linger on an uneasy parallel between life and art:
“This [manuscript] was his effort to show the world what it was to be ‘a fucking human being.’ He had never completed it to his satisfaction. This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen” (301).
He had never completed it to his satisfaction… Vague pronouns offer a syntactical slide between living and writing; the uncompleted “it” refers to the struggle of being “a fucking human being” and the struggle to write a manuscript about what this struggle was like; “this” means both the end of Wallace’s life and the nonexistent ending of his book.
Max closes with Wallace’s act as an expression of agency (“he had chosen”) and with a suggestion about the way in which his agency worked against the desires of others—“not an ending anyone would have wanted for him.” In this, Max closes his book by glancing towards the people left behind—editors and loved ones and the fans who were also, for Wallace, “loved ones” of a different stripe.
Wallace often spoke of his readership in terms of love:
"…it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved."4
In his biography, Max gives us both sides of Wallace—the part of him that could give love, and the part of him that desperately wanted it. His writing was always courting both ideals; his suicide felt—to some, to many—like a betrayal of both.
1. “New Books,” Joshua Cohen. Harper’s Magazine. September 2012. Pg. 73.
2. “Farther Away,” Jonathan Franzen. The New Yorker. April 18, 2011.
3. “Karen Green: 'David Foster Wallace's suicide turned him into a "celebrity writer dude", which would have made him wince.'” The Guardian. Interview. Tim Adams. April 9, 2011.
4. Zadie Smith quoted Wallace in her eulogy for him. Rpt in Harper’s Magazine, January 2009, pg. 28.
What does it mean to make interpretive connections between art and life? This isn’t simply the question of Wallace—or Max’s biography of Wallace—but of biography itself. What makes the genre of biography interesting is its central promise to link public and private selves, to show a complicated series of codes and patterns stitching them together. It’s a tempting fantasy of reciprocal illumination—the life as a kind of cheat-sheet for the work, the work as everlasting epilogue to a damaged man—but it’s a dangerous kind of weaving, this project of public/private correspondences. It lends itself to over-easy parallels, a reduction of echoes perhaps best kept infinite.
I’m less interested in what Wallace’s suicide “means”—or even whether it’s legitimate to rummage through its aftermath for meaning—and more interested in exploring the hunger for meaning itself; and how this hunger might illuminate what readers want from biographies of their literary icons.
People will come to Max’s book with a lot of hungers. They will inevitably feel it has made a lot of promises simply by being the first official biography of a man who has already become legend. Its subtitle seems preemptively poised to deflect some of this hunger: A Life of David Foster Wallace. As if to say: this is only one take on it. There will—there must—be others.
Every life, of course, is not a life but many lives, and we get so many of them here. We get the Wallace who made fun of his little sister; the Wallace who had a mental breakdown in college and went home to work as a bus driver; the Wallace who wrote two brilliant senior theses faster than anyone else could write one. We get Wallace as Casanova and cliché-wrangler; Wallace as TV-addict and pot-addict and for-a-semester Harvard philosophy PhD student; Wallace as the son of a grammarian; Wallace as an editor’s worst nightmare. We see the Wallace “that just wants to be loved”—chasing women and quoting negative reviews by heart—and we see the part of him “that can love”—supporting strangers through the process of recovery in Boston and Illinois and Claremont, so devoted to his dogs he let their training interrupt his work sessions.
Max shows us the complicated gray area between these poles of loving and being-loved—those relationships in which postures of begging and bestowing affection become impossible to parse. When Wallace fell madly in love with poet Mary Karr, for example, he hounded her relentlessly, got her name tattooed on his arm, and eventually moved to Syracuse just to be closer to her. His obsessive gestures of attachment seem both requests and offerings. Karr says she knew the relationship wouldn’t work when there was a day Wallace couldn’t pick her son up from school because he wanted to go to the gym.
Wallace was immoderate in his hungers—for ideas, novelty, entertainment, drugs, women, booze, recovery, literature, praise. This intemperance is part of why it feels strange to have been granted such a moderate testimony to his life. Max’s biography is responsible and informative—and utterly interesting, because Wallace was utterly interesting—but some part of me kept expecting the story to exceed itself, to implode with its own density or burst its seams. Wallace’s work made the world feel so rich it had no choice but to break form, to overflow, to become unwieldy. His intersecting plotlines and cascades of footnotes were a testimony to the ‘infinitude’ of the world, as he experienced it; his biography is not broken or deformed by fullness in these ways.
Which is to say: Max’s biography is more like a square meal than a crack binge. But it satisfies some basic Biography-Reader Hungers. We get a flood of material, for instance, to satisfy our Hunger For Memorable Anecdotes: the time Wallace’s sister found him frying a rose ‘for research’; the time he got an asterisk tattooed next to Mary’s name so he could tattoo his wife’s name further down his arm. (Like one of his famous footnotes!). We get the texture of Wallace’s day-to-day life: his Satellite TV, his fridge full of Blondies and mustard; his constant sweating.
Wallace’s sweating, incidentally, has become a kind of leitmotif running through his mythos. His famous commencement address at Kenyon College began with a joke about sweat. He measured time at the bakery where he worked by how many sweaty headbands he’d tossed in the sink. Sweat feels right for him, somehow—as a symbol of a mind and body distinguished and tortured by overproduction, somehow glossy with it, as if thought and intensity came out through his pores.
Wallace wrote about “fiction’s limitless possibilities for reach & grasp, for making heads throb heartlike,” and in his sweat we find a perfect metaphor for this reaching and grasping, this heart throbbing diffuse through the body.5 In Infinite Jest, Wallace implicates sweat in a kind of unholy sublime: a spooky wise-man named Lyle haunts the locker room of Enfield Tennis Academy, licking the sweat off teenage boys. Voila! We get to imagine, once again, how brilliance rises from the dull materials of life’s banality. Even being a heavy sweater can turn into high-art if you’re smart enough.
In addition to these general textural anecdotes—the delightful Braille of Wallace’s oddity—Max offers choice anecdotes to satisfy our Hunger for Vantage Points of Smug Retrospection. This is one of the under-discussed pleasures of reading a biography: how we get to appreciate the irony of pre-celebrity celebrities suffering from under-appreciation. We get to look back at Wallace’s whole life from the position of knowing he’ll be recognized as one of the great literary minds of his generation, which means we get to scoff at the Amherst writing professor who gave him an A- and the editors who found his style too long-winded. We know that history would prove them wrong, and this knowing feels good.
5. “The Empty Plenum,” Review of Contemporary Fiction.
In satisfying the Hunger for Work-Life Parallels, Max writes with particular grace about the connection between Wallace’s recovery from addiction and his shift toward a new kind of sincerity in his fiction. Max credits recovery (in part) with Wallace’s growing commitment to “single-entendre writing, writing that meant what it said”6—and links his aesthetic rejection of irony (“irony was defeatist”) to his involvement in a recovery community where being an ironist (as Wallace writes in Infinite Jest) was like being “a witch in church.”7Max’s account of Wallace in recovery is that of a humbled man: working as a security guard at a software company, appreciating the wind-up toy penis he gets as a present for his nine-month sobriety birthday, debased by yearning for a single glass of Wild Turkey, and struggling with what would eventually become a fraught life-long love affair with the simplicity of recovery wisdom.
This vision of a humbled Wallace—with his pecker toys and his day job—begins to feed another hunger, one of the trickiest hungers for any biography to satisfy: the Hunger for Mythic Double-Vision. The reader wants to see an icon as man and god at once, to feel his mythology simultaneously ratified and debunked. Which means giving us enough life texture (cf: Hunger for Quirky Anecdote) to make us feel as if we ‘know Wallace better’ while still preserving the fundamental tenants of his demi-god mythology: that he was a good but tortured man, and a superhuman genius.
We see the High Romantic Wallace (who tattoos a woman’s name on his arm when he barely knows her), and we see the Petty Wallace who—a few years later—won’t pick up her son from school. We see the Wallace who has so much artistic integrity he argues every edit tooth-and-nail; and we see the Wallace who can’t stand talking to literary friends more successful than he is. We see a Wallace who offers love and a Wallace deformed by his need for it; a Wallace whose empathy feels excruciating and boundless (the god) and a Wallace (the man) consumed by what recovery lingo calls “luxury problems.” Max manages to illuminate fissures in the mythos while still allowing a certain larger-than-life grandeur to remain fundamentally intact.
The irony of this posthumous mythology is that Wallace spent much of his life looking for a way out of the private self that was turned superhuman in his wake. In his Kenyon commencement address, Wallace laments our “default setting” of “basic self-centeredness” as well as the terrible freedom we’ve been granted by our individualist culture: “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms,” a freedom that echoes the same image of mortality and futility (Poor Yorick’s skull) that haunts Infinite Jest. For Wallace, the struggle out of solipsism was everything. There was no other fight that mattered as much.
Max shows us the ways Wallace managed to escape himself: at his writing desk—by imagining the lives of others—and in the classroom—by devoting himself to his students. Max gives us a portrait of the artist as the young teacher, literally paralyzed by his need to be liked—“The first morning of classes found him lying on the floor…unable to move”8—but he also quotes a former student who remembers Wallace telling everyone in her class: “I’m going to remember your name for the rest of my life. You’re going to forget who I am before I forget who you are.”9
The way out of solipsism, for Wallace, involved cultivating an ethos of attention—an intentional devotion to inhabiting the lives of others. He insisted that this practice involve not just imaginative vigor but imaginative humility: we must imagine the interior lives of others as impossibly multiple and ultimately beyond our imagining.
Max quotes a letter Wallace wrote to a friend:
“You’re special—it’s OK—but so’s the guy across the table who’s raising two kids sober and rebuilding a ’73 Mustang. It’s a magical thing with 4,000,000,000 forms. It kind of takes your breath away."10
6. Max, 158.
7. Infinite Jest, 369.
8. Max, 80.
9. Max, 284.
10. Max, 285
After Wallace died, his good friend and fellow luminary Jonathan Franzen scattered some of his ashes from a remote Chilean island—and then wrote about it for The New Yorker. It was as if Franzen was seeking the edges of solipsism, its most (or least) inhabitable metaphor, and then turning that quest into a public artifact—in order to honor a man who spent a lifetime making art as a buffer against isolation.
Wallace’s widow didn’t fly to an island after he died. Instead, she built a forgiveness machine. She gives this account of how it worked:
“The idea was that you wrote down the thing that you wanted to forgive, or to be forgiven for, and a vacuum sucked your piece of paper in one end. At the other it was shredded.”11
Like Wallace’s writing, the machine was a technology directed toward otherness—a way to understand oneself relationally, to heal relational damage, to surrender internal sentiment to external process, and to find a way out of private grief back into connectedness.
The machine gestures toward another way Wallace’s fans have understood his suicide: as a god’s abandonment, an act of neglect for which Wallace—through the enduring grace and divinity of his life and work—must perpetually earn our forgiveness, as if he failed all of us by being so brilliant and leaving so early. We scavenge his ashes for remnants of a redemptive meaning we feel entitled to. We scour the edges of the forgiveness machine like vultures, looking to be redeemed, to redeem him—to have our world righted into order—by what we find.
You’re going to forget who I am before I forget who you are. We interpret and re-interpret Wallace’s death; we resurrect his sweat and his despair; we hunt for meaning in his ashes like tea leaves, or toss these ashes off the cliffs of actual and metaphoric islands. But if there comes a day, decades or centuries from now, when we don’t know him, we can at least know this: his work will still know us, our anguish and our fragility and our exuberance, our heads throbbing heartlike in the tiny skull-sized kingdoms of our privacy. His work will still speak the parts of ourselves we are too scared to utter, will still see all seven-odd million of our special forms. It kind of takes your breath away.
11. The Guardian, April 9, 2009, Tim Adams.
Leslie Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, and a collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, that will be published by Graywolf Press in early 2014. The essays are about ultramarathon runners, an ultramarathon runner in prison, silver miners, gang tours, painted corsets, Bolivian supermarkets, interventions, skin diseases, and how to talk about pain.