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A Ghost is Born

Tim Groenland

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by DT Max, Granta, 368 pp, £20, ISBN 978-1847084941
Both Flesh and Not: Essays, by David Foster Wallace, Hamish Hamilton, 336 pp, £20, ISBN 978-0241144824

The blurb on the jacket of DT Max’s new biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace informs us rather dramatically that “David Foster Wallace is to contemporary literature what Kurt Cobain is to music or James Dean to cinema”. It becomes necessary, then, before we even reach the main text, to negotiate the aura of celebrity and myth surrounding the troubled author, who was forty-six when he committed suicide in September 2008.

The tricky thing about this apparent piece of publishing fluff is that it might just be true. Wallace was one of the defining figures in recent American literature, and his literary shadow seems to grow with every passing year. He has become an inspiration for younger writers as well as a focal point for a new generation of academics, and the image of the author as bandana-wearing, pot-smoking, tennis-playing, tobacco-chewing novelist-philosopher continues to penetrate deeper into the cultural consciousness. His legacy fascinates fellow novelists as well as readers and critics: Bret Easton Ellis, for example (who is to social media what a duck is to water), caused a minor fuss with his recent Twitter outburst about “Saint David Foster Wallace”, describing his contemporary as “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation”. Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest novel, The Marriage Plot, meanwhile, contains a polymathic, clinically depressed and self-destructive protagonist who (despite its author’s repeated denials) looks an awful lot like a fictionalised version of Wallace.

Since Wallace’s death, his work has been definitively conferred with the voice-of-a-generation importance he both craved and feared. In “Farther Away”, an essay published in May 2011, Jonathan Franzen, Wallace’s literary ally and rival, meditated – in his own stubborn, reluctant way – on his friend’s death and subsequent transmutation into legend. Franzen’s essay expressed alarm and resentment at the hasty Cobainification of his friend’s memory and the posthumous elevation of a troubled and complicated man to the status of omniscient, cuddly guru. It decried the “adulatory public narratives of David, which take his suicide as proof that (as Don McLean sang of van Gogh) ‘this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you’”, and stated provocatively (and not at all graciously), that “the people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms”.

If Max’s compelling portrait does nothing else, it will surely put the “Saint Dave” notion to bed. Upon reading Every Love Story, what is strangely surprising to a reader of Wallace’s work is how much of the author himself is present in the dark, troubling corners of his fiction. Readers have been apt to think of Wallace as the sensitive and goofily endearing soul found in his journalism (he admitted that “In those essays … there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am”). There are traces, though, in the dark and misogynistic interviewees of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and in Infinite Jest‘s Orin Incandenza, the cynical bedpost-notcher who keeps a numbered list of seduction strategies (Wallace confessed to a friend that he was “literally crazy” on the subject of sex). We are reminded of the paranoid anxiety of the most desperate addicts in Infinite Jest, and the paralysed self-loathing of the tortured protagonists in his densely introspective final story collection Oblivion. Max does not flinch from showing us Wallace at his lowest: particularly shocking are the revelations of his behaviour with fellow writer (and fellow recovering addict) Mary Karr. Not only did he on one occasion try to push her out of a moving car; he even went so far as to concoct an abortive plan to kill her husband. The portrait isn’t pretty, and the fascination it provokes is unavoidably, uncomfortably voyeuristic, but it does serve to humanise Wallace and to make his demons more sadly real; the writer mostly emerges as a sympathetic figure, a troubled man whose fearsome intelligence seemed only to exponentially increase his unhappiness. For the most part, though, the focus is on explaining how Wallace became the writer he did and on placing him in cultural context – as Max puts it, on “showing us a remarkable being in the process of becoming”.

Wallace was recognised as prodigiously gifted from an early age – Max notes that “there was a moment in many of his fellow students’ lives when they realized Wallace was not just smart but stunningly smart, as smart as anyone they had ever met” – and he amassed prizes throughout his early academic career. He published his first novel aged twenty-three and would go on, in his lifetime, to publish another novel, three story collections and two essay collections, as well as a co-authored book on rap music and a discussion of the mathematical study of infinity. Since his death, these have been added to by the unfinished novel The Pale King, his philosophy thesis, the text of an address to Kenyon College, and now by the publication of Both Flesh and Not: Essays, a compilation of several pieces only now being collected in book form. DT Max’s biography is the first on Wallace, and has its roots in a New Yorker piece written by the journalist shortly after the author’s death.

It is tempting to see the crucial event of Wallace’s life as the one documented only a few pages into Max’s book, when the twelve-year-old boy was given his own black-and-white TV set by his parents. Television would come to inform everything about Wallace: his voice, his persona, his view of the world inhabited by contemporary human beings and the role of art in that world. He was omnivorous and relentless in his embrace of the medium ‑ his sister is quoted as saying she had “never met anyone who had the need for television David had” ‑ and he came to believe that its ubiquity and its contradictions could explain much of the psychic difficulty plaguing his generation. In a seminal essay from 1993, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, Wallace argued that the small screen had left his generation of writers with a dubious legacy. TV had, he claimed, absorbed the rebellious energies of the previous generation’s responses to it (the ironic, self-conscious fiction of forerunners like Pynchon and DeLillo, for example) and begun disseminating them back outwards in order to deflect criticism and maintain the loyalty of its audience. Irony, he argued, had become endemic and self-perpetuating, and had lost its power to subvert. As he put it in Infinite Jest: “The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age.” He called for a morally engaged fiction that sought to connect with its audience in a new way, and hinted that this might be achieved by “some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S life with reverence and conviction.”

Wallace would develop this obsession with sincerity into his masterpiece, the gargantuan Infinite Jest. The novel’s action takes place in a near future world so commercialised that time itself is now subsidised (for example, the Year of the Whopper and the Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster) and in which the volume of waste produced by America has necessitated the drastic merging of the US, Canada and Mexico into the Organization of North American Nations (or O.N.A.N. – Wallace did not always limit himself to single entendres). Its central plot driver is a video so entertaining that any viewing is fatal, and which thus becomes the object of a series of farcically complicated political intrigues (as well as providing a metaphor for America’s terminal addiction to pleasure at all costs). The criticism of consumer capitalism is clear, but the book’s most memorable and moving strands follow the parallel stories of Hal Incandenza and Don Gately, a tennis prodigy and ex-con respectively, detailing their struggles with addiction and their attempts to find meaning beyond solipsistic pleasure. In a novel filled with references to Hamlet it is Hal’s father, the deceased head of his dysfunctional, Salingeresque family and the director of the film in question, who functions as the ghost; his elusive, melancholy presence haunts the pages of the novel, augmenting the sense of sadness pulsing alongside the manic energy in its veins. The novel’s language oscillates between factual and emotional, exploring the tension between data and subjectivity:

‘What I’m trying to ask, I think, is whether this feeling that you’re communicating is the feeling you associate with depression.’
Her gaze moved off. ‘That’s what you guys want to call it, I guess.’
The doctor clicked his pen slowly a few times and explained that he’s more interested here in what she would choose to call the feeling, since it was her feeling.
The resumed study of the movement of her feet. ‘When people call it that I always get pissed off because I always think depression sounds like you just get really sad, you get quiet and melancholy and just like sit quietly by the window sighing or just lying around. A state of not caring about anything. A kind of blue or peaceful state.’ She seemed to the doctor decidedly more animated now, even as she seemed unable to meet his eyes. Her respiration had sped back up. The doctor recalled classic hyperventilatory episodes being characterized by carpopedal spasms, and reminded himself to monitor the patient’s hands and feet carefully during the interview for any signs of tetanic contraction, in which case the prescribed therapy would be I.V. calcium in a saline percentage he would need quickly to look up.

The spaces of the novel – a tennis academy and a halfway house for recovering substance abusers ‑ both function as metaphors for an America whose pressures have become almost unbearable, and the theme of addiction introduces urgent moral questions about free will and faith in a secular world: namely, how is it possible to live meaningfully in a chaotic information society that seems to have reduced our capacity for moral agency? And how can humans coexist in a world at once atomised, interconnected and overpopulated? Infinite Jest captures, in Max’s words, “a sense of terrified isolation” while holding out “the promise of redemption”. It is elliptical and dense; it is as compulsively addictive and frustrating as the vices it describes; it is seemingly constructed upon the patterns of a fractal mathematical set; and it is, hopefully, unfilmable.

Part of the novel’s length and difficulty come from the hundreds of pages of endnotes that lurk beyond the main text, divulging trivia, pharmacological definitions, dry parodies of academic film criticism, and sometimes crucial plot details. In a letter to his editor Michael Pietsch, Wallace gave several justifications for the technique, a particularly prescient one being the urge to “mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence”. Indeed, as Max notes, Infinite Jest’s dense synthesis of data fields seems a lot less unusual in a world quickly grown used to hypertext and multiple information sources, a technology-drenched world in which our battered, jittery attention spans can more easily accommodate “the cognitive jumps in its pages”. While Wallace’s fiction is dated in terms of its technical specifics and deals primarily with pre-web interactions, the processes he described – endless cultural fragmentation and the disorienting, relentless proliferation of entertainment– have continued apace. Even before the author’s death, his masterpiece was beginning to serve as a touchstone for a technologically literate generation who shared the alienation and mysterious sadness of its characters, and it soon became a cult classic ‑ a Naked Lunch for the nineties, or as Max puts it, “A Catcher in the Rye for people who had read The Catcher in the Rye in school”.

Wallace’s writing (in tandem with his quirky, lovable, and only partially constructed public persona) endeared him to a media-saturated generation who recognised one of their own: an over-educated, over-entertained and over-medicated figure who found himself somehow under-prepared for the emotional realities of adult life. Infinite Jest soon became a literary sensation and its author a phenomenon, with critics proclaiming his genius and fans waiting in line for hours to hear him read. Wallace told an interviewer that his relationship with the reader had developed to one akin to “a late-night conversation with really good friends, when the bullshit stops and the masks come off”, and his work resonated with fans on a level that implied an almost familial intimacy – Dave Eggers noted that “A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke”. This devotion seems to have only deepened with time ‑ Infinite Jest has inspired the same sort of obsessive literary sleuthing of its influences, real-life analogues and geographical points of reference as has Ulysses, and a quick web search will discover at least two instances of fans who have tattooed its final line upon their flesh.

One reason why Wallace’s work resonates so deeply is his masterful control of language in all of its depth and variety. If a writer ‑ as Henry James suggested ‑ is someone on whom nothing is lost, then Wallace was a natural. His work often overwhelms with its astonishing abundance of detail, its deliberate lack of compression, its calculated surfeit of information. Wallace’s style seems to have developed both as an attempt to express both his own hyperactive, polymath tendencies (his distinctive recurring footnotes were, he said, “almost like having a second voice in your head”) and as an attempt to come to terms with a media-saturated world in which the background volume seemed to have been irrevocably turned up, an environment described (in “Deciderization”, collected in Both Flesh and Not) as “a kind of Total Noise that’s also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value”.

Wallace’s prose varies depending on the form (his essays and journalistic pieces tend to be less dense than his fiction), but a common feature of his style is its ability to be both brainy and conversational, spanning several registers of language in one sentence. The result is a kind of knowledgeable and casual academic-slacker argot that seems to incorporate the mumbles, slips and lateral jumps of thought. Here he is (again, from an essay in the new volume) eulogising The Terminator in typically allusive style:

It is, yes, true that Cameron’s Skynet is basically Kubrick’s HAL, and that most of T1’s time-travel paradoxes are reworking of some fairly standard Bradbury-era science fiction themes, but The Terminator still has a whole lot to recommend it. There’s the inspired casting of the malevolently cyborgian Schwarzenegger as the malevolently cyborgian Terminator … there is the dense, greasy, marvellously machinelike look of The Terminator’s mechanized F/X; there are the noirish lighting and Dexedrine pace that compensate ingeniously for the low budget and manage to establish a mood that is both exhilarating and claustrophobic. Plus T1’s story had at its center a marvellous “Appointment in Samarra”-like irony of fate: we discover in the course of the film that Kyle Reese is actually John Connor’s father, and thus that if Skynet hadn’t built its nebulous time machine and sent back the Terminator, Reese wouldn’t have been back here in ’84, either, to impregnate Sarah C. This also entails that meanwhile, up in A.D. 2027, John Connor has had to send the man he knows is his father on a mission that J.C. knows will result in both that man’s death and his (i.e. J.C.’s) own birth. The whole ironic mess is simultaneously Freudian and Testamental and is just extraordinarily cool for a low-budget action movie.

The writing is not without its detractors. Geoff Dyer complains that Wallace’s style, with its “variously contrived sloppinesses”, “brings me out in hives”, while another critic caustically describes his rhetorical strategy as “the aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach”. Like any great stylist, Wallace has suffered by association with his many imitators, and from the fact that his influence – on contemporaries like Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers and on the house style of McSweeney’s magazine, for example – has diluted the effect of his innovations. The sheer verbal energy of everything he wrote is undeniable though, and at its best his style becomes the vehicle for a feverish, irresistible urge to communicate. For many, it represents a particular kind of uncompromising honesty, a genuine attempt to connect without dumbing down: the reader can be gripped with the impression of a genius trying his utmost to communicate at eye level.

For many readers, in fact, Wallace’s nonfiction was the place where this impression was at its strongest. His gifts as a comic writer and the breadth and depth of his knowledge made him hugely successful as an essayist ‑ here was a writer who could (and did) turn a review of the Oxford Dictionary into an entertaining and thought-provoking meditation on culture and democracy. Despite his insistence that he was “not a journalist” and his belief that fiction was his true calling, Wallace’s novelistic gifts were extremely well suited to reportage, with its need for sustained and subjective observation. He also showed a New Journalistic penchant for entering a story by the side door: in his magazine pieces we consistently find him taking the road less travelled as he joins John McCain’s 2000 campaign tour bus only to spend his time in the company of the camera techs, attends a lobster festival on behalf of Gourmet magazine and slyly advances a thoughtful argument for vegetarianism, and hides out in his cabin while on a luxury cruise.

He was happy to place himself in the narrative frame, and this turns out to be the key to the success of these pieces: Wallace’s exaggerated sensitivity to his surroundings (Max describes his self-deprecating persona as “a slightly more neurotic version of his reader”) allows him to intensify the strange glare of the situations he finds himself in and to subtly question the reader’s expectations of them. This technique sometimes led him to prioritise narrative over the facts – some of the farcically entertaining moments in his most loved pieces were certainly fashioned to suit the overall comic vision – and he admitted at one point that if “you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment”. The ethics of this are debatable, and call to mind the recent revelations of Ryszard Kapuściński’s occasional fabulations in his journalism (compared to which, it must be said, Wallace’s transgressions seem fairly minor). Wallace seems to have become more careful about his relationship to truth in later years, however, and his later pieces are notable for their seriousness.

Both Flesh and Not: Essays is drawn from almost twenty years of Wallace’s writing, and its contents, particularly when read alongside Max’s biography, provide intriguing (if fitful) insights into the author’s development. The title is a misnomer, as some of the pieces are decidedly not essays ‑ one is a two-page list that Wallace submitted to a magazine of five US novels he felt to be “direly underappreciated”, while another is, as its title suggests, a list of “Twenty-Four Word Notes”. Wallace was invited to contribute notes on word usage to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus in 2004, and the collected results are intriguing – there is something oddly wonderful about being advised by one of the finest writers of his generation on the different ways in which someone can be described as “hairy”. The inclusion of a selection of words from Wallace’s list of obscure vocabulary is a nice touch, and fans may enjoy a wry smile at the appearance of the following noun: “excursus – long intellectual digression in a speech or piece of writing”.

The collection is necessarily uneven, and some pieces feel more essential than others. The argument of the 1988 essay “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young”, for example, overlaps with the more persuasive “E Unibus Pluram”, and takes a strident tone that Wallace would later shy away from (he chose never to collect this essay in book form in his lifetime). The same goes for his review of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress. The piece, written at a time when he was struggling to formulate an aesthetic theory, provides an insight into Wallace’s own writing aims: he refers revealingly to the prose’s achievement of “making heads throb heartlike” (a phrase Max returns to several times as an image for the multilevelled vibration of meaning that Wallace sought to achieve in his work) as well as Markson’s ability “to infuse statements that all take the form of raw data-transfer with true & deep emotional import”. However, it is a lengthy and at times abstract review of a relatively obscure twenty-four-year-old novel, complete with references to analytic philosophy, and not all readers will be inclined to stay the course.

The best pieces, though, more than justify the collection’s existence. Wallace is irrepressible when he takes on his favourite subjects (such as film in the Terminator essay, or tennis ‑ and consumerism ‑ in “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”.) The roundly admired essay on Roger Federer from which the collection takes its title shows a more mature and contemplative writer sacrificing none of the virtuosic energy of his earlier prose (the reader will hopefully agree that Wallace is worth quoting from at length here):

There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today’s power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner … until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side … and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner — Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands. And there’s that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe with his color man’s headset on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), “How do you hit a winner from that position?” And he’s right: given Agassi’s position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of “The Matrix.” I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.

Wallace was never overtly political, but according to Max he and his wife seriously considered leaving the country after George W Bush’s re-election in 2004. “Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report”, his introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, shows a sober awareness of the responsibilities of citizenship, and presents humility as a mark of maturity:

Part of our emergency is that it’s so awfully tempting to do this sort of thing right now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the “moral clarity” of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amount of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new vistas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.

One of the fundamental effects of Wallace’s style is to create an awareness of the dizzying swirl of lived existence; “complex” was one of his favourite adjectives, and his characters continually find themselves in double binds that make choice seem impossible. Here, as in the Federer essay, Wallace suggests that a kind of awed humility might be the appropriate response to the world. The line that Max chooses as an epigraph (from the story “Good Old Neon”) is an appropriate one: “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

What was going on inside, it is now apparent, was often too difficult for Wallace to bear, and in hindsight his writing appears to display a much more personal sense of desperation than many critics had detected. Pain and sadness were apparent in his writing all along: success, in Wallace’s fiction, tends only to mask an insidious and crippling fear, and the images of mirroring, recursion and involution that appear throughout his work often only lead into ‑ as one suicidal character puts it ‑ “the kind of inbent spiral that keeps you from ever getting anywhere”. A character in Infinite Jest experiences “his self-conscious thoughts twisting around on themselves like a snake on a stick”, and the depth of suffering of the author adds one more layer of complication to a dispassionate analysis. There is the man, the work, and the illness: when we consider the difficulty of separating the three, the size of the task facing any biographer becomes clearer.

Max’s principal success is to show us a sympathetic portrait of the artist as a conflicted young postmodernist struggling with his own internal contradictions. Wallace was intensely competitive and ambitious (wanting, as he told a friend, to write fiction that would be read “100 years from now”) and set high standards for himself and for others; he could be ruthless in his public criticism of peers like Ellis and Mark Leyner when he judged them guilty of glib irony and cleverness. However, it is clear that this anger was also directed at himself, and Max reads Wallace’s work as the product of an ongoing struggle between, on the one hand, his crowd-pleasing impulses and sense of himself as “the smartest guy in the room” and, on the other, the responsibility he felt towards the moral purpose underlying his work. As he matured, Wallace came to believe more and more strongly that a generosity of spirit lay behind great art, that writing should be in some fundamental sense “other-directed”, and that the true purpose of meaningful fiction should be to “alleviate loneliness and give comfort”.

In 2005, Wallace gave a commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in which he spoke solemnly about the profound difficulties involved in daily adult life, and the baleful attractions of solipsism in a culture that offers us “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation”. He argued for the importance of “learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think”, and that “the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day”. The result is an interesting example of how the fervour of Wallace’s fans was already feeding back into his career, and an example of how the author’s death would soon – inevitably – create an industry. The speech was transcribed by an audience member, and Max describes Wallace’s mystification when it subsequently turned up on the internet (he had never given the college a transcript). When it was repackaged with the new title “This is Water” in 2009 it would become his first posthumous publication, and it has – ironically given its homely tone and aphoristic advice ‑ become one of his most widely-read pieces.

Ever since Infinite Jest, Wallace had been attempting to channel the same concerns into another novel. The material that would eventually become The Pale King concerns a group of Internal Revenue Service employees working in Peoria, Illinois in the early 1980s. The work follows their entry into the “Service” ‑ the double meaning of the word is very much intentional in its concern with civic responsibility and connotation of selflessness. Paying attention – to the intricate details of tax law, in this case ‑ becomes a way of submerging the ego, as one character suggests: “gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is … actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.” The work traces the lives of several characters who work in the same building and interrogates the notion of citizenship and community in modern America. It is a sustained attempt to confront the bureaucratic banalities of adult life – difficult terrain indeed for a novelist – and more than one critic has noted that it chases after boredom with a fervour that recalls Ahab’s pursuit of Moby-Dick. A line in Wallace’s notes reads: “It turns out that bliss ‑ a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious ‑ lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

This notion, however, reads more like an artistic conceit than a product of experience. Wallace found work on The Pale King increasingly tortuous – he described the experience of writing to his editor, Michael Pietsch, as “like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind”, and as his frustration deepened, he wrote to Franzen: “I am tired of myself, it seems.” Max suggests that by 2005, Wallace’s failure to complete the book “had itself risen to a meta-level – he saw that he could not write it because he could not himself tune out the noise of modern life”. In 2007, Wallace made the fateful decision to quit Nardil, the old-fashioned antidepressant he had been taking for most of his adult life. Max doesn’t press the point, but the suggestion is that this decision had at least as much to do with Wallace’s desire to achieve a breakthrough in his writing as it had to do with medical advice. Wallace’s deterioration from this point onwards was shockingly swift, and Max handles it with sensitivity.

The Pale King remained unfinished. Pietsch (who had edited Infinite Jest) assembled the work from a mass of material left in Wallace’s office comprising pages of apparently completed sections as well as a multitude of scattered material in hard drives and notebooks. The work was published posthumously in 2011 and joined that rare and strange breed of published creatures, the “unfinished novel”. Critical reaction was largely positive (the book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011) although its fragmented nature makes it almost impossible to assess in conventional terms; Wallace (who was rarely disposed, even in his completed works, to tie up loose ends) left no directions as to the structure of the work, and the published version is, by Pietsch’s own admission, just one of an infinite number of possible interpretations of the material.

Max’s book is essential reading for admirers of Wallace as well as those unfamiliar with his work. For devotees, there are – along with the revelations about his personal life – fascinating sections on his relationship with his college writing teachers, most of whom were more conservative in their conception of fiction (one informed him that a piece that would later appear in his first collection, Girl With Curious Hair, was “not a story”) and with his editors. There are revealing and occasionally amusing descriptions of, for example, the multiple rounds of cuts required to get Infinite Jest down to a manageable 1,079 pages and of Wallace’s battles with copy editors whose knowledge of grammar struggled to match his own. Newcomers will find an informative introduction to the author – the arc of his life is deftly sketched and his personal struggles sympathetically rendered.

It may, however, be worth mentioning an additional problem facing any writer on Wallace: namely, that they have often been beaten to the punch by their subject. Wallace’s relentlessly self-conscious work tends to anticipate criticism, and the genre of biography turns out to be no exception. In a scathing review of a biography of Borges (included in Both Flesh and Not), Wallace points to what he suggests may be a problem endemic to literary biographies – the fact that “the bio has to make the writer’s personal life and psychic travails seem vital to his work”. The resulting focus on “personal stuff encoded in the writer’s art” risks reducing the interpretation of the work to the real-life struggles of their author.

Max is clearly aware of the already impressive body of criticism exploring Wallace’s work, and his deliberately limited approach to his subject (a modest 301 pages, excluding footnotes) as well as his chosen title (“A Life”) suggests that this biography does not pretend to be definitive. However, while his literary criticism doesn’t usually overstretch itself, there is an inevitable bias towards the aspects of the writing that can be backed up with a good anecdote or a quote from Wallace’s correspondence, and the textual interpretations ‑ even when illuminating ‑ are often frustratingly brief. The biography focuses heavily on Wallace’s early work, on the assumption that his formational struggles are of most interest, which means that ‑ for example ‑ some of the finest essays in Consider The Lobster are barely discussed.

This sense that Max is being more sparing than he needs to is also present at a stylistic level. It is ironic that a biography of Wallace, a writer allergic to the idea that prose should go down easy, should be written by a writer whose journalistic ease with language turns the book into something approaching a page-turner. The no frills approach can be frustrating on a rhetorical level: not only is the effortless flow of the writing strangely jarring here, but Max’s prose is sometimes seen to suffer by contrast with the brilliance of the frequent quotations from Wallace. Certainly, it is not hard to imagine Wallace – a one-man thesaurus who made great efforts to avoid cliché – wincing on reading an introductory description of him as having “bounced back” from depression to write Infinite Jest.

However, such lapses are rare: more serious is the lingering feeling that the approach may be too limited to fully do its subject justice. The voices of Wallace’s family and friends are often subsumed into Max’s smooth New Yorker prose rather than being left to speak for themselves, and the book’s narrative flies by so quickly that it is only after the final page that we realise how little we have heard from Wallace’s parents, sister and wife. It is hard to fault Max for this – the book’s events are still extremely raw after all and this may be a gesture of tact and respect towards grief-stricken loved ones – but it makes the portrait feel curiously incomplete in a way that does not sit easily with its sense of narrative authority. Perhaps readability should not be a cause for criticism (and perhaps we should be grateful that this biography is not itself a heavily footnoted, thousand-page behemoth), but it is impossible not to draw a contrast between Wallace’s exhaustive, above-and-beyond efforts to explore his own chosen subjects and the reserved, carefully digestible treatment here.

The contrast, however, not only underscores the unavoidable influence of Wallace’s style but also the difficulty of any biographer’s task. When we approach the tragic and painful period of Wallace’s final year, Max’s tact feels like necessary restraint, perhaps even mercy. The book stops with its subject’s life, and Max – whether in an effort to avoid sentimentality or to keep the focus on his subject – chooses not to deal with the post-mortem responses of family and friends. It is left to fans, critics and scholars to trace the author’s afterlife. The lack of explanation or interpretation at the book’s close mirrors the inexplicable suddenness of the author’s loss and perhaps achieves something of the uncomfortable jolt of awakening that Wallace aimed for in his own work; the reader is forced once again to share, for a moment, the shock and disbelief of the fact that this most effusive of authors chose, finally and irrevocably, to leave the conversation.


Tim Groenland is currently writing a PhD (funded by the IRCHSS) at Trinity College, Dublin in authorship in the works of Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace.



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