Semi-ode to DFW
Today’s post, written by Erik Estep, a librarian at SIU Edwardsville who has contributed to Three Percent in the past, is more or less an ode and reflection on David Foster Wallace and his work, as well as some commentary on the somewhat critically received DFW biography by D.T. Max. Since the majority of us at and related to Three Percent are, in fact, huge DFW fans, we thought it apt to give a little shout-out to Max’s book . . . Enjoy!
Even though he didn’t last long, David Foster Wallace left his mark on our culture. D.T. Max’s new biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, is an excellent introduction to the man and his body of work. Max, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has been on the Wallace beat for a while—he published a major piece on Wallace soon after Wallace’s suicide—and his familiarity with the material pays off in a book that is both readable and fairly comprehensive.
Wallace is a tricky subject because even though he has been gone for four years now, his influence lives on in our culture. With apologies to Douglas Coupland, Wallace can arguably be called the writer of Generation X, and one of the most important American writers in the last fifty years. With such an expansive subject, it would be easy to get lost in the details, but Max tells it straight and tells it well. He carefully traces Wallace’s roots in the Midwest, and sort of makes the case that Wallace is a regional writer.
Max also insightfully connects Wallace’s nearly life-long struggle with depression to growing up in the Midwest:
His mother thought of his anxiety, she would later tell an interviewer, as the “black hole with teeth,” but neither she nor her husband knew what to do about it, beyond letting their son stay home from school when he had to. Perhaps they hoped the problem would go away when he went to college. Clearly, biological changes were going on in Wallace—depression often first appears in puberty—but the young man may have also been responding to the environment that he had grown up in, to the wide-open spaces and unstructured world of late-1970s Midwestern America. If he was furtive or anxious, perhaps it was in part because he had a hard time figuring out what the rules were. (12-13)
Wallace will always be remembered first and foremost for Infinite Jest; appropriately, Max spends a lot of time unpacking that masterpiece. He carefully goes into Wallace’s past and links the figures in his life to the characters in Jest. For instance, one of the loves of Wallace’s life is the inspiration for the vaguely disfigured Jest’s Joelle Van Dyne—also known as Madame Psychosis. Wallace tried to self medicate his way through depression and ended up with addiction problems, which he tried to solve through the Alcoholic Anonymous programs. Wallace used those experiences to create the memorable and sympathetic character of Don Gately, who properly centers Jest. It is through his character that the vast Jest finds an emotional core. While the novel begins with Hal Icandenza’s nervous breakdown, it ends on a more peaceful and ambiguous note with Gately mentally drifting away. It is with his style of peculiar genius that Wallace ended what is arguably the best novel of Generation X on an emotionally satisfying note.
Of course, Wallace was not done with Infinite Jest, but the success of that novel haunted him for the rest of his career: just as Orson Welles was always trying to top Citizen Kane, Wallace was trying to best Jest. Most readers have gotten their introduction to Wallace through his brilliant essays instead of through Jest, and it is here that Max could have provided some more details. Almost until the very end, Wallace was very productive (Both Flesh and Not, a collection of essays spanning his entire career, was released just last fall and features a nice selection of his last great pieces, including the justly famous “Federer or Not”), and Max could have spent more time fleshing out that aspect of his career. For example, Wallace wrote very aptly about professional sports, especially tennis. Max could have easily spent several chapters on that topic alone. As it is, Max gives us some gems; for instance, who knew that Elizabeth Wurtzel was the basis for the Wallace’s great short story “The Depressed Person,” or that Wallace may have had an affair with Wurtzel? Wallace’s private correspondence is extensive—he didn’t like to use the phone—and Max mines Wallace’s letters with acumen. Wallace considered Don Delillo an influence and almost-father-figure, and Max uses those letters to come up with some surprising conclusions. For example, Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, is modeled more on Delillo’s work than that of Thomas Pynchon.
Wallace’s sad story also has a lot to tell us about the stigma society places on mental illness. Wallace was born in 1962 and his mental illness hit him hard while in high school in the 1970s. Back then, our understanding of mental illness seemed like something from the Stone Age; even homosexuality was considered a form of sickness. Now, one can’t avoid seeing a commercial for a mental illness that has yet to be discovered. One wonders if Wallace would be alive today had he been born just a decade later. What possibly doomed Wallace was his decision to go off the first generation medication that had stabilized him for so long. Perhaps, if there were fewer stigmas attached to the dread disease of mental illness, Wallace would have felt less flawed being on anti-depressants and not tried to cure himself without them. Granted, all of this is merely speculation, but is that is what good biographers do, and one wishes Max, who knows Wallace’s work so well, would have taken that leap and given us some analysis. Although there will be many, many future books on Wallace and his work, Max’s book is a great place to start and is useful for both the Wallace completist and neophyte alike.