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.
Here’s a message from Monica Carter of Salonica and Skylight Books—our featured indie store of the month—about some interesting upcoming events.
One of the trademarks of Skylight Books is the ability to recognize and promote the literary greats of our time. Ten years ago, Skylight Books not only participated in the Harry Potter phenomenon with a midnight release party, but was the originator of the Thomas Pynchon Against the Day midnight release party. The tradition continues at Skylight Books with our dedication to celebrating the literary talents of today with our second Thomas Pynchon Midnight Release Party for his new novel, Inherent Vice, on August 4. Along with Pynchon, we will be hosting not one but two parties for Infinite Summer (not a footnote of a party, a PARTY!), the effort of bibliophiles from around the world to read Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009. William T. Vollman has been a perennial bestseller at our store and also a staff favorite which is why we are the only independent bookstore in Los Angeles to host an event for his new book of photographs, Imperial. These events are indicative of Skylight Books’ commitment to fostering cultural vivacity in our own community as well as the global literary community.
Covering approximately 75 pages a week (the entire reading schedule can be found here) , this group will read one of the longest novels of our generation by September 21st. For anyone who hasn’t read this book, this looks to be a fantastic way of experiencing the book, with great commentaries by other interesting writers, and a host of other people enjoying it with you . . .
I’m personally interested in seeing how this plays out. Online reading groups have been a mixed bag, with the Golden Notebook Project getting most everything right and representing the most successful model to date.
Infinite Summer is a bit more traditional, with different commentators leading the group through the reading and trying to encourage comments along the way.
But it’s also one of the first online reading groups I’ve seen that’s incorporating a lot of social media possibilities and allowing for a very de-centered approach to the traditional reading club. For instance, this roundup post links to a separate blog detailing one reader’s reading of IJ, a site where you can download an IJ reading schedule bookmark, a site called Infinite Zombies that is part reading group part Fight Club, a Flickr pool, a Twittered version of IJ, and a site archiving the ongoing conversation of two IJ readers. This is reading group as controlled chaos, or social networking event.
With the popularity of DFW (and his sudden, tragic end), I can imagine that all of these sites will attract a lot of followers, and it will be really interesting to see what sort of long-term effect this has. IJ is one of those books that a lot of people own, but haven’t necessarily read, so who knows if this will be a bigger boost to sales or literary awareness. Regardless, it should be an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold, and short of reading all Open Letter books published to date, this is a damn good way to spend your summer.
David Foster Wallace’s passing this past Friday is a huge blow, and incredibly sad. There’s not much to add to the discussions and appreciations online (such as this one that Ed Champion put together). DFW was an amazingly talented writer, whose Infinite Jest is one of the greatest books to come out in the past twenty-five years. He will be greatly missed.
For more information about the online appreciations, I recommend visiting Literary Saloon.
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