Sometimes David Foster Wallace Was a “Hideous Man” Himself

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 7 2012 11:28 PM

The Genius in the Room

D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace.

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A lot of this, of course, has to do with a sort of semipuerile curiosity value. (And there’s a curious reflection here of the quintessentially Wallace-esque phenomenon of self-loathing as a specific result of self-infatuation; reading about this stuff is utterly compelling, but you kind of hate yourself for being so compelled by it.) The extensive, substance-soaked wreckage of Wallace’s romantic life is, for one thing, detailed in horribly fascinating detail. Often, this is done in ways that illuminate Wallace’s work, or at least the background to it. (The real-life model for the protagonist of Wallace’s excruciatingly brilliant short story “The Depressed Person,” Max tells us, was Wurtzel.) More often, though, it’s just plain gruesome—and nowhere more than in Max’s detailing of Wallace’s relationship with the poet and novelist Mary Karr, who was married with a teenage son when he met her through a recovery program. He turns up at a pool party Karr is attending with her family, a bandage on his shoulder covering a fresh tattoo of her name. He contacts an ex-con fellow AA member looking to buy a gun to shoot Karr’s husband. He tries to push her from a moving car. During another fight, he throws—literally throws—a coffee table at her.

D.T. Max.
Author D.T. Max

Photograph by ©Flash Rosenberg.

Max expertly handles all these aspects of Wallace’s damaged life, and the unsensational, just-the-facts approach serves the material well. But he’s also very good on the editing process, and on Wallace’s relationships with Gerry Howard at Viking Penguin and Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown (who told Wallace’s agent that he wanted to publish Infinite Jest “more than I want to breathe”). You wouldn’t expect the war of editorial attrition over a 1,200-page, footnote-encrusted novel to make for especially gripping reading, but it does. Max’s detailing of the push and pull between Wallace and Pietsch highlights, above all, the contingency of the published text, the extent to which it is a result of countless reinings-in, relinquishments and grudging compromises. His reading of the fiction itself is thoughtful and subtle; although it’s never groundbreaking, it’s never perfunctory either. Max also doesn’t overstretch himself, as literary biographers often do, in pointing out correspondences between the life and the art.

Max’s focus is, not surprisingly, more or less resolutely on Wallace’s life as it related to his art. This decision to strip the story down to its narrative essentials pays off in terms of compulsive readability, but there are places where you wish he’d peeled away a little less. The problem is most acute when it comes to Wallace’s mother Sally, a professor of English and grammar specialist. Max refers to the story “Suicide as a Sort of Present” as “a meditation on [Wallace’s] difficult relationship with his mother,” but the nature of this difficulty remains largely undefined, and Sally is never more than a hazily peripheral figure. (This may well have to do with the fact that Max is writing here about a person whose family are all still alive. Maria Bustillos’ essay on the annotations in Wallace’s collection of self-help and psychology books is more revealing on this topic.)

And yet it wouldn’t be fair to say that the book sacrifices characterization to plot, because, where it counts for most, Max certainly pulls it off. Wallace himself emerges as such a complex, poignant figure—is so thoroughly brought to life in all his affliction and ambition and dangerousness and decency—that, in the closing pages of the book, I felt, as though for the first time, the terrible magnitude of his loss. And though much of it is already familiar from Max’s 2009 New Yorker piece about the author’s final depression and suicide, what happens in those pages still comes as a strangely abrupt bereavement. I knew what was coming, of course (how could I not?), but knowing what’s coming turns out not to be the same thing as being ready for it.

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It was primarily the details that I found myself unready for. Like how he’d previously prepared to kill himself by tying a garden hose to his car’s exhaust pipe with his bandana (which would have been like Freud somehow committing suicide with his glasses, or Joyce with his walking stick). Or how, during the terrible days of his final illness, his parents moved in with him: “Sally Wallace cooked him the meals he had loved as a child—casseroles and pot pies; they watched The Wire. It was obvious to his family that he was in unendurable pain. Before she left, he thanked her for being his mother.” There may well be readers who can get through sentences like these without having to put down the book and take a few deep breaths, but I’m certainly not one of them.

Part of this emotional force is due to the relative recentness of Wallace’s death, to the not-yet-fully-dissipated haze of unreality that surrounds the fact of his 2008 suicide. But it also has to do with the way in which a book like this, which reveals for the first time many of the facts of a life of such serious cultural consequence, serves as a kind of public completion of that death, as a final rite in the literary funeral. There is, in other words, a slightly paradoxical effect to Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. In providing a more complete sense of Wallace than we ever had while he lived, it makes his death feel more real, somehow more irrefutable. And, for anyone who felt a profound emotional connection to Wallace and his work, there’s a strenuously cathartic dimension to this: the experience of knowing him more fully, and of thereby feeling more completely the force and finality of his absence.

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