Review: Cameron Woodheadon David Foster Wallace

The mind has mountains: A life of David Foster Wallace

The short introduction to D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story strikes some odd notes. It is one thing to use the memorial service for David Foster Wallace, that towering literary innovator who remade the possibilities for writing real fiction in an unreal world, to invoke the praise of his fellow writers – Jonathan Franzen talking of Wallace’s ‘crackling precision’; Zadie Smith saying he had ‘a talent so obviously great it confused people’ – and it is hardly out of place to give a nod to the people from all walks of life who were touched by the human intensity, the humour and the pain, the desperate struggle for connection and for meaning that inhabits most of his work. But what’s the deal with dragging in the slacker fanboys? An encomium at the start of a Wallace biography could do without the putative lens of groupies who haven’t read a word of the man, but sort of like the idea of an emotionally damaged, television-saturated, pot-smoking genius who’s just like them kicking serious goals in the literature game. That sort of familiarity, Wallace would no doubt have pointed out, is mediated and delusive. In a different world, it might have given him the howling fantods. It certainly gave me the fantods.

Playing to Wallace’s celebrity encourages fulsome and imprecise praise. It leads the biographer to assert that ‘Wallace had somehow become representative of a generation’ (I flinched) and conclude that the author ‘never stopped being a purer version of ourselves’ (you don’t flinch twice at the same thing).

Wallace had indeed become famous in a cultish way by the time of his suicide in September 2008 at the age of 46, but how anyone could write such univalent clichés about the man who wrote ‘Death is Not the End’ in Brief  Interviews With Hideous Men (1999) – that ‘still life’ of a (fictional) middle-aged American poet and Nobel laureate reclining by the pool, with its sense of manufactured stasis, its satirical rhapsody on literary success as a form of ossification (‘a poet,’ tellingly, ‘two separate American generations have hailed as the voice of their generation’) – is a bit of a mystery . That story, like Max’s introduction, creates the irresistible impression that the camera is wrongly focused.

And then there is the biographer’s idiosyncratic literary judgement. He is right to say this author wrote like no one else, but where is he going when he says that a Wallace sentence is ‘immediately recognizable in its ambition, its length, and a syntax that at times approaches a Gerard Hopkins-like rhythm’? The first two are indisputable; the last comparison is bizarre. Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Foster Wallace share trochaic monikers; there the rhythmical similarity ends. Of course, Hopkins also wrote one of the most famous poems in English, ‘No worst, there is none’, to capture the incalculable nature of the mental and emotional anguish that claimed Wallace’s life:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there…

Max may have had it in mind, though he doesn’t say so.

What I desperately wanted from this book, and what Wallace deserved, was a biography that was itself a significant work of literature. Max is no slouch as a reporter and he constantly fillets the novels, stories, essays and letters to give you a sense of how densely woven from a difficult life the web of Wallace’s writing is, but his prose doesn’t have the percipience and complexity over the long haul to fully dramatise the unresolvable questions that it raises, and he tends to be wiped off the page whenever he quotes from his subject. Perhaps anyone would be. Perhaps it was too much to hope that Wallace could be memorialised so quickly by a biography that could stand in the company of the most celebrated in literature – a contrapuntal life from someone who knew him very intimately, à la James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D (1791), or a definitive one from someone whose ability to wrest a story from the evidence was enhanced by a literary critic’s insight and sensibility, à la Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce (1959; revised 1982).

This reminds me, before I get carried away, of one of the literary spectres (there are many) that haunt and illuminate this book. The proximate source of the title was a different Richard Elman (with one ‘l’ and one ‘n’) who taught Wallace in the 1980s. Max recently chased down its literary origin for the New Yorker. It turns out, the phrase comes from the private correspondence of our own Christina Stead and describes the small solace writing held as she grieved after her husband’s death: ‘There was the ghost story (“every love story is a ghost story”) of May First 1975,’ she wrote, ‘which for a time made me think I was coming back to life.’

David Wallace was born on February 21, 1962, in Ithaca, New York, though his family moved to the twin university cities of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois when he was still a toddler. His father, James, was a philosophy professor; his mother, Sally, was an English teacher. Max is at some pains to paint a picture of an ordinary, if extraordinarily educated and literate, family. This can at times feel like a gesture, a pose, mostly because of the cavalier way he treats the evidence of David’s childhood. Wallace’s interviews make great reading – they’re vivid and self-dramatising, remorselessly swift and funny and smart – and Max uses them a bit obsessively to illustrate Wallace’s early life. It’s a problem. Despite its personal ambit, biography is still history and the responsibility to give the reader enough information to evaluate the evidence, to find a way to faithfully represent the unreliability of it and make that part of the story, is greater for historians than journalists.

When Wallace reports to doctors in the harrowing years before his suicide that he first became aware of clinically anxious feelings at ten or eleven, there are good reasons to treat that with caution. Extreme emotional distress has a foreshortening effect on memory, and none of his family members recall signs of it that early. Max gives us that information and its context, and then several pages later asserts it as fact: ‘His childhood anxiety was back.’ Similar difficulties afflict such sentences as: ‘In David’s eyes, the household was a perfect, smoothly running machine; he later told interviewers of his memory of his parents lying in bed, reading Ulysses to each other.’

Such bolstering is troubling, but in some ways inevitable. Wallace was secretive. He discovered marijuana early, and despite his parents’ permissive attitude, preferred to smoke it in the bathroom, blowing smoke out the window. If this reminds you of Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest (1996), it does the same for Max. There are many aspects of Wallace’s childhood that he presents through the prism of later fiction. The grammatical zealotry of Sally Wallace, for example, who protested at ‘Ten items or less’ signs in supermarkets, morphs in Infinite Jest into the zealotry of Hal’s mother, Avril Incandenza, and her ‘Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts’; some of her invented words, like ‘greebles’, also make their way into the novels; and even the monster wedgie in The Pale King (2011) has a real analogue.

Wallace’s secrecy had a darker side. Max reports an ugly incident from when David was in ninth grade. He dragged his younger sister Amy through dog shit, bought her silence by giving her his bicycle and lied to his parents about it. That sounds a bit horrible, but it’s the lying rather than the cruelty that becomes the aberrant quality in hindsight, and there were reasons for it beyond the usual adolescent self-consciousness. As a teenager, Wallace began to suffer crippling panic attacks. He sweated profusely (this, rather than any concern for fashion, lay behind his baggy clothes and bandana-wearing). He could suffer intense phobias. His mother called her son’s anxiety ‘the black hole with teeth’. For Wallace, dissimulation became a regular tactic to preserve an image of normalcy.

Hal’s consuming anxiety in a college interview at the start of Infinite Jest is drawn from life, too, but it wasn’t until Wallace’s second year at Amherst College, Massachusetts, that depression derailed him utterly for the first time. This is where the biography starts to come into its own. Max has been meticulous in gathering stories and impressions from Wallace’s teachers and close friends at college, and they are a welcome supplement to Wallace’s own voice.

The biographer might have, if he had chosen to, indicated shades of the other Incandenza brothers in the young Wallace. At times, he was guilty of Orin’s slimy phallocentric behaviour. (‘Smell that, Core?’ he says to his friend Corey Washington. ‘It’s springtime. The smell of cunt in the air.‘) At other times, he resembles the meek, empathic, debilitated Mario. ‘You see now before you, indirectly at least,’ he writes to the same friend after a breakdown, ‘the real “Waller”: an obscurely defective commodity that has also been somewhat damaged in transit.’

Wallace’s mind flowered and withered in a university setting. He was intellectually voracious, ‘hoovering’ (as his mother put it) philosophy, history, mathematics, literature. As he lurched from awards and academic brilliance to hospitalisations and suicide attempts, antidepressants and electroconvulsive therapy – and back again – his obsession with language intensified. He was exercised by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), with its insistence on words as the whole world, and equally by the philosopher’s later revisions, which admitted the communal function of language, and conceived of it as a sort of game. Max captures the psychological dimension of Wallace’s interest in a neat epigram: ‘late Wittgenstein was Wallace well; early Wittgenstein, the author depressed.’

Late Wittgenstein won out, for a time. It was the game-like qualities of American postmodern fiction that had first ‘rung his cherries’ and heavily influenced Wallace’s debut novel, The Broom of the System (1987). This ludic, involuted metafiction has as a lead character a woman who feels like she is a character in a novel, and if its language games and philosophy owe a direct debt to Wittgenstein, its ebullient timbre and labyrinthine critique of how the techniques of fiction shape reality closely resemble Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). The anxiety of influence was palpable and Wallace was aware of it. He even lied to an editor, saying he’d never read Pynchon’s book. The critics tended to admire the young writer’s vast potential while acknowledging the novel’s derivative qualities. The development of Wallace’s unique and influential style – dubbed ‘maximalist’ by some, ‘hysterical realism’ by the curmudgeonly James Wood – did not come easily.

Max sedulously details Wallace’s string of more or less disastrous and obsessive relationships with women, his poverty and self-neglect, the mental distress that devoured him, the deceit and the uncontrolled rages, and the rapacious addiction (partly self-medication, partly the opposite) that bundled him out of university and into rehab. The ordeal is never more alive than in Wallace’s own words, and there are plenty of them. He was the kind of guy who could write letters to people even if they lived just down the road. None of this is remotely glamorous. If you get the sense that Wallace’s depression – which at its worst became a brutal synecdoche for his entire being – pummelled an arrogant and immature genius, a brilliant literary mimic, into a humbler (if no less ferocious) writer with much more to say, it is still horrific. It was also unnecessary: Wallace would have been brilliant without it.

Consider the exploratory short story collection Girl with Curious Hair (1989), or his extended essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, which is, in its way, a manifesto for what Wallace wanted to achieve, and to a large extent did achieve. Almost single-handedly, he took postmodern fiction away from its reliance on a ubiquitous and uncritical irony – an irony, he argued, that had become merely fashionable, a cowardly inflection of affluence; an irony that was no longer being used as a scalpel to dissect the dominant culture, but had become an excuse to conform to it – and moved American avant-garde literature towards a salvage operation. He insisted that the aim was to find the real in the illusion. As he declared in an interview: ‘Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.’

Being a fucking human being was something Wallace found difficult. There were years of excruciation before he summoned the courage and sobriety to write his masterpiece, Infinite Jest, and patience did not come naturally to him:

There is absolutely nothing I can do except accept the situation as it is and wait patiently for some fullness-of-time type change. The alternative is going back to the way I used to live, which Drs. and non-hysterics at the rehab told me would have killed me, and in a most gnarly and inglorious way, before I was 30.

The anonymous support groups Wallace attended – and learned to listen hard at – provided a slew of authentic and unusual voices for the recovering addicts in Infinite Jest, and in his biography, Max tracks down some of the people behind the characters. There are hair-raising stories, including a road-rage incident where a newly sober Wallace deliberately crashes his car.

On another level, one of the joys of Max’s biography lies in the correspondence between David and those who shared his passion for literature – editors, agents, other writers, in particular Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo. Wallace and his editor Michael Pietsch had especially entertaining jousting matches over Infinite Jest, trying to find a compromise over its vast length and relative inaccessibility. Pietsch said he wanted to publish it ‘more than I want to breathe’, but felt the manuscript needed more clarity in the ending, more detail about the fate of the main characters: ‘We know exactly what’s happening to Gately by the end, about 50% of what’s happened to Hal, and little but hints about Orin. I can give you 5000 words of theoretico-structural argument for this, but let’s spare one another, shall we?’ Wallace won that round, even as he accepted many of Pietsch’s edits, condensed parts, and retained others in the book’s voluminous endnotes. He lost the battle over the subtitle ‘A Failed Entertainment’, though. The trouble with it, Pietsch noted, was obvious: ‘It’s not.’

The correspondence with other writers will make any Wallace reader drool at the prospect of his collected letters. He’s capable of writing to DeLillo that ‘Issues of usage, looked at closely for a moment, become issues of Everything’, and strikes up a close, combative, but mutually supportive relationship with Franzen, whose novel The Corrections (2001) he admired and slightly resented. The wave of successful literature that came after Wallace – Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), the exuberant novels of Jonathan Safran Foer – inspired ambivalence in him: he found it edifying but it made him ‘feel old’.

The demons that plagued Wallace didn’t go away once he found the fame he simultaneously craved and despised himself for craving. Infinite Jest was followed by the hilarious and multivalent suite of stories Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and much later the black, clotted opacities on the very edge of readability in Oblivion (2004). The life behind these fictions is far less interesting than the work, and much less humanly explicable. At one point, we are told, Wallace cut off all contact with his mother after coming to believe through therapy that she had suffered child abuse and had passed the damage on to him in some remote way by striving too hard to be perfect. The idea is manifest in the grotesque ‘Suicide as a Sort of Present’ in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. In real life, Wallace has a breakdown, years after their estrangement, and all of a sudden his mother is driving across the country to save him. It’s all very weird and extreme, but that the huge lacuna in their relationship remains unaddressed in the biography makes it seem even weirder. It isn’t the only time Max’s narrative skill lets the reader down.

Before his success, Wallace had to teach to get by, but he continued to do so even when he was well-off, because he enjoyed it, and there is also, at an infinitely higher level, a pedagogic aspect, a moral imperative, that underlies the pyrotechnic effects and black humour and artful self-consciousness in his work. He believed utterly that fiction had a duty to question the possibilities for being alive, that freedom in life, as in literature, was about meaning more than it was about happiness. As he said not too long before his death, in an address to some university students that was posthumously published as This Is Water (2009):

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise control over what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

Max’s biography documents just how hard Wallace found that fight to exercise mental control. It does so with sensitivity, alert to the fact that Wallace was at a grave disadvantage. The book does not romanticise his death. If he hadn’t been so sick, he might have been content. He was financially secure, he had left behind his philandering ways and was married to artist Karen Green. Yes, he was battling through The Pale King, his unfinished novel about tax agents and the liberation to be found in boredom, but it was the decision after many years to come off Nardil, a powerful antidepressant with serious side-effects, that shattered his always precarious equilibrium. Wallace returned to the theme of suicide a number of times in his fiction, but the rawest riff is in the one story he couldn’t bring himself to republish, ‘The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing’, written in his early twenties and published in a student magazine:

you look at the black hole and it’s wearing your face. That’s when the Bad Thing just absolutely eats you up, or rather when you eat yourself up. When you kill yourself. All this business about people killing themselves when they’re ‘severely depressed’; we say, ‘Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!’ That’s wrong. Because by this time all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts … When they ‘commit suicide’, they’re just being orderly.

David Foster Wallace stands head and shoulders above other writers of his generation.

His life can’t have been easy to write about. The material is distressing. Even more distressing are the reviews – from the Guardian to the New York Times – that start off by saying that Wallace doesn’t come across as ‘nice’ or ‘easy to like’: reviews that, to quote from ‘A Radically Condensed History of Post-Industrial Life’ have ‘the very same twist to their faces’. Being nice, being easy to like: these are luxuries those who know that the ‘mind has mountains’ cannot always afford. Maybe Max doesn’t quite get this point across with the rhetorical force that might have forestalled such a response. Maybe his book isn’t as astute and well-written as his shorter stuff for the New Yorker. Maybe his subject wrote more arrestingly about his travails and lived the part of life that consists in deeply imagining life better than his biographer ever could. Even so, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story contains a lot of original research and new information that will add to the appreciation of Wallace’s achievement; it should prove an indispensable stepping stone to any biography that comes after it.