So much happened in the first half of 2012/YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE that it turns out I missed a few things. On 21 February, Wallace’s birthday, Berfrois ran “The Depressed Person in The Marriage Plot,” in which Daniel Roberts takes a closer look at the connections between Wallace and the character Leonard in Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest book. Adding to the steady march in April, Publishers Weekly began a two-week countdown of “The Top 10 Infinite Jest Characters,” starting with #10 (Barry Loach) and moving toward #1 (see here). Also, on 21 April came the long-awaited (by me at least) end of the “live” part in “Words, Words, Words: The Infinite Jest Liveblog.”
After a relatively uneventful May and June, YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE came roaring back in July. The monthly issue of GQ featured an interview with Nick Offerman, better known as Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation,” in which Offerman talked about being “halfway through Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – a writer who escaped my notice until a few years ago, when posthumously his final novel, The Pale King, came out.” In the very same issue of GQ, a Wells Tower piece on the pornstar James Deen made a Wallace-esque mention of one of Deen’s colleagues: “Kayden Kross, a wholly winning and improbably bookish young woman who reads the short fiction of David Foster Wallace between takes.” On 8 July, as noted, Roger Federer won Wimbledon, which led to Wallace-Federer references in The Telegraph, The Daily Beast, The Week, and GQ.com. There was even a weird piece on Wallace’s faith titled “Roger Federer Killed David Foster Wallace,” as well as an anti-Federer piece on the LRB Blog which noted that “‘Federer Moments’, as David Foster Wallace famously called them, are part of what I dislike. ‘Federer as Religious Experience’ says more about Wallace’s genius than Federer’s.” The following day, Michael Cunningham took to The New Yorker‘s Page Turner blog to explain why Wallace (and others) didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Also on 9 July, the “Nieman Watchdog” at Harvard University offered “Lessons on covering politics from the late David Foster Wallace.” On the 11th, Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians books used his first impressions of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story to talk about hysterical realism. On 13 July, Page Turner posted a piece about subsidized time. Federer’s victory was still yielding DFW alerts when there came, on 16 July, the other significant non-book event in the YODFW: the launch of “Infinite Boston.” The project was an ambitious effort by William Beutler to photograph and write about the real-life equivalents of various IJ locations:
I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts with the express purpose of visiting as many of the landmarks and lesser known precincts that appear in, or provide inspiration for, the late David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest as I could manage…now I am pleased to present what I am calling “Infinite Boston”: a ruminative travelogue and photographic tour of some fifty or so of these locations, comprising one entry each non-holiday weekday, from now until sometime in early autumn.
“Infinite Boston” attracted broad interest, showing up on The Millions, The Rumpus, National Geographic’s The Radar, Fast Company’s Co.Create blog, and from there the technology section of nbcnews.com, among others. The notice was well deserved. “Infinite Boston” is thorough and artfully done — well worth exploring for anyone who loves Infinite Jest, or is currently working their way through it. The project also had a number of spinoffs, including the super cool, Google-maps enabled “Infinite Atlas” and some other cool stuff available for sale at the Infinite Shop.
The first few weeks of July were pretty good — but the end of July illustrated the scope of what was happening in YODFW. On the 19th, CNN ran an online story about porn stars using Twitter to gain mainstream fame. One of the stars the mentioned was Kayden Kross, upon whom they bestowed the title “The Smartest Woman in Porn” and mentioned: “She often tweets about her favorite authors, David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo.” Four days later, the Wall Street Journal reported on a past meeting between DFW and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The two men had lunch and bonded over their shared enjoyment and rigor over language and grammar. Apparently the meeting led to some book Scalia wrote, which is not important. What is important is that, within the space of a few days, we could read about how a porn star and an arch-conservative Supreme Court justice both have strong affinities for our man.
Welcome back to YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE.
Wallace sightings continued unabated. On 4 August a blogger named Greg Walklin pointed out a strange occurrence in a recently produced 1-800-CONTACTS commercial:
Greg’s assessment pretty much pegs it: “Part of me is thrilled that Infinite Jest has this kind of cultural weight — that it gets referenced in such a way. The other part of me is confused and sad.” On 19 August, The Howling Fantods posted notice about the third Wallace stage adaptation of the year, a production of selections from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. The show was scheduled to run at the end of the month. An early excerpt of the forthcoming Every Love Story is a Ghost Story appeared on The Book Beast the next day, and one week later the Ransom Center published the reflections of Wallace’s editor on the “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open.” Also on 27 August, Rolling Stone teased the Wallace bio with an online post “Six Things You Didn’t Know About David Foster Wallace.” Not all of these were surprising (“He wasn’t as good at tennis as he claimed”) but some were quite interesting, for example: “He once plotted murder,” and “He voted for Reagan.” Within days, the first reviews of the biography began to appear. On 30 August, the book hit the shelves.
Around three quarters of the way into Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max quotes Wallace, writing to a friend about his worry over becoming “a literary statue, ‘the version of myself’ as he wrote a friend at the time, ‘that I want others to mistake for the real me.’”
The statue was “a Mask, a Public Self, False Self or Object-Cathect.” What made the statue especially deadly to Wallace was that it depended for its subsistence on the complicated interplay between writer and public. Not just: You are loved. But also: You love being loved. You are addicted to being loved.
What we see here and at other spots throughout the book — and all throughout Wallace’s writing — is one of the many encounters Wallace has with himself, where he twists into angst-ridden knots wondering who he is, and/or who he was leading people to believe he is, and/or why he was motivated to be and/or do either of those things.
One can imagine the biographer’s challenge to tease out and tell the story of the real person, and to credibly tell the story of Wallace’s importance when Wallace never seemed to believe it himself. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story was built on D.T. Max’s 2009 New Yorker article about Wallace and his efforts to surpass Infinite Jest. Like the article, Love Story stays close to the established facts and accepted interpretations of Wallace’s works. As a result, the biography ends, like other things, without reaching any major conclusions about a life that ended all too abruptly. Wallace’s suicide left a massive hole in literature, and affected his readers deeply. Max acknowledges the hole, but never quite manages to adequately explain it, opting instead for a careful and concise chronicle of events, just over 300 pages about Wallace’s childhood, education, relationships, publishing history and struggles with clinical depression.
It is easy to feel like pieces are missing here, but how does one write a book that pleases an audience as wide ranging as Wallace’s? How do you satisfy the Supreme Court’s ur-Conservative constructionist and the world’s smartest porn star? How do you span the gap between the hard-core academic critical theory heads and he nice people who know Wallace as the author of This is Water? You have to please the New Sincerity crowd and the post-moderns and the recovery crowd who may ID with DFW, while also keeping in mind the math set and the usage weenies. And you have to remember that each of these tends to have more than just a cursory interest in the author. He inspires devotees.
Let’s also remember that it has only been four years since Wallace’s passing, and D.T. Max is both above and absorbed in the history he is writing about. His closeness to the still-living Wallace circle must have presented difficulties, not just in trying to keep an objective distance, but also trying to exercise authority and clarity with the knowledge that some very smart, accomplished and outspoken people might come up to you after the fact and tell you that they knew David Foster Wallace, and that the man in your biography was no David Foster Wallace.
More than a love story or a ghost story, D.T. Max tells a straightforward life story. The well known details of Wallace’s life are like the stops on a train line. Son of academics, Wallace played competitive tennis as a young man. He was brilliant at Amherst, but left school in a bout with depression. He came back and churned out two theses, one of which became Broom of the System. He went to graduate school for writing at the University of Arizona — most conspicuous for not being Iowa — and resisted the system that wanted to tame his experimental streak. He published a collection of short stories, moved to Illinois — also conspicuous for not being New York or some other writerly locale — banged out the grand masterpiece of a generation and shied from publicity. He sweated. He wore a bandana. He wanted to redefine fiction and help America be earnest again. Along the way he managed to redefine magazine writing and inspire years of essays worth reading. Two more collections of short stories appeared, both weird in their own ways, both raising questions about the novel to come. He moved to California, taught classes, got married and seemed pretty well settled. Then one day he hung himself.
Max fills in the space between, detailing Wallace’s often tortured path from stop to stop. He does a fine job of avoiding a hagiography, which many people no doubt expected. Wallace’s warts are plainly visible. Nor does he editorialize, lionize or recklessly speculate. But as a result, Wallace’s life ends up seeming uneventful. The author moves from one town to another without making much in the way of emotional or professional commitment. Until his marriage, interactions with women range from juvenile to dangerously dysfunctional. Each successful publication is followed by immediate worry over how the work is being received and how he will manage to replicate the success that he hasn’t bothered to enjoy in the first place. Wallace himself becomes tedious at times, especially in his constant complaint letters to DeLillo and Franzen and Mark Costello and Michael Pietsch and Bonnie Nadell and a cast of others about his struggles to produce quality writing.
While Wallace’s personal life stays relatively mediocre in terms of narrative and redemption — as he once said, “the personal lives of people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill rides to hear about” — Max does an excellent job of reminding us of the stunning accomplishments of Wallace’s fiction and the work it took to bring it to life. Wallace may be tiresome when talking about the writing he’s not doing, and unexpectedly normal in his dysfunction otherwise. But when he is writing, laboring through the brutal, beautiful, cryptic and extraordinary books, we are reminded of what made this life worthy of a biography.
Max’s spare treatment of Wallace’s life is sadly effective at the close of the book, as the inevitable unhappy ending approaches. He is reserved and journalistic about the gut-wrenching facts of Wallace’s last days, giving equal weight to the notions that Wallace took his own life either because he was no longer able to write, or because he was unable to return to emotional stability after changing anti-depressants. Or some combination of both. As Love Story ends, Wallace remains a mystery. Somewhat better illuminated, but still unknown.
There is more to be mined than Max gets at. He only gives offhand mention to incidents like Wallace considering the murder of Mary Karr’s husband, or a later fight between Wallace and Karr when he attempted to toss her from a moving vehicle. Mere sentences are dedicated to a shoving match Wallace has with a student, or a memory from Big Craig, the real-life model for Don Gately, in which Wallace was so upset in traffic that he rammed the car in front of him. A revelation that Wallace once hired a prostitute is relegated to an endnote. Max
never briefly mentions the large and well-thumbed self-help library Wallace apparently had, which is an unexpected part of his life and something that should be reconciled with the Wallace we think we know. And again, Max, struggles to explain the full import of Wallace’s work, which was difficult to do since Wallace never believed it himself. Still, there is no denying that Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a vital part of our understanding of David Foster Wallace, and as more ambitious and no doubt presumptuous efforts begin to appear, it will provide a solid and steady foundation.
Throughout the month of September, reviews of Love Story steadily appeared, and D.T. Max took up something like a writer-in-residence position on the The New Yorker‘s Page Turner blog. He hosted a “D.F.W. Week” and posted on Wallace’s first pitch letter, his childhood writings, and more. Not everyone was pleased with all of this. The most notable detractor was Bret Easton Ellis, who started September vocalizing his unhappiness on Twitter, saying things like, “Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the Literary-Doucebag-Fools Pantheon…” (sic) and “Saint David Foster Wallace: a generation trying to read him feels smart about themselves which is part of the whole bullshit package. Fools.” This started something of a flame war over Wallace and established Twitter as the new front on which literary canonizations are debated. On 7 September, Berfrois published “Reading The Pale King: What the Death of an Author Reveals about the Death of the Author.” The 12th marked the fourth year since Wallace’s suicide, and memorial posts appeared on The Howling Fantods, Page Turner, and a posting of “This is Water” on Brainpickings, as well as other postings I’m sure I missed. On 14 September, the movie “Liberal Arts” came out in limited release, featuring an unnamed appearance by Infinite Jest, which plays a role in bringing two key characters together. Notwithstanding the efforts of Bret Easton Ellis, Publishers Weekly reported a bump in sales for Infinite Jest following Max’s biography. The Obama campaign tumblr page posted a quote from Wallace on 22 September, pulling from the McCain essay to encourage voter participation. On 28 September the Ransom Center announced the opening of Wallace’s papers from The Pale King, giving some insight into the incomplete process that went into the unfinished novel.
On 6 October at The New Yorker Festival, D.T. Max moderated a discussion with Mary Karr, Mark Costello and Deborah Treisman about rereading David Foster Wallace. On 11 October Max added to his Page Turner contributions with a piece on “an unfinished short story about the internet” — the one in which Wallace refers to the new technology as “the bathroom wall of the U.S. psyche.” On the 17th, The Millions posted the reflections of Jenn Shapland, who as a graduate student and Wallace scholar, was in charge of cataloging The Pale King archives at the Ransom Center: “Everyone warned me that cataloging is an extremely dull, painstaking process, that the cataloger is required to operate as more machine than human. (I expected that it would be especially boring, considering I was cataloging a book about boredom.) And, I’ll be honest, much of it was slow and repetitive. But as I worked my way through the materials, something about this archive hit me right in my most human part. I found myself unable to operate as either cool cataloger or curious scholar. Without my realizing it, reading and sorting the collection took me way deeper into emotional territory than I tend to go.” The 23rd and 24th were the dates for the production of “G.O.Ne” the one-man stage adaptation of “Good Old Neon.”
November was another busy month. On the first of the month, Guernica published extensive thoughts from a writer who once received a postcard from DFW. The story that was picked up by The Atlantic Wire the next day. Another early piece arrived care of The Kenyon Review, which published “Come On, Pilgrim” about visiting the Ransom Center Wallace archives and reflecting on Wallace’s commencement speech. On 6 September, Little, Brown released Both Flesh and Not, a collection of Wallace’s uncollected essays.
It’s hard to argue against the release of any Wallace material, but it’s also hard to feel any overwhelming need for the pieces in Both Flesh and Not. The book follows in the tradition of most posthumous releases by being a weaker reflection of the pieces chosen for collection during the artist’s lifetime. Where The Pale King hummed with unfinished potential, Flesh displays Wallace’s non-fiction at its least incandescent. Flesh is also distinct from the previous essay collections, where Wallace was able to restore the abridged magazine versions of the pieces to their original full-length forms. If Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again are akin to the premium director’s cut, Both Flesh and Not is the equivalent of the outtakes and DVD extras.
The bar is set very high, so this isn’t to say that Flesh is exactly bad. But aside from the title essay, it feels unnecessary. And when Wallace’s nonfiction provides the entry point for so many readers who go on to the greater joys of his fiction, Flesh could lead first-time readers to wonder what all the fuss is about. It would be a shame for someone to think that Wallace’s difficult prose is encapsulated in something like the following, from his essay on Wittgenstein’s Mistress: “Are facts — genuine existents — intrinsic to the Exterior? admitting of countenance only via the frailties of sense data & induction? Or, way worse, are they not perhaps perversely deductive, products of the very head that countenances them as Exterior facts & as such genuinely ontic?” Despite that one sentence, this particular essay is worth having around, if for no other reason than to explain Wallace’s contention in another piece in Flesh that Wittgenstein’s Mistress is “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.” Other selections have a similar “nice but not essential” vibe. “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” is one part of the better refined argument made in “E Unibus Pluram,” and “The Nature of the Fun,” the other process piece in Flesh, gives some insight into Wallace’s internal struggles to write, which D.T. Max reports on in Love Story. An essay on “Terminator 2″ is a fun but ephemeral read, as are “The Best of the Prose Poem,” “Twenty-Four Word Notes,” and the review-evisceration of “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama.” In “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open” Wallace ventures to the 1995 tennis tournament with the apparent goal of writing about anything except tennis. “Back in New Fire,” in which he postulates that the AIDS epidemic might bring the thrill back to casual sex, is downright confusing — though it made interesting after reading about Wallace’s promiscuity in Love Story. All of these are good essays, but not a one of them is great, and Both Flesh and Not ultimately feels like odds and ends.
On the 12th of November, following the national elections, The Paris Review reported that David Foster Wallace appeared among the write-in candidates for Congress in Georgia’s 10th District. Republican candidate Paul Broun had called evolution and the Big Bang Theory “lies straight from the pit of Hell,” and voters decided that the late author might be a better choice. Other write-ins included “A CAT,” “BURNING BAG OF DOG SHIT,” and “ALBUS DUMBLEDORE,” all choices that are difficult to dispute give the alternative. On 18 November — the day I first sat down to write about the YODFW — the New York Times Sunday Review led off with an article called “How to Live Without Irony” which, predictably enough, referred to and damn-near quoted DFW. The article and its attacks on hipster culture received considerable pushback about its broad generalizations and clunky prescriptions for living without irony. Less noticed was “The Quiet Ones,” a few pages into the same Sunday Review, which defended the Amtrak Quiet Car as the last bastion of silence in an over-stimulated world. That author built his argument saying, “In a 2006 interview David Foster Wallace said, ‘it seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet, ever, anymore.’” Two other articles in the Sunday Review, one about the inability to have discrete extramarital affairs in the digital age and another about internet censorship, missed opportunities to use Wallace’s “bathroom wall” comment. On the 25th, the Los Angeles Review of Books blog went into full-throttle YODFW mode for their end of year fundraiser, posting four separate David Foster Wallace pieces. The surge of articles was followed the next day by a fundraising pitch that “LARB is leading the conversation on David Foster Wallace.” On 27 November, a Hipster Lit Flow Chart appeared on Goodreads, starting with the question “Have you read Infinite Jest?” The flow chart eventually garnered enough viral attention to be covered by Entertainment Weekly.
The last month of the YODFW was largely occupied with reviews of Both Flesh and Not and Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, with the occasional best-of list including Max’s biography. But there were still a handful of independent hits. On 3 December YODFW, Infinite Jest appears about 1:40 into this Instagram/Nickleback parody. Perhaps feeling the need to bring some order and guidance to the events of the previous 12 months, Dazed Digital posted on 6 December “David Foster Wallace: The Da-Zed Guide,” an alphabetic arrangement of important Wallace facts. The next day, Berfrois ran “Of Birds and Lobsters,” which juxtaposes Infinite Jest against Franzen’s Freedom. On 11 December, D.T. Max posted on Page Turner about the origins of the title for Love Story, and then again on the 20th speculating about what Wallace might have thought of his biography. Between posts, he joined James Wood at Harvard to talk about Wallace’s life and legacy. YODFW closed with the publication of a fifth book, a David Foster Wallace volume in the Melville House Last Interview series. The book adds two interviews, including one with Dave Eggers, to the contents of Conversations with David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace once wrote that “as a child I used to cook up what amounted to simplistic versions of Zeno’s Dichotomy and ruminate on them until I literally made myself sick.” Zeno’s Dichotomy was the theory that no distance could ever be fully traversed because it could be divided into an infinite number of smaller distances. There was always space between. The YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE that has just passed was, if nothing else, a collective attempt to close the distance between Wallace and ourselves, to cover a little bit of distance each time, while never quite reaching the destination.
After a year of blog posts, essays, panel discussions, an infinite atlas, five books, four stage adaptations and more, we are maybe marginally closer to figuring out Wallace and the question mark with which he punctuated the end of his life. The good news is, he left behind thousands of pages of writing to help us further along. The tough part is knowing that there will be no more of it.
- Michael Moats