Guest Post: Consider the Year of David Foster Wallace

Ed. Note: By any measure, Matt Bucher is an important contributor to the ongoing conversation about David Foster Wallace. For the last 10 years, he has administered the wallace-l listserv, which brings together enthusiasts, journalists, authors and scholars to discuss and debate the author. Recently, he offered research and review assistance to help shape D.T. Max’s 2012 biography, Every Love Story is Ghost Story, and is thanked in the book’s acknowledgements section for offering “top-level knowledge of DFW.” Fiction Advocate is glad to publish his thoughts on the biography and YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE.

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I. The Year of DFW & DTM

Q. Why was 2012 “the year of DFW”?
A. Well, it has a nice ring to it.

Since his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace has become an increasingly established star in the literary firmament. Those who care about trends and increments could very well say that there was “a lot” of activity around Wallace or “Wallace studies” in 2012, in hindsight. There was much to say about Wallace in 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008, as well. I expect 2013 and 2014 and 2063 will be no different.

This year, there is at least one book of essays on Wallace (edited by Stephen J. Burn and Marshall Boswell) due for publication, several dissertations on Wallace pitched as monographs to university presses, a reissue of Signifying Rappers due this summer, Greg Carlisle’s reader’s guide to Oblivion, and other books of previously unpublished Wallace material to come. I think it’s a real possibility that we will see a book of Wallace’s letters, a Portable David Foster Wallace reader, or another collection of unpublished short fiction. Comparisons to Tupac’s posthumous catalog will endure.

As much as 2012 was the year of DFW, for me it was the year of D.T. Max. I had the privilege of working with Max on his Wallace biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. So, I actually first contacted him in 2009 and spent a good deal of 2010 and 2011 researching things for him, meeting up, talking on the phone, emailing, tracking down facts and tidbits, reading drafts, going to the Ransom Center reading room, and other things (I am particularly proud of the Arizona chapter). But in 2012, Max was everywhere. His biography of Wallace made the NY Times bestseller list and got a positive review from Michiko Kakutani, and she eventually named it one her ten favorites of the year. To see a book go from an idea, to a manuscript, to that is, well, interesting to say the least.

FA Every Love Story

And so there is no way I can be objective about this book. It is also the case that I have been an obsessive fan of David Foster Wallace for all of my adult life. I read Infinite Jest in 1997 and it changed the way I see the world and myself. I have thought about DFW & his work almost daily since then. (Part of this has to do with taking over the admin role of the wallace-l listserv in 2002. The daily emails with “wallace-l” in the subject line are my daily devotional. My fandom is unalterably tied to the experience of participating with others in the listserv.)

All this to say that I can not approach reviews or criticism of Max’s biography as an impartial outsider, but yet I consider myself open-minded enough to listen to dissenting opinions and real criticism about it. Highly anticipated books (like Max’s) suffer from ambiguous expectations. What sort of book should a biography of David Foster Wallace be? Right up front, this is not a book for academics (though I think many academics will benefit from it). This is not a book of literary criticism (though I think there is some astute and novel criticism in it). This is not an everyday-in-the-life-of / kitchen-sink biography (though I think there is plenty of detail and depth to paint that portrait). To me, the biography reads like an extended version of Max’s 2009 portrait of Wallace and The Pale King in the New Yorker, “The Unfinished.” That piece was everything you’d hope for in a New Yorker article; it made waves. Almost everyone I met praised that piece, but some on the listserv were turned off by it’s insinuation that Wallace’s inability to finish his third novel played any role whatsoever in his suicide. As if they knew better.

Prior to 2008 on the listserv, we always experienced a flurry of activity whenever Wallace published a new story or a new book. But we also had a lot of reports of people attending readings or having personal interactions with him. From these, we got to know a little bit about Wallace’s personal life, but not too much. He was a very private person and the people around him almost always respected that privacy. Also, he would frequently evade questions about his past or, when pressed, just outright lie about his personal life. As a basic example, before he died almost no one knew that Wallace suffered from severe depression or took medication for it. When I first read Max’s biography, I was struck by the number of revelations about Wallace’s life on every page. If nothing else, D.T. Max does a huge service to Wallace fans and scholars by laying out the factual details of Wallace’s life and relationships. I can’t stress this enough. There were periods in Wallace’s life that were gray spots to even his closest friends. Some reviewers of Max’s book took it for granted that the biography did such a good job of describing the chronology of Wallace’s life and I want to reiterate how difficult some of this work was. Finding the right sequence of events, the right people to trust, the truth, in essence, even for someone so recently deceased, took years to unravel.

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II. The Gift

I have always been fascinated by artists or performers who live with a disconnect between what their gift is and what they’d maybe prefer to do. Like how some are born with a talent or skill that they must embrace and accept even though they don’t necessary love it. This is basically what “Good Will Hunting” is about. Will Hunting is born with genius-level ability for advanced math, but he struggles to really embrace all that it entails. He fights against the image of himself as different or special. Similarly, there is an old video of Christopher Cross singing “Sailing” and I love it because as a kid I heard that song and pictured someone like Michael McDonald or Phil Collins singing it. But in reality, Christopher Cross looks like a bus driver, wearing a Houston Oilers football jersey. He was born with the gift of this voice and he uses it to sing about sailboats in paradise. To hell with the standard narrative.

You know those guitars, that are like, double guitars?

When Infinite Jest was published in 1996 and David Foster Wallace set the literary world on fire, he was the epitome of cool. He looked like Ethan Hawke and Kurt Cobain’s brother—and he was authentic, not just some poseur. And his talent could blow your mind; he was bona fide, high-brow literary, and important people called him a genius because they couldn’t think of a better word. Every lengthy, “literary” novel that has been published since Infinite Jest lives in its shadow. Is Adam Levin the next David Foster Wallace? Marisha Pessl? Zadie Smith? Eugenides? Is House of Leaves as good as Infinite Jest? How does Freedom or Witz compare? Safran Foer? Who is the female DFW? The thing is, at that moment, Wallace could have taken another direction. He could’ve gone on The Today Show or Good Morning America or been on a billboard in Times Square. He could’ve done some self-promotion and become the most famous young writer in America. But it’s not like he turned Pynchon and disappeared—he struggled with his gift and the image of himself. He winced on Charlie Rose and then went back to teaching in Illinois.

A large portion of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is devoted to discussing this paradox in Wallace’s life. Lipsky is a writer and novelist and there he is talking to the writer of the moment who has just achieved what seemingly every writer would desire or love: reviews in every publication, the genius label, the literary label, book sales, the envy of all your peers, street cred, and so Lipsky wants to know: what does that feel like? What does it look like from the top of the mountain? Wallace can’t give a satisfying answer.

Personally, I am almost always envious of friends who are more successful and popular than me, people who achieve what I just dream of doing. I know it’s wrong and unhealthy and yet I want to be more like them. I beat myself up for not being more successful, more myself, more productive. I know this leads to sadness. In Infinite Jest, there is a young student / tennis player named LaMont Chu who desperately wants to be tennis great Michael Chang. He wants to know what that success and fame tastes like so he asks the tennis academy’s resident guru, Lyle. Lyle replies, “You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.”

Maybe some people still want to be the 1996-just-published-Infinite-Jest David Foster Wallace, but after reading this biography, I doubt anyone would envy him.

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III. The Dream

Our relationship with writers we love is largely fictional, a fantasy. We create a specific image in our minds and then allow reality to seep in from time to time. The flipside of this is the writer probably does not have you in mind, specifically, individually at the time of writing. Very few people have read a book wholly written just for them. So what is the best way of the author to think of the reader? Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers.” I’m just another stranger and I’d like to believe that when Wallace put his brain behind his pen and set down to do some serious damage to a legal pad, he was not thinking about me or you—he was creating Art in Search of Truth. Or love. Or…. I don’t know, actually. I am still wrestling with that question, that “art’s heart’s purpose.”

Even after I read everything I could about him and even after I met David Foster Wallace a couple of times, I could not tell you what he was really like or what his life had been like. If you’ve ever met a writer you love and felt this sense of disconnected sense of reality in their presence, then you know it’s a weird feeling. This person here in the jeans and high-tops just can’t be the same person you spent hours and months and years constructing in your head. Zadie Smith mentioned this phenomenon in a recent interview:

Interview: Were you overwhelmed by the attention [of White Teeth]?

ZADIE SMITH: I’m going to try to answer very honestly. It’s got two aspects. The bit that involves the public life I could not really tolerate and cannot really tolerate. I just can’t get used to the idea of being somebody unreal in people’s minds. I can’t live my life like that. And it’s just anathema to being a writer. It’s not healthy. But in another way, when I’m writing, what it’s about for me is being good on the page. None of that noise could change the way I feel about my writing. Which is not always particularly positive.

As a fan, you have to consider that the idea you have of an author is unreal and probably abhorrent or intolerable to that author. Much of the attention directed at the personal lives of authors is driven by some negative emotion: the envious, the snoopers (Frank Bruni actually digging through Wallace’s medicine cabinet), the overenthusiastic young fans, the snarketeers, the intentional fallacists. Is there any good motivation for reading a biography of a writer? Of course. But it seems much more fraught with feeling and emotion when everyone in the biography, except the subject, is still alive. Relegated to the mists of time, we can study the life and times of Shakespeare or Milton or Henry James with the detached feeling of a historian, that we are reading historical fiction for the most part.

So yes, I did get to see Wallace’s loping gait and bandana and tiny handwriting with my own eyes, and of course I was curious about the mind that could create the world of Infinite Jest, but I was under no illusion that my mental picture of him was anything but a fantasy. Imagining him actually walking around the State Fairgrounds on a hot Illinois day or sitting in his cabin on a cruise ship alone, studying the official cruise pamphlet, or even standing on a balcony in Capri, looking out at the water, I have no way of knowing if any of this really happened the way I imagined it; the reality of it is less important to me than the conception I was able to see in my mind’s eye. The biography of David Foster Wallace might inform your mental impression of him, but the authentic, more enduring part of him is still there in the stories he left behind.

A year or two after he died, I had a dream that David Wallace did, in fact, have children: a boy and a girl. And for some reason, in the dream, I’m looking at the photos he’s posted of his kids to his Instagram account (or some dreamlike variation thereof) and as I scroll down, I watch them grow up together: a bald baby in a high chair, riding on dad’s shoulders, first day of kindergarten, laughing in the mud, birthday parties, little league games, sweet 16, prom, college graduation with the proud parents high gussy in the sun, and finally, at the end of the feed is a picture of a slightly grayer, more-creased David Wallace holding a little swaddled baby, his grandchild. And his smile in that picture is so simple and pure and real that it’s become part of my fantasy, too. That is how I choose to remember him.

-Matt Bucher


  1. How lucky we are that you’ve shared this, Matt (and you, Fictionaut, for publishing). Being so rapt in the inner workings of the Max bio must have been invigorating, and I too indulge in the occasional daydream of DWF ageing. Bravo.

  2. Thanks for this post, Matt. I love the Christopher Cross comparison, especially since there is a lot of subtext to that jersey, which is not a generic “Oilers” jersey, but an Earl Campbell jersey. Like a lot of Austinites in the late ’70s / early ’80s, I was obsessed with Earl, as was Chris. And the comparison you are making to DFW is apt on a number of levels, b/c in fact he had a very lukewarm reception in Austin, his hometown, with its music scene built on the blues and the “authenticity” effect that creates. While he attained untold riches and had an incredible recording career, he was, at heart, just this dude from Austin (where he returned recently), who was not quite up to snuff for the blues afficianados that dominate down there.

  3. Since reading a writer’s blog on his near suicide with aspertame I have wondered bout this combination with depressive meds concerning DFW. Evidently it is a dangerous combination spiraling the person down and down into suicide. Is it true that he hung himself as his wife was hanging her art show at the gallery for her opening? I find that horribly chilling. I love him everyday and every time I think about him.

  4. Thanks for reading, everyone! I really do love Christopher Cross; apologies for saying he looked like a bus driver. I meant that he didn’t fit the standard definition of a pop star, or what a pop star should look like, (and like DFW, he was on top of the world with Arthur’s Theme), but that mattered less in the early 80s when radio and record sales played a larger role than TV, MTV, blogs, etc. And I totally get the link to Earl Campbell as well – I went to the same high school as Earl!

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