Writing about the news-worthy David Foster Wallace events of 2012 seemed like a clever idea, and I committed to doing it before checking the math. I knew there was a lot of Wallace stuff — enough to justify a quick post and provide a platform for reviewing the books published over the last 12 months. It turned out there was A LOT of Wallace stuff, and the sheer effort of cataloging it all took up two long and patience-testing posts for readers and too many long and patience-testing days for me. As a result, mistakes were made.
For example, I forgot to mention the invocations of DFW when a cruise ship capsized in January. I neglected to catalog Matchbook, which matches swimwear with famous book covers, and included Infinite Jest in November. Other omissions included a September piece on “The Theological Imagination of David Foster Wallace;” a December conference at the University of Virginia that was named after and loosely inspired by Wallace; DFW’s critique of the word “utilize” being, uh, utilized for PR Daily’s “The Year in Jargon: 2012;” and an Associated Press story that uses Infinite Jest as the hook for explaining the cool literary search engine Small Demons.
I’m sure there are others. The largest oversight, however, was the lack of attention paid to the most important DFW event of the year, the publication of D.T. Max’s Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.
This attention deficit also resulted in at least one mistake. I wrote that Max “never 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.” The erroneous use of the word “never” was politely pointed out to me by the author himself — which was cool and has inspired me to seed more errors in my reviews in the hopes of hearing from more authors. A closer look found the references in the “Please Don’t Give Up on Me” chapter, where Max reports that Wallace “wrote some speculations in the margins of Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, a book Karr gave him.” Most of the drama, from Wallace’s perspective, involved his mother, and he at one point penciled her initials into the margins beside a relevant passage. Max also notes that Wallace read a book called Bradshaw on the Family, “a pop bestseller on dysfunction and childhood, and where Bradshaw wrote that low self-esteem translated into ‘believing that your worth and happiness lie outside of you,’ he [Wallace] noted, ‘Writing Success Fame Sex.'”
I have serious difficulty wrapping my mind around Wallace as a reader of self-help, which I tend to think of as narcissistic propaganda of cheerfulness. I can get past Wallace’s limited musical tastes, and the fact that he seemed to love “low-brow” plot-driven novels (I mean, the guy clearly had trouble telling straightforward stories so I can see the attraction, plus it’s not like there’s any evidence that his Tom Clancy reading took the place of anything else, since he appears to have read basically everything). But the self-help stuff is different. I have to accept, as Maria Bustillos reported in her exploration of Wallace’s self-help collection, that “stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library…he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.” I have to stifle my ridicule and reconsider, in much the same way that Wallace’s characters and Wallace himself did, the banalities and clichés of these allegedly healing words. I have to recognize that the wonderful Kenyon University commencement address may have emerged from Wallace’s love of some really terrible-seeming books. Even now I can’t accept it, and assume it was just a measure of his emotional vulnerability. I figure even self-help works when you go through life looking for any help at all.
Max treads lightly into this part of Wallace’s life, and there are probably lots of good reasons why. In his defense, DFW’s self-help collection was removed from the Ransom Center after it became newsworthy, and Max may have simply been honoring the wishes of the Wallace family by not dredging up his unexpected choices in reading materials. So, I apologize for initially mischaracterizing his treatment of the issue.
I also apologize for the larger mistake of making Max’s admirable restraint, seen on the self-help and throughout the book, seem like a shortcoming of Love Story, when I actually think it was strength. The demands on a Wallace bio this close to Wallace’s death are simply too many. You can see them manifest in Lee Konstantinou’s reaction to the book, or Matt Bucher’s piece here on FA, or this guy from Vice magazine, or Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker, or David Lipsky in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. One of the things I always liked about Lipsky’s book is that he went to great lengths to communicate that he was not Wallace’s friend or good buddy, that he was not writing as some privileged insider, but as an outsider like the rest of us, who just happened to have some taped a few days of hanging out with Wallace. I felt that Love Story operated similarly, with an inherent reservation that respected the difficulty of the subject — and that laid the foundation for further examinations of David Foster Wallace’s weird life.
It’s a lot like the cruise ship story I forgot about. There was a high-profile disaster, and plenty was said in response. Many people have looked into how the ship was built and maintained and where it was headed to try and understand exactly what happened. Those who were there at the time have given their accounts of what they experienced and how it made them feel. Thanks to all of these reports, there is now a lot that we know. But there’s still more to find out, and the only way to fully understand is to dive deeper into the wreckage.