God wielded the buzzer

Christian Lorentzen

  • Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max
    Granta, 352 pp, £20.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 1 84708 494 1

David Foster Wallace’s parents, Sally and Jim, were the sort of couple who read each other Ulysses in bed while holding hands. Jim read David and his younger sister Amy Moby-Dick as a bedtime story. It wasn’t inevitable that the boy would grow up to write an epic novel, but it wasn’t accidental. Jim was a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois; Sally taught English at a community college, and at home with her children was what her son in his fiction would term a ‘militant grammarian’, constantly monitoring their usage and syntax, turning it into a game. David was a creature of university campuses: Champaign-Urbana as a child; Amherst for college; Tucson for his MFA at the University of Arizona; back to Amherst to teach fiction writing; Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a stint as a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, then teaching fiction at Emerson College in Boston; Syracuse, where he went to be close to the poet Mary Karr; Bloomington-Normal for his first secure position at Illinois State; and finally Pomona College, in Claremont, California, where he killed himself in 2008 at the age of 46. He emerged as a writer from a university-based avant-garde tradition, but was adopted at an early stage by the New York mainstream; he was sought after by editors of glossy magazines and touted in the media as a ‘voice of his generation’ from his early thirties onwards, photographed with his long hair and bandana and two big dogs. This combination of academic prestige and big city popularity is fairly rare, and it’s one reason Wallace’s canonisation in the US has proceeded so rapidly. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (the line is Christina Stead’s but Wallace used it twice in his fiction and once in an essay, in reverse; Stead seems to have been misremembering or paraphrasing a line of Virginia Woolf’s about Henry James) grew out of D.T. Max’s post-mortem profile of Wallace for the New Yorker, and is very much the version of his life as seen from Times Square.

‘Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s’ is Max’s first sentence. It’s a funny way to start because beginnings and endings are the sorts of thing Wallace never stopped undermining in his fiction. It’s also not the sort of sentence you read in the New Yorker, where Max seems to be subject to heavier editing than in this biography. Later on page 1: ‘Midwestern virtues of normality, kindness and community also dominated.’ The ‘virtue’ of ‘normality’ is something Max seems very intent on pinning to Wallace, which is strange because Max’s thorough and conscientious reporting actually shows that he was a pretty weird man, who for most of his life lived in the quasi-monastic style of an academic gypsy, kept a room in his house painted entirely black, and for many years seems to have survived on a diet consisting mostly of blondies (a chocolateless variant on the brownie). Max’s fixation with ‘normality’ (‘Wallace’s childhood was happy and ordinary’) is part of a popularising mission. He wants to make Wallace a saint: ‘This hopeful, hurtful, energetic, angry, despairing, optimistic, shy product of the American Midwest,’ he writes in the preface to the UK edition, ‘for all the dark moments of his life, never stopped being a purer version of ourselves.’ But it’s not necessary to identify with someone to admire him. Saintliness, to the extent that he possessed it, was Wallace’s least interesting quality. At least most of the time Max’s fact-gathering overcomes his efforts to sanctify his subject.

As a boy Wallace started out reading Hardy Boys mysteries and science fiction like Frank Herbert’s Dune; by the age of 11 he was mowing a neighbour’s lawn in exchange for a tutorial on Stendhal. It was around this time that his parents gave him his own television set. He watched everything: sitcoms, game shows, Star Trek, soap operas. Among his surviving childhood writings are parodies of jingles: ‘Burpo Soda’ had ‘the taste of wetness – if you’re not thirsty you better change the channel.’ Amy Wallace told Max she never knew ‘anybody who had the need for television David had’. Overdoing things would turn out to be part of his genius. He considered television his first addiction, a national addiction, and the crucial problem for American fiction writers of his generation. ‘Statisticians report that television is watched over six hours a day in the average American household,’ he wrote in a 1992 essay. ‘I don’t know any fiction writers who live in average American households … Actually I have never seen an average American household. Except on TV.’ He conceptualised the problem in Infinite Jest, the title of which refers to a videotape that’s so hard to stop watching it’s fatal.

He was precocious and diligent but also capable of hideous behaviour, especially towards Amy, whom he taunted about her weight and once dragged across the lawn through dog shit. He apologised by giving her his bicycle. He was a melancholic from around the age of ten: ‘Summer 71 or 72,’ he wrote as an adult in a medical history, ‘First occasion of “Depressive, clinically anxious feelings”.’ Another later note on his adolescent self: ‘Feet too thin and narrow and toes oddly shaped, ankles too thin, calves not muscular enough; thighs squnch out repulsively when you sit down; pecker too small or if not too small in terms of shortness too small in terms of circumference.’ Yet, as Max writes, ‘his classmates remember him as cheerful, popular, funny.’ In high school he wrote in a tiny script to thwart cheating peers looking over his shoulder and would complete the full term’s reading and papers in its first weeks to leave more time for playing tennis.

When he was 14 he was ranked the 17th-best player in the Midwest and ‘around one hundredth in the nation’. ‘Competitive tennis, like money pool,’ he wrote in an essay,

requires geometric thinking, the ability to calculate not merely your own angles but the angles of response to your angles … Because the expansion of response possibilities is quadratic, you are required to think n shots ahead, where n is a hyperbolic function limited by (roughly) your opponent’s talent and the number of shots in the rally so far. I was good at this.

Tennis is somehow too weird for Max, who, in normality mode, disputes Wallace’s claim to an interviewer that he was ‘a really serious jock’ because he wasn’t good at football, basketball and baseball but was one of ‘the sissies who played tennis’. Perhaps it’s impossible to escape the stigmas of American high school, even in the grave. Wallace started smoking pot with his teammates, and put pictures of tennis stars on the walls of his bedroom. There was a picture of Kafka, too, with the caption: ‘The disease was life itself.’ He carried a towel with him to class because he sweated too much (the same reason he wore the bandana as an adult), and he sometimes stayed home because of anxiety attacks. An early crush on a local girl called Susie Perkins resulted in a broken hand, from punching a refrigerator at a party. Like the tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza in the opening scene of Infinite Jest, he vomited during his first college interview.

Wallace’s first three semesters at Amherst, his father’s alma mater, were near perfect academically. His regimen included elaborate trips to the bathroom to apply acne cream, afternoon bong hits, late nights in the library, and a shot of Scotch before bed. He got interested in politics, joined the debating team, and considered going to Washington to intern for the Republican who represented his home district. (He cast his first vote for Reagan; later he would vote for Ross Perot because ‘you need someone really insane to fix the economy’; but by the time he wrote about politics, profiling John McCain for Rolling Stone in 2000, he was basically a liberal Democrat.) His roommate Mark Costello became a lifelong confidant and sometime collaborator. (Costello is now a novelist in New York and teaches law at Fordham University.)

Wallace’s depression was recognised by William Kennick, the philosophy professor who had been his father’s mentor, and he returned home to recover in the spring of his sophomore year. He was for the first time suicidal. As he came out of it, he sent Costello the short stories he’d started writing: one was called ‘The Clang Birds’, ‘about a fictional bird that flies in ever decreasing circles until it disappears up its own ass. In Wallace’s story,’ Max writes, ‘God ran an existential game show where contestants were asked impossible or paradoxical questions. God wielded the buzzer and no one could stop playing.’ There was also ‘a prose poem about the cornfields of Illinois’ (the opening passage of his unfinished last novel, The Pale King, could be described similarly) and ‘a story about a pretty girl whose drunk boyfriend kills her in a car crash’. Wallace took a job driving a school bus but quit after students mouthed off at him, abandoning them on the bus and walking home. That summer, his mother moved out of the house, a tear in the family that left Wallace feeling shocked and betrayed; he wouldn’t go to visit her. At the same time, Susie Perkins came home from Indiana University, where she was majoring in psychology. ‘They became involved,’ Max writes. ‘Wallace was deeply drawn to her, seeking a caregiver to replace his mother. To Costello, her affect towards his friend reminded him of a girl looking after a wounded bird.’

The bird flew back to Amherst that autumn. The lesson of Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern’s running mate who dropped out of the 1972 election after it was reported that he’d undergone electroshock therapy, meant Wallace could forget about politics: ‘No one’s going to vote for someone who’s been in a nuthouse.’ He and Costello revived the campus humour magazine, which acted both as a staging ground for Wallace’s first forays in parody and a way to stake out a social identity. ‘The Waller’ and his roommate ‘Marcus Aurelius’ held court nightly at a dining hall table, cracking Kant jokes, doing impressions (‘Did anyone want to see Friedrich Hayek hit on by a girl from Wilton, Connecticut?’) and talking about girls. He went home again with perfect grades, enrolled in a summer course on logic, started reading Pynchon and Barthelme, entered family therapy with his parents and sister, and started taking the anti-depressant Tofranil. He didn’t react well to the drug and returned to Amherst in a bad way: realising he didn’t want to be a philosophy professor brought on ‘a kind of midlife crisis at age twenty, which probably doesn’t augur real well for my longevity’, he would tell an interviewer – ‘not entirely credibly’, to Max’s mind. After debating suicide with one of his friends (when Ian Curtis of Joy Division hanged himself was this an artistic statement?), Wallace left Amherst again.

If the story had a different ending – if Wallace were still around – we might see each breakdown as somehow pushing Wallace closer to his destiny as a novelist, culminating in the crack-up that sent him to Granada House, the home for recovering addicts in Boston that provided material for one of the three strands of Infinite Jest. On his second departure from Amherst he wrote a story based on his year on Tofranil, ‘The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing’:

I really don’t know if the Bad Thing is really depression. I had previously sort of always thought that depression was just sort of really intense sadness, like what you feel when your very good dog dies, or when Bambi’s mother gets killed in Bambi … I’m not incredibly glib, but I’ll tell you what I think the Bad Thing is like. To me it’s like being completely, totally, utterly sick … to your stomach. Almost everyone has felt really sick to his or her stomach, so everyone knows what it’s like: it’s less than fun. OK. OK. But that feeling is localised: it’s more or less just your stomach. Imagine your whole body being sick like that: your feet, the big muscles in your legs, your collarbone, your head, your hair, everything, all just as sick as fluey stomach. Then, if you can imagine that, please imagine it even more spread out and total. Imagine that every single cell in your body is as sick as that nauseated stomach. Not just your own cells, even, but the E. coli and lactobacilli in you too, the mitochondria … That’s kind of what the Bad Thing is like at its roots.

Wallace’s style is pretty much in place, what he called its ‘oralish, out-loud feel’, his easy way with pop-culture references and the qualifications deployed to assure you he’s being earnest (‘I’m not incredibly glib, but’), yet at the same time the voice is analytic and veers towards the use of technical diction for comic effect (lactobacilli etc). He published the story in the Amherst Review on his return there in 1984. ‘Wallace never republished “Planet Trillaphon” in a collection,’ Max writes, ‘probably because it was too revealing.’ But much of what the story had to say about Wallace’s melancholy made its way a decade later into the mouth of Kate Gompert, a suicide case sitting in a hospital in Infinite Jest:

When people call it that I always get pissed off because I always think depression sounds like you just get like really sad, you get quiet and melancholy and just like sit quietly by the window sighing or just lying around. A state of not caring about anything. A kind of blue kind of peaceful state … Well this … isn’t a state. This is a feeling. I feel it all over. In my arms and legs … All over. My head, throat, butt. In my stomach. It’s all over everywhere. I don’t know what I could call it. It’s like I can’t get enough outside it to call it anything. It’s like horror more than sadness … Have you ever felt sick? I mean nauseous, like you knew you were going to throw up? … But that’s just in your stomach … It’s a horrible feeling but it’s just in your stomach … OK but imagine if you felt that way all over, inside. All through you. Like every cell and every atom or brain cell or whatever was so nauseous it wanted to throw up, but it couldn’t, and you felt that way all the time.

The Tofranil was replaced with Nardil, which Wallace kept taking until the year before his death, when withdrawal brought about the illness that led to his suicide. (In 1988, he’d stopped taking Nardil during his first stint in recovery: he tried to kill himself with an overdose of sedatives but his father found him and took him to hospital. He went back on Nardil and submitted to six courses of electro-convulsive therapy: ‘They were unpleasant,’ he wrote to his former sponsor, ‘but they helped quite a bit.’)

In his senior year, Wallace wrote two theses, one in philosophy (published after his death as Fate, Time and Language) and one that would become his first novel, The Broom of the System. The book plays with Wittgenstein’s ideas (the heroine’s great-grandmother is his former protégée) and is full of Pynchon-like punning names and tropes (a corporation has built a desert in the middle of Ohio), gnomic dialogue in the style of Don DeLillo, parodies of college fiction writing and caricatures of characters drawn from Amherst, like the overgrown Texan frat boy Andrew ‘Wang Dang’ Lang. It’s the funniest and most pleasurable of Wallace’s books of fiction. In a 1995 letter to DeLillo, with whom Jonathan Franzen had put him in touch because Wallace was concerned that a passage in Infinite Jest about tennis and nuclear war might be perceived as plagiarism of a similar riff on football in DeLillo’s End Zone, Wallace complained that writing had become for him a kind of war: ‘Maybe I want a pep talk, because I have to tell you I don’t enjoy this war one bit. I think my fiction is better than it was, but writing is also less Fun than it was.’ DeLillo responded:

When I say the novel is a killer, I am reserving this designation for writers who are smart enough, sensitive enough and good enough to realise the dangers and consequently to respect the form. You have to be good before you even sense the danger, or before you can understand what it takes to succeed. Let the others complain about book tours.

Wallace’s success is the main subject of Max’s book after the college years. His interactions with the publishing industry seem to have been as friendly and mutually productive as they could have been. (I know one editor who still keeps a potted tree he gave her in the 1990s.) His agent, Bonnie Nadell, became a close friend, and his editors Gerry Howard and Michael Pietsch were angelically supportive. Howard tried to persuade Wallace to give Broom ‘a brilliantly theatrical close’; instead it ends mid-sentence, with the sad sack Rick Vigorous trying to seduce the gorgeous Mindy Metalman, saying: ‘I’m a man of my.’ (Word, get it?) The book started the first of Wallace’s many epic battles with copy editors. He moved to Pietsch at Little, Brown because he was able to pay $80,000 for Infinite Jest when Howard at Norton could only muster $35,000.

Max makes much of Wallace’s ‘conversion to single-entendre principles’ between his story collection Girl with Curious Hair, in which postmodern tricks are both technique and subject, and Infinite Jest, in which stories of addiction and bad behaviour are presented to effect catharsis in the mode of an AA meeting. But ‘conversion’ seems too strong a word: it’s not as if he cut the Québécois terrorist plot or the corporate sponsored calendar (‘Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment’) out of Infinite Jest, and that sort of thing, along with formal experimentation and parody, remained present in his work to the end. What Max calls his ‘earnest authenticity’ was another layer, another possible mode, and one he had to work hard to construct, the ‘war’ he didn’t enjoy. In a television interview with Jonathan Franzen (playing for team single entendre) and Mark Leyner (team postmodern irony), he said he was trying to put the two of them ‘in a blender’. He wrote in an introduction to an excerpt from Infinite Jest that appeared in Conjunctions:

Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likeable.

Likeability was a tricky thing for Wallace. Writing to a student about ‘Narrator Persona challenges’, he called it ‘the Asshole problem’: ‘it’s death if the biggest sense the reader gets from a critical essay is that the narrator’s a very critical person, or from a comic essay that the narrator’s cruel or snooty.’ In his famous attack on John Updike, Wallace says of an Updike alter ego: ‘it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.’ The problem with Updike was misogyny. Part of Wallace’s case rested on the way his female friends under forty were repulsed by Updike, ‘a penis with a thesaurus’. In his fiction, especially the collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace solved the problem by putting some distance between his own persona and those of his characters. It is, in Zadie Smith’s phrase, ‘an ironic book about misogyny’. But Max has put together enough detail about Wallace’s love life to suggest he might have been writing about ‘his own hideousness’. He was mostly a serial monogamist in the 1980s and 1990s, once coming close to marrying the poet Gale Walden, though his breakdown in Boston was preceded by a phase when he would ‘fuck strangers’. Max delivers the most detail about his affair with Mary Karr; she was married when he met her, and he at one point looked into buying a gun to kill her husband. His yearning for her, in Max’s account, fused with his ambition in writing Infinite Jest. ‘The key to ’92,’ he wrote, ‘is that MMK was most important; IJ was just a means to her end (as it were).’ (Karr inspired the character Joelle Van Dyne/Madame Psychosis.) Once the novel came out there were groupies, especially in New York. He met many of the women he dated in Bloomington AA meetings, a phenomenon called ‘13th stepping’. Following the publication of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, he asked friends to set him up with a nurse or a social worker. He married the artist Karen Green after he moved to California. By this point, if his work was still ‘LIKE SHITTING SHARP STONES’, he’d settled into a stable domestic life, something like the balance he’d outlined in a 1997 note:

What Balance Would Look Like:
2-3 hours a day in writing
Up at 8-9
Only a couple late nights a week
Daily exercise
Minimum time spent teaching
2 nights/week spent with other friends
5 [recovery meetings a] week
Church

When Karr converted to Catholicism, Wallace was going to do the same but ‘the priest told him he had too many questions to be a believer.’ Another attempt with another woman failed because at church ‘I always get the giggles.’ But the way he portrayed religion in his novels did evolve, from the satirised televangelist in Broom of the System to the sympathetically drawn evangelical Lane Dean in an episode of The Pale King published in the New Yorker under the title ‘Good People’ before Wallace died. He was by the end a good person too, loved and mourned by just about everyone except Bret Easton Ellis. It’s possible to see Wallace’s career as the inversion of that of another great American novelist who wrote journalism that was pervaded by his personality: Norman Mailer. Monstrousness was the thing Mailer was always trying to enact and the thing Wallace was always trying to deflect or recover from. Wallace was consumed by guilt even on the page; Mailer never seemed to feel a pang. Wallace couldn’t stand Mailer’s books: ‘Unutterably repulsive. I guess part of his whole charm is his knack for arousing strong reactions. Hitler had the same gift.’