“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” Wallace said, “Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
A Meaningful Life by D.T. Max
David Foster Wallace was widely accepted as the most exciting and innovative writer of his generation. D.T. Max introduces his new biography of a deeply troubled but penetrating and hugely influential master of his craft.
At the time of his tragic death by suicide in September 2008, David Foster Wallace was the foremost writer of his literary generation, the one who had forged the newest path and from whom the others, directly or indirectly, took their cues.
Acclaimed in his mid-twenties, burned out and hospitalised for depression and drug abuse before he was thirty, he bounced back to write Infinite Jest, the 1,079-page novel about a tennis academy and a halfway house separated by "a tall and more or less denuded hill" that remains the seminal American novel of the 1990s, the best attempt we have to capture reality in an unreal world. Shambling of person, his shaggy hair held back by a bandana, granny glasses nearly lost in a broad handsome face, Wallace the person, like Wallace the writer, was an unusual mixture of the cerebral and the hot-blooded.
At the memorial services that followed his death novelists gathered to remember him. Zadie Smith, who had famously once said of her friend that he was "so modern he's in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us", now praised "a talent so obviously great it confused people." Jonathan Franzen spoke of unequalled "rhetorical virtuosity" and of the smell of ozone the "crackling precision" of Wallace's prose left behind. That crackle came from a writing style unlike anyone else's. A Wallace sentence is immediately recognisable in its ambition, its length, and a syntax that at times approaches a Gerard Hopkins-like rhythm. Take this one from his well-known essay about a Caribbean cruise, "A Supposedly Fun
Thing I'll Never Do Again":
"Finally, know that an unshot skeet's movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean's sky is sun-like - i.e. orange and parabolic and right-to-left - and that its disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad."
These words are different from those other contemporary authors - even talented ones - might write. Wallace approached his subjects in a more personal, more intense way. And the intensity of this engagement was what held his readers in such thrall.
People - a remarkable diversity of people - have sensed that when reading Wallace. That Wallace would be missed by other writers was not the surprise of the many memorials that followed his death. But what to make of the young men and women, dozens of whom swelled the audience at a special service at New York University I went to a month after his death, for whom Wallace was not just a favourite writer but nearly their only writer? These were readers, I realised, who approached the status of groupies. Some have Wallace's words tattooed on their bodies. They talk about their favourite passages of his writing. "So, yo, then man, what's your story?" they like to say, quoting Infinite Jest. Or they cite the famous straw-man question Wallace posed in his essay "Consider the Lobster": "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?" They enjoy giving their explanation of the ambiguous ending of Infinite Jest (At one point Wikipedia offered four possible solutions).
But still more surprising were the many others at NYU that day who hadn't actually read Wallace's books at all or had at most dipped into them. What were they doing there? I overheard them talking afterward too and what they talked about was his life. For this group, Wallace's dreadful end left them feeling personally diminished. The world was now a less navigable or comprehensible place. This sense of woundedness came up again and again in later days on the web too. "I am surprised by how strongly Wallace's death affects me; affects me not in an 'Eh, that's too bad' kind of way, but in a 'Go away; I don't want to talk to anybody' kind of way," wrote a poster at a Christian website. "The last time I experienced anything like that in terms of someone I didn't know and had never met was John Lennon." A writer at another website wrote of how Wallace's example had helped him kick his own addiction to heroin.
A contributor at themillions.com explained the identification perceptively: Wallace, he wrote, "was like an extreme caricature of many generational traits: polymathic, ironic, brilliant, damaged, and under intense pressure to perform." The comment made me realise how deeply people read their own lives in Wallace's. They identify with his genius, his depression, his anxiety, his loneliness, his frustrations, his early success, his amazement that the world isn't gentler, and his upset at how hard it is to say what you mean. They know or intuit his struggles. They talk about how hard he worked to stay sane and happy in a difficult world.
What part of Wallace's life and hopes draws them? How had Wallace become the embodiment of a feeling that many people who had never gotten beyond page 70 of Infinite Jest shared? Wallace's death certainly accentuated this connection, but the relationship had been there for decades. In his short forty-six-year life, Wallace had somehow become representative of a generation.
I had not been lying in wait for a biographical subject. I was a Wallace reader, but I was also a reader of many writers. I was an Updike reader, a Martin Amis reader, a Flaubert reader. I recognised in him a masterful stylist, a writer with the beguiling ability to make you see the world as he saw it. But it was only really with the memorials that I began to understand what taking on the project of telling Wallace's life story might signify.
One could write about him differently because he had goals beyond the ordinary. His life and his fiction were connected in a unique way. He had wanted to make his readers consider how to engage with the world, how to live well in a difficult time. A moral project lay behind all those gorgeous sentences, those endlessly recursive thoughts, that tendency to annotate and caveat every utterance that became his signature. "Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think," Wallace said in a memorable graduation address at Kenyon College three years before his death, "Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."
Obviously, there was also for me the appeal of a life full of events, lived in secret and amid much self-hatred, not to mention multitudes of letters left behind to chronicle that struggle (letters are oxygen to the biographer). For all that people thought they knew Wallace he barely wrote a word of memoir and remained evasive with the press. And there are the stunning works of fiction, from The Broom of the System through the post-modern cabinet of wonders that is Girl with Curious Hair and on past the masterpiece Infinite Jest to the deeply interesting story collections, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion, works I grew more impressed with each time I reread them. But fundamentally, if my biography succeeds, I hope it succeeds the way a biography of, say, Thomas Merton, might, by showing us a remarkable being in the process of becoming.
There's a college student in The Pale King, the novel that would defeat Wallace, who watches a lot of television (Wallace was addicted to television too). Each day this character - his name is Fogle - sits listlessly in front of the box and hears "You're watching 'As the World Turns,'" until he realises the promo for the American soap opera is trying to tell him something. You are responsible for making your own life meaningful. No one else can help you but you. Wallace knew how easy it is, in the modern age, to watch the world turn. In his episodes of depression and addiction, that was him. It was a stance that came naturally to him, but also one he hated in himself. And it was his bravery in fighting to get out of that chair, to race the world as it spun, that draws us to him. In the end we identify with Wallace not because he came from the same place as we did but he because he suggests a way to somewhere else. Not because he found answers but because he never doubted that the questions remained worth asking. This hopeful, hurtful, energetic, angry, despairing, optimistic, shy product of the American Midwest, for all the dark moments of his life, never stopped being a purer version of ourselves.
D.T. Max is a staff writer with the New Yorker and has written for the New York Times Book Review and the LA Times. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace is published by Granta Books.
Saturday, 8 September, 2012
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