David Foster Wallace / LividFiction
Not since Pynchon or Gaddis or even Bruno Schulz has an author inspired such devoted readers as the late David Foster Wallace did. The attraction of these writers came largely from their visionary fiction. Think Gravitys Rainbow, The Recognitions, or Infinite Jest. Wallace was unique in that the same could be said about much of his nonfiction, equally vaunted by his acolytes. In 2003, when a fan wrote to Wallace informing him of an online community dedicated to his work, Wallace replied, You know, for emotional reasons and sanity I have to pretend this doesnt exist. Wallace was always leery of his literary celebritythe statue, as he called it.
Today, Wallaces impact on fiction and nonfiction, though substantialZadie Smiths hyperkinetic stylistics, Dave Eggerss single-entendre principles, and John Jeremiah Sullivans (un)apologetically intimate journalism are afterimages of Wallaces aesthetic, values, and rhetoricis still being appraised. But his marketability is not open to debate. From a publishing perspective, hes been busy since his death in 2008.
In 2009 his famous Kenyon commencement address, This Is Water, was repackaged into a coffeetablish booklet of moral prescriptions and kōans. In 2010 large portions of Wallaces notes, drafts, and letters were archived and opened to research at the Ransom Center at University of Texas, Austin. The Columbia University Press then repurposed Wallaces esoteric undergraduate thesis. December saw the release of some of Wallaces widely available interviews in a new collection called The Last Interview. Signifying Rappers, Mark Costello and Wallaces treatise on rap as it stood two decades ago, will be reprinted this summer. And recently weve seen the publication of D.T. Maxs biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, and Little Browns posthumous collection of nearly everything Wallace hadnt already published in book form, Both Flesh and Not.
This literary grave robbery happens to just about every once-prominent author. Incomplete, trivial, and novice work is unearthed, super-glued, airbrushed, and added to the writers reliquary as if he were still alive and scribbling.
The result is often a transparent attempt to capitalize on a dead mans brand. This is especially true of Both Flesh and Not. Now, when I say this collection is by far the most egregious example yet of praising the statue of which Wallace was so wary, I do so with a bit of shame, as I had, years ago, searched out and read nearly every essay Flesh contains, which is to say that I was busy praising way before Flesh was even printed.
The essays span the entirety of Wallaces writing career. Admittedly, some are gems. Wallaces review of The Best of the Prose Poem walks the tonal line between coyness and outright snidery, as he circumvents his publishers word limit through a syntactic technicalitya gag only he would pull. Plus theres Back in New Fire, a dicey, short essay arguing that HIV has provided a newand in Wallaces rhetoric, meaningfulimpediment to sexual appetence. Superficially, it seems insensitive, contrarian, but it is a poignant depiction of Wallace after Infinite Jest, as he became more the moralist.
But those gems are dramatically offset by the shamelessly recycled tidbits that litter the book. Take, for example, Just Asking, a sort of post-9/11 aphorism from a 2007 issue of The Atlantic, which is keenly interrogative but in no way resembles an essay. Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated Novels is a mere listicle, published on Salon.com, of five books Wallace liked and thought others might like, with a sentence or two of explanation. Mr. Cogito, is . . . well, I still dont quite understand what it is. Ostensibly it is a very short review of a book of poetry. It features a discussion of irony and its literary quandariesWallaces grindstonethat is readdressed, at Wallacean length, elsewhere in the collection. Thematic overlap seems to be the rule in Flesh, with two pieces on tennis, two on the practice of writing, and two on poetry. There are also two litanies of Wallaces vocabulary.
The overlap is not limited to this collection, either. Several longer pieces in Flesh read like kernels, or inferior repeats, of essays Wallace had collected while he was alive. Consider both of the stories on tennis, Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open, which applies bizarre Cold War metaphors to Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis, or the eponymous Federer Both Flesh and Not, which portrays and unpacks watching Roger Federer as a religious experience. Both essays rehash ideas Wallace had already covered in his profile of the player and coach Michael Joyce and in his excellent review of Tracy Austins ghostwritten autobiography. And those are the mild transgressions. Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young is basically an earlier draft of Wallaces famous essay on American fiction and television, E Unibus Pluram. His mini-review of Terminator 2, in which he christens the new genre of F/X Porn, though spry and witty, is eclipsed by his longer essay on David Lynchs Lost Highway, which appears in his 1998 collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing Ill Never Do Again.
Its ironic that the Wallace diehard for whom this collection was assembled is most likely to detect and be disgusted by all this recycled material. Its also difficult to find much that would appeal to a less fanboyish reader. The Empty Plenum and Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama deserve to be read. They are crushingly dense but do what Wallace did best: serve as Virgil in the readers journey into the specialized world of a genre. Borges on the Couch is another strong entry. Yet its also not very hard to imagine the reader finding them annoyingly abstruse, tiresome, or irrelevant.
D.T. Maxs biography describes the icon of David Foster Wallacenot Wallace himself.
Wallaces other collections of essays and journalism, the innovative Supposedly Fun Thing and the morally ruminative Consider the Lobster, are not merely better than Flesh. Those books, because they were written during a specific time in the authors life and deftly edited by Michael Pietsch, had unifying agents; they were about things. Supposedly Fun Thing is a nonfiction companion to Infinite Jest, obsessed with mediated culture, the loss and aesthetization of moral principles, mathematical relationships to landscape, and the dynamics of human institutions. Consider the Lobster, in Wallaces own words, is about ideology, how we choose what we believe, how political belief pervades the very language we use, how unchallenged belief can enslave us, and how hard that enslavement is to detect.
And Both Flesh and Not? Its a mishmash. This collection overtly spotlights Wallaces famously recursive footnotes, his bureaucratic abbreviations, his vocabulary, his special blend of academese and American idiom. Its only discernable unifying agent is that everything in it was written by David Foster Wallace. And maybe thats just the point.
D.T. Maxs biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, is trickier. Its structured as a sort of double helix with two basic, intertwined ambitions: to describe Wallaces external life and to delineate the literary trajectory between his books, particularly his fiction. It begins with his Midwestern childhood, in Illinois, moving to his time at Amherst, where he had his first major bout with depression, to his chemically-troubled days in Syracuse and Boston, to calmer periods of his life when he taught at Illinois State University and at Pomona College, in California, where he died.
Though it has the hasty readability and uneven copyediting of something written against the fading memory of its subjects suicide, it is nonetheless a humble and well-researched work of fascination. Max immersed himself in Wallaces life; you can see it in Maxs language. The biography is replete with words straight out of Wallaces vernacular: preternatural, unctuous, metonym, pabulum, therapand, and countenance as a verb.
Maxs dedication doesnt stop at linguistic tribute. He is a superb critic of Wallaces work. Max is adept at sketching the mental tide that moved Wallace from the zany, self-indulgent The Broom of the System to the apocalyptically self-conscious Girl with Curious Hair to the subtly moral Infinite Jest, the tide abating at The Pale King.
Insights abound. Max describes Wallaces passionate need for encounter telegraphed by sentences that seem ostentatiously to prohibit it, as if only by passing through all the stages of bureaucratic deformation can we touch each other as human beings.
And here is Max articulating the conviction that lay behind the incomplete, fractal structure of Infinite Jest:
It must not hook readers too easily, must not allow them to fall into the literary equivalent of spectation. Infinite Jest had to be, as [Wallace] subtitled it, a failed entertainment. To the extent the novel was addictive, it should be self-consciously addictive. That was one reason hed structured the story like a Sierpinski gasket, a geometrical figure that can be subdivided into an infinite number of identical geometrical figures. The shape of the bookfollowing Wallaces natural cast of mindwas recursive, nested. Big thingsInfinite Jest, a novel you keep having to reread to understandfind their counterpart in smaller things.
Max distills what was both the central problem and innovation of Wallaces unfinished novel, The Pale King:
How do you write about dullness without being dull? The obvious solution, if you had Wallaces predilections, was to overwhelm the seemingly inert subject with the full movement of your thought . . . but this strategy presented its own problem: Wallace could make the characters vibrant, but only at the risk of sacrificing what made their situation worth narratingthe stillness at the center of their lives.
But Maxs love for Wallaces writing, a love that emerges in his perceptiveness and diligence, is also his undoing. When Max attempts to relate Wallaces work to Wallaces life, the results are often weak. Infinite Jest, this biographys tabernacle, is especially afflicted. Many of its central charactersHal Incandenza, Ken Erdedy, Kate Gompertare reduced to nothing more than psychological components of Wallaces mind. Don Gately is a fictionalized version of Big Craig, Wallaces housemate during his stay at the Granada House addiction recovery program. The novels unforgettable opening, narrated by Hal, is a transformed version of Wallaces anxious and ultimately successful interview with Amherst College admissions officers. Avril Incandenza, Hals neurotic mother, is portrayed as a cheap Freudian imago of Wallaces mother, Sally. Infinite Jestthat imposing, resplendent novel, which Max so reveresis repeatedly, cringingly, characterized as driven by [Wallaces] dysfunctional yearning for Mary Karr, his one-time girlfriend, for whom Infinite Jests Joelle Van Dyne is a stand-in.
It gets worse. One of Wallaces most difficult and complicated stories, The Depressed Person, was
revenge fiction. It was his way of getting even with Elizabeth Wurtzel for treating him as a statue (or, as she would say, refusing to have sex with him). Freed from desire, he now saw that her love of the spotlight was just ordinary self-absorption.
Wallace had something to say about this sort of ad hominem bushwa. In his castigating review of Edwin Williamsons biography of Borgesincluded in Fleshhe calls claims about personal stuff encoded in the writers art a defect, the product of a syndrome that seems common to literary biographies. Elsewhere, in Everything and More, Wallace makes pretty much the same argument against this fallacious tendency to draw cause-and-effect lines between a persons work and his lifethe person in this case being the mathematician Georg Cantor. Max even quotes Wallace on the subject, but then moves on, briskly.
So it seems fair to say that Max should be aware of this biographic flaw. In the epigraph, he quotes Wallaces story Good Old Neon: What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.
Agreed. Wallaces impenetrability is hard to contest. One thing Ghost Story does very well is demonstrate how prone Wallace was to gags, dishonesty, involution, and hyperbole. Plus, Wallace never published a word about the major depression that afflicted him. Max aptly quotes Wallaces mother in labeling his depression, the black hole with teeth. Its difficult even to imagine writing around the mental illness of a man whose mother describes his struggle with such occult imagery. This problem, of relating the writer to his writing, will be the problem that haunts future biographies of Wallacewhich, doubt not, there will be more. And Im not sure theres a solution for elucidating a connection that Wallace himself believed to be fundamentally irreducible, mystical even.
It is interesting, plus a little scary, to see what the details in Ghost Story ultimately orbit, if not Wallaces character. Max intimates this at one point: Now Wallace was wondering whether he hadnt become 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.
At times, Ghost Story makes exactly this mistake, confusing the statue of Wallace for Wallace himself. The former is after all much easier to describe. A literary icon is an idealized, essentially inhuman thing to make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction . . . incapable of vital communication with living people, Wallace wrote. And it is this iconthis statuethat Max describes when he resorts to apotheosis and caricature. Hence all of the references to Wallaces brilliant mind, his notoriously crippling self-consciousness, his A-plus grades, his real religion as language, his footnoted tattoo, his veiled computer as a site of a sacral mystery, his bandana. No biographer would deny these details, even if they are the bywords and platitudes of Wallaces literary deification. Yet if they are not buttressed by vibrant and psychologically sound characterization, then all thats all they are.
Wallace clearly regarded fame as not only vapid but insatiable, malignant. In Infinite Jest, LaMont Chu, a very young tennis student, approaches Lyle, the tennis academys in-house guru, and confesses his obsession with fame and his tendency to deify successful players. Lyle replies:
LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. . . . No such animal. . . . You burn with hunger for food that does not exist. . . . To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame.
Fame is cultivated by both those who desire and provide it, and the anxiety it generates is felt on both ends. A statue is not an idol without worshippers. We might do well to spend the years after Wallaces death reading what he took such pain to remove from his statues shadow, rather than worshipping its name.