Anderson: Wrestling With the Mini-Biography of David Foster Wallace

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I'm feeling, predictably, of two minds about The New Yorker’s epic 12,000-word article about the life and death of David Foster Wallace.

On one hand, I have gratitude and admiration for its author, D.T. Max. This is a heroic feat of research and synthesis — a bracingly adult, rational, honest, patient treatment of a subject many of us are still borderline hysterical about. It's as solidly intelligent a piece of literary detective work as you could ever hope for, and it will likely be our best one-stop clearinghouse for DFW information until someone eventually writes the full-length biography. (A project Max already seems to have a pretty serious head start on, if he’s interested.)

The piece covers the full sweep of Wallace’s career: his growth from cynical Pynchon-obsessed twentysomething prodigy (circa The Broom of the System) to reluctant superstar (Infinite Jest) to aspiring mindfulness guru (his unfinished novel The Pale King). It gives us excerpts from his journals and letters. (To DeLillo: “I believe I want adult sanity, which seems to me the only unalloyed form of heroism available today.”) It gives us possibly the most sane and concise synopsis of Infinite Jest ever written. And it gives DFW fanboys all kinds of sparkly new trivia to hoard: that Wallace wrote in a room painted entirely black and filled with vintage lamps; that his childhood was so dorky his family once substituted “3.14159” for the word “pie” during an entire long car trip; that he once told Rolling Stone he wore a bandanna to keep his head from exploding; that, late in life, he considered quitting writing to open a dog shelter; and (an instant classic in the lore of authorial body art) that Wallace commemorated his early-nineties relationship with the writer Mary Karr by getting a tattoo of a heart with the word “Mary” in it — then, when he eventually married someone else, crossed out “Mary” and added, with an asterisk, the name of his wife (“turning his arm,” as Max nicely puts it, “into a living footnote”). Although Max’s piece is absolutely stuffed with this kind of biographical detail, it never sinks to the level of gossip or sensationalism. For anyone interested in Wallace’s life and career, or in the future of literature — for anyone who reads seriously, really — the article should be addictive and rewarding. I would've read, ecstatically, another 12,000 words.

On the other hand, the article made me very sad. Not just because Max painstakingly documents the tragic story of Wallace’s long, horrible battle with depression — anxiety attacks, heavy drinking, multiple suicide attempts, electroconvulsive therapy, a halfway house, 22 years of antidepressants, and then that terrible last evening — but because of the kind of piece this is. It’s sad for the same reason it’s excellent: the comprehensiveness, the finality. A year ago, Wallace was a living genius so private you had to piece together his basic life story laboriously via fansites and old interviews. Last summer, Max tells us, he was even considering writing a magazine essay about Obama’s rhetoric. Now he’s the subject of the kind of full-scale biographical paint-peeler you expect to see about Keats or Hemingway or George Eliot. No contemporary writer was more deserving of such an honor, of course — it’s just hard to adjust to the speed at which he’s getting it. I've got mental whiplash. That Wallace's evolving career should stand still long enough for such a thorough retrospective — in (excuse me) fucking 2009 — is a literary tragedy of the first order. He's now officially gone: more like Wordsworth than like Roth or DeLillo or Franzen.

As for The Pale King, which The New Yorker also excerpts, and which will apparently be published next year, I’ll wait for the book to level a judgment — but its subject (IRS agents and the epiphanic potential of extreme boredom) was right in Wallace’s wheelhouse. DFW's signature dialectic was always to blow our asses off with his once-in-a-generation intellect while still finding a way to connect with us as humans. In his last book he seemed to be drilling right into the core of that tension: The New Yorker excerpt is rich with technical lingo (“one 1040A, where the deductions for A.G.I. were added wrong and the Martinsburg printout hadn't caught it and had to be amended on one of the Form 020-Cs in the lower left tray”) but also with the humanity of its central character, a young IRS agent who tries to power through the tedium by thinking of his wife and baby: “they were why, they were what made this worthwhile and the right thing and he had to remember it.” Wallace was always agonizing over how to get his emotional and intellectual engines to fire in tandem. For the record, I don’t think he had quite as much problem with this as he thinks he did; in fact, I think his obsession with his failure to do so is a sign that he was doing it better than almost anyone else.

The Unfinished
Wiggle Room
[New Yorker]

Related: Infinite Loss: David Foster Wallace, 1962–2008 [NYM]