What was your personal relationship with David's writing?
I read him a long time ago. What I loved in my twenties was The Broom of the System. My really deep involvement with Infinite Jest really begins with this death. I had read it earlier, but it wasn't a very present book for me. It wasn't my bible. There's a wonderful phrase that David uses, I think in Broom of the System, about the "moral certainty of the immature," I think is the phrase. I had this moral certainty of the immature; I just loved Broom of the System. Only as I grew older did I begin to appreciate the complexities and intense joys of Infinite Jest. He was right. He called Broom of the System a clever novel that could've been written by a 14-year-old. That's David being harsh and self-critical, but yeah, a very, very clever 14-year-old. But Infinite Jest is where it all takes place and where it all matters.

In college, I saw kids walking around with Infinite Jest almost like it was a badge of honor. What is it about that book that caused it to be so influential, and how long do you think this effect will last?
One is that you just have to acknowledge it's a brilliant piece of work. A brilliant way to write a novel. A brilliant way to capture fragility, anxiety, our messed-up media, saturated environment, the vast experiment being conducted on all of us in this environment. I actually think it's more resonant and meaningful today than when it was written. It was an unusual and extraordinary book in 1996, but it does feel iconic now in a way that I don't think it did, maybe it can't when it was first published. But other books have fallen away that were around it, and it does remain the book I would want to read again and again from that time.

David's moral progression was such that he becomes someone of whom people care, and people feel that he cared about them. Once you have that key, Infinite Jest becomes an even more rewarding work because you're able to imagine yourself as somebody on whom David has lavished a similar amount of care and attention as he lavishes on Infinite Jest characters Don Gately or Hal.

D.T. Max is a staff writer at the New Yorker.
D.T. Max is a staff writer at the New Yorker.


D.T. Max in conversation with Rachel Syme
Monday, September 17
7 p.m.
92YTribeca, sponsored by McNally Jackson
200 Hudson Street

Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
356 pages

A lot of people have neurosis and struggles. A lot of people make the case that they are special, that their neurosis and struggles are worthy of the memoir they write about them, the novel they get out of them. But what was unusual about David is that he made the argument that your struggles—out of his struggles and his anxieties—your struggle becomes important. He cares about you. That was a really significant and important way that he grabbed the reader. You see it most clearly in the "This Is Water" speech, but it's really everywhere. Don't live your life in a fog. That's a very, very resonant message for all of us. I think it's done a lot to take David out of the small, very intense community that first cared about him, and into a situation where in this room, many people here would know in a general way who he was, even if they hadn't read very much.

What do you believe are some of his weaknesses as a writer?
Weaknesses are complicated with David. He didn't care about character or plot, which are two basic engines of the novel. On the other hand, he makes up for it—like a blind person with a better sense of hearing. He makes up for it with his other efforts, and also I think he wills himself so aggressively to do these things that it's a fascinating quality. There's a quality in his willed attempt to catch up. In some ways, he does catch up. David's characters are never characters in the way that, say, Jonathan Franzen's characters are characters. They're just not. Yet they do represent the attempt to love and create fully rounded characters in ways that I find just fascinating.

David was not very good at, for instance, change. His characters don't really evolve. I write this in the book, but I don't think he understood personality the way many more mentally healthy people do, as a constant evolutionary process. He was more into the binary flip. I just don't think he had ever had that experience, or only at the end of his life, with Karen Green, did he have that experience, of the evolution of sentiment. I don't think he was very good at capturing it. I don't think that's what he did. He generally succeeds in convincing us that we are being entertained to death, that media culture has made us less human, that TV has infected our dreams and it has changed what we expect out of story, that we are addicted, addicted, addicted. On those things, he's credible.

What do you think he'd say about Twitter or other social media?
David did live into the Internet era and he pretty much rejected it. But what he would've said when he was younger is really the interesting question, because one takes on these things when you're young. The weird thing about David and his addiction to TV is that his addiction was very much, I think, to narrative. What sucked him in was watching other people on TV. If you read "E Unibus Pluram," his essay on the addictive powers of television, he emphasizes that it's about ogling and passively watching other people. It's true that he did watch other stuff on TV, but I mean, in a funny way, the sitcom was the heroin for him. You don't really have that on the Web. I'm very much more addicted to the Web than to TV. I find the endless knowledge available on the web seductive. Even though David was an endless quester for knowledge, I think that came out of a healthier side of him versus this endless attempt to calm his brain. And in some ways, story and character calm his brain.

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