Do you think that TV was a way to deal with his mental health issues?
I think it dealt with anxiety and depression, yeah. I think TV just in general is a 24-hour babysitter. He's not the only one. Many anxious and depressed people use television. Television is on all the time in many mental facilities. It's calming. It's someone else talking to you. But he was deathly afraid of it.

Did sex become an addiction?
He thought so. He defined himself as a sex-addict. I think he even sought treatment at one point. It's not in the book, but he did join a sex addicts anonymous type group.

He had a pretty intense self-dislike or self-hatred and I think that was relevant as well. He would've said that his early relationship with the reader was essentially the same [way he] attempted to get laid, and then he evolved into somebody who really respected the reader and thought about the reader's needs. But I think on a personal level, his intense sexual neediness lasted much longer. He solved his problem with the reader long before he solved his problem with women.

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

Details

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

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

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What is it like undertaking the biography of David Foster Wallace, someone who means so much to so many people? There has to be an immense amount of pressure.
David presents a number of difficulties as a biographer. One difficulty is that there's intense grief around David. You don't go in like a two-ton lorry to get people to talk. You have to be delicate. People do have a need to talk, I think, about David. They have a need to try and understand him. They all understand him very differently, which I think is why I did so many interviews. David did a fair amount of lying about his own life. It was only part-way through that I realized that you couldn't really trust the letters, either. They were just another form of his mischievous nonfiction self. His nonfiction self wasn't his most honest self. I think that quote from his sister, which says, "Early on we learned to not worry and ignore the nonfiction and focus on the fiction," is very, very revealing.

I came to his work through his nonfiction.
I just don't know that his nonfiction should be called nonfiction. I think any moderately sophisticated reader reads his nonfiction with a cocked eyebrow. And I think this gets harder with the pieces more based in fact. When you get the cruise ship piece, or even the state fair piece, you feel like you should be getting a very high dose of fact. But who really knows what happened on the cruise ship? I don't, and I'm his biographer. All those people have disappeared. If you wanted to write a piece that couldn't be fact-checked, going on a cruise ship is one way to do it. People don't understand what fact-checkers do. People think that fact-checkers can do the reporting. But generally speaking, they can't catch a deliberate falsehood on somebody that you're reporting on. And when you get to memoir-type writing, there's a limit on what they can do in the time frame, and if you said you played chess with a nine-year-old and they were brilliant, there's really no practical way for a fact-checker to check that.

He was a guy who had layers upon layers upon layers. You know that Fitzgerald line, "Literary biographies are useless because the writer has too many selves if he's any damn good." David had one self, but he had it very deeply buried. It wasn't the self he wanted other people to know. On the other hand, he certainly left enough bread crumbs everywhere: His fiction, his nonfiction, these letters, which of course he did not expect to see the light of day. These letters were a godsend. Whatever else might be true, the letter is a truth about the writer at that moment. They were much more meaningful than his nonfiction, a deliberate presence. Although they were a deliberate presentation of the self, it strikes me as closer to truth. The fact that David in 1988 makes up a story about having his nose broken while reading strikes me as an enormous truth about how much David wanted to impress his editor, wanted to live a life so inbued with fiction that such a thing would happen, and how much he still remained after all those years a gagwriter.

One of the issues that people had when Infinite Jest came out was wondering why there were all these gags in here. And one reason they're in there is because he loved gags. He had a little bit of a Saturday Night Live quality to him that he deliberately outgrew and distanced from and grew to dislike. There was one letter that I had from a TV writer who was a friend of David's, Mike Schur [co-creator of Parks & Recreation]. In that letter, Mike has invited him to be in the green room to watch Saturday Night Live be produced, and David says, "That's one I just can't do." I think it's too close to everything that confused David about the world.

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