Author and journalist D.T. Max sat down at a table in the cafe at Housing Works. On his left hand, just between his thumb and index finger, he had scribbled the initials “DFW” in black ink. “DFW,” of course, is short for David Foster Wallace, one of the most influential and leading literary figures of the modern era. Max has written a biography of him, titled Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking, $27.95, pp. 356).
“It’s not a tattoo,” he insisted about his hand. “I was driving in and trying to focus on what mattered to me about David. Every time I would think about something different, I’d remind myself that I needed to think about David.”
Max has spent much of the past four years thinking about David. A month after the late author’s suicide in the fall of 2008, Max, a staff writer at The New Yorker, started working on an article that would end up being published the next March. It focused on Wallace’s daily struggles and challenges with anxiety and depression, but specifically riffed on Wallace’s immense battle to surpass Infinite Jest, his one-thousand-plus–page novel, now a staple of postmodern literature. Yet, Max felt like the article “hadn’t finished the job.”
So Max decided to write a book. He pushed forward, uncovering over 700 letters from Wallace written to friends, family, and fellow writers such as Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, and interviewing and interacting with over 200 of Wallace’s friends and acquaintances. (Max himself had never met Wallace.) The resulting biography is compressed into just over 300 pages, revealing much unknown about the author (like the fact that Wallace voted for Reagan and once plotted a murder of writer Mary Karr’s husband). Max sat down with The Village Voice to chat about these reveals, Wallace’s influence, and what it’s like to undertake the biography of one of the most beloved authors of the modern era.
What did you feel was missing from the New Yorker article?
The article is very, very freighted towards Wallace’s end. It was a downhill slalom. Everyone kept saying that there was so much more to him. I knew that in the abstract, but I wanted to know what that “so much more” was.
How did you reel it all in and get everything compressed to 300 pages?
It’s actually longer than the biography I anticipated doing. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. I didn’t think that a 500- or 600-page book on David, although he wrote a thousand-page novel—it didn’t feel like that was what I wanted to do. My intuition was that I wanted to tell a story. I wanted the story to be very alive, just as he was recently very alive. I didn’t want it to feel in amber. I wanted it to feel like he could walk into the room the minute you put the book down. I was also interested in David’s great cause as a fiction writer: “Realistic fiction for a world that is no longer real.” That’s something he pursues in Infinite Jest. It’s realism, but it’s not realism like most writers write. It’s not a realistic novel in a conventional sense. It’s only a realistic novel if the world is no longer real. I do very little interpreting of his personality, except almost in the way that you and I are sitting here talking about a mutual friend of ours. People have said, “You’re style couldn’t be less like David’s.” And that’s true, in the very shortness of the book you can see something, right? The book gives equal weight to major events and minor events. His decision to select Rice Krispies is not given that much less weight than his attempt to get a gun to shoot Mary Karr’s husband.
That Karr story was probably the biggest reveal in the book.
Well, there’s a ton of stuff that nobody knew before. But it’s probably the one that falls far outside the norm of our behavior, where you go, “Whoa.” But some other things that would be news are that no one knew he started Infinite Jest as a graduate student. I don’t think anyone knew that he started The Pale King in the ’90s. His relationship with Elizabeth Wurtzel has never been explored—that it mattered, why it mattered, and how it occurred. All the Amherst years are new. His fights at Arizona. His attempt to find a voice for his fiction. I think, generally speaking, I don’t think anyone knew—including me—just how difficult his problems with women were. We all were getting the idea that he embellished his nonfiction, but I think you have more now about that embellishing. It should become a standard part of the understanding of his nonfiction, whether you like it or not. And frankly, all the letters—maybe three or four of them haven’t been seen by anyone before except the recipient.
Do you think there will be a collection of letters published?
I don’t know. I believe [there are talks] to do a collected literary letters. But how you define literary will make that a somewhat complicated endeavor, because David didn’t really write letters where he was like, “The way to write fiction, son…” But I think the letters do talk about what it’s like to be a “fucking human being,” and by extension what it is to be a writer writing about fucking human beings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The book really needs the letters because of what I wanted to do, because of how much I wanted to get out of the way and let David speak. Not the David who was created for public consumption, not the David of the cruise ship piece, but the real David. Anyone who knows anything about writing or David or anything, that cruise ship piece is a presentation of a personality. It’s lovable, and it’s actually funny. What’s funny to me about those pieces that are so well-loved is that David was on this endless quest not to make his fiction too easy. The original title for Infinite Jest has the subtitle, “A Failed Entertainment.” So why does he allow his nonfiction to be so lovable? That’s a very lovable piece. David was way smart enough to know that the kid in the cabin was a way lovable character. And he makes it even more lovable by embellishing it.
You did a Q&A for the New Yorker following your original article and wrote, “Some suicides seemed destined but I never felt this was true of Wallace.” After researching and finishing the book, do you still believe that?
That’s a good question. I believe it less. Looking at the whole life now, the decision to be a writer and what it cost him, a decision he takes when he’s 23 or 24. His decision to be a writer comes out of a breakdown, and it was always tied closely to his mental health. In retrospect, I’m not sure that David thought he could live without fiction. He toyed around with it. He talked about doing other things with his wife Karen Green, opening a dog shelter, what have you, being a nonfiction writer. I think he even toyed with being a speechwriter for Obama. But now, with the fullness of these letters and the interviews and the long, careful view of his life, can I imagine him growing old and still suffering with Pale King but happy in the rest of his life? Going to that garage every day to work, put in eight hours to try and push this dog along, but then take on a nonfiction piece because he knows he can do it, and yet never dissolving into self-hatred? Not really. Not really. I think that in the fuller knowledge of what I know now… Pre-destined is a strong word, but something like it is probably right. A betting man or woman would’ve bet that something bad would happen. It’s an enormous tragedy all the same, and “I saw it coming,” that’s a little stiff for me. I don’t think his friends thought he would grow old. Maybe they did when they met Karen.
D.T. Max will participate in a Q&A with Rachel Syme at 92YTribeca on Monday, September 17 at 7 p.m.