Man of infinite jest

Lead review
Last Updated : 08 September 2012, 19:29 IST

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In ‘Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story’, D T Max traces and outlines the career and truncated life of acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, writes Michiko kakutani

In Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace described clinical depression as “the Great White Shark of pain,” “a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it,” a “nausea of the cells and soul,” a sort of “double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible,” a radical loneliness in which “everything is part of the problem, and there is no

Such passages underscore the deep, molecular sadness that permeates so much of Wallace’s work and the emotional turmoil he suffered himself, though even in retrospect, they do not blunt the terrible shock of his suicide four years ago at the age of 46.
In his revealing new biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D T Max gives us a sympathetic appraisal of Wallace’s life and work, tracing the connections between the two, while mapping the wellsprings of his philosophical vision.

The book captures the heartbreaking struggle Wallace waged with severe depression throughout his adult life, and his battle not only to write — to capture the frenetic debates in his head on paper — but also to navigate the humdrum routines of daily life, while feeling perched above “a huge black hole without a bottom.”

This book grew out of an article that Max wrote for The New Yorker in 2009 and draws upon Wallace’s correspondence and interviews with his family, friends, scholars, editors and his longtime agent. It draws heavily on other earlier studies — most notably the book Conversations With David Foster Wallace edited by Stephen J Burn, and insightful writing by David Lipsky.

The volume does not shed that much new light on Wallace’s decision to discontinue a medication he’d relied on for years or doctors’ inability to contain the snowballing depression that overtook him during his last year, especially when he’d recently found new happiness and stability in his marriage to the artist Karen Green and a teaching position at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

What Max’s book does do — and does powerfully — is provide an emotionally detailed portrait of the artist as a young man: conflicted, self-conscious and deeply thoughtful, like so many of his characters a seeker after an understanding of his own place in the world and a Melvillian “isolato,” yearning for connection yet stymied by the whirring of his own brain and the discontinuities of an America reeling from information overload.

Wallace emerges here as a mass of contradictions. An A student and tennis jock, seen by classmates as “cheerful, popular, funny,” but given to growing anxiety and panic attacks. A Midwesterner who valued “the culture of forthrightness he’d grown up with” but who became preoccupied with recursive literary narratives and the convoluted theories of Jacques Derrida.

A conservative voter (Max says he voted for Ronald Reagan), whose work evinced a view of America as a toxic land in thrall to consumerism and self-gratification. A self-described “grammar Nazi” who helped remap the landscape of contemporary fiction. An author, regarded by many as a slacker hipster, who was, Max says, “an intense moralist” whose rehab experiences had made him “an apostle of careful living and hard work,” devoted to his students and the people in recovery he sponsored.

Wallace’s father taught philosophy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his mother taught English at a community college, and he internalised their lofty expectations. For a long time he wasn’t quite sure what his vocation would be, but he pushed himself to excel, despite breakdowns in college. He was fascinated by Wittgenstein (or “Uncle Ludwig,” as he called him) and contemplated following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a teacher of philosophy.

At one point, Max says, he was also interested in politics. He joined the Amherst College debate team, figuring it “would look good on his transcript if he applied to law school” but decided “no one’s going to vote for someone who’s been in a nuthouse.” After college, Max writes, “it never occurred to him that he could just go somewhere and write: he came from academia and believed in the classroom” and ended up enrolling in a writing program at the University of Arizona.

In these pages Max chronicles the influence that writers like Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo and Dostoyevsky had on Wallace, as well as Wallace’s fascination with television, including everything from Hawaii Five-0 and Hill Street Blues to soap operas.

Max situates Wallace’s work within a context of contemporary fiction (at a time when postmodernism, minimalism and old-fashioned realism were vying for ascendancy), while carefully charting the evolution of his views on language, on the relationship between authors and readers, and on the purposes of literature. He also shows how Wallace’s interest in Pynchonian wordplay, mimicry and metaphysics yielded to a more earnest desire to communicate and connect, how a delight in cleverness and irony gave way to a call for writers who might treat “plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in US life with reverence and conviction.”

Though the reader may not agree with all of Max’s assessments of Wallace’s novels and short stories, he does an insightful job of chronicling the development of Wallace’s ideas and narrative strategies, from his Pynchonian debut novel The Broom of the System through his magnum opus Infinite Jest and his unfinished manuscript of The Pale King (which was pieced together by his editor Michael Pietsch and published posthumously in 2011).

Max notes that pieces of Infinite Jest date back to 1986, when they may have been written as stand-alone stories, “beginning with the playful, comic voice of his Amherst years, passing through his infatuation with postmodernism at Arizona,” and ending with his backing away from ironic detachment in the wake of a stay at the McLean Hospital psychiatric institute and a halfway house. It is Max’s contention that Infinite Jest was fueled in part by Wallace’s tumultuous romance with the poet Mary Karr. He asserts that at one point Wallace “thought briefly of committing murder for her,” calling “an ex-con he knew through his recovery program” in hopes of buying a gun he might use to shoot her husband.

One of the central themes in Wallace’s work, Max argues, concerned secondhand desire: how “our passions are no longer our own,” how in a media mediated age, “we are nothing but minds waiting to be filled, emotions waiting to be manipulated.” There is a sense, he goes on, that “our obsession with being entertained has deadened our affect, that we are not, as a character warns” in Infinite Jest, choosing “carefully enough what to love.”

The Pale King examined the flip side of being amused to death. It depicted an America so plagued by tedium and meaningless routine that its citizens are in danger of dying of boredom. People, Wallace suggested in that immensely sad novel, needed to be distracted from the “deeper type of pain that is always there,” namely the existential knowledge that “we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back.”
Happiness, Wallace also wrote in that book, is the ability to pay attention and live in the present moment, to find “second-by-second joy (PLUS) gratitude at the gift of being alive.”

It was not something he was able to do himself. On September 12, 2008, Max reports, Wallace climbed onto a chair and hanged himself while his wife was out of the house. He had left behind a pile of manuscript pages including drafts, character sketches, notes to himself and assorted fragments. This was his effort, Max writes, to show the world what it was to be a human being.

Published 08 September 2012, 12:57 IST

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