Remembering the Legacy of David Foster Wallace With His Biographer


Remembering the Legacy of David Foster Wallace With His Biographer

Photograph by the author, of a reader with D.T. Max's March 2009 'New Yorker ' article on David Foster Wallace

D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, came out a couple of weeks ago, and what it teaches us that’s novel is just how much of a “fucking human being” the late author was. How subject he was to his particular chemical given, his mind-on-fire depressiveness, and the substance abuse and medicalization, therapy, recovery, and stripped honest search for meaning that followed from it. Wallace is, was, a hero to many, myself included, and the author of his writing is a God, a figure worthy of the cult, unquestionably brilliant. But the human being we get to know thanks to Max’s four years of research and staid retelling was just that—vain and competitive, prone to anger, funny, charming, generous, hardworking, slutty, the multitudes.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story begins with, “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.” Birth date, place, and parental details follow, and the chronology (1962-2008) carries us through to the end, to the last sentence: “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.” David Foster Wallace hanged himself on September 12, 2008. Max chooses to close there, with no discussion of grieving or of legacy. This isn’t the story of David Foster Wallace, the pen name Wallace adopted in order to differentiate himself from existing DWs. This story is David Wallace’s.

In letting go of the Foster, Max offers us something we didn’t yet have. David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010) is a road trip snapshot of Wallace at the height of his celebrity (and something of a Pale Fire comedy of authors). The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (2012) is a scholarly collection of literary criticism. The Stephen J. Burn edited Conversations with David Foster Wallace (2012) is all press. Max gives us the rest.

Every Love Story began with a commissioned memorial for the New Yorker. That 10,000 word article mostly centered on Wallace’s writing of The Pale King and his last days. “And that was fine,” Max tells me, “but even as I was finishing it, it struck me that I really hadn’t captured his life at all.” Max had begun to “really fall in love” with Infinite Jest and, “I wanted to spend more time with the writing and the writer.” So now we have the life, in all its details, mundane and sublime: David Wallace watching too much TV, getting straight As, thinking about quitting tobacco, serially dating, voting Republican, writing Infinite Jest. “Now a real discussion of David can begin,” said a close friend of Wallace’s after reading Max’s biography.

D.T. Max refers to D.F.W. as David for the duration of our phone interview. Although Max never met Wallace in life, you can sense the affinity he feels toward the man. He tells me about the night he learned of Wallace’s suicide—of being out at a restaurant and seeing Wallace’s name zipper across the bottom of a TV news screen and thinking the author “must have finally won an award” and being happy for that, only to come home to very different news. Now I’m remembering the night I found out. Remembering hearing my boyfriend’s angry cry of no from the next room and sprinting to find him because I knew, just from his tone, that something real was wrong.

(Here’s where the ego interrupts: Reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story and the obligatory revisiting of Wallace’s own writing that it inspires has made me feel textually impotent. My mind, which is normally amused enough by superficialities to bang out the recyclable writing the internet calls for, has assumed a touch of the turbulence and painful self-consciousness that Max assigns to Wallace’s mind. To think like you think David Foster Wallace would think about your writing about David Foster Wallace is to cringe at cliche of your suffering from “writer’s block.” Max has taken the simple, authoritative biographer route, the omniscient movie trailer voice. He says he wanted to leave the reader with something “clean.” I just feel like everything I’ve written is insufficient. But we carry on…)

Where were you when you heard David Foster Wallace died? It might sound like a cliche, but I guarantee it’s not to those that do remember. I was 600 pages into Infinite Jest in September of 2008. The book stayed hidden under my bed until May 2009. I ask Max if it was difficult, emotionally, to write Wallace’s biography; reading it was hard enough. “Of course,” he responds. “The loss is so palpable. Even though I never met him, the loss is enormously palpable. And I think… I think about what the world would be like if he were alive today.” I tell him I think a lot of people feel that way. I work in a bookstore, and the faces that came in in the days leading up to the publication of Every Love Story asking after the book — how those faces fell when we told them it wasn’t there yet — you know how much D.F.W. means to them.

It has only been four years. Somehow I was counting eight. Really, this person is as alive to me as he ever was. I never met David Wallace, Dave to his intimates. He’s existed to me through text on a page, with a few radio and video recordings lending sound and mannerism to my imagined him. I can still open IJ or A Supposedly Fun Thing and access that self I’ve sensed all along. It wasn’t until near of Every Love Story and a passage on David’s tattoos, that the reality of his death resonated in me with a frightening embodiment. “Wallace had a strikeout drawn through the fading word ‘Mary’ [as in Karr] on his tattoo and placed an asterisk under the heart symbol,” Max tell us, “farther down he added another asterisk and ‘Karen,’ turning his arm into a living footnote.” Here I was reading his life, accessing my D.F.W., and I finally concave-chest-get that David Wallace was a body, that that text in that ink on that flesh, that tattoo, is not here anymore.

It feels significant or reassuring then, when Max and I start our phone conversation with a case of mistaken identities and a David Foster Wallace tribute tattoo. A bookseller he thinks I know has “This is water,” the opening punchline and title of the book of Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech, tattooed on her. This is Wallace:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

“What’s really remarkable about him is this funny way in which he inspires all of us to take our lives seriously,” Max comments, when I start mumbling about Wallace’s legacy, the personal connection readers feel toward him. The authorial David Foster Wallace, for those that identify, feels like a friend, a mentor, and “a kind of protector,” as Max adds. Just as everything D.F.W. wrote felt like gifts for us identifiers, so does what Max has given us in Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.