Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How to Say What Hurts: D.T. Max's bio of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace has given me some great reading experiences as well as pieces I was compelled to put down and a towering novel I can't convince myself to pick up. (In addition, I enjoying his video and print interviews.) I love his essay on David Lynch, a piece that expresses so well ideas I'd sensed but which had, until that essay, remained inchoate. "Good Old Neon" is a marvelous short story—though, sadly, part of what makes it compelling for me is that I only read it after his death, and it's a story of a suicide. I find the use of footnotes maddening in some of his work, and the heavily footnoted structure (as well as the sheer length and openly professed irresolvedness) of Infinite Jest has kept me from feeling much more than mild curiosity about that novel.

I do feel some personal connection to Wallace. He was, like me, a child of 1962. Like me, he watched way too much television as a kid. He spent some time in Syracuse, where I live, and I'm pretty sure I met him once when he attended by (now defunct) parish church. As a writer—and as a much smarter person than I am—his influences and areas of interest bore little resemblance to mine, though what he wanted from his fiction, if Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, the biography by D.T. Max, is to be believed, was moral consequence, work that mattered because it affected the reader (though he struggled with the tension between "entertaining" the reader and expecting the reader to work).

What I enjoyed about Max's work was hearing how Wallace struggled to find ways through his fiction (less through his nonfiction, it seems to me) to express his deepest hopes and anxieties. What one really needs to see, perhaps, is less the finished works than all the false starts and crumpled pages Max mentions. How did Wallace arrive at that casual-yet-erudite pose in his writing or the piled-on conjunctions at the start of a sentence. By the time we see those moves, Wallace has them figured out and can explain their purpose. Such an exploration would require a different sort of volume, one of pure literary investigation (assuming early drafts of anything survive).

This volume spends a lot of time on Wallace's personal life. Arguably, the information about relationships—with humans, dogs, and harmful substances—is instructive: we see how the relationships inform the fiction and how, problematically, the relationships are one more element of an addictive personality that can's focus enough to produce the fiction. (Wallace isn't an especially slow writer, I think, but given that, when he's cooking, his output is enormous, he ends up with less to show for his years on earth than someone who produces consistently and doggedly, or someone who is more sure of what he means to produce. He does go through long periods in which nothing emerges, even drafts—unless I've misunderstood Max's characterization of those times.) These elements of Wallace's life are so intertwined, it's hard to imagine a successful literary biography of the man that didn't attempt to address Wallace's personal life. His successes and struggles as a teacher of writing were, though, worth more to this reader: most writers teach, and Wallace went at teaching with seriousness and joy, giving his all to the process. Even so, Dix quotes a comment from a Charlie Rose interview that had, when I saw the interview, also stood out to me: teachers learn from their teaching, probably learning more than they impart, but after two or three years, that effect is diminished or halted altogether. I don't think that's true, but for a mind like Wallace's—restless, brilliant, dissatisfied—I can see how even doing this important thing well loses its charm once it's been (as he would have seen it) "mastered."

Such restlessness informed Wallace's approach to fiction as well. Better that, better a dissatisfaction with how one lives and how one writes than the spiritual death that accompanies satisfaction. Unfortunately, Wallace's mental health issues led him to conclude that suicide was the only solution to the profound suffering that left his mind unable to think its way clear. Before that, Max does give readers a sense of Wallace's gifts and his questing spirit—but the book in toto left me unhappy with the project and wanting to read (and talk to) Wallace rather than read his post mortem.


we recommend Garibaldi House Inn Tillamook Hotel said...

I loved this David Foster Wallace bio. Yes, it's written in a straightforward manner (God forbid!) and is extremely readable. But it's also well-researched and does the heavy lifting of bringing Wallace's philosophies (and thinking) into focus.

William Preston said...

Agreed. (First time I've exchanged pleasantries with a geographical entity.)