D.T. Max’s Life of David Foster Wallace

I just finished the recent biography of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (come to think of it, I don’t know where that title comes from — can’t remember it appearing in any of Wallace’s work or in any other context).  It’s very good: there’s a blurb on the back by Dave Eggers that says “we should be grateful that this story was told by someone as talented and responsible as D.T. Max” and that seems true; it’s an inherently sensationalistic tale in a lot of ways and it would have been very easy for a biographer to tip it in a more voyeuristic direction.

Speaking of which, I have to cite the craziest moment in the book, about DFW’s tumultuous relationship with the married Mary Karr.  (I think I remember seeing some coverage of this when the book came out earlier this year.)  It’s like something out of Elmore Leonard.

One day in February [1992], he thought briefly of committing murder for her.  He called an ex-con he knew through his recovery program and tried to buy a gun.  He had decided he would wait no longer for Karr to leave her husband; he planned to shoot him instead when he came into Cambridge to pick up the family dog.  The ex-con called Larson, the head of Granada House, who told Karr.  Wallace himself never showed up for the handover and this ended what he would call in a letter of apology “one of the scariest days of my life.”  He wrote Larson in explanation, “I now know what obsession can make people capable of” — then added in longhand after — “at least of wanting to do.”  To Karr at the time he insisted that the whole episode was an invention of the ex-con and she believed him.

He was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for chronic depression, and he often behaved pretty oddly, but there’s nothing else quite like this. He got a tattoo of “Mary” on his arm– which is a pretty intense thing to do in re: a married lover (although maybe they were briefly an acknowledged couple at this point, I forget).  Later when he got married, he “had a strikeout drawn through the fading word ‘Mary’ on his tattoo and placed and asterisk under the heart symbol; further down he added another asterisk and ‘Karen,’ turning his arm into a living footnote.”  Too perfect!

One part I found especially sad has to do with DFW’s reaction to winning a MacArthur “genius” award.

…He was ‘paralyzed’ by fear of failure. He worried that whatever ‘magic’ or ‘genius’ people said they’d seen in his last two books would not be in evidence.  He would, he worried, be ‘obliterated or something (I say ‘obliterated’ because the fear most closely resembles some kind of fear of death or annihilation, the kind of fear that strikes one on the High Dive or if one has to walk a high tightrope or something).’  He was now frozen by his own need to be the person others saw him as.  They could let go of it more easily than he could.  And since the success of Infinite Jest the problem had gotten worse, so that he feared the ‘slightest mistake or miscue’ would knock the statue down.  The prospect terrified him…

I found fascinating the ways DFW’s chronic depression, addiction, and history of frequent hospitalization (for both) functioned as a kind of purloined-letter-style concealed absence in his work and biography.  In retrospect, it seems amazing that everyone didn’t catch on about this, but Wallace and his editors and friends provided various kinds of cover stories.  And perhaps he seemed so erudite & brilliant that people couldn’t quite imagine that he had in fact spent long stretches in the kinds of no-frills addiction treatment centers he describes in Infinite Jest.  So for example, after the publication of that novel, Frank Bruni wrote about him for the New York Times Magazine and the journalist “went along to a dinner at the home of a couple named Erin and Doug Poag.  They ate Kentucky Fried Chicken and heroes on trays and watched The X-Files… Wallace did not mention that his connection to the Poags was from his recovery circle — he claimed to have met them at a ‘Mennonite church.’  And, understandably, without that information, Bruni was left with the impression that Wallace’s fondness for ordinary Midwestern people might be a put-on.”

Max can be critical of DFW, as for example in his comment about Wallace’s famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech: “Over the past 25 years his mental life had run a huge circuit through the most astonishing complexities to arrive at what many six-year-olds and nearly all churchgoers already understood.”  Although actually Max evinces a lot of sympathy for DFW’s personal journey through heights of high-philosophical braininess, post-modernist fictional experimentation, sexual promiscuity (“Other than the classroom, his favored venue for meeting women was St Matt’s, the church in whose rectory his recovery group met”), and then eventually to a kind of serious earnestness and monogamy.  (Btw Jonathan Franzen was a big influence on him in this regard — Franzen was his most important long-term peer/ friend/ competitor/ correspondent).

Of course, the writing never stopped being extremely thorny, dense, and weird.

I now am finally going to read The Pale King!

p.s.  I mentioned the DFW story “The Depressed Person” here a year or two ago.  My take on it at that point was that the irony in retrospect — in relation to how angry the story made some readers for its seemingly cruel depiction of a depressed person — was that that person obviously was Wallace.  Max asserts that it’s in fact a depiction of Elizabeth Wurtzel, whom he was pissed off at for sexually rejecting him.  I actually don’t quite buy this…

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