Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The 3 Major Revelations About David Foster Wallace Gleaned From DT Max's Biography, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, For The People Who Are Considerably More Well-versed in Wallace Than Those With Just a Casual Interest in Him

If you're like me—and I suspect there're more of you out there than one might think—you've been eagerly awaiting D.T. Max's bio of David Foster Wallace ever since it was excerpted in The New Yorker 3.5 years ago. And you've also, like me, read and re-read all of Wallace's published output. You've even tracked down his unpublished stuff, and are rather blasé about the impending release of Both Flesh and Not, a volume of previously uncollected work, because you're pretty sure you've read it all. (Which doesn't mean you won't get it on release day and read everything again, gratefully.) You own multiple copies of Infinite Jest. You follow Nick Maniatis on Twitter and compulsively click on every link he deems tweet-worthy. You own the Charlie Rose interviews on DVD. You have 9 hours of DFW interviews on your iPod, 3.4 hours of readings (not including audiobooks), 4.4 hours of tributes and remembrances. You've torn out the pages of a yard sale copy of IJ so you could put the story in chronological order.
So, if you're such a person, a self-admitted DFW nut, does Max's book have any juicy new nuggets to offer you, anything you didn’t already know? Well, there are a couple things, but nothing too major. The simple fact is that if you've read all the books and all the interviews and all the tributes (and listened to all the audio tributes and radio interviews, natch) and have gone through all the supplemental material like the Conversations With book and Lipsky's Although Of Course... and Boswell’s Understanding and Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity and both editions of Stephen Burn’s IJ companion, and have even watched stuff like that hour-long videotaped interview with Bonnie Nadell and all the videos of the Ransom Center symposia on YouTube, if you’ve done all that, well, Max's bio is going to cover a lot of familiar ground for you. There are some things in Every Love Story you can tell would be new and interesting for the casual reader, but you end up kind of skimming a lot of it because when, for example, Max does stuff like quote from a syllabus from a Wallace-taught class, you not only recognize the words, you've seen scans of the actual syllabus.
The best part of the book by far is when Max quotes from Wallace's letters. (Well, when he quotes from letters you haven't already read/heard other people read aloud/seen scans of.) Wallace was an inveterate writer of letters and apparently there are copious amounts of epistolary correspondence; Max had some 850 pages of Wallace-penned letters at his disposal. (It seems he wrote to DeLillo about pretty much Everything, from writing tips to problems with his publisher to buying a new house.) The letters are written in DFW's familiar (and therefore comforting) voice; he wrote them with the same intelligence, wit, and insight with which he wrote gosh darn near everything. (In that respect he rivals Fitzgerald for having never ever written a weak sentence. Like, ever. [apologies to TS]) When a volume of his letters is eventually published, it will be a true event, and pretty close to Holy Grail-type material for Wallace fans—rivaled perhaps only by a facsimile of the handwritten IJ manuscript or "Author's Cut" of IJ with hundreds of pages of restored cuts (one of the amusing tidbits in the bio: Michael Silverblatt called up Pietsch to see if he could read the IJ outtakes).

I will say that Max's bio is a nice compendium/repository of most of the available info out there and is especially helpful in the chronology dept (when exactly Wallace wrote/published a certain story or essay, where he was living at the time, etc.). I liked it and I recommend it, and I hope this endorsement isn't attenuated by the fact that I like reading really anything about Wallace; Every Love Story is a legitimately good biography. (Though one little cavil: There's no account of the publication of The Pale King. Max takes the uncompromising view that the story ends on Sept 12 2008, and most of the last 15 pages or so seem to be taken verbatim from his New Yorker article. Which is ultimately fine (after all, most of the Pale King info is out there if one wanted to track it down) but I was reading Every Love Story on a Kindle and didn't realize that there were 50+ pages of endnotes, sources, and appendices (an index? Really? In this day and age?), and so when I came to the end (only 74% of the book, according to the progress bar), I fully expected at least a couple dozen more pages, making the ending for me far more abrupt and aposiopetic than the ending of Infinite Jest is accused of being.)

Anyway, onward with the big reveals for even the DFW cognoscenti...

1. The essays were largely made-up

Grumblings about the veracity of the events in Wallace's non-fiction have been building over the last year, and it turns out with good cause. While the essays' jumping-off points remain verifiable (He did go to the State Fair, he did go on a cruise, etc.), the details contained within are probably at the very least exaggerated. There's no way of fact-checking every little thing, but Max does an admirable job of uncovering when authorial liberty was taken, pointing out when anecdotes were invented or stolen wholesale from another's experience. I didn't mind this revelation too much since I've always considered Wallace’s non-fiction less important than his fiction. And frankly, it does explain how, in those essays, everyone around him had a knack for doing/saying the exact right thing, constantly. But I can imagine the people who unreservedly love his essays getting their hackles raised as Max systematically shoots down or casts doubt on their favorite bits (the pinwheeling batons? Most likely exaggerated. The little girl chess prodigy who knew what “fianchettoing” was? Probably didn’t exist). For me, the most disappointing fudging Max points out is that Wallace didn’t belong to a church group, a group that reportedly also had as a member the person whose house Wallace casually strolls into Kramer-like in the essay “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s.” Granted, the dissimulation here wasn’t done for arbitrary or aesthetic reasons; the people in the essay were actually members of his recovery group, so their anonymity (and, by extension, his) was paramount. But still. It was one of those details it seemed the whole (not very long) essay hinged on: Watching the events of 9/11 unfold with members of your church. There was a whole other interesting layer to that essay that gets kind of stripped away now. (Wallace had to know how much more interesting the essay was with this invented detail. So notable was it that even Silverblatt went out of his way to bring it up during an interview.) This exposure dishearteningly casts doubt on all the other stuff in the essay. Think about that affecting story about his search for an American flag, the whole going to gas station after gas station, finally arriving at an out-of-the-way convenience store (that just happens to be owned by a Pakistani), making a homemade flag in the backroom. After reading Max’s book, it’s hard to imagine Wallace actually doing all that. It is, however, easy to imagine him writing about doing it.

 2. He almost wrote a porn epic instead of Infinite Jest
In the early nineties he did extensive research about porn with an eye toward writing some sort of reportage/fiction about it—it’s kind of unclear what it was going to be exactly. Whatever it would’ve been, it was going to be epic; he apparently got hundreds of (lost?) pages into it. He was interviewing porn stars, watching tons of porn, thinking about porn (“Why do many of the movies have a kind of shadowy, dramatically superfluous character who seems to stand for the man watching film…and whose final access to female lead(s) effects film’s closure?”), etc. A lot of his research turns up in his essay “Big Red Son,” passed off as newly discovered info (see #1). The whole project got derailed, perhaps thankfully, considering we got IJ instead, though one wonders what Wallace would’ve come up with. A comment made to a friend years later about the movie Boogie Nights offers a clue: He said it was exactly the story that he had been trying to write. (DFW would not be so kind to PTA’s next film, calling Magnolia pretentious and hollow and “100% gradschoolish in a bad way.” Ouch.) (And but also n.b.: That dream-team dinner just got even more interesting…)
3. He was a p*ssy hound
Apparently. Sure, many people recount him going off with random women after signings, and sure, he told Franzen that he wondered whether his only purpose on earth was “to put [his] penis in as many vaginas as possible.” But maybe he just went back to all those womens’ places and didn’t actually effect coitus or whatever—like what supposedly happened with Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation: they went back to her place, she decided she didn’t want to, they didn’t. (Leading him to base the title character in “The Depressed Person” on her, allegedly.) I mean it probably went down how it looks, it’s just that if he had slept with even half the number implied in the book, wouldn’t there be like a lot more self-congratulatory tumblrs out there, eg. “I Slept With A Literary God” or something like that? Or even like a blog account of the evening or something? Well, actually, maybe not.
A few other stray info-bits:
—Viking Penguin sent Wallace a bill for $324.51 for his reversal of some of the copyedits of The Broom of the System
—Excerpt of letter sent to copyeditor of Infinite Jest: “The following non-standard features of this mss. are intentional and will get stetted by the author if color-penciled by you: Neologisms, catachreses, solecisms, and non-standard syntax in sections concerning the characters Minty, Marathe, Antitoi, Krause, Pemulis, Steeply, Lenz, Orin Incandenza, Mario Incandenza, Fortier, Foltz, J.O. Incandenza Sr., Schtitt, Gompert.”
Girl With Curious Hair sold 2,200 hardcover copies
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again sold 15,000 hardcover copies
Oblivion sold 18,000 hardcover copies
—By 2006, 150,000 copies of Infinite Jest had been sold (one assumes it’s into seven digits by now)



  1. I found your post here through an untraceable web journey and I enjoyed it. I am not a DFW fan--you won't like this, but I think I'm too old to find his work inspiring and I do think that's a problem with his writing--but I have been reading Consider the Lobster for no particular reason and finding great pleasure in those sentences you so rightly relish. I had not known there was any controversy regarding the fact/fiction quotient of his essays and although Mrs Thompson seemed slightly odd to me, I am...nonplussed...to find he largely made it up. I like your ardor for a writer who is no phony nor lightweight as all those Jonathans are, and you may be interested in my little encounter with Wallace, when I was an MFA student at the University of Washington. This was just after he received the MacArthur; he visited UW to give a reading, which I did not attend, and to hold a seminar/discussion with about 8 grad students, which I did attend and I confess disingenuously--I was no great admirer of his writing, but I wanted to be one of a few people in a room with a very famous author. Wallace made a remarkable impression the moment he entered the room: he wore jeans, a loose sloppy shirt, the trademark schmatte on his head. But the jeans were patched up with duct tape around the belt loops and the front pockets. Large pieces of duct tape. He wore gigantic tan Sears workboots that were unlaced causing him to walk the shuffling and foot-dropping way you do when you're wearing enormous loose shoes. His jaw seemed swollen until I realized he had a wad of chewing tobacco the size of a walnut tucked in there. He kept spitting brownly into a styrofoam cup. Just these details would ordinarily be an instant recipe for my derision: I would see nothing but affectation. But I have to tell you, this man sweated unhappiness, he exhaled not-being-home-in-the-world. He smelled like the loneliest person on earth. You would know better than I do if these impressions were realistic. I have none of those bogus maternal instincts that make women want to treat sad men like seductive lost children, and I felt really only an unbidden powerful pity. He treated the students' questions with more kindness and patience than I expected. He talked some bullshit about writers needing to be motivated by "a tank in their backyard," something like that, and the tank in his backyard was television. I'm afraid don't remember anything else he said. The tobacco was really quite disgusting. When I read of his suicide, I did feel a blow--I think I got a whiff of some irremediable inability to settle with life just from my brief witness. I will never read him with the passion your generation does, but he deserves your passion. Keep on keepin' on.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to share your DFW story. Your description of him seems to fit the image most of the fans and scholars seem to have of him--who knows how completely accurate it is. (The fact that his suicide shocked so many people shows how good he was at concealment, deflection, dissembling.) I do know he often claimed that his work was almost exclusively about loneliness; as he said in an interview: "As far as I can see, everything I write ends up being about [loneliness]."

      For what it's worth, he also shared your disgust with the chewing tobacco, but couldn't help himself. That's addiction for you, I suppose.

      I am also not surprised by his gentleness and generosity in your short interaction with him. After 2008 the internet was flooded with accounts of handwritten responses to letters sent his way, apparently SOP for him according to his agent and close friends. I wish I sent him a letter instead of vowing to attend the first post-Consider The Lobster reading/signing he did within 500 miles of my home. Maybe then I'd have some sort of correspondence with him instead of a longing for an encounter that ended up never happening.

    2. From what I have read, I think Wallace himself would understand that longing and loss are inconsolable and his work is an aid to fully experiencing our inconsolabilities, which may be his great gift to you. I've decided to go back and read some more of him, I think in some respects I've short-shrifted him over the years. So thank you.

  2. Glad I stumbled across your blog. I purchased "Every Love Story" the week it was released but have been busy with work and have only worked about halfway through it thus far. Like you, I am an extreme Wallace fan (more non-fiction than fiction, though!) and had been long awaiting this book.

    Thank you for your extrapolation. I wrote a blog on Wallace prior to reading the book, and will be writing a follow-up review as soon as I finish. You can access them here: http://www.abookunfinished.com/2012/08/every-love-story-is-ghost-story.html

    In the meantime, I'll look out for any other writings coming from you.

  3. A comment made to a friend years later about the movie Boogie "Nights offers a clue: He said it was exactly the story that he had been trying to write. (DFW would not be so kind to PTA’s next film, calling Magnolia pretentious and hollow and “100% gradschoolish in a bad way.”"

    This is interesting that Wallace was aware of PTA as a filmmaker given that Paul Thomas Anderson had taken an undergraduate English class taught by DFW himself, citing the experience as foundational: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2015/01/05/paul_thomas_anderson_and_david_foster_wallace_at_emerson_the_director_took.html

    If you're interested, you should check out PTA's full interview with Marc Maron where he goes into detail about the experience.

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  6. Hey you plagurized from this https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/01/06/when-david-foster-wallace-taught-paul-thomas-anderson/

    1. My piece was written over two years before the piece you link to....