Tag Archives: david foster wallace

A First Draft of Wallace: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max

We might develop a kind of spectrum of biographies. On one pole would be a book like In Cold Blood, where Truman Capote takes a largely unremarkable individual and tells his story so well as to make his subject into such a compelling person that he feels like a character in a novel. That is the gift of an author like Capote: deep psychological insight, an ability to draw profound conclusions about life and our world by investigating the story of an individual.

On the other end of this spectrum we would have a book like D.T. Max’s new biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. Max’s book is decent and worth reading (particularly if you are a fan of Wallace’s writing), but it is a book without much human or philosophical insight. Unlike In Cold Blood, we read this book more or less solely because its subject is a figure of much celebrity interest.

On the positive side, Max is clearly a diligent and able researcher. He’s dug up all sorts of interesting facts about Wallace and seems to even be familiar with his correspondence (at least with luminaries like Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo). There are lots of little gems in here, and I think this would constitute the main appeal for this book to Wallace fans and academics. The depth to which Wallace himself was an addict surprised me, as well as the extent to which fame really did seduce and then mangle him as a young writer who had an enormous amount of early success. These findings do put books like Infinite Jest into a new light.

The other thing to be said for this book is that it gives a reasonably good arc to Wallace’s life. Max has done a good job of corralling what must have been enormous amounts of information into a coherent account of who Wallace was. My main issue with this is that, while Max gets the shape of the narrative right, there is very little depth to it. There’s very little sense of Wallace as an actual human being, as opposed to a literary figure, and there’s little sense of how the forking paths of his life informed one another.

Max is clearly familiar with Wallace’s body of work and hits all the high points along the way. However, at times it feels that his interpretations of said works conform more to what his narrative for Wallace’s life needs to be than any idiosyncratic feelings on his own part. For instance, “Forever Overhead,” about a boy about to take a leap off a high-dive into a swimming pool, has long been one of my favorite of Wallace’s early stories. Here, it’s maligned as an conventionally realist work that Wallace only wrote to please his instructors in the University of Arizona’s MFA program. That may very well be true (it’s unlike most of the other work Wallace was doing at the time), but: 1) I have my doubts, and 2) it’s still a great story. At any rate, my point is that Max’s interpretations of Wallace’s works never really diverge from what the orthodoxy is and what his narrative needs. I never in this book found him claiming any sort of personal reaction to any of Wallace’s writing. his responses to Wallace’s writings are at their best when they give insight into how the writings were informed by Wallace’s personal life; but so far as interpretation goes, these are very much the “standard” interpretations of Wallace’s books, without a whole lot of depth. (For more idiosyncratic takes I recommend Who Was David Foster Wallace?, where seven writers give their own personal and critical takes on some of Wallace’s major work.)

A lot of my issues with this book can be understood by looking at its first lines: “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s. He was born in Ithica, New York, on February 21, 1962.” First of all, what a flat beginning to a bio of one of the greatest writers of our era. But more importantly, why is this the beginning of Wallace’s story? Why not start with the life of his mother, who Wallace battled with his whole life in ways that defined his addictions and his fiction? Why not start with the Midwest community that shaped him? Tennis? But then, after telling us that this is the start to Wallace’s story, Max fails to even describe the birth, giving the clear impression that he simply chose this as the “start” of Wallace’s story because it was the day on which he was born. This approach will characterize the pages that follow: a lot of well-researched facts hewn together into a reasonably cohesive narrative, but very little texture of Wallace’s life, and little thought as to the deeper implications of what is being claimed.

My other big issue with this book is that everything that happens after Infinite Jest is given short shrift. The part on Infinite Jest ends more or less on page 226, leaving Max 75 pages to fit in (not counting changes in his personal life, which were of course enormous): A Supposedly Fun Thing; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (which barely even rates a mention); Everything and More (likewise); Consider the Lobster; The Pale King. Quite arguably, Wallace’s work after Infinite Jest makes up a much stronger, more consistent batch of writing than his work before, and it’s a serious flaw that Max’s bio gives the creation of this writing such perfunctory treatment. As Max rightly points out, these books were written at a time of considerable struggle for Wallace in which, after finishing his career-defining novel, he was unsure of where to travel next as a writer and was facing no shortage of personal struggles.

There are some specific issues that I have with Max’s takes on certain things, and overall I feel the book has too much of an anti-experimentalist bent to it, but I’ll save those for another day.

Baker, Updike, and Wallace

To give a little more context for Lady Chatterley’s Brotherwhich you all should pre-order right now–I’m going to reset Barrett’s essay on Nicholson Baker from Issue 21 of The Quarterly Conversation. Though Barrett doesn’t have much regard for Baker’s sex writing, he is a huge Baker fan (which is part of what makes his essay in LCB so interesting).

You can see that in the essay he wrote for TQC 21, where he argued that Baker is a sort of missing link in American letters between John Updike and David Foster Wallace. In fact, the essay begins:

Nicholson Baker is the missing link between John Updike and David Foster Wallace.

There, finally, I’ve said it—a proclamation so reductive and problematic, yet so rich with implication and reverberation, that I cannot resist saying it over and over again: if Updike marks one end of the post-war American prose spectrum and Wallace the other, Baker would represent a midpoint.

It would be easy to counterpoint Wallace and Updike, even if Wallace hadn’t already issued his Oedipal takedown in his essay “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” . . .

He has quite a different take in Lady Chatterley’s Brother:

I don’t come to Baker’s latest, most sexually inflammatory novel as a novice. I have read all of his other work and I have written approvingly about him on multiple occasions. In fact, last year in The Quarterly Conversation I asserted that Baker was a kind of missing artistic link between John Updike and David Foster Wallace in the particular way he wrote about life at the close of the twentieth century. By extension, I argued that he was a major American writer who should be regarded as such. Part of the impetus for such an essay was my worry that Baker was thought of too often as contemporary literature’s crazy uncle, and not as the highly influential, steady, mid-career, confident presence that he actually is.

But now comes this book. In that long, defensive, applause-busy essay I did not mention his two previous sex novels, Vox and The Fermata, because I didn’t think they were very good, and I had hoped that they marked some transitional adolescent aesthetic phase he underwent, after which he returned home much more mature and developed, more appreciative of his parents and all they’d sacrificed for him, and ready to make hay with his initial prodigal promise, etc

Remember, if you pre-order this week, I’m entering you into a drawing for a box of awesome books that no longer fit on my shelves.

More Franzen v. Wallace

A rough transcript of Franzen’s remarks vis a vis Wallace’s cruise ship.

Franzen: David and I disagreed on that.
Remnick: David?
Franzen: Dave Wallace, yeah.
Remnick: So Wallace felt well —
Franzen: Yeah, cause he —
Remnick: He said it was okay to make up dialogue on a cruise ship?
Franzen: For instance, yeah. Uhhmmm…
Remnick: I’m heartbroken to hear it.
Franzen: I know, I know. No, those things didn’t actually happen. Umm, you notice he never published any non-fiction in your magazine.
Remnick: Not for want of trying but that’s another matter, but but…
Franzen: He would have had to, maybe he…
Remnick: He would have fell before the fact-checkers.
Franzen: I think the fact-checkers… and to me the uh fact-checkers, we, uh, I’m so afraid of fact checkers.
Remnick: Good. [laughs]

The DFW Character in The Marriage Plot

An interesting post over at Slate puts some context on the supposed David Foster Wallace character in Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot. Eugenides says it’s unintentional:

It just got started by New York Magazine’s online Vulture site and they stated it not as a question but as a fact and it seemed to flow from that. I’m waiting for it to pass by. Now people are saying there are so many differences between [Leonard and David Foster Wallace], the basic one being that Wallace didn’t even have manic depression. I think they’re reading too much into the bandanna. I was thinking Guns N’ Roses and heavy metal guys but what can you do.

Slate’s David Haglund says that’s bullshit:

Whatever his reasons, though, Eugenides is not fooling anyone. Or shouldn’t be: Leonard clearly, undoubtedly has something to do with Wallace. In addition to all the similarities noted by Paskin (she goes well beyond the bandanna and the chewing tobacco—though, as she writes, “bandanna and chew are not common accoutrements”), Eugenides also takes words that Wallace actually said (in a 1996 profile by Frank Bruni) and puts them in the mouth of Leonard. How something like that could happen unconsciously I can’t fathom.

The rest of the post has some thoughts on why Eugenides might be doing such a thing, along with some references to Franzen and his recent book.

The Franzen Strikes Again

I don’t have any idea of the context for this, so I’m not going to comment on whether or not Franzen should have spilled the beans, but it does detract a tiny bit from my appraisal of David Foster Wallace’s essays. The reason is that part of the point (and fun) of essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing . . .” is the sheer shock and joy that actual human beings are doing the stuff that Wallace is describing. (This is different from the humor in Wallace’s fiction, where the pleasure comes from imagining that we’re not actually that far from some of the stuff he’s describing (but you nonetheless have to imagine that some of the scenarios were drawn from crazy things Wallace saw firsthand, or was told.))

Moreover, no small part of Wallace’s rhetorical gambits in presenting such behavior is to help drive home (and occasionally metaphorize) his larger points about millennial U.S. culture. I, for one, took many of these essays to be in part sociological portraits of just who we were in those days, and while I certainly won’t say the essays are no loner relevant in that regard, if Franzen’s comments are largely true, then I do think the essays have been dinged up a bit.

I went to a few events at The New Yorker festival last weekend. By far the most interesting was David Remnick’s interview of Jonathan Franzen. (I am a big Franzen booster.) Anyway, it was all pretty interesting, but the moment of actual drama came when Franzen was discussing David Foster Wallace and told Remnick that Wallace felt free to make stuff up for his non-fiction, including, particularly his famous cruise piece for Harper’s. . . . But anyway, I’m not sure Franzen should have said it, and Remnick appeared awfully surprised, but he also mentioned that Wallace never published any non-fiction in The New Yorker.

DFW’s Widow’s Forgiveness Machine

Not quite sure what to think about this:

In 2009, artist Karen Green made “The Forgiveness Machine.” It was a strange seven-foot-long plastic apparatus that allowed people to write down whatever they wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. You put the piece of paper with your forgiveness wish in at one end and it was sucked through the machine and shredded at the other end. Voilà! Instant forgiveness. There were so many wishes submitted that the machine eventually broke down.

The machine was inspired by the mixed emotions Green felt about her late husband, the author David Foster Wallace, who had committed suicide in 2008. The machine helped her return to her art-making and channel her grief.

Censoring Wallace’s Legacy?

The Awl, which previously published a piece on David Foster Wallace’s self-help books at the Harry Ransom Center (which houses his papers), is now claiming that those books have been removed from Wallace’s official archive.

It never occurred to me that Wallace’s estate would be in a position to rescind part of the sale of his documents to the Ransom Center; I wrote what I did under the assumption that these books would remain available to anyone who was interested in seeing them. I was very sorry—or rather, entirely freaked out—to learn that that will no longer be the case.

Turning Into DFW Week

Other than the identity of the author (the blogosphere love some envy), I’m not sure why this essay has been getting that much attention. It’s pretty much like most cultural criticism you find in the Times: fun, engaging, and ultimately forgettable.

I’ll take issue with the second-to-last paragraph, since it’s a little easy to take issue with:

At 20 I congratulated myself on my awareness of the subjectivity of aesthetic judgments, the arbitrariness of critical proclamations, the folly of received wisdom. I pored over the Deconstructionists and the French feminists and advocated, in complete seriousness, the overthrow of language. (Also, the patriarchy.) Then I went to law school and was forced to confront serious practical and ethical questions — Brown v. Board of Education, for instance, and Roe v. Wade — that managed not to be resolved by the insights of Derrida. Now, having entered and abandoned the practice of law and spent roughly a decade straddling legal publishing and the blogosphere, I’m increasingly drawn to directness, which precludes neither nuance nor irony. (For details, see the essays of Mark Twain, who believed that “plain question and plain answer make the shortest road out of most perplexities.”)

The first three sentences here erect much too much of a straw man, since what Derrida wrote about and what the Supreme Court justices write about are for the most part mutually exclusive. (And anyway, that’s a contrived summary of what Derrida, etc, were about.) If you prefer legalistic wisdom over philosophical, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t use one as a cudgel to beat the other. There’s simply no sense in it.

My other issue with this graf is the use of Mark Twain as some kind of emblem of directness. Yes, Twain was by all reports a hugely outspoken, easy-to-anger man–and those character traits went a long way toward giving him cover for his immense, and immensely good, use of irony. (For another, more recent instance of the expert cloaking irony beneath bluster, see “Hitchens, Christopher.”) Really, you’ll be hard pressed to find another American author who was as good with the sneaky argument as Twain was. He should be the last one you recruit in defense of arguments that are made “straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.” Twain might have given the impression that he didn’t give a damn what you thought, but that was all to the point of giving a damn what you thought.

Besides, I don’t see why there’s such hatred for irony in this essay. Really now, irony is one of the best tools we possess for getting at the truth in this age. For an introduction to the great joys of irony, as well as several concrete demonstrations of truths that can be only reached through its magical means, I heartily recommend this book, first brought to my attention by the great Martin Riker.

Eschaton Music Video

One of my favorite parts of Infinite Jest.

“David Foster Wallace” Character in Jeffrey Eugenides’ New Novel

Yeah, I have no idea what to make of this. The book is The Marriage Plot, out in October. I hope that means they still have time to completely change the cover.

Leonard Bankhead is a philosophy double major who chews tobacco, wears a bandanna, disdains ironic detachment, and has a history of mental illness that has led to multiple hospitalizations — just like David Foster Wallace. (Also, like Infinite Jest’s Hal Incandenza, Bankhead self-medicates through out high school with marijuana.) Certainly, Leonard is distinct from DFW in a number of ways as well — the particularities of his family situation, his being a total stud, that he’s a manic-depressive, not just a depressive, that he’s not a writer, and all the vagaries of the plot — but the similarities are so iconically David Foster Wallace (a bandanna and chew are not common accoutrements) that Eugenides, who did not have a well-known or documented friendship with Foster Wallace, must intentionally be calling him to mind.

Here’s how Bankhead is introduced, in a semiotics class he’s taking with Madeleine. Like Foster Wallace, he’s a double major in philosophy and a hard science (in Foster Wallace’s case it was philosophy and math English, though he wrote a book about math) and he dips chew. You can find this in one of the New Yorker excerpts.

“He said in a quiet voice that he was a double major (biology and philosophy) and had never taken a semiotics course before, that his parents had named him Leonard…. After he finished his coffee, he dug into his right snowmobile boot and, to Madeleine’s surprise, pulled out a tin of chewing tobacco. With two stained fingers, he placed a wad of tobacco in his cheek. For the next two hours, every minute or so, he spat, discreetly but audibly, into the cup.

Leonard is also interested in subjects that interested Foster Wallace. . . .

Oh, and is The Recognitions seriously, “falling out of the canon faster than John Dos Passos”? Kinda thought Gaddis was experiencing a little bit of respect finally, though, National Book Awards notwithstanding, I don’t think he was ever particularly “canonical.”


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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