September 09, 2012
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story has in common with so many literary works a noticeable feature: It is not by David Foster Wallace. D. T. Max has written an utterly professional biography, exhaustively researched, and yet he does not quote DFW downplaying the usefulness of a life of Borges. “A biographer wants his story to be not only interesting but literarily valuable. In order to ensure this, the bio has to make the writer’s personal life and psychic travails seem vital to his work.” It might be that Max both refuses and draws on the clichéd explanatory power of Wallace’s despair and intelligence, madness and genius. Those connections are perhaps gracefully under-explicit, but there they are.
Wallace leaves the nest of Urbana, Illinois, but is attacked with anxiety when he interviews at colleges, which gives occasion to excerpt the opening scene of Infinite Jest, where Hal Incandenza is severely, uncertainly addled. “I compose what I project will be seen as a smile” appears there in a sea of Max’s better-than-workmanlike prose. At this point, your reviewer made some kind of sound. “What is it?” said the reviewer’s girlfriend with concern faintly medical. She knew what he was reading, and though it was not a monthly statement of gambling losses, he would, similarly, not be able to explain. Wallace’s writing, to the reviewer, had a singular coalescence, in that he found it to be altogether implausibly good. To him, this had always been its most crucial, head-tripping quality, for which the reviewer approached uncritical reverence. Here was a sentence by Wallace. The occasional raised-by-wolves syntactical construction (“I am in here” we are reminded earlier in the scene). A reputation for prolix two pagers belied by an attention to syllabic rhythm.
Attempting a studiously faux-scientific measure of DFW’s literary greatness is not necessarily what the literary biography is for. The things it is for are here: Reproduced letters (DFW’s literal pen might have been the last of its kind), his sex life (Max does not seem to trust either party re Wallace and Elizabeth Wurtzel in a relationship of any definition). For the initiated: the identity of Native Companion at the Illinois State Fair; the people in recovery who he always addressed in essays as friends from church. For the cheap seats, Mary Karr’s stolen scene; a furious Wallace breaks a table and she charges him not for the table but the “brokenness.” It has that bracing honesty about his flaws: Max finds that Wallace lied about his SAT scores, and DFW’s Broom of the System-early protestations for the Derridean foundation of fiction are practically villainous.
Sentences like “Wallace held so fast to his sparse emotional certainties that when they proved unstable, the impact was crushing” are also a convention of biography. The reviewer will pretend they do not exist.
And so it begins, actually, with the hard facts of DFW’s grades—quite good. He takes after Father’s philosophy and Mother’s grammar. His diversions are tennis, formal logic, and a Midwestern attachment to popular culture which would ever straddle the line between folksy and ironic. Alanis Morissette, Thomas Harris, anything on television. His grades at Amherst are still excellent, but he takes two leaves of absence, having begun a pattern of mental breakdown.
The University of Arizona tests and teases young DFW’s postmodern triviality. “We’d hate to lose you,” says a professor, helping map out the intellectual situation with pithy MFA squeamishness.
The years circa the publication of Girl with Curious Hair are harrowing. Wallace was drawn to the structure of academia, but in practice, teaching gigs and the doctorate program in philosophy at Harvard go sour quickly. In Boston, he is unable to function. Wallace gets into recovery, and finds discipline hidden in AA bromides. He meets the model for sensitive thug Don Gately, works a mandated security job. The relationship or ratio between sobriety and creative productivity is vague. At various points, Wallace begins work on Infinite Jest.
A hero quest is plotted. Wallace is in wincing discomfort being solicited by Charlie Rose for an extempore movie review of the English Patient, but otherwise, his tone shifts. He is intent on writing that which is “Passionately moral, morally passionate.” (See him harass Mark Leyner, take down late Updike, and talk “anesthetic” irony.) This roughly post-post-modern literature, Wallace would have said, should be felt in the tummy, or on the nerve-endings.
“Making the head throb heartlike” is Max’s clear favorite, a phrase repeated for lack of a textual exegesis. That Wallace was a writer of such stupendous control means the reviewer trusts his writerly ambitions in the abstract just a little farther than he could throw them. This transition was easier declared than done. Fiction is about “what it is to be a fucking human being,” he says, and we are to believe him moving on from academic motives to usher in a new era of isolation-spanning and human feeling.
If Wallace were ever steered, it was by the influence of trusted sources; Costello, Nadell, Pietsch, the friendly rivalry with Franzen had begun. They are loyal friends, the aggregate absorbers of his personal style. Wallace demanded that he be in direct contact with IJ’s copy-editor, and the cutting was furious, poetically debated. Worried that the book’s imposing heft might put readers off, Pietsch proves his professionalism by talking him out of the subtitle: “a failed entertainment.”
This transformative earnestness, important both to Wallace and to his ELSiaGS character arc herein, has a climactic but quixotic project in Infinite Jest, intermittently experimental beast, a novel of unfriendly size. It is at once the great bearer of Wallace’s signatures and recursive one-off, chaotic and precise. What is taking place on the page? Something dense and analytical and maximal and fluent and honest and corn-fed and emotionally-present and logical, also 20-volume-OED head-scratching vocab-exercise abstruse and Byzantine and really, really funny, withholding the rails of conventional plot, with characters that sound deep with human recognition, everything rigorous, necessary, unnecessarily detailed and broken down to chemical formulae, a revolution in the articulation of the head-voice, fragmented and schmucky, sentences mercilessly constructed, packed with jargon, ungettable Wittgenstein references, writing that pushes, expands, solecizes like a motherfucker.
Critical reception is mixed. Wallace skeptics would hold the line of his puzzling dazzle for a long time—an odd mirror of Wallace’s heartfelt aims. He would remain at the absolute center of the discourse of Difficulty. IJ is that, and it is read with a thorough pleasure. Himself, the reviewer never minded inventive interpretations of IJ’s superstructure. He found, simply, the narratives of Ennet House and Enfield to be the two best novels he’d ever read, alternating in parts held at an anxious distance from each other within the book, as if serialized.
It was always the reviewer’s impression that his coming of age as a Wallace fanboy spanned the nadir of his reputation. As a middle-to-high-brow reader, a bookstore clerk and college student, nowhere was there adoration of his intelligence, limitlessly fractured. You were more likely to hear that he was lengthy, pretentious, cold, self-indulgent, wrote a big book for the sake of having written a book bigger than the other books. From IJ on, he was a deeply satisfying target of hatchet jobs. Max writes that Infinite Jest, relative to the image-fiction makers, L.A. nihilists, and McInerney minimalism, earns DFW a reputation for “redemptive” fiction. The reviewer’s primary experience of Wallace—IJ the first time through—was that of a stoner book. A culty fetish. All these reputations have been rendered unrecognizable.
Max proposes a unified field theory: the experimental (if that term has too much baggage, let’s say: true to overload and crosstalk, the hysteria of reality) sensibility meets traditional concern. The marriage that has split and reconciled and deepened in renewed emergency over the years. The argument from art, hard-pressed against the argument for relevance. Wallace was key, and foil to this literature. The goal here is noble, within reach. This is how it has always been expressed, but our terms never seem to improve. In so many cases, hybridity is rhetoric. It should come as no surprise that the small, personal world of the reading experience will make for a vague, diffident grail. Until further notice, this hypothetical writing is a double-failure in concept; a pandering to the philistine gut, an indulgent reification of rarified literary style, this literature of the under/over-rated.
The Wallace that delivered the Kenyon Commencement Address would approve of an emphasis on ethical purpose instead of a testimonial to talent. To plays of Federeresque transcendence in the art of sentence-making. The reviewer admits to an undemocratic impulse, that he finds DFW sentences to be so alive that he is tempted to set fire to the pages on which his own and so many others appear. The reviewer was always moved—even startled—by sheer talent, as he is moved by a depression we can only infer from Wallace’s emergency therapies, hospitalizations, familial rescues, taking advantage of Karen Green’s rare, reluctant departure from the house. ELSiaGS gives us a Wallace reconstructed from the people that knew him and loved him. A portrait is to be valued as a portrait. Put it up in the room. Wallace looked to great books to feel “human and unalone.” In that sense, it was a monstrous sadness that made us feel less so, a severed communion. Could the event-horizon of depressive attacks cut us off from more satisfying spidery links from life to art? The reviewer does not quite think so, though he admits he continues to commit a categorical error. He is still on the fence that we can honestly ask the questions we might want answered: what permitted him to write, and from what aspect did he derive the lifelikeness of his writing? What does it have to do with me, me, me? (Wallace would take too long to explain the intentional fallacy.) The answers are not here, for they are in books.
Max makes no attempt to disabuse us of a certain melodramatic reading: The Pale King as a quest’s ultimate failure-like thing. For some of us, that story has a plotty, convenient ending, unrepresentative of the way we live to incompletion, as argued in ELSiaGS’s detailed editorial squabbles. This account, whole and white-whaley as it is, leaves some of us out. Some of us were deep into a different story, similarly simple, conclusive, its action having risen years ago, actually. Greatest Living Writer shows off what he can do. Voice of his generation writes inimitably voicey things on all subjects, enlivens a body of work that crafted its reality to an elegant precision, just killing it all the time, peerless and weird, sumptuous in rereading, awesome. The work was done. The days were over. The legacy and the argument on the page.
For example, the Style executive intern “willowy and scintillant and buff.” Scotty Schwartz telling stories where people praise him, talk radio doing OJ in our waking dreams. “All I remember was the dick. The dick, like, captured my attention.” As well, the reviewer will recall the “full clothy weight of a subtropical sky,” but he will not look up the word “thanatotic.” He has a life. He’ll wait for Neal to “get to the part where I kill myself and discover what happens immediately after a person dies.” The follow-through is, seriously, not disappointing. He cannot summon Pat Sajak’s face but he knows he “looks like a badger.” The reviewer is ever nervous that he will not understand why the paradox is a paradox.
For an idea of what passionately moral fiction looks like, he’d give you the story “Good Old Neon,” which connects the dissolution of modern insecurity with a benevolent afterlife. “Mr. Squishy” features nothing short of a decision on free will in the targeted marketing age. Both are really, really good.
The question of what makes the head throb heartlike still stands. The reviewer believes that whatever that means on the page, DFW came awfully close to addressing. We are not, nor do we really intend to get, any closer to a definition of good writing. A lot of know-it-when-seen reigns in the meantime. For example, the reviewer will always believe, unshaken, that he knew—not him personally, though he saw his back at upstairs info in a bookstore where he imagines he was obsequious and brusque, open and strange—its best practitioner, a great writer. Here, insert rhetorical device: period, bam, bar-none, end of story.
 Wallace liked Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, though some of us found it arch, bewildering, a term paper in philosophy in a Funhouse mirror. Wallace thought it embodied that leap, and the reviewer disagrees. For his preferred version of where this newly resolved, incipient lit begins, how about “Little Expressionless Animals,” and many sublime moments in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again, the Michael Joyce piece, the Lynch piece, the universally not-put-down cruise ship essay.
 ELSiaGS is not without acts of sustained criticism. Wallace’s maximalism is taken to be a rebellion against “masculine hyper-certainty.” In a section mulling over the generational aspect ascribed to a group of white males, Wallace argues that their commonality extends to being “under 40, over six feet…” James Wood publishes his Hysterical Realism essay, prompted by the non-white success of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Wood’s point is often treated as if it were an attack, though the reviewer thinks it’s a fair take on a certain anxiety about plot mechanics. Wood’s treatment of DFW in How Fiction Works is skeptical but smart and generous. On the other hand, Walter Kirn’s review of Oblivion is classic fantod-baiting; it opens with the coloring-in of a cultural stereotype that would labor to read Wallace then proclaim him a genius because it’s cool to do so and there are girls around and we all know how much they like it when guys praise David Foster Wallace. If these guys exist, has Kirn punched them in the face? What is he waiting for?
 Redemptive? Ultimately, maybe. The reviewer cannot offer a ready improvement on a description of Wallace’s style, but he does have one, and it is biographically linked. In his writing there is the presence of the most expansive definition of intelligence, idiosyncratically warm; but the narrower, raw definition allowed him technical skills. There was a sense in his writing of having everything available to him; basically, that he was able to marry a writer’s empathic tools with the ones of a rocket scientist. The best, most beautiful arrangement of words is arrived at to a logical certainty. The sentences are conceived and concocted the same way the reviewer thinks mathematicians can do a long problem sans calculator. Holding at once, far apart in his brain, the left field emergence of perfect adjectives and a grammatical analysis, words shine as cheesy effects representative of genius in the movies. What was on display was talent, objective, oracular, crushing and grand. Whatever it was, it was not normal. Normal writing was not the result of like, Davincian augury.
 His name, in type unusually large or bold or whatever it was, had for that that millisecond of recognition heralded the surprise publication of a new long-thing that the reviewer would read seven to ten times over the course of his life. That this would escape the notice of the Howling Fantods was slim. The day after someone has killed himself, there are those that say that they cannot believe it, and those who do not. The substance of that difference is resistant to summary, and Max does well not to imagine—as a literary act—what mortal psychic pain is like. The reviewer has every expectation of being comforted and disturbed by him for his entire life.
 The struggle to write and place E Unibus Pluram is considered at some length, perhaps because it was so close to a literal statement of his theoretical perspective, irony vs. TV, but ELSiaGS is oddly perfunctory in its account of his nonfiction style, variously considered to be a whole different animal, a friendlier introduction, a true calling. When Wallace’s essays are quoted, the inventions—in and out of context—are clear, and always were, rendered unscandalous in the midst of digressive, funny, x-marks-the-spot archeological digs for contemporary American truth. It’s Wallace’s own suggestion that nonfiction was the easier thing to do, a consideration taken on a grave aspect in light of the way his energies could bottom out. Nevertheless, much of it is sublime.
 Both appear in the selectively respected, occasionally read collection of mostly previously-published stories Oblivion. But is it his masterpiece? The reviewer happens to, in a very qualified sense, believe so, if he were permitted a somewhat foppish, iconoclastic provocation, but he’s mostly serious. Tightly-structured, difficult, omniscient, incredibly tedious, and wildly sensitive to its everyday characters employed in media-age jobs (Wallace had an obsessively-researched interest in our jobs, in our offices, a project undertaken less by his contemporaries, perhaps due to the shedding of the blue collar; nonetheless, DFW was aware of what his readers did all day). Oblivion is beautiful and at three or four particular points, spiritual, with two stories that the reviewer doesn’t understand at all; as a whole it is just as alive as anything he ever wrote, and its epic sentences would be crowded but for the intelligence that governs their envelope-pushing at every throttled moment. The reviewer’s paperback is in unattractive shape. He’s frequently left it any bag he’s happened to carry because it might be the only book he will read at any time, over and over and over.