May 2005, Kenyon College, Ohio. David Foster Wallace steps to the podium and looks out at the graduating seniors before him. He tugs at his academic robe and bends toward the microphone, hair falling onto his face. Sweat beads and drips over his body. “If anybody feels like perspiring,” Wallace says, “I’d invite you to go ahead, ’cause I’m sure goin’ to.” He reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief and begins to relate the first of several parables: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
Laughter ripples through the convocation room. The gathered seniors, those who’d previously heard of David Foster Wallace, author of the scene-smashing, biblically large 1996 novel Infinite Jest, but like so many others hadn’t actually read him, they probably hadn’t expected this—this big, sweaty guy with a rural twang and halting speech pattern. Here was the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient who’d seen his first novel published before he was out of grad school, who’d written a serious math book on Georg Cantor’s “infinity of infinities,” who’d been appointed to the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and what was he doing? Dispensing fish tales.
Wallace’s use of this tale is clever, though: It’s precisely in mixing parables, relatable situations, and everyman locutions that he persuades the listener not only to accept the clichés without the usual ho-hum resignation but to actually be awakened and invigorated by them. When he talks about the egocentric nature of an after-work trip to the supermarket, about being stuck in the slowest, most frustrating checkout line and seeing everyone and everything around you as annoying and dumb and obnoxious—the “ADHD kids” running wild, the “cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left,” the rude people “talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line”—we don’t feel like we’re being lectured or laughed at for our self-centeredness. Wallace uses our recognition, the unspoken thoughts most of us have had but never stopped to examine, to make a connection. Before the commencement speech rocketed around the Web, appeared in newspapers, was published as a stand-alone volume, and was even released in two audio versions (the original and a re-creation by his sister), Wallace was seen as a difficult writer, not one to dish out easily digestible bits of wisdom. But at Kenyon, he spoke in a straightforward manner of things that had come to be important to him, things the 20th century made it all too easy to ignore—mindfulness, maintaining a sense of humility, avoiding ego. These, “the most obvious, important realities,” he told the graduating seniors, “are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
As someone who struggled with crippling bouts of depression throughout his life, Wallace knew the difficulties of fighting against one’s own mind. In his first published story, “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” he had described depression—the titular Bad Thing—as “having always before you and under you a huge black hole without a bottom, a black, black hole, maybe with vague teeth in it, and then your being part of the hole, so that you fall even when you stay where you are.” Over the years, Wallace submitted himself to hospitalizations and multiple courses of electroconvulsive therapy, and on at least two occasions, feeling unable to escape the Bad Thing, to see beyond it, he attempted suicide; on September 12, 2008, he succeeded, hanging himself from a rafter above his backyard patio.
The writer Jonathan Franzen, a rival and friend of Wallace’s who would later deliver his own graduation address at Kenyon College, one not so different from Wallace’s, complained in a New Yorker essay that after Wallace died, “people who had never read his fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in The Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul.” Like much of Franzen’s work, the essay comes off slightly bitter and holier-than-thou, but the notion Franzen reacts against—that in reading only one of Wallace’s works people somehow felt they knew him, felt him to be a “great and gentle soul”—proves the ultimate success of Wallace’s ambition to make people feel “less alone inside.”
In 1963, when Wallace was a year old, his father took a job teaching philosophy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and it was in the Midwest that Wallace grew up amid strips of modest homes, ever-present neighbors, packs of kids on bikes, and endless fields of soy and corn, absorbing the value of community and normalcy. Because it was a university town, a high premium was also placed on intellectual achievement, and hints of Wallace’s intelligence appeared early. Once, when his mother told him to “Behave,” he replied, “I am ‘have.’” He was three years old. By the time he was finishing a double major in English and philosophy at Amherst College, his writing was winning awards: His philosophy thesis, which would later be published as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, won the college’s top departmental award, and his English thesis, a novel called The Broom of the System, would be published as he began graduate school at the University of Arizona. Wallace later attended Harvard but, again struggling with depression and finding his interest in pursuing an advanced degree in philosophy waning, he dropped out.
This is only the beginning of the story, but it is the end, Wallace’s final years, that originally brought D.T. Max, author of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, to his subject. Max’s March 2009 New Yorker essay, “The Unfinished,” the bud from which his full-length biography bloomed, centered on Wallace’s struggles to transcend the stylistic pyrotechnics of Infinite Jest—its twisting 500-word sentences, endless footnotes, and linguistic prolixity—which Wallace had come to see as a hindrance in his quest to connect with other minds, to make people feel less alone. For 11 years, Max says, Wallace had been working on a third novel, the “Long Thing,” as he called it, which, like the Kenyon College speech, he hoped would illustrate the value of mindfulness, the way in which attention to even life’s most soul-sucking, tedious tasks can be a lesson in how to “construct meaning from experience,” to live rather than float on a sea of constant televisual, technological entertainment.
The desire for and effects of layer upon layer of mindless stimulation were subjects Wallace tackled in Infinite Jest, whose central plot circles a missing film cartridge, referred to as the Entertainment, which is so enchanting that anyone who watches it becomes unable to do anything else. The novel is diachronically fractured and told in a variety of registers and dialects, such as Ebonics, with a vocabulary that makes a dictionary necessary for even the most erudite reader. Following a large cast of characters, it’s narratively nested and embedded and nested again, and, for the first couple of hundred pages, seems to have no through line. It helps to know your Hamlet—“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest”—but Shakespeare is only one of the book’s many literary references. As with much of Wallace’s fiction, Infinite Jest sometimes seems more concerned with being avant-garde, with its encyclopedic everything-and-more approach, with its own “head” than with communicating to a wider audience what, as Wallace famously said, “it is to be a fucking human being.”
Wallace began work on the novel at a time when he seemed sure of his extraordinary intellectual abilities. Once, as Max relates, Wallace strode into a room of interviewers and told them, “You should know I am really really smart.” This type of thinking eventually repulsed Wallace, though, and, looking back, he told Mark Caro, in an interview now collected in Conversations with David Foster Wallace, “When I was in my twenties, I thought I was really smart and really clever and that anybody would be privileged to read whatever I’d written.” But thinking like that, he told Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, “almost made me die.” The loops of unending mental pressure such beliefs put on Wallace, the obsessive need to be liked, to be perfect—as manifested, for example, in the religious attention to grammar he inherited from his mother, a teacher who authored a book called Practically Painless English and who would pretend to have coughing fits whenever someone misspoke at the dinner table—led to a series of mental breakdowns and bouts of drug and alcohol addiction.
Wallace had a deep-seated fear of being seen as a fraud, and this fear worked its way into his fiction. In the story “Good Old Neon,” which comes from his last and darkest collection, Oblivion, the narrator explains, “The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” As Max astutely puts it, “Behind the ordinary fears lurked the fear of being ordinary.”
As Wallace’s literary star rose, the substance abuse continued, eventually sending Wallace to Alcoholics Anonymous. There, he was made to see that in order to heal he first had to accept that, despite the world’s accolades, he was a normal human being who could be treated by normal means. Albert Camus, a writer Wallace admired, wrote in The Fall, “We’re all special cases”; this understanding, Wallace learned, was good for his work. “To look across the room,” Wallace later said, “and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer.”
But it was Wallace’s acute perception and intelligence that made the clichés inherent in A.A. rhetoric so difficult to accept. In Infinite Jest, recovering drug addict Don Gately expresses similar reservations about the program, especially about praying to God, to which the “old guys [at A.A.] say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It, they say.” So Gately “hits the knees in the A.M. and asks for Help and then hits the knees again at bedtime and says Thank You, whether he believes he’s talking to Anything/-body or not, and he somehow gets through that day clean.” At a reading in 2006, Wallace explained that though the old guys telling Gately to pray were not very credible, Gately “does it anyway because he’s desperate, finds that the prayer works, and then finds that what happens then is very interesting … instead of immediately becoming religious or even grateful, it’s more like a sense of shock and waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Prodded by an audience member for his opinion on Gately’s situation, Wallace said that everything “I’ve read that is ostensibly and directly about God appears to me to be either really, really simplistic or it’s in service of an argument and so can’t afford to countenance certain hard truths or other sides, which just kind of makes it dead to me.” As Josh Roiland points out in The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, the “insufferable paradox of Wallace’s philosophical worldview” is that it’s “imperative to be conscious, but to be conscious is to be impaired.”
Wallace wanted to be stronger than seeking the adoration of others and worshipping his own intellect; he wanted to accept what he was being told in A.A., but it was a constant battle. After winning a 1997 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, he wrote in the margins of one of his notebooks, “I don’t feel like a Genius.” Yet, Franzen says, the “mantle of ‘genius’” conferred on Wallace by the award was something he “of course craved and sought and thought was his due.”
After Wallace died, many commentators began interpreting his work in light of his suicide, in effect reducing the texts to a footnote. Instead of following suit, Max scours the rich repository of letters and interviews Wallace left behind in order to move beyond the hagiographic, media-driven “celebrity writer dude” label now attached to his name—a label his wife, Karen Green, whom he married in December 2004, says “would have made him wince.” Max allows us to see a fuller picture of Wallace without making judgments, claiming this or that Wallace to be the true self, or romanticizing his torments—though Max says Wallace may have romanticized a little, thinking of his time at McLean Hospital, the famed psychiatric institute, as placing him in the ranks of literary depressives such as Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell.
Depression is often described as anger turned inward, and people suffering depression sometimes manifest that anger externally as well. Max describes how one time Wallace, annoyed that a car had cut him off, “rammed his car into the other person’s.” Another time, fuming at his girlfriend, the poet and memoirist Mary Karr, Wallace attempted to push her from a moving vehicle; he also threw her coffee table at her, shattering it (when he sent $100 to pay for the table, she had a lawyer friend write back to say that “all he’d bought was the ‘brokenness’”). Wallace at one point went so far, Max tells us, as to contact an ex-con he knew from rehab to try to obtain a gun to murder Karr’s then-husband, a thought that would later make Wallace sick. Even with his students—to whom he was notoriously dedicated, giving out his personal number for class questions and writing “long letters of analysis and critique to even routine undergraduate efforts”—Wallace could lose his temper, once shoving a student who spoke back to him.
For all of the unbecoming skeletons Max uncovers, equally endearing, even heartbreaking, traits surface, too. Visitors to Wallace’s home noted how dedicated he was to his dogs, Jeeves, The Drone (a stray who joined Wallace on a jog and then followed him home), Bella, and Werner. Wallace fed Jeeves directly from his mouth and shared a bed with him and The Drone. “It’s just much easier having dogs,” he said. “You don’t get laid, but you also don’t get the feeling you’re hurting their feelings all the time.” When The Drone was diagnosed with lymphoma, Wallace wrote to novelist Brad Morrow, “I’ve been going around crying like a toddler at the prospect of him suffering or dying.” In the days leading up to the dog’s cremation, Max writes that Wallace “would go by the veterinary office and sit outside the freezer where his dog lay.”
There are times, though, when Max’s reliance on archival material leaves the reader wanting. Early in the book, when Wallace is still in high school, we get a glimpse of his anger when, at a party, he smashes his fist into a refrigerator, breaking his hand. A girl Wallace liked, Susie Perkins, who was then dating one of his friends, showed up at the party and, Max tells us, “something went on between Wallace and Perkins.” A couple of years later, Max writes, Wallace and Perkins “became involved.” Even though she continues to appear throughout Wallace’s college years, seemingly an important figure in his early life, important enough that he dedicated his first book in part to her, Max never gives us a good sense of their relationship, and it’s hard not to want her voice here. This is an issue with Max’s bio—though his research included extensive interviews, we get little beyond Wallace’s voice, and important players in his life, such as his father, his sister, and serious girlfriends remain not only silent but, in many cases, practically absent.
Through all of the revelations in Max’s book, though, it’s clear that, in his best moments, what Wallace wanted most was to be read. He admired Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea but was aware of the fate of Sartre’s philosophical behemoth, Being and Nothingness, which was, like Wallace’s Infinite Jest—or so the joke goes—a highly acclaimed doorstop. “To make someone an icon,” Wallace wrote, “is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people.”
While his adherents tend to view Infinite Jest as today’s Ulysses, the magnum opus of our time, it’s Wallace’s nonfiction that comes closest to his goal of ameliorating loneliness. In collections such as 1997’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and 2005’s Consider the Lobster, as in the Kenyon speech, we encounter a more focused Wallace, who, despite the longer-than-usual leash some magazines allowed him—The Atlantic, for example, published the visually challenging “Host,” which litters disruptive thought-bubble-like boxes throughout the text—is nonetheless constrained by the expectations of the form: the need to reach and relate to a wider audience, to paint a clear picture, to structure around a thesis, to pare down the maximalist approach to language. Even the most difficult essays have a clear through line apparent on a first read. Though Wallace, like many of his fans, viewed his nonfiction as less important and less serious than his fiction, little more than a way to make extra money, it is, nevertheless, hard to deny the pull of the nonfiction persona he creates—an affected, affably bumbling version of Wallace’s own, a sort of intellectual everyman, a modern-day Virgil leading us through the hell of a lobster festival or the submerged gloom of a luxury cruise. Despite the vast vocabulary, the voice so clearly places itself among the anxious majority, one of us, that we feel connected to it. We want to mourn this Wallace, “the great and gentle soul,” because without him we do feel a little more alone.
Even in the often-fluffy posthumous essay collection Both Flesh and Not, Wallace tells of his desire for his work to communicate with minds beyond his own “tiny skull-size kingdom.” In “The Empty Plenum,” he praises experimental author David Markson’s depiction of the awful human consequences of extreme solipsism—solipsism as an individual reality rather than a philosophical position. Wallace writes that Markson’s novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, shows what it would be like to wake up one morning as “the last and only living thing on earth, with only your head, now, for not only company but environment & world, an inclined beach sliding toward a dreadful sea.” The novel’s narrator searches for signs of life, marks in the sand, anything to prove that a world exists outside her head. Her goal, as Wallace describes it—and which also seems to be his own—is “to get the words & voices not only out—outside the 16-inch diameter of bone that both births & imprisons them—but also down, trusting them neither to the insubstantial country of the mind nor to the transient venue of cords & air & ear.” This, Wallace says, is “a necessary affirmation of an Outside, some Exterior one’s written record can not only communicate with but inhabit.”
At its best, through all of Wallace’s struggles, through the fractured fiction and the straightforward speech and journalism, what his work does so well, so beautifully, hauntingly well, is precisely what he’d hoped it would. It shows us marks in the sand, gives us a nudge, and says, there, that’s the way to life. That’s the path beyond the sea.