Thursday, September 12, 2013
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max
Wallace’s best work, perhaps by far, is “The Pale King,” an unfinished novel about I.R.S. employees that was assembled posthumously by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch.
This was not the only sentence, and tendency, of Rivka Galchen's condescending and trivial review of this early, but accomplished, biography of the late, great, personally mourned DFW that I found extraordinarily annoying, but it was the most ridiculous sentence.
The Pale King, the ONLY work that Wallace did not finish in his lifetime, has moments of grandeur and expected brilliance, but was a deeply unsatisfying pastiche of a long novel that he labored over for years but wasn't close to finishing.
Max's plotting of the course Wallace's life -- his extraordinary literary achievements and tragic suicide in 2008 at the age of 46, is deft. Generous helpings of correspondence (mostly from Wallace, but telling excerpts from his friend and friendly competitor Jonathan Franzen) are revelatory.
Wallace was precocious, enigmatic, furtive, generous, callous, sensitive and suffered from childhood from deepening bi-polar depression and anxiety. He survived addiction and sobriety, but killed himself after a risky six-month experiment with trying to change his anti-depressant medication regimen. He evolved from a striking, brilliantly logic-and grammar-obsessed literary technician to a profoundly moving moralist.
He began The Broom of the System, his first novel, while still an undergraduate, as part of a creative writing thesis, and published it in 1987 when he was 25. Flawed, sprawling, but still enjoyable, it was described by Wallace himself as as a dialogue between Wittgenstein and Derrida. Heady and heavy. I could barely write a one page draft at that age.
Infinite Jest was his masterpiece. Smarter than Pynchon, more moving that Delillo (to name only two of his many heroes) it corralled television, addiction, family dysfunction, Quebecois separatism in an enormous 1100 page world of irony satellited by short-story-length footnotes that seemed to encompass another novel (or two) by their own dang selves.
His non-fiction was also superlative (there is a world of readers who swear by not possessing the fortitude for his fiction -- they won't touch the stuff -- but delight in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," an extended essay on the cruise ship experience, a political (for awhile) piece about John McCain's aborted Presidential campaign, "McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope."
He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. And the projected future fear… It’s too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it’s as of now real… He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen… He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed. (Infinite Jest)