So I've just finished Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Here are the top four wrenching things I learned from this engrossing and heartbreaking book.
Wallace's work was much more autobiographical than I thought (i): Addiction and Recovery.
As its readers can't forget, Infinite Jest is just startlingly deep and wise and mindblowing and hilarious and heartbreaking and terrifying on the subjects of addiction, and recovery, and halfway houses, and addicts and ex-cons and other people with substance-shattered lives, and Alcoholics Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous, and 12-Step programs in general. (See, e.g., this treatment of things you will learn in a halfway house. Seriously, see it; and hold on to your breath.) Well, at the time of publication of IJ, and in the interviews and media maelstrom that followed, Wallace explained that, well, ahem, he knew a couple of people in AA, and he sat in on a number of open meetings, and he hung out at a few halfway houses and just took tons and tons of notes. And I believed this! I bought it! (In fairness, I think everyone did.) But in retrospect at least, of course, it's absurd on the face of it. No one could know all that from research, much less connect and resonate so deeply on the topic.
Well, of course, it turns out that Wallace had serious issues with marijuana, and then much worse ones with alcohol, and had toyed with AA and rehab a couple of times, and but then hit bottom (at this point it looked like he was a totally failed writer at 27, and had gone back to grad school at Harvard to re-take up philosophy), and went in to detox and they told him he'd be dead by 30 if he didn't stop the substances; and so he moved into a halfway house in Boston, and basically experienced live and in person everything in the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic] sections of the book.
(He succeeded in recovery, by the way, and went something like nearly 20 years totally sober including the immediately following ones in which he wrote his magnum opus, more on which in a second.)
Wallace's work was much more autobiographical than I thought (ii): Womanizing.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men does, to a great extent, what it says on the tin. It's not very kind to the Y-chromosome-burdened half of humanity when it comes to sex, relationships, seduction, and mating behaviour. And I pretty much assumed all of this was imagination/research/friends/etc, as well perhaps for no better reason than that Wallace, well, just doesn't look like much of a ladies man. But it turns out this was all wrong. He dated widely and exuberantly. He specialized in what he self-loathingly referred to as "single-entendre relationships." He dated or slept with novelists, poetesses, memoirists, editors, actresses. His short story "The Depressed Person" was evidently "revenge fiction" directed at Elizabeth Wurztel author of Prozac Nation, and one of his (evidently few) failed conquests.
He dated his students and claimed not to care (further claiming on at least one occasion that he was trying to get fired.) He dated women in his recovery group an ill-advised and frowned-up practice known as "thirteenth-stepping". (He once went to a meeting to find he'd slept with three of the ten women there, and come close with another one or two.) He picked up women (and at least one girl) at his readings. On the way out of a launch party in downtown Manhattan, he was approached by a young blonde who asked if he wanted to see her puppy; he did. He did this regularly; he did it serially.
Part of me, of course, is depressed and repulsed by this. Part of me, perhaps equally predictably, is impressed.
(He finally found the right person, by the way it's got to take someone special to put up with someone like him and got and stayed married in a fashion that, certainly for him, would pass as "happily" until the end of his life.)
Infinite Jest was a one-off.
Most people who know me at all know I'm fanatical and committed DFW fan. Digging a little deeper, some are surprised to learn I didn't actually dig most of his work. I do think Girl With Curious Hair is truly spectacular, and also taught me much of what I needed to know at that time about short fiction. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is of course hilarious and important in some of its messages and themes and not to mention blindingly brilliant in its masterly flashes of ridiculous erudition and intellect. And then there's Infinite Jest.
IJ is, well, IJ. We already know he described the writing of it as mentally, by far, the hardest thing he'd ever tried to do. We know he put every ounce of his blistering intelligence, hard-won compassion, and literary/moral convictions into it. We know it's a great and important book. But what of the rest?
His first novel, The Broom of the System, written while he was an undergraduate at Amherst, and published when he was 23, I simply did not care for at all. (I've only read it, and only intend to read it, once. And Wallace himself knew it was a cut-rate Pynchon/DeLillo/Gaddis knock-off and described it in retrospect as being like "written by a really smart 14-year-old.") Brief Interviews was basically him noodling around while he couldn't manage serious work on the new novel. Relatively speaking, all of his nonfiction work was light and airy and easy. (He described his nonfiction persona as a "slightly stupider, schmuckier version" of himself.) Girl, as brilliant and (in many ways) satisfying as it is, was essentially as Wallace well knew, by not all that long after the fact the sort of tricky, smart, post-modern, formally inventive, experimental, MFA-program-type stuff (he wrote it while in an MFA program) the style and sensibility and morality of which he subsequently explicitly renounced taking up instead a much-commented-upon and occasionally heeded call for sincerity in contemporary fiction: a renunciation of irony, which he diagnosed as being great for tearing things down, but useless for building anything new up, and a call for writers to embrace a sort of wide-eyed, unironic, sincere, at-risk-of-being-laughed-at-by-the-cooler-kids willingness actually to say what they meant and to comment upon what ails contemporary society and tell people what they thought actually ought to be done about it, and how (even, just maybe) people ought to try to live as good and successful human beings. (One has sort of to compare this manifesto against the dominant mode for young writers at the time, which was this sort of Bret Easton Ellis/Jay McInerney/bored-with-being-bored/everything-is-such-crap,-let's-just-get-hammered-and-be-clever-and-peer-over-our-Raybans hipster ennui kind of thing.) His later volume of short fiction, Oblivion, was effectively a betrayal of that manifesto of sincerity and renunciation of formal or po-mo trickery, and Wallace knew it. (If it matters, I didn't like that book much, either.)
Basically, nothing else was Infinite Jest, or anything like close to it. And he knew this.
Because then there was The Pale King the novel (and attempt to surpass IJ) that failed.
It was the book that killed him.
I thought I knew, and did know, that it was coming off the antidepressants he had been on for many years that did him in. And it's true that was the proximate cause of his final catastrophic depression and resultant suicide. But what I didn't know was that the real reason he got off the Nardil was that he couldn't write The Pale King he had been battling with it for a decade, so far unsuccessfully and decided to roll the dice that maybe it was the brain drugs that were keeping him from being able to do the work. In a very improvable phrase, Every Love Story author D.T. Max, in an interview in today's New York Times Book Review, said that, in the end, Wallace was a "martyr to literature."
Another notion that's given a fair bit of play in the bio is this comparison between Wallace (and his stylistic followers) and Kurt Cobain (and his). Terming Wallace's genre of work "grunge literature" I think takes the comparison too far. But nor is it such a stretch to conclude that Wallace, and his work… as well as Wallace's struggle with his fiction, and his struggle to find a way to live… and, finally, his failure to write the last novel, and his ultimate failure to make it as a human being… were really the same, or nearly the same, struggle.