David Foster Wallace: Genius, Fabulist, Would-Be Murderer

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A conversation with Wallace biographer D.T. Max

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Viking Adult

Shortly after David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, The New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max wrote what seemed like the definitive posthumous profile of the tormented and brilliant writer. Yet Max says he finished the piece with more questions about Wallace than answers. The result of those inquiries is the recently released biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. I spoke with Max by phone, and we discussed, among other things, Wallace's early influences, thoughts about embellishments in nonfiction, political and religious views, and how "he was sailing into the wind with The Pale King."


You've said that your article on David Foster Wallace in The New Yorker left you with more questions than answers. What were some of those questions?

When I was done with the piece, I really didn't know a lot about David's early life. I knew a lot about his last year. I had quickly gone over everything else, and just scratched the surface from my point of view. One of the biggest things I really didn't know—which I wanted to try to answer in the biography—was why the culture was becoming more and more interested in David. I wanted to go back in and say, "Who really is this man?" He wasn't always fated to have this early death. But it does look inevitable in hindsight.

Also, there's just a way that sometimes something you write about doesn't leave you. Most of the time it does leave you, though. Where you think, "Okay, that was interesting but it's time to move on." But David didn't leave me at all. There were phrases of his that kept rattling around in my head. Images of him that kept haunting me, and I wanted to turn back to him somehow.

One phrase I imagine you kept coming back to was Wallace's line: "making heads throb heartlike." He first used it his essay-review on the book Wittgenstein's Mistress, and he later, you say, told his editor that Infinite Jest would make "the head throb heartlike." It's one that shows up often in the book.

Yes, it meant a lot to me primarily because it meant so much to David. It's a phrase that states an interesting problem for literature, because the head and the heart are so very different. They do join together briefly in Infinite Jest. But besides his later story "Good Old Neon," which is a perfect example of making the "head throb heartlike," I don't think that notion was a goal for him any longer when he wrote most of the other stories collected in Oblivion. It really was an ethos most of all for his move from the more postmodern stories in his collection Girl With Curious Hair to Infinite Jest.

You do a wonderful job chronicling Wallace's early influences. You quote his friend Mark Costello as saying Wallace discovering Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 was "like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie." Yet he often downplayed a lot of these early influences, including Pynchon. Another example is that the tone in his story "Girl with Curious Hair" was a riff on the one found in Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, but he refused to acknowledge it.

I think in his early years, David is almost reverse-engineering fiction, and because he's doing that with the incredible mind he had, things are going right into his work that for a different writer would be much more digested and broken down. You see that particularly in The Broom of the System. For instance, there's a scene in there when the character Lenore Beadsman is looking down from an airplane at the town East Corinth and it looks like the actress Jayne Mansfield from the air. It's extremely similar to the scene in Crying of Lot 49 where the character Oedipa Maas is looking at a neighborhood from afar and it reminds her of a printed circuit with the "intent to communicate." And it's just so clear that David read this scene, liked it, and applied it. And I don't think it's plagiarism. I actually think it's brilliant the way he stole it. And he doesn't digest the point of it, but he totally reinvents it. He finds a cleverer, more wonderful application for it in a way.

One of the most disappointing things in the book was your account of how at the time he wrote some his most iconic nonfiction pieces, he thought it was okay to sometimes fabricate details. You say he did so in the state fair piece "Ticket to the Fair," the cruise ship essay "Shipping Out," and his account of the AVN Awards called "Neither Adult Nor Entertainment."

The odd thing is that I don't think he needed to do this. His prose and perceptions are so rich that he didn't really have to make these embellishments. In my mind his embellishments were always a little shticky. I don't think those pieces would have been much less admired if he'd been a little more literal-minded in what he saw. But I think that every intelligent reader could have guessed, for instance, that the tomahawking cheerleader baton that flies at the state fair doesn't really knock down the guy holding the video camera. It reads like comedy.

There are various times that he tells reporters that you need to read his nonfiction differently because he is first and foremost a fiction writer. He hinted to journalists that their rules weren't his. For instance, in 1998 he tells the Boston Phoenix, "you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there's going to be the occasional bit of embellishment." What an extraordinary thing to admit. David knew what fact-checking is. He's not stupid—he's the opposite of that, right? But does he worry a lot about these sorts of embellishments? I don't think so, until much later. It's really interesting to see how Wallace and Jonathan Franzen diverge on nonfiction. Franzen's nonfiction seems every bit accurate and restrained. Franzen seems to have made a deliberate decision to wear two hats, creatively. And I don't think David ever fully made that decision.

But I don't think Wallace's very last pieces have very much embellishment. I don't think there's embellishment in "Host," for instance, or "Roger Federer as Religious Experience." As he got older, I think he begins to play it a lot more straight-forward. Let me read to you a section of one of his unpublished letters, which is a line not in the book. He sent it to one of his former Illinois State University colleagues, Becky Bradway, in 2007. "A journalist who misrepresents a speech, or skews quotations or facts in order to lend credence to a political argument or to advance a certain agenda ... this is bad faith." I don't think he ever entirely solved the problem of whether it was right to do in nonfiction, but one thing that happens is that James Frey's A Million Little Pieces cracks up. From that, I think that he takes in a new piece of information about what he can and can't do.

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Eric Been is an associate editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Wall Street Journal.

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