Saturday, September 08, 2012

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max

We have the "ghost story" because on September 12th 2008 the writer David Foster Wallace hung himself at the age of 46. He had published his first novel 21 years earlier, "The Broom of the System", had with his epochal second book "Infinite Jest" written one of the key novels of the late 20th century, and published widely as a short story and essay writer. His unfinished third novel "The Pale King" was published this year, and now we have D.T. Max's biography.

A writer's life has two narratives - that expressed in the work and that as lived. For the reader, often the first is all they know, though there are hints of something else. Wallace's success came at the time of the book tour, but just before the ubiquity of the internet. Whereas Brett Easton Ellis criticises Wallace on his Twitter feed, DFW was a reluctant user of the internet. In some ways "Infinite Jest"'s success is representative of it coming at a time just before the web became our primary communications medium. So though Wallace died young, and this biography is one of the first literary biography's I've read where I can say "that was the year I was doing that", there does seem something that connects him to a slightly earlier time. His two great literary friends were Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo, the latter, an older mentor. All three writers have written extensively about the media. I first came across Wallace in the late 90s through his short stories and essays. I was reading "Conjunctions" and other American literary magazines; and there was this other wave, of what I guess you could call post-post-modern writing, beginning to show through which seemed a relief amidst the still prelavent "dirty realism."  "Irony" - that thing we in England always criticise the Americans for not getting - was a new trope in its fiction.

What I hadn't realised, until reading the life, was the arc of Wallace's career. Picked up for his first novel by a young agent whilst still at college, a respectful success with his debut, leading to opportunities such as a residency at writer's colony at Yaddo (where he got drunk with Jay McInerney, and according to Max, saw a way to be successful that he was both tempted by, but demurred from) or teaching residency's on various MFA programmes. From the mid-west, Wallace - who I'd always thought as a highly urban, media-saturated novelist - lived in a succession of small college towns; trips to NYC or large cities infrequent, or not that vital. Unless I missed something he hardly ever travelled outside of the USA; there's not a single trip to Europe mentioned - which in the age of the global superstar writer seems highly surprising.

However, there was another side to Wallace's life which perhaps explains the lack of travel. From his high school days onwards he suffered badly from depression. The life told, in Max's carefully non-judgemental life, is one of highs and lows. Wallace has an intensity that you'd probably gather from his fiction. Highly driven straight-A's student; then pot fiend; then - in a matter of months it seems - alcoholic; serial womaniser. The America of the 80s and 90s promises "everything" - but Wallace is the other side of that American dream; self-medicating I guess, against the depression. Highly intelligent, he never strays far from the academy, but the traditional discipline of study is not what he is best at - it causes horrendous strains - the worst of which, an ill-advised PhD in philosophy begun at Harvard which sends him spiralling into alcohol abuse, and being institutionalised. The painful slow recovery, from hospital, to half-way house, to a new routine of sobriety and recovery groups is the unexpected narrative of much of this excellent biography. From a British perspective, there is something alien about this world of therapy and AA groups; yet its clear that Wallace had a serious illness that stopped him, for so much of his life, doing the thing he was best at, writing.

Max is generous with his descriptions of Wallace's writing and this book should be of interest to anyone who has read him, and anyone who wants to think about the nature of the writing life. The crumpled up pages; the manic writing sprees; the agonising arguments with editors over length and house-style; but also the nature of writing for a novelist who was never comfortable with story - who quickly went from a love of Barthes and Gaddis to wanting to create something more humanised that could keep the manic energy of the surreally post-modern, but centre it on something much more real. Perhaps its no surprise that Franzen was a friend, and that DeLillo, who has more than most writers fused these two things, was a mentor. Though a "writer's writer" Wallace's base at a series of American campus's, and the necessity of the sober life, with its local support groups, means that he's serious relationships are often with "ordinary" people. He hides how he met them by saying they were from his "local church" but in reality they are his support group following addiction. He has a few mild literary feuds. Brett Easton Ellis - an early influence - is dismissed as is Mark Leyner, writer of briefly popular post-modern entertainment "My son, the gastroenterologist." He writes a long, long essay castigating a dreadful late Updike novel, and then regrets it. His popular essays are long, unexpected pieces for American magazines, ironic semi-fictional accounts of cruise ships, state fairs, and tennis. He co-writes a book on Rap music just as the music goes mainstream.

"Infinite Jest" is a massive novel and began as even bigger. This "gigantism" is still the thing that puzzles me a little. Like Fitzgerald he wanted to write novels, but could sometimes only write short fiction or essays. "Infinite Jest" grows out of a creative/destructive friendship then relationship with a poet, Mary Karr, and the experiences of the "half way house" where he met a different type of person, saw a different side of life. Yet in the long gap between "Infinite Jest" and his death, he takes on a non-fiction book about mathematics; he writes a long essay about John McCain. Reading Wallace you feel that he takes his inspiration from the culture of the time, and these pop culture essays brought him name recognition, and a wider readership. Max tries to untangle to what extent they helped or hindered the writing of the novels. If "The Broom of the System" was something he dismissed later in his life; and "Infinite Jest" seemed an impossible act to follow; one wonders about him as a novelist.Is he, like Faulkner, trying to write something large than a single book? Many parts of "Infinite Jest" and "The Pale King" were published before the novels, or read aloud at readings. The pile of papers left beside him when he committed suicide was some kind of ordering; but there was much else left out.

This, I think, is where the life does become vital. For he is never happy for long - in jobs or relationships. There is a tension between teaching (which he likes) and writing. He needs money to buy him time to write, but seems uncertain how to react when he receives a massive fellowship, or when a job at a college comes with only the slightest of teaching commitments. His problems with his family are deep-rooted, but they are also supportive; his relationships with women are many, but often self-destructive - often with women also coming out of recovery or older than him, with children. Reading the life, I'm reminded of what I think Neil Young had advised Kurt Cobain, to just stop doing what you don't want to do. Wallace's brilliance, his straight A life, his unexpected success with "Infinite Jest", and his need to keep grounded in the absence of the addictions that are killing him, are mapped out in a well-ordered biography, that goes into just enough detail, without over-emphasising the day-to-day life of the writer. I read it straight through in a day and a half. The latter part of the book sees Wallace first grounded back in the mid-west at a small college, surrounding himself with dogs and friends in recovery; then moving west again - where he finally settles down with the artist Karen Green. Though even here normal life is not that possible. "They are soon in couples therapy" writes Max. He is with Karen when he tries to go off his long term meds, and the last period of his life, leading to the suicide, seems to be the returning of the illness, that will finally kill him. The complexities of his personal life feed into "Infinite Jest", so the life and writing are somewhat entwined. In contrast, researching for "The Pale King" he goes back to the straight A student, studying accountancy this time as he wants to research a novel about the IRS. More than anything, reading Max's biography, it is not his failures that stick with you; rather that, given so much pain and difficulty in his life, he wrote and achieved so much.

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